Gary James' Interview With Capitol Records President
Through the years, several people have been called The Fifth Beatle - Murray The K, Brian Epstein, Pete Best, George Martin. Maybe Alan Livingston should be added to that of group of names. Make no mistake about it, without Alan Livingston, America, and quite possibly the world would never have heard of The Beatles. That's right, without Alan Livingston, Beatlemania would never have happened. As President of Capitol Records from 1962 to 1968, Alan Livingston was at the right place, at the right time, with the right group.
Alan Livingston talked to us about that time in history and "How The Beatles were sold to America!"
Q - Mr. Livingston, where were you when you first heard the name 'The Beatles' and when did you get your first look at the group?
A - The first time I heard of them was when I read the English music press, which I read every week to see what was happening in England. As you probably know, our major stock holder was EMI. We had an agreement with E.M.I, that we would have' Right of First Refusal' on any of their acts and they would have the 'Right of First Refusal' on ours. They put out Nat King Cole and all of our best selling artists, very successfully in England, and pressured us to put out some of their product, which we did occasionally. But, it was not successful at all. There was no interest in English acts at that time. I read about The Beatles in the English press. Every week I ran a meeting with my producers. We had producers under contract in those days. I assigned one of our producers to screen all of the English product to decide which, if any we should put out. We felt a certain obligation to do that. At the meeting I said to this man Dave Dexter, "Dex, what about that group The Beatles I read about?" He said "Alan, I listened to them. They're a bunch of long-haired kids. They're nothing." I let it go at that. I here was no interest in English product, so I wasn't concerned. But, two weeks later at a meeting, I brought it up again because they were doing quite well in England. He said, "Alan, believe me, they're nothing. Forget it." I said, "Okay." I could've over ridden him, but I took his word at it. That was it. E.M.I, then had the right to offer The Beatles to other record companies. They offered them RCA, CBS, to Decca in those days, to A&M. Everyone of them turned them down. They finally got a very small company on the verge of bankruptcy, a Black owned company called Vee-Jay Records. They said, well, it's a free album, we'll put it out. They put it out, and I researched it later and they sold about 600 copies. They called England and said "We don't want them anymore." So, E.M.I, went shopping again and got a little company in Philadelphia called Swan Records to put out two singles, four sides. Total failure, Swan Records said "We don't want them anymore." And The Beatles were gone. They had no future in the United States. And that was it.
Q - When Dave Dexter described the group as "bunch of long haired kids", did you ask what he meant by that? Long-hair was not the norm in those days.
A - Well, their hair was short by today's comparison. I had not seen a picture of them at that time and I had not heard I them. Anyway, Swan gave up on them and that was it. I was sitting in my office and my secretary said there's a man named Brian Epstein calling from London. I didn't know who he was. I took the call. He identified himself as The Beatle manager. He said, "Mr. Livingston, we don't understand why you don't put them out." I said, "I haven't heard them." He said, "Well, please listen and call me back," which I did. Now, I can't tell you in all honestly that I knew how big they would be. But, I heard something. And, I liked their looks, cause I saw a picture of them then. I thought, "I gotta go with this." I called him back and he said, "Look, the problem is they haven't been properly exposed." And we agreed on a $40,000 budget to promote their first single, which was unheard of then. That was a lot of money. I agreed to it.
Q - Just like that?
A - Just like that.
Q - And you agreed to it?
A - I agreed to it.
Q - Now, why did you agree to it if that was a lot of money to spend?
A - Cause I liked what I heard. I felt that they couldn't make it without a big promotion, and I was prepared to take that risk. I thought there was something there, but the reason the other companies failed was they didn't properly expose them. Anyway, I then sat with my producers, who were not enthusiastic, but I said, "Look we're putting them out. We're
gonna spend a lot of money. Let's decide what single to put out first." And we made a decision, and this is interesting. I took that first record home to my wife Nance Dison, who was very interested in popular music. I said "I want you to listen to this. I think it's gonna change the whole music business." I played it for her and she looked at me and said "I Want To Hold Your Hand! Are you kidding?" I began to get nervous at that point, cause I was all alone. Nobody wanted them. So, we put the record out and we hardly got through the $40,000 and it was a smash hit. Then we put out the album. It sold more than the single and the rest is history. And, that's the way it happened.
Q - Some sources have said Capitol spent $50,000, even $100,000 to promote The Beatles. You're saying it was $40,000?
A - That's the exact figure. I don't know that we spent it all, because we never had to. But, that was the budget I agreed to.
Q - How did you get the radio station disc jockeys to say funny things like, "It's 42 Beatle degrees today?"
A - I called in my promotion men and I said "Look, you got two things going for you here. You got the sound and these kids looking like they do with their hairdos." I said "I want a promotion on their appearance and their name. Make a mystery out of it and make it unusual." And, they did a good job. Now, how they got the radio stations to do that, I'm not sure, but they worked at it.
Q - Did The Beatles ever visit the Capitol Towers?
A - Oh yes.
Q - Would there have been elaborate security measures taken?
A - Unbelievable security. The first time they came over to the United States we brought 'em over and booked 'em into The Plaza Hotel, as Paul McCartney, John Lennon. They didn't know who they were. But there was bedlam in New York. The corner of 59th and 5th Ave was jammed with people. The cars couldn't get through. Everytime Paul would stick his head out the window the screams would go up. That's when we brought 'em over to do the Ed Sullivan Show. Now, the interesting thing is, Ed Sullivan signed them before they hit. He did it on the basis of their English success. And of course he found himself with a tremendous bonanza. Then I asked The Beatles to do a favorite charity of mine. They said "we don't want to do a concert for that." I said "you don't have to. Just come and form a reception line so kids can come in and meet you and shake your hand", and they agreed to that. Well, we did it at my wife's mother's home because she had a very large patio and better security arrangmants. We kept it quiet. As quiet as we could, to avoid problems. It was by invitation only. We sent out the invitations. The children had to be accompanied by an adult. We charged $25. per person and there was tremendous interest in coming. Finally the word was getting out and it was hard to keep crowds away. We had the riot squad in the garage. I had to transfer them from the house they were staying in to where we were having this reception. I called a limousine service to bring them in and I said I have to warn you, you're bringing The Beatles, and they turned me down. They wouldn't take it. I couldn't get a limo service to bring them. So, I called Armor Trucks, and they wouldn't do it either. Finally I called a limousine service that did a lot of business with Capitol and said, "Look, what's your problem?" They, said, "Our limousine may be damaged!" I said don't worry about it, we'll pay for any damage. Finally they agreed, and The Beatles came in the limousine and there was no problem. But, the police were out in force. They had lines with ropes holding people back. They later told me the kids almost broke through. Anyway, it was a very interesting event. The children would walk through the reception line and shake each of The Beatles hands. If Paul dropped a cigarette on the ground, there would be a mad scramble to get it as a souvenir. It was Hysteria.
Q - When did you get your first look at The Beatles performing live in concert?
A - I guess it was at The Hollywood Bowl, and that was hysteria also. A girl near me was in hysterics, and finally just passed out and fell on the ground. When the kids came through the line they were crying out of such emotion of meeting The Beatles. It was something that happens not once in a lifetime in the business, but maybe three or four lifetimes. It was even stronger than Elvis, only Sinatra in his early days. I've never seen the like of it, and I don't think we'll ever see it again.
Q - I say that all the time and I feel sorry for the kids today who didn't experience "Beatlemania" first hand, A lot of what is passing for music these days could never equal what was around in the mid 1960's.
A - Well, that's why in 1968, I left the record business and went to work for Twentieth Century Fox. I didn't like the music and what was happening with it. The Beatles were still very big, but the music was goint into Acid Rock and things that I couldn't relate to. I found my experience in the record business, whatever young people grew up with in terms of music in their teenage years or their early 20s has stuck with 'em. Being in the record business, I had to move with the musical times. I even had to learn to like Country / Western, which I had never cared for before, but I did, and was successful in it. But when it got into where the music was going then, I didn't feel I could be successful at making decisions as to who to sign or what to produce.
Q - As we listen to the artists that were around in 1968 - Janis Joplin Jimi Hendnx, The Doors, - that's preferable to today's music. They were great.
A - Sure they were.
Q - How much freedom creatively speaking did The Beatles enjoy at Capitol Records7 Would Capitol pretty much release anything they recorded? "
A - We had contractually total control of what to release and when to put it out, but I never exercised it. I gave The Beatles their freedom and they decided what to put out, with some limitations. We decided when to put an album out. We would decide the size of the album, how many songs. We didn't exercise much control over the nature of their songs. Only time we had a disagreement - we had control over the album covers. The Beatles immediatly said they wanted to do their own album covers, with their own artist in London. I said fine and they'd send the covers. Then they sent a cover called "The Butcher" album. We looked at this thing and I called Brian Epstein and I said, "Brian, what is this?" He said "That's their comment on War." I said "we can't put this out, this is terrible! He Said, " Well, let me talk to the guys." And he came back and said, "They insist they want that album out." I said "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll print up some copies and send them out to our distributors and have them show it to the retailers and see what the reaction is'" And we printed up of them. The word came back that the dealers refused to handle it. They wouldn't put it in their stores. That wouldn't happen today. But, at that time, as much as they wanted a Beatles album, they said we can't put this on our shelves. I called Brian back and I said Brian we can't put it out. They won't handle it. So, finally they agreed and sent us another cover. In the meantime, "The Butcher" albums, what few there were, became collectors albums. The last I heard they were selling for $7,000 to $10,000 a piece.
Q - When John made his famous "The Beatles are more popular than Jesus" remark , what kind of damage control did Capitol engage in? Did you know you had a problem?
A - We didn't interfere. Nobody was going to tell John what to say or not to say. The kids were buying their records no matter what.
Q - What kind of a guy was Brian Epstein?
A - I liked Brian very much. We got along very well. As a matter of fact, when we gave the charity party, he personally wrote a check for $10,000 to the charity. Which I appreciated. We had no problems what so ever. He was a nice man and an excellent manager for The Beatles. He would not give up. He was determined to have them successful in the United States. And, if it weren't for Brian, they never would have been out in this country.
Q - Yet, Brian Epstein draws criticism from people who say he didn't get enough money for The Beatles.
A - Well, he had a hard time, I was told, getting anybody to release The Beatles in England. He finally made the deal at E.M.I. And E.M.I, I must say in their stupidity signed this group that nobody wanted and were not in any negotiating position, for a three year contract at $.01 per selection. And, a very small advance. What happened was, when we hit in the United States and they peaked, and were in tremendous position, their contract expired. Now, I was releasing them under the E.M.I, contract, which I had the right to do by that time. The contract expired and Brian said to E.M.I. "I'll re-sign with you for England and the rest of the world but not the United States. We're gonna deal with them directly," And, I had to negotiate, except by that time Brian had died. I had to negotiate a Beatles contract under the most difficult situation. I gave them a $2 million dollar bonus to sign and a nine percent royalty, which was unheard of at that time. Nobody got more than five percent. I was happy to do it. They could've gone anywhere and made any kind of deal. We made the deal and I got a call from Sir Joseph Lockwood, who was Chairman of E.M.I, who never interfered with Capitol, We ran our own show. But, he called me this time, the one time he ever did anything like that. He said, " Alan, I think you're making a big mistake. Two million dollars? They've peaked. That's it with them." I said, " Joe, I'll make it back on the first album," which I did. Then the rest is history too.