Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
Beatles For Sale:
How Everything They Touched Turned To Gold
You know the songs. You know the albums. You know the films. But how did The Beatles and their enigmatic manager Brian Epstein end up pioneering so much of what we now know as the modern music business. It certainly wasn't because any of them had a clear vision of what they were doing. If fact, very often The Beatles or Brian Epstein were making things up as they went along simply because nobody else had been there and done it before them.
Beatles For Sale by John Blayney details the way the group and their inner circle went about promoting, advertising, selling records, playing concerts, selling merchandise, making films and setting up publishing and recording companies. It covers The Beatles' journey from their first gigs as The Quarrymen to the 21st century court battles over the Apple brand and everything in between.
Q - John, this is the book I had been looking for, for a very long time. I think for me it answers in part why John Lennon was so bitter at times when it came to The Beatles. How were you able to track down so many of the contracts that The Beatles signed?
A - The BBC written archives has several documents relating to payments and royalties for appearances on radio and television shows. I found a photocopy of The Beatles' contract with Brian Epstein for sale on an autograph website! The rest came from various books. Azing Moltmaker published a book about Sgt. Pepper that reprints the full Beatles 1967 EMI contract and Bruce Spizer's books are packed with fantastic information. Brian Southall's book about Northern Songs was also very useful.
Q - Did you get any type of co-operation from Paul McCartney or any of The Beatles' attorneys?
A - None what-so-ever.
Q - On page 34, you write about Brian Epstein; He gave the impression to The Beatles that he wanted to manage them because he liked them, but his main concern from the outset was money. He was a businessman. I'm glad you brought that up. I believe that. Others have written that Epstein had some sort of fixation on John Lennon. In your research, did you ever hear any of that? And how did Brian Epstein know that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis?
A - I think Epstein's interest in Lennon is well documented. It's all rumor and speculation. The only people who really know are both dead, so we'll never know the truth. And to be honest, does it really matter? Epstein could never have known that The Beatles were going to be bigger than Elvis. He was simply doing what managers do to generate interest. If you're a manager, you don't try and get a record deal by saying the band you represent is quite good. The band you're promoting is The Greatest Band In The World! It's just that nobody knows yet and if you want a piece of the action, you'd better sign them before somebody else does. Of course that didn't quite work for Epstein because nobody believed him and he was turned down by every label in the country until he met George Martin. And even George Martin has said that when he first heard them, he thought they were crap, but he liked their personalities, so he signed them.
Q - You write: For Epstein's contract to be truly binding, McCartney and Harrison's legal guardians should have signed it for them. I take it the parents did not know that?
A - I doubt it. Why should they? They were working class people from Liverpool. They probably never signed a contract in their lives. Although it is odd that Epstein didn't know that without their signatures, the contracts weren't worth the paper they were printed on. I'm not saying he was doing anything underhanded, it's probably another example of his naiveté. Also, as far as Epstein was concerned, his word was as good as his bond.
Q - What I found particularly amazing was that Brian didn't pay all that much attention to merchandizing. Why not? He handed that part of The Beatles' business to a lawyer who made such terrible deals.
A - I think he grew bored with all the requests and didn't recognize just how profitable it could be. He was more interested in micro-managing The Beatles' tours and stage shows than worrying about plastic guitars and chewing gum wrappers. With the exception of Elvis, there hadn't been much merchandising associated with Pop music. Everything was happening incredibly quickly. He had no experience of managing a band at this level. It was all new and he was having to make up the rules as he went along. Everybody's allowed one mistake and this was Epstein's. But what a mistake.
Q - There were no models for Epstein to base his business plan on if indeed he had one, which seems unlikely. There was Elvis, right?
A - You're right. There was always Elvis. But Elvis was a solo recording artist. The Beatles were a band. I'm surprised that Epstein didn't look to Elvis, particularly for merchandising tips. But thank goodness he didn't model The Beatles on Elvis. Otherwise we'd have a string of cheap and tacky films starring The Beatles in increasingly unbelievable circumstances. However, in Britain at the time, the only manager of note was Larry Parnes and I'm not sure The Beatles would have been better served had they followed his business model. In fact, I think Epstein had the edge on Parnes.
Q - If nothing else, Brian Epstein knew how to manage the image of his boys. Yes. Very important point to make. Great observation. I'm not sure how many other managers at the time understood that.
A - Maybe Larry Parnes knew how important image was, but few others. Don't forget, there was no music business, only show business. Everyone followed the same tried and tested rules. That includes Epstein, who put The Beatles in suits like almost every other Pop star of the day. But having said that, he did give it a twist, collarless jackets.
Q - Granting important roles to unqualified people had been one of Epstein's failings. Any ideas why he would have rewarded people in such a way?
A - Perhaps he wanted to keep them sweet and close. Or maybe he found it difficult working with strangers. But remember that The Beatles did exactly the same thing and employed friends to manage Apple. Some, Neil Aspinall, proved to be very good for the group. Others, Magic Alex, weren't.
Q - In Aldershot, The Beatles looked so alien that the local police ordered them out of town and told them never to darken it's streets again. I never heard that before. Where did that come from?
A - Mark Lewison, The Beatles, page 81.
Q - Did The Beatles engage in group sex with groupies? On page 157 of your book, Peter Jones of The New Record Mirror seems to suggest it happened. I interviewed Bob Bonis, The Beatles' American tour manager from 1964 to 1966, and he said Brian Epstein used ex-F.B.I. guys to man the elevators so groupies could not get to their rooms. John, which is it?
A - Only The Beatles know. Ask yourself this, would you want to have group sex with your friends? Unless all four were swingers, I doubt it very much. They did share hotel rooms for awhile, which might have been interesting, but surely you'd just ask your room mate to disappear for awhile.
Q - Dick Lester, (the director of A Hard Day's Night and Help!) said "The Beatles were beginning to crack under the pressure. Ringo developed a tic during the filming of Help!. Again, I never heard that before. Would that tic have been present in Ringo when we see what I always thought was him shaking in that scene when The Beatles performed "I Need You".
A - Richard Lester said he had to be very careful when filming Ringo's scenes and when editing the film. From what I remember, it was more of a facial tic than the shakes.
Q - Paul McCartney only receives 15% of the royalties on "Yesterday"? Does he at least have a say on who and when the song can be used?
A - Anybody can do whatever they like with the song as long as they pay Northern Songs / Sony / ATV, a royalty. As to where it can be used, I think he might object if it were used to sell baked beans, but providing The Beatles original isn't used and as long as a royalty is paid, there is very little he can do about it.
Q - George Martin and Tony Barrow wanted to present the group as John Lennon And The Beatles. Epstein said 'No, The Beatles'. How would history have been different had John Lennon's name been out front?
A - Well, that's a hypothetical question to which there is no answer. The Beatles were Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. It wouldn't have been the same band with Lennon or McCartney fronting it and I'm sure had that happened, jealousies and rivalries would have pulled the band apart much sooner.
Q - Without knowing it, The Beatles had invented the modern day tour bus, which allowed them to travel overnight and there-by save time and money.. None of the '50s Rock 'n' Roll groups used a tour bus?
A - As far as I'm aware, most bands, particularly unsigned bands, travelled to gigs by car. Very few could afford a bus. Certainly the fact The Beatles could afford a van with beds in was newsworthy enough to appear in The Beatles Monthly book. Obviously bands would have travelled by bus if they were on a package tour, but generally speaking, most bands went by car. In fact, British Rock 'n' Roll star Joe Brown recalls having to take the bus to gigs because his manager wouldn't pay for taxis or personal transport. And he was a star at the time, late '50s, early '60s.
Q - What The Beatles needed was a strong business manager to compliment Epstein's creative and marketing skills. Brian Epstein would never have shared the spotlight with anyone else. He wouldn't even partner with George Martin when Sir George asked him to. Would you consider that a character flaw?
A - Interesting. Epstein did delegate, partner with his lawyer David Jacobs and that's why The Beatles lost almost all the merchandising money. He also worked with Dick James, although James was very much in the driving seat. Certainly had Epstein worked with an established businessman from any of the major industries, he might have served The Beatles better with regards to financial matters. The Beatles were too big for any one person to oversee all of their business activities.
Q - The Beatles were paying a tax rate of 83%. Were there no financial attorneys they could have consulted?
A - There were, but Epstein insisted that the boys be seen to pay tax rather than become tax exiles. He didn't want any negative press, which there might have been had they tried to avoid paying tax. One reason The Beatles were awarded MBEs was because they generated so much money for the exchequer. However, Richard Lester has said that while filming Help! in the Bahamas, Epstein's personal assistant had two briefcases stuffed with cash that he was trying to find a home for, one assumes to avoid paying tax. Once again, Epstein's principles appear somewhat conflicted.
Q - It was obvious to me that they were enormously talented. Bert Kaempfert said in 1964, "but nobody, including the boys themselves, knew how to use that talent or where it would lead them." John, at the end of the day, at the end of your book, there's only one conclusion that you can come away with and that is: at that time in history, there was only one man on this earth suited to be the manager of The Beatles and that man was Brian Epstein. Despite his flaws and failings, he was the manager for The Beatles. No one else on earth could have presented The Beatles like he did. And still he has not gotten enough recognition.
A - I don't think there was anyone else in Liverpool at the time who could have managed The Beatles in the way that Epstein did. However, I think there was a lot of luck involved, as there always is. But, The Beatles were the best, and the best usually rises to the top.