In the long history of near-fame experiences, is there any tale as wrenching as Pete Best's? Really, who's even close? The guy is booted from the Beatles right before the band hippy-hippy shakes into history, a few months before "Love Me Do" sends a few million teens into shrieking fits. While his former band mates are recording "Back in the U.S.S.R." in 1968, Pete is slicing bread in a bakery.
So close. Best drummed behind John, Paul and George for two years starting in 1960, the early days in Liverpool and Hamburg, where the Beatles played seven-hour shows to drunken Germans in the city's red-light district. They shared groupies. He and John Lennon once tried to mug a sailor. Best was behind the kit for that anxious audition that persuaded Parlophone Records to sign the quartet to a deal.
And then one day -- Aug. 16, 1962, to be precise -- he's out. Ringo Starr is in. Manager Brian Epstein delivered the bad news in a brief morning meeting in his office. The next year, Brits alone would spend more than $12 million on Fab Four vinyl. Best's cut of that haul was nil. None of the other Beatles, he says, ever spoke to him again.
"I suppose the frustration is the fact that this was very much a case of it had been done behind your back," Best says on a recent evening, standing in the back yard of the home where he grew up. "The lads weren't there at the actual dismissal. They'd left it up to Brian. If they were there, maybe we could have resolved the problem. You know, 'Okay, what is wrong, what is your hang-up?' That never happened."
Now 61 years old, Best has bushy gray hair and a mustache. Wearing blue jeans and a light blue sweater, he looks more like the kindly owner of a pizzeria than the heartthrob of the Beatles, a guy with such smoldering good looks that his fans claimed he was fired for distracting "birds" from the others. He is shy and so soft-spoken it's hard to hear what he's saying.
"Yes, there was anger," he nearly whispers. "You've got to be honest about that. One minute you're in the top band in Liverpool, and the next you're not."
And then everyone wants to know, "Hey, what's it like to almost rule the world?" It's a question Best will surely answer again, next week, during a New York visit to promote "The Beatles: The True Beginnings," a coffee-table volume he co-authored with his half brothers, Roag and Rory. In it, the Bests tell an under-exalted chapter in the story of the Beatles' rise: the tale of the Casbah Coffee Club. Before the matching suits, before "P.S. I Love You" and before they became local sensations at the downtown Cavern Club, John, Paul, George and Pete were regulars at the Casbah. The four ultimately played the venue 90 times, crammed into a low-ceilinged room big enough for about 25 fans, if they all held their breath.
For Pete, getting to the club meant simply walking down a flight of stairs. The Casbah was in the basement of the Best house. His mother, a free-spirited beauty named Mona, decided in 1959 that the neighborhood kids needed a place to listen to an American import called rock-and-roll. Mo, as she was known to everyone, spent five months with some friends clearing debris from the cellar, and then interviewed the Quarrymen in her search for a band to play opening night. She offered 3 pounds for the show. Then she handed them paintbrushes. On the walls, John Lennon painted potbellied figures, Paul McCartney painted a rainbow, and George Harrison and a drummer named Ken Brown painted stars. Pete joined the group a year later, when it was known as the Silver Beatles. "She loved music," Best says of his mother, who died in 1988. "She had the idea and the courage to follow through. She turned a humble coffee club into the catalyst for the Mersey sound" -- a shorthand for Liverpool rock acts of the day -- "and every band that played here still speaks rapturously about the place."
The Casbah was nothing but a musty storage space after it closed in 1962. Last November it was refurbished, and the Bests are lobbying the city for permits to turn it into a working club again. For now, it's open only for special events.
Like tonight's. Best is here at the Casbah this evening, chatting with fans and old friends and celebrating the end of the latest tour of the Pete Best Band. The group started in 1988 as a one-off lark for a Beatles fan convention in town. Soon after that, clubs called and, decades after he'd thrown a sheet over his snare drum, Best began touring again, this time in oldies cavalcade concerts or as a headliner in small venues around the world. The set list: Beatles tunes from the days before "Please Please Me" went global, the era of the Casbah Coffee Club.
It's packed here and smoky, just as in the old days, and filled with former regulars, many of whom can tell you about the nights they spent watching "the lads" back when. They have to speak over the din of a band, four teenagers reprising tunes from the Beatles' days as a cover act, in the same claustrophobic crucible where a pop revolution was fired to life. The drummer of this combo is wearing a black T-shirt with two words in bold white letters: "Not Pete."
"I thought it was a bit off, what the Beatles did to Pete," says an old friend, Peter Newton, who is drinking a pint near the Casbah's bar. "I didn't think Ringo was quite as good a drummer." He pauses for a moment and then adds with a slight shrug, "But after Pete left, they really took off."
Drumming on the Outside
Liverpudlians seem split about Pete Best. Some are appalled that he and the latest incarnation of his band trade on his rusted link to the Beatles. To others, he's an ex-contender and the only living local trace of the band that turned this city, however briefly, into the musical epicenter of the world. It doesn't matter that he was pre-Fab. In rock's book of Genesis, he's a walk-on character in some pivotal early chapters. Drummers were scarce in Liverpool circa 1959. The Quarrymen were always in search of one, and by the time the group had been renamed the Beatles a year later, they needed a full-timer to join them in Hamburg, where rock-and-roll was the rage and where a promoter had offered them a decent weekly salary. Pete Best passed an impromptu audition just before the band departed. The four, plus art student and Lennon pal Stu Sutcliffe, would play dozens of gigs together, in Germany and Liverpool. For a time, Pete handled bookings, too.
But if Best was in the band, say those who knew him then, he wasn't quite of it.
"He was a loner, and in a group you can't be a loner," says Tony Sheridan, on the phone from Germany. Sheridan, now 63, was the biggest star in Hamburg during the Beatles' second visit there, and he shared a stage with them for eight-hour shows at a club called the Top Ten. He and the Beatles also recorded a sock-hop version of "My Bonnie."
"He was a very quiet guy, too. Never said a thing. But I think there was some jealousy about Pete in there as well, because half the gig in those days was to look the part, and the music was almost secondary. Lennon looked like a schoolteacher -- he couldn't see a thing without his glasses. Pete looked like a movie star."
All the while, Ringo Starr was playing in Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, the biggest act in Liverpool. During the Hurricanes' tour of Hamburg and in clubs back home, he'd hang out with the Beatles and occasionally sit in on drums. John, Paul and George thought Ringo the superior talent -- but as important, they have said, is that he simply fit in better than Pete.
"When Ringo was around," Harrison said in the Beatles' oral history, "Anthology," "it was like a full unit, both on and off stage."
"The myth built up over the years that . . . Paul was jealous of [Best] because he was pretty and all that crap," Lennon testified on the same page. "They didn't get on that much together, but it was partly because Pete was a bit slow. He was a harmless guy but was not quick. All of us had quick minds, but he never picked that up."
Was Best really a mediocre drummer? Sheridan, who played with both Pete and Ringo at various shows in Hamburg, remembers screaming at both of them for missing the backbeat -- a problem common to Liverpool drummers, he says. But Ringo seemed more ambitious. "He was more intent on becoming a good drummer," Sheridan explains. "Pete was less intent. He was a bit lazy."
And at times he looked bored, the Beatles recalled, the wrong image for a band bent on causing riots. The final shove came from producer George Martin, who thought Best's performance so substandard during the Parlophone audition that he urged the band to ditch him. McCartney worried that the label might pass on them unless they changed the lineup. "Our career," as he put it, "was on the line."
It's hard to argue with the band's decision. Not only did Ringo become a highly influential if perennially underrated drummer, but his hangdog persona so complemented the Beatles that it's hard to imagine the group without him. Faulting the way Best was dismissed is easier. Our lovable mop-tops waited until Best was a pen-stroke from the big time. After he'd played hundreds of shows, slogged thousands of miles, managed the band's business and welcomed them into the club that doubled as his basement.
"It was," writes Mark Lewisohn, author of "The Complete Beatles Chronicle," "the most underhand, unfortunate and unforgivable chapter in the Beatles' rise to monumental power."
The fans, at least initially, were steamed. At shows in the days after Ringo's arrival, some shouted "Pete forever, Ringo never" or "Pete is Best." Brian Epstein had to hire a bodyguard to accompany him to clubs.
This divorce, though, was final -- and it had a soap opera angle that isn't well known. A family friend named Neil Aspinall had been living at the Best house, and he became the Beatles' first roadie. When Pete was canned, Aspinall had to choose between loyalty to the band and loyalty to a friend, a decision complicated by Aspinall's relationship with Pete's mother. Neil and Mona had become lovers, and they later had a son, Roag.
Aspinall chose the band, becoming a fixture of the Beatles' innermost circle, serving them well after the group disbanded. Today he manages Apple Corps Ltd., which handles the band's ongoing business. (He didn't return a call last week for this story.) Early on, he was miffed enough about Pete's firing that he refused to set up Ringo's drum kit. But, Ringo says in "Anthology," he quickly got over it.
Best put together a band called the Pete Best Combo and recorded a bunch of songs whose very titles suggest a man in distress: "Why Did You Leave Me Baby?" "I Can't Do Without You Now," "I'm Checkin Out Now Baby," "I Wanna Be There." But the backdraft of the Beatles didn't sweep Best to stardom. It felt, he wrote in his autobiography, "Beatle: The Pete Best Story," as if an invisible shield blocked him from winning acclaim beyond his home town.
Surrounded by Beatlemania and growing more depressed by the month, he barricaded himself in a bedroom above the Casbah Club and attempted suicide one day in 1965. Rory kicked down the door and revived his brother, who was breathing the fumes of an old-fashioned gas fire. He put together another band, which fared poorly, and filed a libel suit against his former band mates after Ringo implied in an interview that Pete had been ejected because of drug abuse. (Four years later, the suit was settled without a trial for an undisclosed sum.) By then Best had a wife and child and, without steady income, he reluctantly put away his sticks. Even easing into the regular working world, however, wasn't easy.
"They'd say at job interviews, 'You've got the qualifications and everything else, but you've been a rock drummer in the eight years since you left school.' They were frightened that someone would come along and dangle the [show biz] carrot, and off I'd go."
When he heard of an apprentice job in a bakery, he took it, just to prove that he'd really left music in his past. A year later, the civil service offered him a job. Ironically, for a guy renowned for getting fired, it was in the career placement office.
Skipping a Beat
A couple of Fridays ago, a few hundred fans nearly filled the Royal Court Theater, where the Pete Best Band played at a concert called "Mersey Meets Motown." All the acts -- such as the Searchers, the Velvettes -- peaked decades ago, if they peaked at all. The highlights came from the mostly over-50 audience, which kept shouting one-liners at the emcee and the bands. "Kiss me, whip me, take me shopping!" a woman screamed at one lead guitarist.
Best was introduced as "the man who put the beat in the Beatles." He and his band opened the show, wearing black leather and rehashing oldies like Ray Charles's "What'd I Say" and "Love Me Do." Best was stashed in the background and hard to see, though he twice grabbed the microphone and center stage to pep-talk the crowd. He glowed but looked awkward and, even with the help of amplification, he was hard to hear.
A few measures into their first number, something very strange became glaringly clear. Best wasn't the only the drummer onstage. He wasn't even the lead drummer onstage. Roag was. Each time a tricky fill arrived, Pete stopped playing and arched both sticks toward Roag as if to say, "Take it away." When the basic 4/4 beat resumed, Pete went back to work.
A Bite of Apple at Last
Despite his historic heave-ho, Best says he bears no grudge against the band. "If you'd asked me 15 years ago would I ever meet up with the Beatles, I would have said no," he says at the Casbah. "But the door's open, and I have a strange and very strong feeling that we'll meet up again."
Best's feelings about the band changed, in part, because of money. He finally received a pile of it in 1995, when the Beatles put together the first of their three-part "Anthology" series of albums, which includes 10 early songs with Best in the band. After decades of silence, representatives of Apple Corps Ltd. came calling. A sum was negotiated, permission granted, royalties paid.
"I think the number needs to remain private," Best says, smiling. "It's security for my family and my grandchildren. I didn't move to a 35-story mansion with a swimming pool and three Ferraris. I'm very happy with the life I've got, so there's no need to change it."
There's nothing false-seeming about Best's serenity. Pitying him these days seems idiotic, and not merely because he is probably rich. Tonight he's buttonholed at the Casbah by fan after fan who wants an autograph or a photograph -- a crush that is so steady that by 11:30 he's had enough. His wife waits for him to wade through the crowd; she's standing outside the club with their daughter, who is a knockout, and their grandchild, asleep in his mother's arms.
When Best finally escapes the Casbah, he pauses before a few more flashbulbs and then walks down the driveway with his family, into the night and in search of a cab.
Shafted? Compared with whom? Maybe Ringo. Not compared with his friends here this evening, not compared with the millions who never played with the Beatles. Pete Best stumbled into the greatest rock band ever, a job that, by many accounts, he was ill equipped to handle. But today he's financially set, with a loving family and a quintet that's booked around the world. And if you catch him in a quiet moment, he'll tell you all about playing "Long Tall Sally" for a crowd of German hookers, with three men who changed pop culture for good.
Some people have all the luck. Others get a big chunk early on and, in their golden years, they feast on it to their hearts' content.