A quick guide to the Pete Best story, written for a Q Beatles Special in 1999. It draws upon an interview I did with Pete for the NME, 6 April 1985.
“I missed the bite of the cherry by that much,” says Pete Best. He was The Beatles’ drummer for only two years, from 1960 to 1962. But they were such amazingly busy years that he conceivably spent more hours onstage with them than his successor, Ringo Starr. What’s certain is that Best was a Beatle in their crucial, formative period. His sex appeal was important in building the Liverpool fan base that propelled the band to national attention. And he was instrumental, during his time in The Beatles’ Hamburg apprenticeship, in developing the style that would revolutionise popular music.
A reticent and unassuming man, Best is even now nonplussed about the reason he was sacked. While The Beatles climbed to godlike stature, their redundant drummer became a figure in folklore whose name is symbolic of cosmic misfortune. His place in pop history is that of a man who held the winning lottery ticket and left it on a bus. To be “the Pete Best” of any band is to be the one who was in the bath when opportunity knocked.
Raised in a Liverpool suburb, Best entered the 1950s rock scene when his mother, Mona, opened a club in the basement of their house. The Casbah was a magnet for teenage rock’n’rollers and even hosted the early Beatle line-up known as The Quarrymen, who were often without a regular drummer. Offered dates in Hamburg, Lennon and co turned to Mona’s boy, Pete.
During The Beatles’ gruelling stints in Germany, Best would bash away for several sets per night in front of drunken audiences who demanded a show as brutal as they were. Back home at the Cavern, the drummer’s James Dean image of smouldering mystery was, by many accounts, the single biggest ingredient in the sexual hysteria that was mounting around the band. Once they were signed to an ambitious local manager Brian Epstein, the group began to audition for London record companies, and The Beatles’ breakthrough came, of course, when EMI producer George Martin expressed an interest.
He didn’t like Best’s drumming style, however. This in itself was not a fatal factor, since many groups made use of anonymous session players on their records. But it might have decided The Beatles against him. For reasons that have never been clearly explained, Brian Epstein invited Pete Best to his NEMS record shop office on 16 August, 1962, and told him he was no longer a Beatle. He was devastated: “I felt like putting a stone around my neck and jumping off the Pier Head,” he said. “I knew that The Beatles were going places and to be kicked out on the verge of it happening upset me a great deal.”
Theories about the dismissal include: The Beatles’ jealousy at Best’s popularity; their dissatisfaction with his drumming style; his lack of personal chemistry with the others; his rejection of Epstein’s homosexual advances; his inability to grow a mop-top haircut; and, more darkly, his mother Mona’s pregnancy following a liaison with one of The Beatles’ inner circle.
Whatever the cause, The Beatles had already found their new drummer in Ringo Starr, of local rivals Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. Within four days he was a permanent Beatle, and travelled to London for the group’s first EMI recordings (though, ironically, George Martin replaced him on early sessions with a session drummer). Pete Best was left in Liverpool to pick up the pieces. He joined various Merseybeat bands and, when his old group became world famous, enjoyed some minor celebrity as leader of The Pete Best Band (actually calling one LP Best Of The Beatles). But the gulf between his predicament and their astonishing ascent was too much to bear. In 1965 he attempted suicide – rescued by his mother and brother who smelled the gas beneath his door.
Married with children, Best became a labourer in a Liverpool bakery and then spent 20 years in the Civil Service – aptly, his job was to advise the local unemployed on getting themselves re-started after redundancy. In 1993 he took early retirement, and now plays the occasional gig on Merseybeat revival nights. But his fortunes took a dramatic upturn with the 1995 release of The Beatles’ Anthology series – Volume 1 contained a number of Best performances, whose royalties have reportedly made him a multi-millionaire. “Pete will earn a decent amount of money,” confirmed The Beatles’ spokesman Derek Taylor, “which is only right. He is a good man, and he deserves it. Being sacked from the band was a great shock for him, but he has remained philosophical about it throughout.”
“Even now,” says Best, “I reflect that I’ve lost my heritage. You push it into your subconscious but something will trigger it off, like some story about Paul or the news of John’s death. But time has mellowed. I’ve had to make the best of what’s available. There’s a lot of fond memories. I saw a lot of life. I can say I did it, it was great to be part of it. And no one can take those memories away from me.”