It is hard to believe, but The Beatles once “sucked.” It was 50 years ago today (almost, January 1, 1962, to be precise) that the future Fab Four were turned down by London’s Decca Records. The episode is now part of rock ’n’ roll folklore, but what really happened?

Decca Records’ A&R man, Mike Smith, had watched The Beatles play at Liverpool’s Cavern Club on December 13, 1961. Smith wasn’t sufficiently impressed – or powerful enough – to sign The Beatles immediately, but offered the group a session Decca’s studios in West Hampstead, London.

The Beatles were then: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Pete Best. The band travelled from Liverpool with driver/roadie Neil Aspinall, while manager Brian Epstein travelled separately by train.

Things didn’t go right from the start. Despite The Beatles making the 11 a.m. audition on time, after driving for over 200 miles the day before, Decca’s Smith was late: he’d been out the night before, seeing in the new year. “I was pretty annoyed,” Epstein later recalled. “Not because we were anxious to tape our songs, but because we felt we were being treated as people who didn’t matter.”

To add insult to injury, Smith then insisted The Beatles used Decca’s in-house amplifiers, judging the Fabs’ own gear to be substandard. “They didn’t want our tackle," recalled Neil Aspinall. “We had to use theirs. We needn’t have dragged our amps all the way from Liverpool.”

The Beatles: Live for 1 Hour

Of the 15 songs The Beatles played, only three were Lennon-McCartney originals – “Like Dreamers Do,” “Hello Little Girl” and “Love of the Loved.” The other 12 were covers – “Money (That's What I Want),” “Till There Was You,” “The Sheik Of Araby,” “To Know Her is to Love Her,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Sure to Fall (In Love With You),” “Three Cool Cats,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “September in the Rain,” “Besame Mucho” and “Searchin’.”

It was Brian Epstein who insisted, perhaps fatally, The Beatles stick mostly to “standards.” In those days, demos/auditions were recorded in a single take without overdubs and the entire session, from 11 a.m., took approximately an hour.

“They were pretty frightened,” recalled Aspinall years later. “Paul [McCartney] couldn’t sing one song [editor’s note: McCartney was lead vocalist on three songs, but Aspinall meant McCartney did not sing as well as he could]. He was too nervous and his voice started to crack up. They were all worried about the red light. I asked if it could be put off, but we were told people might come in if it was off. ‘You what?’ we said. We didn’t know what all that meant.”

Also auditioning that day were Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, from South East England. Although The Beatles did not play at their best that New Year’s Day of 1962, Brian Epstein was quietly confident that his charges would land a contract with Decca. But as the label’s head of A&R, Dick Rowe, later remembered:

“I told Mike [Smith] he’d have to decide between them. It was up to him – The Beatles or Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. He said, ‘They’re both good, but one’s a local group, the other comes from Liverpool.’ We decided it was better to take the local group. We could work with them more easily and stay closer in touch as they came from Dagenham.”

It was March 1962 when Decca informed The Beatles they were not wanted. What really angered Epstein and The Beatles was Rowe’s official and now-notorious reason: “guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” Yet The Tremeloes were also a guitar group, of course, and one not as talented as The Beatles. Hence, Rowe later became infamous as “the man who turned down The Beatles.”

The wily Epstein didn’t take rejection lying down: “I told him [Dick Rowe] I was completely confident that these boys were going to be bigger than Elvis Presley.” Epstein travelled back for further meetings with Decca, claiming he promising their sales team that he’d buy 3,000 copies of any Beatles single Decca released. But Rowe later said, “I was never told about that at the time. The way economics were in the record business then, if we’d been sure of selling 3,000 copies, we’d have been forced to record them, whatever sort of group they were.”

Epstein’s offer was essentially to rig The Beatles’ sales, but who then knew what went on the 1960s record business?

The Beatles themselves were no more impressed. In a press interview a few years later, Paul McCartney commented about Rowe’s decision (even if it wasn’t really Rowe’s), “I bet he’s kicking himself.” To which John Lennon added, “I hope he kicks himself to death.”

The Beatles’ Rejection Re-shapes the ’60s

Despite the hurt felt by the fledgling Beatles, the rejection arguably had far-reaching consequences on the band themselves and the U.K. music scene. Epstein and The Beatles came away from Decca with reel-to-reel recordings that eventually won the band a deal with the Parlophone label in June 1962. And the head of A&R at Parlophone? It was George Martin. And, it was only at Parlophone that doubts were raised about Pete Best’s drumming skills, soon leading to Ringo Starr replacing him. If The Beatles had been signed by Decca, we might know The Beatles as John, Paul, George and Pete.

Dick Rowe redeemed his Decca team’s decision, though. When Rowe met George Harrison months later, The Beatles’ guitarist suggested that Rowe should give another up-and-coming rock band a listen. Rowe did listen, and signed George Harrison’s recommended band to Decca: it was The Rolling Stones.

Decca’s rejection of The Beatles was similar to any audition or demo session that bands went through 50 years ago. But if The Beatles had won that Decca contract? Music history may have been a whole lot different…

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