Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Forgotten Father of the Music industry

On November 9th 1961, Brian Epstein, an unknown Liverpool record store owner, descended the dark and grimy concrete steps of The Cavern Club in Liverpool for the first time to catch a lunchtime performance by The Beatles. That brief encounter 50 years ago was a watershed moment in popular culture which sent shockwaves round the world in a little over two years, turning the shy Epstein into an internationally famous promoter, and a rough and ready young local beat group into the most successful rock band of all time. On the half century anniversary of this fateful meeting of minds we take a look at Epstein’s life and career and ask how this introverted individual became a major music impresario. What was the main motivation behind making the leap from store manager to pop manager: a sexual attraction to his clients, a burning desire to succeed in the arts, or desperation to escape from provincial drudgery?

Today, the Beatles are arguably more popular and seemingly more relevant than ever before. The groups’ music and fascinating story holds an everlasting appeal which attracts and transfixes fans born years after they split in 1969. Yet, The Beatles modern profile is centred on the four core individuals of Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr, with occasional focus given to the groups’ producer George Martin. Martin is often awarded the fans own Medal of Honour; that of ‘Fifth Beatle’, the individual or more accurately individuals with which fans and critics’ alike cite as the ‘X’ factor in the groups phenomenal global success and appeal. Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, the groups’ original bassist and drummer, or Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, EMI’s talented staff sound technicians often tend to crop up as alternative ‘fifth Beatle’ candidates. However these choices ascribe the groups’ success and appeal to a merely creative or musical variable, excluding the business elements which helped to engender their fame. Brian Epstein was the groups’ manager for the five years from 1962 until his untimely death from an accidental drug overdose in 1967. However his part in the Beatles story has faded since his death, overshadowed by the music and the legend.

Descended from Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who prospered in retail and manufacturing, Brian Samuel Epstein was born in Liverpool in 1934 and as a child was expelled from two schools for laziness and poor performance. In his teens Epstein informed his father of his intention to study fashion and become a dress designer; Harry Epstein overruled his sons dream and the young Brian was forced into a retail apprenticeship. During his military draft service and relocation to London Epstein’s sexual orientation began causing him problems. He was discharged from the army for impersonating an officer; a ploy to cruise bars in an alluring uniform, and on another occasion his wallet, passport, birth cert and wristwatch were stolen during a rough mugging which was commonplace for gay men who ran the gauntlet of ‘cottaging’ in public lavatories at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Upon discovering his sons sexual preference his father consented to funding Epstein’s enrolment at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s, away from Liverpool, where he plotted a career as an actor alongside classmates such as Peter O’Toole, Susannah York and Albert Finney. He soon dropped out however, later stating a preference for becoming a producer rather than walk the boards himself. After enjoying a period of self-exploration in a more sexually tolerant Barcelona he returned to Liverpool and took up a career in his father’s furniture store. When the family business added a music department to the empire, Epstein, with his keen interest in the arts grasped the venture with both hands and steered it to success with his flair for aesthetics and detail. Interestingly, Paul McCartney’s father purchased the family piano from Epstein’s store in the mid fifties. Epstein expanded the music department to incorporate the new genres of genres rock n roll and pop alongside classical and opera and as a result began writing a promotional column for the fledgling ‘Mersey Beat’ pop magazine, edited by an art school friend of John Lennon’s. Legend (perpetrated largely by Epstein’s own autobiography) has always maintained that a Beatles fan entered the store asking for a Beatles recording made in Germany, and that Epstein’s undying commitment to customer satisfaction led him to tracking the group down to obtain the record. However, this alleged event coincides with a period when the Beatles often loitered around Epstein’s store listening to, and perhaps even lifting favourite records to incorporate into their live set. In the autumn of 1961 he asked Harry to arrange a meeting, and so on November 9th he stood at the back of the Cavern and experienced the groups wild and frenetic rock n roll show on home ground. Epstein later created much of the legend surrounding that meeting himself stating that he was attracted to their style and image, their clothes, their look, and later their personal charm. His recollection was mocked cruelly in the 1976 comedy The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison, in which Epstein is portrayed as bungling, homosexual pervert Leggy Mountbatten.

His motivation for offering to manage the group has been the stuff of hot debate for decades, and certainly there was no smoke without fire. Drummer Pete Best recalled how he politely rebuked Epstein’s request to spend a night with him, and his interest in John Lennon has taken on a legend all of its own. In April 1963 with the group at number one in the UK charts Lennon and Epstein flew to Barcelona for a holiday while the rest of the group relaxed in Tenerife. Naturally this pairing raised a lot of eyebrows within the group and beyond, even becoming the subject of a 1991 film starring Ian Hart; The Hours And Times. For his part Lennon maintained he was interested in observing Epstein hitting on boys, confessing that he and Epstein had a pretty intense relationship that was never consummated. Years later Paul McCartney provided a much more pragmatic theory for the holiday, claiming that Lennon had an astute, political persona, and that he took the opportunity to get Epstein alone to impress upon him exactly who was the leader of the group he was steering to stardom. Tellingly, after they returned to London, the next and all subsequent Lennon and McCartney collaborations were accredited to Lennon-McCartney, instead of the previous format of McCartney-Lennon. McCartney was informed of the change by Epstein who batted away his protestations claiming “it ‘sounded better that way”. Lennon remained prickly about the nature of his relationship with Epstein and their trip. At Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday celebration months later, Lennon beat Cavern DJ Bob Wooler severely breaking his ribs and hospitalising him following a disparaging remark about his relationship with his manager.  Epstein saved their respective careers by pulling out the stops to keep the story out of the press.

Despite an early awareness of his homosexuality and familial warnings of financial dealings with a Jewish manager, the initially sceptical group were suitably bowled over by Epstein’s charm, demeanor and his material wealth...they finally put pen to paper on a managerial contract on January 24th 1962 (which Epstein did not initially sign). Within five months of signing with Epstein the group became EMI clients; within 12 months they were number one in the UK and within 2 years they were number one in America. While he may have been attracted to the rough beat scene with its attractive young men dressed in provocative clothing, the Beatles among them, sexual desire is too simplistic and lazy a motive to attribute to a man with Epstein’s cultured intelligence and business acumen. His prime motivation was almost certainly a burning desire to achieve success in the arts, and escape the provincial confines of the working class north, and his father’s store. With the Beatles he found his calling, and he launched himself into the making of their success.
While the group, and Epstein himself enjoyed a certain amount of good fortune on the road to fame, it was Epstein’s stewardship, his vision and his steadfast confidence in his, and the Beatles abilities which allowed him to orchestrate what no other British manager had done before him; to break America with a British artist. George Martin stated that although he wasn’t musically sold on the Beatles, he had an instinct that they offered something different in contrast to contemporary pop chart fare. It was Epstein’s confidence and belief in his artists however which swayed him to offer them a recording deal when all others had turned them down. Epstein worked his contacts in the music industry tirelessly and when Decca records declined interest in the group he famously dressed them down stating; "You must be out of your minds. These boys are going to explode. I am completely confident that one day they will be bigger than Elvis Presley!” A laughable boast in those days, yet Epstein prevailed and his wild prediction became reality within 2 years.

Epstein also lent his keen eye for fashion and the theatre to the Beatles act, convincing them to ditch leather jackets for the modernist fashions sweeping London’s cafes and high streets and, within a year their suits and haircuts would ignite a fashion revolution which swept the world and was reflected in almost all aspects of popular culture. He coached their on-stage behaviour, encouraging them to play constructed and less chaotic performances, and to bow for the audience. Epstein’s mentorship was playfully mocked in the Beatles first feature film, A Hard Day’s Night; upon entering an upmarket club, the groups’ fictional manager Norman Rossington pleads with the group to behave in such a posh place, to which Lennon replies; “we know how to behave, we’ve had lessons”.   These lessons’s paid off when the group landed in the US for the first time in 1964 and were greeted by an army of sceptical reporters who turned up to slate them. They were soon knocked off balance however by the Beatles behaviour and their straightforward answers to questions. The groups’ image and demeanour charmed and disarmed, but their acerbic wit shocked and alarmed, they were the perfect contrast; pop stars simply didn’t behave like this...and the media were instantly sold. Epstein had not stifled their personalities, but he had packaged the product perfectly. No doubt he stood in the wings at Kennedy airport and savored the fruits of his success.

After cracking America however Epstein had peaked. The world sought him out instead of the other way round. He was inundated with offers of business deals, films, concerts for obscene amounts of money and he took his eye off the ball as he built an empire of recording artists which brought him additional wealth and acclaim. As the circus that was Beatlemania ran itself, Epstein was faced with hard business decisions within an industry which could be unforgiving, and he began making mistakes. Critics, including the Beatles themselves, have pointed a finger at Epstein’s shortcomings and indicated that he was out of his depth, particularly his mishandling of merchandising. As Beatlemania crested and the Beatles presented the biggest marketing opportunity since Mickey Mouse, Epstein empowered Seltaeb to licencse everything from guitars, chewing gum, record players and toilet paper in the Beatles’ image. However he grossly underestimated the financial potential of merchandising and he struck a deal whereby Seltaeb took 90% of sales leaving Epstein and his clients with 10%. The Beatles cut was shared out only after Epstein deducted 25% of that 10% gross for himself. Epstein focused on record and concert sales primarily and publishing rights secondly. He viewed merchandising as a novelty venture which was beneath his esteemed perception of himself; it was simply not a serious business. Had he done his homework and investigated his nearest rival he would have found that merchandising netted Col Tom Parker and Elvis Presley $20 million in 1957 alone. By the time he realised his error it was too late. He dragged Seltaeb into court to renegotiate their deal but before that was settled John Lennon’s “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remark fatally wounded the groups’ popularity in the US, and the Beatles merchandising juggernaut sank beneath the waves. Epstein’s howler is estimated to have cost the group a potential $100,000,000.

As the group tired of Beatlemania and ceased touring in 1966, Epstein’s influence and relevance began to wane. His relationship with his boys began to harden and he found himself not only excluded but also on the receiving end of cruel remarks and jokes. When he once shopped for a title for his autobiography, Lennon cruelly suggested ‘Queer Jew’, unperturbed Epstein suggested a ‘Cellar Full Of Noise’, referring to their Cavern beginnings, Lennon retorted: “how about a Cellar Full Of Boys”. On another occasion he dared to offer some musical advice during a recording session only for Lennon to curtly remind him to stick his percentages and they would handle the music.
To counter his idleness Epstein leased the Saville Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue in 1967 and finally realised his dream of becoming a producer while he enjoyed life as a wealthy socialite, dining each evening on expensive meals and fine wines in London’s top class clubs and casino’s. However, his success, his wealth and his social status brought him little happiness in the end. Largely irrelevant to the Beatles new artistic directions, Epstein sank into depression. His gambling and drug habits spiralled out of control to such an extent that he spent the entire period during the making of Sgt Peppers drying out in rehab, checking out briefly for the albums launch before checking back in again.
As the Beatles were basking in their creative peak during the ‘Summer of Love’, Epstein was wallowing in his own lack of worth. On August 27th 1967 he returned to his London flat at low ebb having arranged to spend the bank holiday weekend with a party of rent boys who failed to turn up. Alerted by his lack of response and his friends’ worried calls, his butler phoned the police, who found him dead in his bed the next afternoon. The verdict was accidental overdose from a cocktail of alcohol and sleeping pills to which he had developed a dangerous tolerance. He was 32.

Ironically, seemingly surplus to requirements to the Beatles needs Epstein’s death precipitated the group’s disintegration. Lennon reflected in 1970 that he thought they’d had it when Brian died, he knew it was the end. He was proved right. McCartney, who held form for irritating his colleagues with badgering and demands of perfection stepped into the vacuum left by Epstein and immediately steered the group into the Magical Mystery Tour film, the groups’ very first critical failure. Attempts to manage themselves and others resulted in a civil war which allowed business sharks like Allen Klein to walk into their camp unchallenged. The bitter fallout from the loss of Epstein’s business shield, and in particular the revelations of the poor business deals and losses he had concealed from them destroyed the creative Beatles. The group were forced to become businessmen, a role they were shockingly unskilled at. Lennon was right after all; they needed to handle the music while someone else stuck to the percentages.

Epstein should be remembered for his great triumphs...and there were many. He managed to take a rough group of talented individuals, polish them, and against all the odds launch them into the international limelight to dramatically change and influence global culture throughout the 60’s and each subsequent decade beyond. He repeatedly thought outside the box when promoting his artists, seeking bigger and bigger venues to promote for bigger and better purses. His greatest triumph was perhaps the seminal Shea Stadium performance of 1965 which ushered in the era of the stadium concert, while his many other ventures at the dawn of the modern rock era helped to shape and influence how that industry would evolve.  Epstein masterminded the British cultural invasion of America in the 1960’s, an act which profoundly altered the direction of rock music to such an extent that its shockwaves are still evident in popular music today. He was a man who dared to dream big and hit the jackpot... and yet found no comfort or happiness in his success. He was an influential mentor and guardian to his artists when required, he was a confidant, a discreet fixer, a banker, but most of all he was a man who needed to be needed. Incredibly he has yet to be inducted into the non-performers section of the rock n roll hall of fame, while George Martin was added years ago. This is an oversight which should be respectfully remedied immediately. Brian Epstein should be remembered fondly as the father of the modern music industry.

See more onlyanorthernsong work at PLEASE PLEASE ME album guide launches for iPad/iPhone & Kindle November 2011.

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