Before you even see the sign that tells you this is The Cavern, you can hear Please Please Me rattling out from downstairs. Across the road, The Beatles peer down from a wall opposite – seeking to scoop up off-season holidaymakers and ferry them from one Fab haunt to another. Only when you see Pete Best waiting outside do you realize that, as insensitive meeting places go, this ranks alongside morning coffee in Tripoli with Terry Waite.
Had The Beatles not famously returned from their EMI audition replaced him with Ringo Starr in the summer of 1962, the group's first drummer almost certainly wouldn’t look the way he does this afternoon. Because ageing rock stars struggle to resist the temptation to look forever young, his grey hair would probably be dyed black and cut into a more flattering style than the flattened quiff, left a little long at the back, that he currently sports. The moustache too, would probably be gone, along with the functional Kappa trainers. Back in 1964, when panelists on American game show I’ve Got A Secret had to guess who he was, they figured it out in seconds. Today, he looks like any of the several Italian hairdressers who have trimmed heads in Soho over the last four decades.
Regardless of what had happened to him, his body language would somehow compel you to feel sorry for him. You suspect that the “moodiness” cited by Paul McCartney as a primary reason for his departure may just be shyness. Even when the Times photographer asks him to mount The Cavern’s tiny stage for a picture, Best resists the foreground. Indeed, he does the same on Haymans Green, the new CD by his group The Pete Best Band. On nary a single song of this musical chronicle of Best’s life in the city does Best, erm, up sticks to do a vocal turn – leaving those duties to the rest of the group. With their frequent nods to the band that somehow muddled by without him, the lugubrious Mersey psych-pop of Everything I Want and Step Outside should find favour with those who found a place in their heart for The Rutles’ own lachrymose 1996 Fabs pastiche Archaeology or sepia-tinted Macca tunes like Once Upon A Long Ago and That Was Me. Most gratifyingly of all, look on the back of the CD and your eyes alight on what amounts to a rather lovely epilogue to Best’s story. There, beside the assembled personnel of The Pete Best band, is an EMI logo. “Funny, isn’t it?” says Best, now 66. “It should go in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest gap between joke and punchline.”
When you’re Pete Best, a sense of humour is probably no less important to maintain than any other functioning organ. On the night the Anthology documentary was screened, the preceding commercial break depicted him throwing his sticks away for a pint of Carlsberg as the caption at the bottom of the screen flashed, “Probably the Pete Best lager in the world.” It’s just as well that he agreed to do the advert because his presence on the documentary itself was minimal. Despite two years in the band, spanning the Hamburg sojourns that transformed them into peerless rock’n’roll players, no-one contacted him to ask if he wanted to take part. Given what he had already been through, perhaps they assumed that was the last thing he would want.
Certainly, for a while, the increasing tinnitus din of what might have been threatened to consume him. Months after Brian Epstein was charged with the job of telling him that he was no longer a Beatle – an act a guilty Lennon later described as cowardly – Best was installed in The Pete Best All Stars, with whom he released one underperforming single in Germany. On November 22nd 1963, The Beatles entered the studio and recorded With The Beatles. Because that was the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Best can also recall what he was doing. “I was playing in Bootle,” he recalls. “We were waiting to come on stage and someone burst into the dressing room with the news. We struggled to make sense of it, so in a way, we didn’t. It all seemed so far away.”
As, increasingly, did the exploits of his former bandmates. Naming his band Pete Best & The All Stars merely drew attention to the infamy which had befallen him. Coming home from a US tour in 1965, he locked himself in the front room of the family house and attempted to gas himself. Mention of the episode elicits mild embarrassment in Best. “It was one of those stupid things,” he reasons, “A stupid bloody idea you get in your head. I wish I could turn around and say that I’d had a drink, but that didn’t even come into it. The memory of doing it is eclipsed by the dressing down I got from my mother and Rory after they smashed the door down. People say that it was down to depression, but I’ve always thought that if you’re that depressed you’ll just do it again a couple of days later.” What had happened to Best by the mid-60s was what The Beatles imagined might befall them once Beatlemania had subsided. “The 60s were a story that no-one knew the ending to,” says the drummer, so there wasn’t all this analysis. People all thought they were going to have to get proper jobs at some point. It was a matter of when rather than if.” He’s still married to Kathy, the woman he first met when she jumped on stage at The Cavern and danced beside him. He says it was out of commitment to her and their young daughter that he later accepted a job as an employment officer.”
The 70s were a relief, recalls Roag, Best’s younger brother and co-drummer in The Pete Best Band. “Liverpool wanted to put The Beatles behind them. It was too soon to reassess what had happened.” In many ways, you suspect these must have been the most straightforward years of Best’s life. The world outside of Liverpool had finally forgotten about him, which – as he readily admits – suited him fine. That all changed in the most improbable of circumstances. On the morning that John Lennon died, he still had to be at work by 9am. “My wife heard the news first. I was upstairs shaving, and she said, ‘Pete, you’d better come down and listen to this. ‘And I said, “What?’ She said, ‘John has been murdered.’ And at that present moment in time, it was like, ‘John who?’ He was so far from my thoughts. And she was like, ‘You know, John who you used to be friends with. John who was in the Beatles.’ And then it was a case of going downstairs, and more and more news was coming in. I’ve always said that out of all The Beatles, I had more time for John. Seeing both sides of him made him a complete man. He wasn’t what the world saw. That sardonic, wicked-humoured side – I think we all know now that it was just a defence mechanism.”
You can’t help feeling that these were important years for Best. An employment officer in recession-hit Liverpool would, more than most, go home harbouring a faint sense of gratitude that he had a job at all. Best remembers a steady stream of real-life Yosser Hugheses in varying states of desperation imploring him to give them jobs. The most he could do for them, he recalls, was offer to retrain them in other fields. “But obviously that was quite an emotional issue for people who had done one kind of work all their lives. You had to deal with each case on an individual basis.”
Liverpool musician Pete Wylie explains, “You know, it matters a lot to people here that Pete [Best] stayed. To a lot of folk, that puts him head and shoulders above Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who detached themselves from Liverpool. Even ordinary people were leaving Liverpool at this point, because the situation was so bad. This perception that people have, you know, ‘The Beatle who lost out’. In Liverpool, he’s celebrated.” Indeed, twenty years ago, it was pressure from Best’s old peers that prompted him to get behind the kit for a show of 60s standards at Liverpool’s Adelphi hotel. Playing alongside him on a second kit was his brother Roag, born in 1962, after his Indian mother Mona had an affair with The Beatles’ then-driver and longtime confidante Neil Aspinall.
This afternoon, the only time the usually phlegmatic Best stumbles on his words is when talk turns to his mother, who was seriously ill at the time of his return to live performance. “Two weeks after that show, she died. My only regret is that she didn’t see her two sons on stage together.” Her death effectively switched the tracks of her sons’ paths in life, prompting them to form The Pete Best Band. And here, it isn’t hard to detect an encroaching sense of anger when Roag Best picks up steam – an anger embodied by the very place we are now leaving. There’s little in The Cavern to alert you to the fact, but the real Cavern – not this artfully distressed facsimile – was filled in 35 years ago as part of construction work on the Merseyrail Underground rail loop. “In all honesty, I think it’s misleading to even be photographed here,” says Roag, “Let’s get a cab, shall we?”
There are few untouched Beatles landmarks remaining in the city that spawned them. Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s birthplaces have been acquired by the National Trust (the latter after Yoko Ono purchased and donated it) and made over to look as it might have done in his childhood. One place that The Beatles tourist trail rarely takes in is The Casbah Coffee Club – the basement of the sprawling townhouse bought by Mona Best after she pawned all her jewellery and gambled the proceeds on a 33-1 outsider called Never Say Die, ridden by Lester Piggott.
We speed past Islington, the suburb where Best (along with George Harrison) lived between the ages of five – when his parents sailed back from Madras – and 1957, when Mona made the gamble of her life. “You wouldn’t want to go there late at night,” he says, “When they can’t find any outsiders to beat up, they beat each other up.” Leafy West Derby, a Victorian conurbation whose shops cluster in a small area that the locals call a village, couldn’t be more different. And yet, among his comparatively well-off part of Merseyside, you immediately understand why John Best attempted to dissuade Mona from splashing her winnings on what, on first sight, he termed a “white elephant”. “She wouldn’t be told,” remembers Best, “She saw the changes that were happening, the music that me and my friends were listening to. And The Casbah was her attempt to create a place where people could meet, play and listen to this music.”
But if the building – now functioning as a studio following the windfall that resulted from the inclusion of ten Best-era tracks on Anthology –seems a little unloved on the outside, that merely accentuates the unadorned allure of what awaits on the inside. No restoration needed here. The first thing you home in on, when you descend the stone steps is the word “John” deeply inscribed on the black cement wall. “Mona was furious about that,” says Best – although there’s little further evidence that the Best matriarch was hidebound by any other conventions. One low ceiling is daubed with faux-Aztec motifs sloppily applied by Lennon (“in matt as opposed to gloss, which meant it took ages to dry”). In the room where Best and his band rehearse is a spider’s web drawn by a teenage Paul McCartney. The improvised décor, the smell, the cold propels you to a place where rock’n’roll – still staggering uncertainly from its egg – must have appeared a world away from the buttoned up post-war propriety of the surrounding streets. This was where Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, albeit as The Quarrymen, first played together – and where Mona, still flushed from her winnings, accelerated the tempo of Merseybeat by installing one of Liverpool’s first ever espresso machines.
Interviewed on television in 1963 about his departure from The Beatles, Best was either reluctant or unable to get a word in as his mother responded to his departure from the group, “It was the way it happened that upset us.” Somehow his mother still seems key to the way Best has adjusted to the last 46 years. It was Mona – to whom he refers not as his mum, but by her name – who bought him a drum kit, and Mona to whom Best came home and cried when told he was fired. Best doesn’t appear to have a pushy bone in his body. But then, perhaps with a mother like Mona, he didn’t need to. If his lack of star quality may have meant his days were numbered from the day he became a Beatle, it’s also what, after all this time, makes you warm to him.
Even when talk turns to the gruelling schedule that blooded them in Hamburg, Best has more the air of spectator than participant. “You had such strong personalities, that it was a pleasure to sit back and watch,” he smiles, “The only exception I remember was a time when John and I got it into our heads that we needed to get some extra money. Cos back then, it was like, you got paid and the next day, you were broke. So we decided that we would try and mug someone. Paul and George decided they would help too. But by the time we saw this sailor and jumped him, they were nowhere to be seen. He gave as good as he got, and when the deed was done we legged it. I looked at him and said, ‘Have you got the wallet?’ And he said, ‘No, I thought you had it.’ So that was our life of crime over as soon as it had begun.” For a man supposedly cursed by what might have been, Pete Best carries himself with a remarkably serene air. The only lingering indication that he may have tired of the perceived indignities of life as a famous might-have-been can be found on The Pete Best Band’s new album. The sleeves of The Beatles’ Anthology features an early publicity picture of the group with Best ripped out from the top right hand corner – the vacant space filled with the smiling Ringo. By way of riposte, Haymans Green features the ripped-out visage of a smouldering Best suspended amid a black backdrop. There are, of course, people who will suggest that what it all amounts to is another attempt to cash in on his past. “You can’t really win against comments like that,” says Best, “You can live in denial of it, but you have to accept that, to the world at large, that is who you are.”
“It’s a view echoed by Pete Wylie. “The basic set-up of the man’s life reads like some sort of Greek mythological torture. It’s like the punishment meted out to Tantalus, who had to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree – and when he went to get the fruit, the branches lifted the fruit out of his reach. Then, when he bent down to have a drink, the water disappeared. And yet, he’s found a way to be happy, and people love him for it.”
It seems that they really do. Back in town, one middle-aged female fan – a Cavern regular in the years that followed The Beatles’ departure to London – exclaims, “It’s you!” She turns to her daughter, “He was in them, you know!” No need to explain who “them” were. He tells them he has a new album out, then turns to me and asks me what I think of it. I tell him it’s the best album I’ve heard this year by someone who used to drum for The Beatles. Having also heard the dismal expat platitudes of Ringo Starr’s Liverpool 8 album, Best – who says he enjoys signing autographs, can’t help but echo the sentiment, “I wasn’t impressed to be quite honest. It was a record that got launched on the back of Ringo doing the title track as part of Liverpool’s 2008 Capital of Culture celebrations. He was lucky to have that picked as the main song… because if you take any song from our album at put Liverpool 8 next to it – you put them side by side and let the public decide. And I’m certain that 99.9 per cent of people would prefer Haymans Green.”
And Paul McCartney? With McCartney the only other surviving member of the Cavern-era Beatles, what would Best do if he Macca finally grabbed the phone and broke a 46 year silence by suggesting that Best guested on his next tour? Surely that would amount to a sort of closure? “There’s nothing to close,” insists Best, “I would say, thanks but no thanks. After all, I would only be doing to my band what I’d had done to me all those years ago.”