[25 August 2014]
Randolph Peter Best cuts an unassuming figure onstage. Wearing a white moustache, a frizzled taft of white hair, a boyish grin and drooping eyes, today he looks more like a retired auto mechanic than a former Beatle. Still, watching him perform at a tiny music club in a suburb of Santiago, Chile, one couldn’t help being moved by his affection for live music, the apparent zeal with which he plays the drums, and his almost-embarrassed response to the crowd’s adulation. His humility makes it clear that he is no rock star, which is a big reason why Pete Best is so easy to like.
Best has experienced both incredible highs, and devastating lows over his 72 years on this planet, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by speaking with him today. Offstage he is soft spoken, friendly and just a little bit guarded; he describes himself, above all else, as a simple “family man”. When he opened his mouth to answer my questions, revealing an unmistakeable Liverpool accent, I couldn’t help but think: “He really sounds like a Beatle.” But at the same time Pete Best is obviously not a Beatle – lacking the swagger, ego, and commanding presence common to each of his famous former bandmates.
Between 1960 and 1962 Pete was the drummer of a well-travelled, but so far mostly unsuccessful British rock and roll act called variously Johnny and the Moondogs, The Silver Beetles, and, finally, The Beatles. For over two years he held the beat for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison in dank clubs in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany, playing marathon sets to audiences consisting mostly of strippers and sailors. After honing their craft in Germany, the band returned home to Liverpool where they soon became the city’s top-drawing act, acquiring a ravenous local fan base in the process. And then, one August afternoon, on the cusp of ￼the band’s ascendancy to national stardom, John, Paul, and George instructed Beatles manager Brian Epstein to fire Pete and replace him with a different Liverpool drummer named Ringo Starr. And just like that, Pete was no longer a Beatle, in the process becoming forever confined to the footnotes of rock ‘n’ roll history.
The reasons for the Beatles’ dismissal of Best have always been unclear. Some suggest that Pete had fallen out of favour with the rest of the band on account of his introversion; others claim that Ringo was simply a better drummer; some even claim that John and Paul were insecure about Pete’s good looks and popularity with the fans outshining their own. Whatever the reason, on the eve of Beatlemania, Best suddenly found himself to be out of work, missing out on perhaps the greatest party of all time in the process.
In the months and years that followed, John, Paul, George, and Ringo would ascend to previously-unimagined levels of global fame, wealth, and commercial and critical success. Shortly after they sacked Pete, the Beatles achieved the impossible: they became even bigger than Elvis, an insane pipe-dream for the youngsters while sweating it out in Hamburg just a couple of years before.
Following his dismissal from the Beatles, Best tried to make a name for himself in music, but found limited success. Eventually, he returned to Liverpool and settled into a career as a civil servant; he wasn’t playing on the Ed Sullivan Show or rubbing shoulders with the Queen, but at least he could pay the bills. And then, after shying away from the spotlight for 20 years, in the late 1980s Pete began to play various Beatles-related engagements. Rediscovering his passion for live performance in the process, the drummer soon founded his own Pete Best Band, and has toured all over the world for the past three decades.
Backstage in Santiago, I was curious to get to know Pete the human being, as opposed to Pete the ex-Beatle. How does a man cope with such unimaginable disappointment? How does a musician come to terms with losing one of the most coveted gigs of all time? How does someone deal with what I assumed to be a lifetime of incredulous “What if’s?”
￼I found many of the answers I’d been looking for when I sat down with Pete following his performance. As songs from his old friend Lennon emanated from nearby speakers—“(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Imagine” and others—I discovered a man not defeated by bitterness and disappointment, but hopeful about the future, and genuinely content with a life devoted to family, and the music he loves.
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Some of the songs you played tonight you played in Germany with the Beatles over 50 years ago. What’s it like playing those songs again?
You still get a buzz from them, because at the end of the day they were great rock ‘n’ roll songs. Some of them I haven’t played for 50 years; you get a buzz off it simply because of the fact that it’s part of your heritage. People expect it from you. And you enjoy playing it… Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Ray Charles... I could go on and on. They were our heroes, so to keep them still alive even though it’s under the pseudonym of “The Beatles,” it’s still the old rockers from way back. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.
So [those old songs] still feel fresh?
Oh, very much so. It’s a little bit like the audience makes it fresh. You may have played the song 50 times, but you still enjoy playing it when the enjoyment comes from the audience, and the adrenaline keeps flowing. It’s a good night… very simple.
You didn’t play very much for a while in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What made you want to start playing for people again?
I’d been asked for many years to get up and play so people could see what I could do, and see who this guy was… “This mysterious guy who used to play with the Beatles.” [laughs] And I kept turning them down. Then, in 1988, I got asked by the people running a Beatles convention in Liverpool, and I couldn’t get out of it… So I said “OK, let’s get it over and done with.” I picked some friends from the old days, and my younger brother [to play with], and said “Let’s have some fun. It’s going to be a one-off [performance]. Let’s just go out and show ‘em what we could do.” And we did, and the audience went wild. Absolutely wild.
￼My mother was there that particular night because it was the first time that she’d seen her younger son and her elder son playing onstage at the same time. And when I finished she turned around and said “Pete, you don’t know it but you’re going to be going back into show business.” To which I laughed, and said “No, it’s only a one-off.” And here I am, 30 years afterward! [laughs]
So she was right.
Yeah, she was right.
When I was watching you play tonight, you looked like you were having a lot of fun. I found it inspiring.
If you can’t have fun, then don’t go back on the stage. It’s as simple as that. Simple rule in music: people feel what you’re presenting onstage. And if you’re not enjoying yourself, it comes out in the music. No matter [if] you try to disguise it.
At the end of the day you wouldn’t be where you are without that audience, and you have to thank them for it. The only way you can thank them is [by] making sure your performance is 100%. Simple rules.
What do you see your future looking like? Do you have plans?
When you reach my age… [laughs] you still have plans, but they’re not long-term. I still want to continue playing music, and bringing enjoyment to crowds. I have no ambitions to get a record in the charts or anything like that. My mission is to bring enjoyment to fans, and I enjoy playing music to them, and I’ll continue doing that.
Away from the public, I’m a great family man. And as much as I tour, I love going back home again. I have a wife who I idolize, been married to her for 50 years. I have grandchildren who I idolize as well, two beautiful daughters. It’s nice for me to go back home, and spend time with them.
Have you let go of any disappointment you had about the original disagreement with [the Beatles] in 1962? Is there any lingering bitterness there?
There never was any [bitterness]. Bitterness is a word the media picked up. There was anger and there was resentment because of what happened and the way it happened, because of the way I contributed to the band, but bitterness, no.
It’s like anything else, if you carry it with you, you’re going to end up a bitter and twisted old git. And there’s no need for that. I’ve enjoyed life. There came a time when I was like “Fine. It’s not about thinking about what happened yesterday, it’s about today and tomorrow.” And I think once you come to terms about yourself, then you realize that there’s so much more that your future holds for you, as opposed to your past, that you’re striving for.
My life since then had ups and downs; it hasn’t been a perfect life. But when I look back on it now, I wouldn’t change it. I’m happy, I’m healthy, I have a great band which tours the world. I’m a great family man, I love meeting people, I love laughing and joking with them. I’m still in show business, which I didn’t expect to be.
But maybe my karma; it’s a word we use, being born out east [Author’s note: Best was born in British India, and lived there until the age of 5]. Karma’s a word we use an awful lot. Maybe my karma turned ‘round and said “Your time will come some time in the future.”
I have no complaints, I’ve enjoyed life. Wouldn’t change anything.