(Before we begin: Any readers not familiar with the details of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s life might wish to watch this 1998 BBC documentary, “The Brian Epstein Story.” It’s the best potted history of the man.)
MIKE GERBER • Commenter Annie said this in a recent comment:
Question: George Martin is quite adamant in his ’78 book that the Beatles were definitely going to cut Brian loose. What do we think about that?
I haven’t read All You Need Is Ears, and it’s not at the library down the street, so somebody please send me the extract and I’ll post it here. On thinking about the issue, however, I found that an answer came to me immediately, which I wanted to write down and present for dissection.
But first, what everybody else thinks regarding the question at hand: If Brian Epstein lived, would he have remained manager of John, Paul, George and Ringo?
Goldman, Norman, Gould and Spitz
The original agreement between Brian Epstein and The Beatles called for him to receive 25% of their income in exchange for management; this deal was due to expire on October 8th, 1967. This much was customary—but there was a wrinkle: according to Goldman, when renegotiating the group’s contract with EMI in 1966, Epstein had signed himself on to receive 25% of that income in perpetuity whether he managed them or not. “None of the Beatles had troubled to read the agreement,” Goldman writes. “When [they] learned later what Brian had done, they were deeply shocked.” In Goldman’s world, Epstein had screwed The Beatles, and when they discovered that he had, Brian was toast. It was only his death (suicide?) that had spared him this final, tawdry rift.
In one of their few points of agreement, Philip Norman’s Shout! shares this ominous note. Norman quotes Larry Parnes: “[Brian] told me the Beatles were leaving him. He was losing Cilla [Black] and…the Beatles were giving him notice.”
But here’s what caught my eye: Goldman and Norman differ as to why. Goldman suggests that it was John who was dissatisfied (claiming to Allen Klein that Brian would’ve certainly been chucked), while Paul was actually growing ever-closer to Brian. Norman paints the exactly opposite picture, saying that Paul was “unimpressed” by Brian’s renegotiation with EMI. “Paul,” says Norman, “was the instigator of a feeling within the Beatles that they had now outgrown their need for a manager.”
To balance this, I went to Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, and found another tidbit worth copying out: “Friends who visited him in the sanitarium [where he was taking his “sleep cure” in May 1967] were amazed to hear him express doubts about his future as the group’s manager.” So Brian himself thought he was going to get the boot? Not so fast—here’s more from Gould:
“Epstein and Paul McCartney began to discuss the formation of a Beatles-owned investment company that would consolidate the group’s holdings and provide them with a more comprehensive solution to their tax liabilities. The idea of Apple Corps (as the company would be called) was entirely consistent with Epstein’s plan to separate his interest in the Beatles from his interest in NEMS when his contract with the group expired in October 1967…No one with any knowledge of the situation regarded Brian’s occasional doubts about his future as the Beatles’ manager to be anything but paranoia. By the time of his Melody Maker interview in August of 1967, he felt confident enough to state publicly, ‘I am certain that they would not agree to be managed by anyone else.” [underlining from MG]
With the benefit of all these books preceding him, Bob Spitz at first seems to come down in the “Brian would’ve been fired” camp, saying that by early 1967, he was merely “a figurehead.” Spitz quotes Peter Brown saying, “Robert [Stigwood] seemed like the solution to our worries. Even though no one came out and said it, Brian was no longer paying attention and couldn’t adequately run the company as it was.” But then the story gets murkier and, to his credit, Spitz follows. “Brian wanted to get rid of Stigwood,” Nat Weiss said. “[By May ’67] he’d already begun proceedings…to undo all that.”
The Beatles seemed to have no idea about Brian’s machinations with NEMS and would’ve certainly bridled at any connection with Stigwood. But Nat Weiss also said, “At worst, they might have renegotiated his commission, reducing it from 25% to perhaps 15%, and I told Brian this whenever he wrestled with the subject.” According to Spitz, “deep down, even Brian believed they would ultimately keep him on [saying] ‘It’s a matter of chemistry.'”
Still the “Fifth Beatle”
With many other remedies available—like a reduction in commission, or a change in job-title—it seems to me very unlikely that The Beatles would’ve fired Brian Epstein. It might’ve seemed so to George Martin, but that was because he only saw The Beatles in one capacity, as recording artists; Brian saw them as a phenomenon, an entity—what today would be called “a brand.” That was his gift.
Though Norman and Goldman point to dissatisfaction in with Brian’s performance, the fact that they assign it to their respective bete noires, Paul (Norman) and John (Goldman), and say that the other one was getting along splendidly with the Beatles’ manager, means that more than a little ax-grinding can be heard. It seems that at the time of his death, Brian was as much “the Fifth Beatle” as ever. If Paul wanted to create Apple (and he definitely did) and The Beatles needed it (and they definitely did) Brian was the obvious person to implement that, and run it afterwards. And if John and Brian’s emotional bond was 1/10th as strong as has been suggested, it seems unlikely that John would’ve sacked Brian under any circumstances. Remember that it was John who was gripped with fear on the news of Brian’s death.
Even if the group never toured again—an unlikely thing, since “never” is a awfully long time—Brian Epstein looked to be very useful to Paul, and very necessary to John. The Beatles were not firing Brian Epstein. His role—and his percentage—would’ve been adjusted. He would’ve run Apple, and we know this because when they needed someone to run it, they turned to Neil Aspinall. The Beatles were famously insular and had Brian been alive, he would’ve been the obvious choice, not only because The Beatles didn’t need him to do the things he used to do, Brian didn’t want to do that job anymore. This is why he involved himself with another manager in late ’66 and early ’67—not to sell Stigwood The Beatles in some underhanded piece of self-defeating stupidity, but because he had a bunch of clients and wanted to transition to another business.
Brian’s emotional role was as strong as ever—witness John’s flowers to him at the Priory (“I really love you”), and now this letter from Paul we’ve been talking about. Brian’s not having a clear business role was a temporary thing, which lasted from August 1966 to January 1968, when Apple Corps was formed. Had Epstein not died, Apple would’ve started even sooner.
Would there have been a “tension album”?
Brian certainly would’ve eased a lot of the tensions within the group; in fact, he had already identified this as his main role, working with Paul on the pre-planning of “Magical Mystery Tour” to ensure each Beatle got their fair share of screen time. He, too, was a battle-tested foxhole buddy; an arbiter they all knew and trusted; a gentle counterweight to Paul’s bossiness and John’s impulsivity. And his mere presence was a definite break on egomania—he’d known them when, and vice-versa.
It seems likely that Paul’s anxiety over the band would’ve been lessened, allowing him to ease off when the others clearly weren’t feeling it. (Pepper was a Paul show, but John was doing excellent work during this period, too—it’s only after the fact that he claimed to be miserable.) It’s impossible to say whether John would’ve still cleaved to Yoko as he did post-India; I suspect that relationship would have come about in a more measured, less desperate way, had Brian been alive to provide his portion of emotional support to John. And we shouldn’t discount the psychological injury of John’s losing yet another parental figure to sudden death—if Brian Epstein lived, would we even know the name Yoko Ono? Possibly, but possibly not.
What effect would this have had on the music?
This is an even more interesting question, because Brian’s ownership of the Savoy Theater in the West End suggests a solution to the problem of touring. Between 1967-69, the concept of rock bands, touring and concerts all underwent vast changes, and while it makes perfect sense that The Beatles had no interest in the kind of touring and performing that ended at Candlestick Park, they very well could’ve enjoyed staging happenings (their own version of “The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream“), creating performance films like “Rock and Roll Circus,” and surprise appearances. In fact, they were moving in this direction before Brian died, by contributing “Carnival of Light” and creating “Magical Mystery Tour.” I think it’s not only possible, but likely, that Brian Epstein’s Savoy would’ve become a London version of the Fillmore, with his most famous clients as frequent guests and occasional performers. Think about how much less tension there would’ve been inside the group if George could’ve gigged with The Band or Clapton or Delaney and Bonnie without having to “go outside the family”? Ditto with John and Yoko—think of how naturally the Savoy could’ve become Yoko’s homebase in London, the place where she staged happenings, screened movies, and generally held court. And think of how much that would’ve helped minimize the bad vibes of 1968-70. Plus no Allen Klein, no Eastmans representing Paul, and no lawsuit to dissolve the partnership. (And Brian might’ve even shown up in India, to his possible personal benefit.)
Brian Epstein’s death turned back the clock to 1962—before they’d all grown up—a lethal reversion of dynamics within The Beatles and their circle which led to the demise of the group. As their trusted business intermediary, and someone who was skilled at making it possible for each Beatle to pursue his interests within the pre-existing arrangement, Brian Epstein was essential—probably much more than he knew, or The Beatles’ themselves realized.
Downers breed downers
I go on regularly about the role of luck in The Beatles’ story, how much wonderful luck they had before August 1967, and how much rotten luck they had starting then. This is never clearer than when discussing their manager, and if his death was accidental—which I believe it was—it was simply a stroke of terrible luck that caused them to revert to the much more contentious, much less stable arrangement they’d had pre-Epstein, but with unimaginable money, fame and power added to the mix. A breakup was not somehow inevitable, as the four of them “grew up”—such claims are attempts to stave off sorrow and excuse bad behavior. They’d fought from 1957-62, but had the shared goal keeping them together; the John-Paul tension over Yoko had been presaged by John-Paul tension over Stu. Brian changed the dynamic, made them all act more like grownups and less like the teenaged friends they’d all started as. Post-Brian, the old fissures reemerged, and since the mountaintop had been reached, there was a natural instinct to say, “What do I need those guys for?” The Beatles of 1968-73 are less mature than the moptops had been, not more so, and the difference is Brian Epstein.
After touring ended, a change in relations was inevitable; breaking up was not. Without “making it” keeping them interested and touring keeping them busy, what The Beatles needed most was someone within their camp who was smart enough to help them figure out a new way to be Beatles. While Epstein was alive, this meant John going off to be in How I Won the War (and write “Strawberry Fields”); the creation of Yellow Submarine, a Beatles movie without The Beatles that still manages to be great; them coming together in the identity-expanding Pepper, a Beatle LP with no moptop in sight; “All You Need Is Love,” casting the group as ambassadors to the world, a role they still occupy today; and Magical Mystery Tour, the world’s first midnight movie. Given what The Beatles did from August 1966 to August 1967—a vast maturing and self-redefinition which, taken as an aggregate, forms perhaps the lion’s share of their legacy today—it seems likely that the maturing and expansion would’ve continued, and held sufficient space for John’s love for Yoko, Paul’s restlessness, George’s desire to gig with others, and whatever Ringo wanted to do between albums.
But it was not to be. Let’s leave the final word to George Martin, whose speculations got me thinking in the first place. Speaking of Brian Epstein, Martin said, “He was incredibly honest and a little naive, but he entered a world that was totally alien to him. I don’t think the Beatles will ever acknowledge how lucky they were to meet up with a man who was devoted to them so completely and an honest man to boot.”
Media Mentioned in This Post:
The Brian Epstein Story
All You Need Is Ears
The Lives of John Lennon
Can’t Buy Me Love
Magical Mystery Tour
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Rock and Roll Circus
How I Won the War
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