Pete Best leads me into a cupboard under the stairs of his family’s former home in the West Derby suburb of Liverpool. We descend a narrow staircase and arrive at a warren of dark vaults. Beatles posters cover the walls. In one corner, the word “John” is crudely carved into the wooden panelling. A stretch of ceiling is painted in multicoloured strips, the handiwork of a teenage Paul McCartney.
This is the Casbah Coffee Club, a club opened by Best’s mother, Mo, in 1959. And before the Cavern, the Casbah was The Beatles’ home. “We ran riot here,” says Best of that period, when queues would form down the road. “The foresight my mum had for the Liverpool music scene was incredible.” As the one-time Beatles drummer, Best performed with the band 76 times at the Casbah. However, in August 1962 – just weeks before Love Me Do kick-started the band’s journey to megastardom – McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison sent manager Brian Epstein to tell Best they wanted to replace him with Ringo Starr. Not for nothing is the 76-year-old grandfather dubbed the unluckiest man in music.
Best joined another group, but events obviously affected him. He attempted suicide in the mid-’60s and gave up showbusiness in 1968, going on to work in a bakery and then at an employment exchange as a civil servant. He married, had children and, in the late ’80s, started playing again – Merseybeat songs, original material and even the occasional Beatles number – as the leader of The Pete Best Band.
He’s keeping his Beatles connection alive in other ways, too. Later this month, he will appear as himself in Lennon’s Banjo, a play at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre, about the search for the long-lost instrument on which Lennon learned to play. Best says it’s based on fact and full of pathos and “Scouse humour”.
But it’s clear that some rawness from that fateful day in 1962 still lingers. He doesn’t know who made the decision, and it still rankles Best that the band members didn’t sack him themselves, face-to-face.
“I’m not saying I’d change the outcome, but at least give me the decency of being there and [letting me] confront them,” he says. After the firing, Lennon admitted they’d been cowards. While Best stops short of repeating the accusation, he says they clearly felt guilty afterwards.
Does he think McCartney owes him an apology? “Ask him.” Would he like one? Best, who is dressed in a very un-rock’n’roll uniform of baggy blue jeans, white trainers and a hoodie, says he’d like to meet him – he hasn’t spoken to McCartney (or Starr) since his sacking.
“Paul has always hinted that he’d like to meet up. The door’s always been wide open. I’m not the guilty person, you know? Whether he wants to do it on a public basis or a private one, it’s his call.”
I wonder what Best would say to him? His answer is wonderfully conciliatory: “We’re senior statesmen now. How many years we’ve got left on the planet is really predictable. Let’s talk about things in general. Stick a bottle of Scotch on the table and let’s have a good old bash.”
Best was born in Madras, India, in 1941, returning to England with his family in 1945. Back in Liverpool, his father, Johnny, ran the family boxing promotion business while Mo, the free-spirited daughter of an Irish major in the Bengal Lancers, launched her club. The Quarrymen, an early incarnation of The Beatles, played the opening night. Best says Mo would “mesmerise” the young band with tales of India around the kitchen table, perhaps seeding their later fixation. But after a fallout over money, the band disappeared to Scotland. Meanwhile, Best’s own band, The Blackjacks, took off. When The Silver Beatles, as they’d become, returned and were offered a residency in Hamburg (with additional member Stuart Sutcliffe), they needed a drummer. Best was recruited. In August 1960 they went to Germany.
Everything about Hamburg was “a culture shock”, Best says, from the journey over – 10 people were crammed into an Austin J2 van, including Lord Woodbine, a renowned Liverpudlian eccentric – to playing for seven hours a night, to the St Pauli red light district where they were based. They were giddy teenagers surrounded by neon lights, clubs and a 24-hour city. “We’d never seen anything like it,” Best recalls.
Digs were backstage in a fleapit cinema, the Bambi Kino. “John, George and Stu were the first in, so they got ‘the palatial suite’ with a camp bed and sofa. Paul and I looked at [promoter] Bruno Koschmider and said ‘Where are we staying?’.” Koschmider pointed towards two concrete alcoves. “No lights, no doors, they looked like converted coal bunkers with beds. There was a hole knocked out in the middle of the wall so that Paul and I could talk to each other.”
They improved hugely as a band, stretching out rhythm and blues standards for 30 minutes. Other band members took slimming pills called Preludin, or “Prellies”, to stay awake during their mammoth sets, but not Best. Living in close quarters, life was one long teenage escapade. Best recalls how he, Lennon and McCartney were in the same bedroom as Harrison the night he lost his virginity. “At the end, we all stood up and applauded.”
Back in England in 1962, record labels circled. Decca famously turned the Beatles down. It was when the band recorded for EMI that Best was sacked. “Unbeknownst to me, they’d approached Ringo,” he says. After a Cavern gig one night in August, Epstein asked to see Best the following morning. Best expected a normal business meeting, but Epstein was jittery. “He said, ‘Pete, I don’t know how to tell you this. The boys want you out’ – those were the words – ‘and it’s already been arranged.’ That was another key word. Arranged. Ringo joined the band on Saturday.
“It was a closed shop. I asked why and he said, ‘Because they think he’s a better drummer’. The bomb was dropped.”
Conspiracy theories abound about why he was sacked: Paul was jealous of his looks, Best kept his Tony Curtis quiff while the others got “Beatles haircuts”, he was aloof in Hamburg, they did drugs and he didn’t.
Although he thinks about what could have been, Best says he wouldn’t change his life for “all the tea in China”. He’s glad he’s not a “showbusiness commodity”. Besides, as the fifth Beatle he will always have his own place in rock’n’roll history. “Yes, they are the most famous musicians in the world. And regardless of what happened, I played a key part in that.”
Lennon’s Banjo runs at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, from April 24 to May 5.