Pete Best might be forgiven for dreaming of bloody revenge. He could have bought a life-sized voodoo image of Ringo Starr and impaled it, with slow and exquisite cruelty, night after night for 40 full years, and nobody would have blamed him. After all, he had been a member of the Beatles, of equal standing with John, Paul, and George, when he was booted out of the band’s drum chair just as the first waves of Beatlemania were starting to break.
But he’s hardly a homicidal maniac, at least as far as we can tell from the pages of The Beatles: The True Beginnings, his memoir of the band’s early years. Through lavish illustrations and recollections from eye-witnesses as well as his own testimony, the book recalls their first gigs at the Casbah, the club that his mother Mona ran in the basement below their flat, their raucous all-nighters in Hamburg’s grimy dives, and the few days of hysteria that Pete experienced with the guys before his still mysterious dismissal. From the bowels of the very same Casbah, which has just been opened by his family as a Merseybeat museum, the superstar that might have been explains how even losing the greatest gig in history isn’t enough to keep a guy down.
DRUM!: The Quarrymen, from whom the Beatles eventually formed, initially had no drummer. Was that typical of Liverpool bands in those days?
Best: No, but that’s what made them stand out. They told the promoters, “We don’t need a drummer. The rhythm is in the guitars.” They were really quite courageous to play the type of music they did, because they realized that their musical and vocal ability was enough to carry them at that particular stage. But then [Quarrymen leader] Ken Brown eventually said to me, “We need a drummer, Pete. Would you accept that position?” I only had a cymbal and a snare drum, but I was quite prepared to take on that role, so I asked my mother to sign for me to get my first full kit.
DRUM!: Several passages in the book describe your “driving bass drum.”
Best: That went back to when we were in Germany. Over here, I was just doing a normal bass drum pattern. But because of the long hours when we were in Germany, and the size of the club and the type of equipment we had, we played a lot louder and fiercer. I felt that if I added more power to the bass drum, it would make the sound fuller and keep everything together. And it worked. I just kept concentrating on syncopating it. When I brought that style back to Liverpool, it took quite some time before the drummers there realized that all that power was coming from the bass drum.
DRUM!: You pinpoint the birth of Beatlemania to your first gig with the band at the Casbah after coming back from Hamburg. Why was that the night that it all started?
Best: Ninety percent of the bands in Liverpool were playing light, commercial pop – Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, this type of thing. We were playing out-and-out rock and roll – Little Richard, Gene Vincent, you name it. No one had really heard that in Liverpool. We hit them with this powerhouse sound and this new bass drum beat. It was total energy music. And you had our appearance, which counted for a lot in those days: the leather jackets, the cowboy boots, the jeans, and the long hair. We were different. We made them want to dance. We made them want to stop dancing and just watch.
DRUM!: Most of the audience already knew you personally, yet somehow you still transformed into stars before them.
Best: They’d heard the Quarrymen before and enjoyed them, but it was the sound, and the caliber of the musicianship, and the way we looked – no one expected that. Within two numbers this audience was screaming for more. The word got out on the street, and that was it: The name of the Beatles was on everyone’s tongue. That, to me, was the start of Beatlemania.
DRUM!: Photos of you in those days show you on a very tall throne, with your cymbals set quite low. More recent photos on your web site, petebest.com, show you with much higher cymbals.
Best: I still sit high, but as I took in more cymbals, I had to set them at different levels, so I could swing ’round the kit faster and bounce between them more easily. The hi-hat level is more or less the same.
DRUM!: Did your relations with the band become more cordial over time?
Best: Well, I still don’t know what was going on before the dismissal, apart from what appeared in the papers or on the television. And it did cause me a lot of heartache. I resented how it was done. It caused me financial embarrassment: One minute I was on the best wage in Liverpool, and the next minute I was trying to make ends meet with a wife and a young daughter. So there was hardship. But if you dwell on that, you end up being cynical. I had no reason to shut the door and say, “We’re finished.” We were friends for three years, and I had the privilege of playing with them for two years. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always looked upon them as friends.
DRUM!: Did you listen to Beatles albums over the years and imagine how the parts you might have played on each track might have been different?
Best: You don’t know what went on in the studio. Maybe there was no freedom of choice; he [Ringo] might have been told what to do in that moment. On the other hand, maybe that’s what he did and they were comfortable with it. But I don’t think any musician, no matter what instrument he plays, would totally agree that he would play what he heard on a record 100 percent exactly the same.