Every Sixties recording artist seemed to have ’em: There were the Beach Boys’ Hite Morgan tapes, the Stones’ IBC demos, the Byrds’ notorious Jet Set sessions, and even the Velvet Underground’s attempts at becoming East Coast studio stringers for Gary Lewis and the Playboys (…just kidding about that last one) (I think).
As a brand new collection called The Beatles with Tony Sheridan: First Recordings, 50th Anniversary Edition more than proves, even the almighty Fab Four were not immune to this pre-fame plague of skeletons-in-the-audio-closet. For you see, when not binging on Chuck Berry, Preludins and Schnaps in Hamburg’s red-light district throughout their, um, formative years, our heroes also served as in-studio back-up band to one of Britain’s then very biggest rock stars.
Caveat emptor, however: The “studio” was in fact an orchestra hall situated within Harburg’s Friedrich Ebert School for Boys and Girls, and John, George, Pete and Paul on his brand new Hofner violin “guitar bass,” although they got to perform two songs themselves, were hired only to provide instrumental and vocal accompaniment behind Polydor Records’ first real rock ‘n’ roll signing, Tony Sheridan.
As producer Bert “Wonderland by Night” Kaempfert once recalled, the prehistoric recording session that started it all early on the morning of June 22, 1961 began inauspiciously enough: “I had to tramp up these narrow stairs to a small attic-like room. They were still in their bunks,” four flights above where, only several hours earlier, Sheridan and the Beatles had completed yet another marathon 7pm – 3am session inside Hamburg’s Top Ten Club. “Apart from the bunk beds, the only other furniture in the room was a chair – with their clothes piled high on it.”
Fearless troopers that they were though, after fortifying themselves with bottles of Coca-Cola and remembering to get dressed again I’d assume, Tony and friends proceeded to lay down four complete songs that first day, and a further three the following morning, performing direct-to-quarter-inch-tape on Friedrich Ebert’s stage through a mere two microphones. Those selections, plus another recorded the following year, have been issued in various formats, and in varying versions, literally thousands of times around the world over the past half century …especially during the mid-Sixties after The Beatles became THE BEATLES and Polydor tried every conceivable way – above-board and otherwise – to squeeze income out of their lone eight “Beatle” recordings.
This go-round The Beatles’ First Recordings, true to form, fill two full discs with thirty-four (!) variations upon those notorious eight: The original mono masters which constituted the majority of the vintage seven-inch Sheridan/Beatles releases, surprisingly vivid stereo mixes which began surfacing worldwide just as the Fabs were in the process of breaking up circa 1970, and even such oddities as American-only versions which added “enhanced” instrumentation plus strange “Medley” mixes from the 1980s.
To be blunt, we’re not talking “All My Loving” or even “All Together Now” here. The First Recordings are quite simply, quite pimply, the sound of five young Brits-on-the-make trying their best to eek out a living recreating the sounds of American rock ‘n’ roll for randy nightclub goers and, just maybe, a few young German record-buyers as well. “My Bonnie (Lies Over The Ocean),” perhaps the best-known of the “Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers” recordings – it was actually released as a Polydor single in October of ’61 – is represented herein via no less than eight variations: Attempts were actually made in the editing room to splice both English and German-language slow introductory preludes onto the original recording, for starters, and as George Harrison himself wrote to a friend about this hit-that-never-was, “When Tony sings, then it’s me playing lead, but the break in the middle is Tony playing. The shouting in the background is Paul.”
Dueling lead guitarists and enthusiastic accompanying hoots and hollers notwithstanding, Bert watched “My Bonnie” quickly drop off the German hit parade and seven months later freed The Beatles – yet intriguingly not Tony Sheridan – from their Polydor obligations altogether. Additional releases from these sessions trickled out across Europe over the next several years, yet even a 1964 single of John Lennon’s sole vocal spotlight, “Ain’t She Sweet” (featuring drums overdubbed by Bernard “Pretty” Purdie …and none too slickly, either; Pete Best does just fine on his own, thank you) failed to enter the American charts at the very height of Beatlemania.
But Tony’s lead solo, by the way, is spectacular.
Of the remaining half-dozen, “The Saints” – yes, as in When They Go Marching In – could’ve slotted easily into the current Presley movie, “Why” is also typical sub-Elvis mulch (though Tony handles the octave-bounding melody quite gamely), “If You Love Me, Baby” aka “Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby” cruelly had Mr. Sheridan’s “goddamned” in a concluding chorus edited out for sensitive American ears, “Nobody’s Child” sounds so much better here than in George’s Wilbury remake three decades later, and “Sweet Georgia Brown” – all five versions – really does benefit from Roy Young’s guest piano (P.S.: and so impressed were all involved with Roy that he was actually asked to become a full-fledged Beatle in 1962, but decided to stay behind to lead the house band at Hamburg’s Star-Club instead. Pity).
And then, lest we forget that one-and-only Harrison/Lennon co-composition “Cry For A Shadow,” originally called “Beatle Bop” by the way. It was in 1961, and remains in 2012, one very nifty two-minutes-twenty-three indeed. Truly too cool for words, and the best evidence across these entire two discs that greatness could indeed lay right around the corner for at least three of the people involved in these recordings.
Of course we all know the story that did lay ahead for most of those Beat Brothers. Producer Bert, however, fared quite well throughout the Sixties as well. Besides hitting No. 1 in America three years before “I Want To Hold Your Hand” with “Wonderland by Night,” he rearranged the traditional “Muss I Denn” as “Wooden Heart” for no less than Elvis, wrote hits as well for Capitol artists as diverse as Wayne Newton (“Danke Schoen”) and Nat “King” Cole (“L-O-V-E”), a portion of his score for the film A Man Could Get Killed provided the music behind Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” and, perhaps most impressive of all, Kaempfert’s own “Swingin’ Safari” became the theme song for none other than television’s Match Game!
Oddly enough, on much the other hand unfortunately, Tony Sheridan never achieved the fame, fortune, or even notoriety he very much deserves. Though he still lives and performs in Hamburg to this day, Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity is best remembered, if at all, as the man who diligently mentored young Liverpool musicians over countless midnight hours on the Reeperbahn, coaching Gerry Marsden and most obviously John Lennon in the fine art of wearing one’s guitar defiantly high across the chest, legs apart and bobbing, in order to properly play authentic rock ‘n’ roll on stage.
Yet when all is said and sung, as baby-Beatle specialist Hans Olof Gottfridsson’s fascinatingly thorough text in this set’s booklet conclude, “This is The Beatles in the state of becoming. This is what you would have heard in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg when you could have hired The Beatles for ten pounds a night.” As such, The Beatles with Tony Sheridan: First Recordings, 50th Anniversary Edition should be considered Required Listening for not only Fabmaniacs who crave to hear every little thing by the lads, but for those curious about the very leather-coated birth of British rock ‘n’ roll itself …not to mention hear what a great drummer Pete Best really was.
Good lookin’ feller too.