Not many people know about Pete Best (that is, those who aren’t diehard fans). Before the fourth member of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr joined the Beatles as their drummer, there was another drummer, and his name was Pete Best. Best played with the band for two years before he was kicked out in 1962. The next year, the Beatles became a phenomenon, selling 12 million records in Britain alone. We can call it a bittersweet moment – bitter for Best, sweet for the Beatles.
Apparently, Best never spoke to any of the Fab Four again. So what happened in those two years? Why did Pete Best get ousted? And what’s this “unfinished business” that Best has with Paul McCartney?
This is the rarely told story of one of the Beatles’ forgotten members.
Randolph Peter Scanland was born on November 24, 1941, in Madras, British India. His father died in World War II, and his mother met her future husband, Johnny Best, while she was training to become a doctor in the Red Cross. They married in 1944 and moved to Liverpool, England. By 1959, the Best family home had become the Casbah Coffee Club.
Mona Best made a humble coffee club that became the “catalyst for the Mersey sound,” as Pete Best puts it. The Mersey sound was the collective name for Liverpool rock bands during the ‘60s. According to Best, every band that played there “still speaks rapturously about the place.” It was at the Casbah Coffee Club that the Quarrymen, an early form of the Beatles, first performed on August 29, 1959.
The idea for the club came from Best himself. He asked his mother for a place where he and his friends could meet and listen to music. The Quarrymen included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ken Brown. Brown was the one who organized their weekly residence at the Casbah Coffee Club, but, eventually, a rift over money led to the rest of the band booting Brown out by October 1959.
With Brown kicked out, the days of the Quarrymen were over. And, with that, their stint at the Casbah ended. Meanwhile, Best was studying at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School when he decided that he wanted to be in a music group.
His mother bought him a drum kit, and he started to form his own band, the Blackjacks. Chas Newby and Bill Barlow joined in, as did Ken Brown. The Blackjacks became the new resident group at the Casbah, filling the Quarrymen’s Saturday night slot.
A week after Brown was ousted, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison auditioned on TV’s Star Search as their new group, Johnny and the Moondogs. At that point, the Beatles had lost their drummer Tommy Moore, so McCartney stepped in while Lennon’s friend, Stu Sutcliffe, was on bass. They were allowed to perform a series of gigs at Hamburg’s Indra Club, but the club owner had told Allan Williams, their manager at the time, to bring a five-piece band instead.
Time was running out, so Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison had to find a fifth member on the eve of their trip to Hamburg on August 12, 1960. In the documentary Anthology, John Lennon stated that hiring Pete Best came from necessity rather than talent. “We knew of a guy, and he had a drum kit. So, we just grabbed him, auditioned him and he could keep one beat going for long enough, so we took him,” Lennon stated.
Allan Williams later said that Best’s audition was unnecessary since the group never found another drummer willing to travel to Hamburg, Germany. They didn’t tell Best that fact, just in case he asked for more money.
In Liverpool, the female fans knew him as “mean, moody, and magnificent” – something that convinced McCartney that he would be good for the group. After the Blackjacks disbanded, McCartney convinced Best to go to Hamburg with the band. He told Best that they would each earn £15 per week.
Hamburg, by the way, was a gritty, edgy German port filled with gangsters, sex, money, and new music in the ‘60s. When he first saw the Indra Club, Best recalled it as a depressing place with a few tourists and heavy, old, red curtains. Best was the only group member who knew some German (which he had studied in school), and so he was able to speak with the club’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, as well as with the patrons.
Within two months of the boys’ arrival, the Indra Club closed down, and the group moved onto Kaiserkeller, another club where they played long sets, seven days a week. In October 1960, the group started performing at another club called the Top Ten Club, that Peter Eckhorn was running. He offered them more money and a better place to sleep. In doing so, they broke their contract with Koschmider.
But when Best and McCartney returned to retrieve their stuff, they were met with total darkness. As a snub to Koschmider, McCartney attached a condom to a nail on a wall of the club and set it on fire. While there was no actual damage done, Koschmider still reported both musicians for attempted arson.
Best and McCartney spent three hours in a local jail and were deported right after. George Harrison was deported, too, for working under the legal age limit. Back in Liverpool, the guys had no contact with each other for two weeks. Best and his mother made calls to Hamburg to recover the group’s equipment.
Chas Newby, who was the Blackjacks’ guitarist, played bass for four concerts in Liverpool, and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg. Newby was shocked at the major improvement in the group’s playing and singing. He remembered Best’s drumming as very powerful, pushing the band to play harder and louder. In fact, in Hamburg, McCartney often told Best to “crank it up.”
When the group later returned to Hamburg, and McCartney switched back to bass, Best was asked to sing a special number written by McCartney called Pinwheel Twist, with McCartney on drums. But Best said he always felt uncomfortable at the front of the stage. Either way, it didn’t take long for the group to gain popularity during the early ‘60s.
The most popular guy in the group, among the girls at least, was the temperamental Best. “He was a very good-looking guy,” McCartney admitted. “And out of all of the people in our group, the girls used to go for Pete.” It was also in 1961 that the guys decided to call themselves The Beatles, after calling themselves The Silver Beatles for a while. And, during those formative days, tensions were rising.
Intensifying the already existing tensions, the Beatles started experimenting with drugs, especially an amphetamine called Preludin. According to them, it helped them cope with their demanding schedule. Over two and a half years, the band, including Pete Best, performed 281 concerts in Hamburg. In 1961 alone, they performed 98 nights in a row.
The band was definitely improving, but the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle simply wasn’t for everyone. In July 1961, bassist Sutcliffe left the band to focus on his art career. McCartney reluctantly took over on bass. Sutcliffe died of a cerebral hemorrhage not long after, on April 10, 1962, right as the Beatles were preparing for their third and last stint in Hamburg.
That spring, the group signed with EMI and recorded four demo numbers, including Love Me Do. But these early days of Best and the Beatles were going to come to an end. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison first met Ringo Starr in 1959 when he was still the drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (one of the more popular groups in Liverpool at the time).
During these early years, in Liverpool and also touring with the Hurricanes in Hamburg, Ringo would stand in for Best on the drums. Due to recurring patterns of bad behavior, Best gained a reputation for being unreliable. “Pete kept being sick and not showing up for gigs,” Harrison recalled.
“So we would get Ringo to sit in with the band instead, and every time Ringo sat in, it seemed like ‘this is it.’ Eventually, we realized, ‘We should get Ringo in the band full time.’” Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison all thought that Ringo was a superior drummer from the beginning. “The greatest drummer in our eyes was a guy, Ringo Starr…” McCartney said.
But if you ask Tony Sheridan, who played alongside both Best and Ringo in Hamburg, both of them had the same problem: missing the backbeat. The difference was that Starr was ambitious; Best wasn’t. “He was more intent on becoming a good drummer,” Sheridan said. “Pete was less intent. He was a bit lazy.”
The new Beatles then re-recorded “Love Me Do” with Ringo Starr, and that’s the single that went on to be a hit. Ringo seemed the better fit, and not only because of his better drumming. Many will claim that the decision was partly driven by McCartney’s alleged jealousy of Best’s good looks. Lennon, however, insisted that the two simply “didn’t get on that much together.”
“It was partly because Pete was a bit slow. He was a harmless guy but was not quick. All of us had quick minds, but he never picked that up,” Lennon blatantly said. Ultimately, the Beatles’ audition for Parlophone Records, in June 1962, led to Pete Best’s removal from the group.
At the time, their manager Brian Epstein wasn’t drumming up any interest from other record companies in London. So when music producer George Martin agreed to sign them to Parlophone Records and expressed his reservations about Best’s drumming, the guys were all ears. Martin told Epstein that he preferred a session drummer for their recordings.
On August 16, 1962, Epstein told Best the bad news: his days with the Beatles were over. Three days later, Ringo Starr played his first gig as an official member of the Beatles. The rest, as they say, is history. As the Beatles made their way to becoming the biggest band in pop history, Pete Best faded into relative obscurity.
Best claimed that he never knew the “real reason” why the group decided to let him go. As it turns out, Best was never directly told why he was dismissed. All Epstein said to him was, “The lads don’t want you in the group anymore.” Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison later admitted that they regretted how Best was fired.
Lennon admitted, “We were cowards when we sacked him. We made Brian do it.” McCartney said, “I do feel sorry for him because of what he could have been on to.” And then Harrison said: “Historically, it may look like we did something nasty to Pete and it may have been that we could have handled it better.”
As for Starr, he felt that he has no apology to make. “I never felt sorry… I was not involved.” In 1968, Best filed a libel suit against his ex-bandmates. Why? Well, because Lennon and Starr had suggested in an interview with Playboy magazine that they had fired Best for drug use. Ringo’s exact quote: “He took little pills to make him ill.”
They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. That same year, as the Beatles were recording Back in the U.S.S.R., Pete Best quit the music industry completely to pack loaves at a bread factory. Best was trying to move on, but for some Beatles’ fans, it wasn’t so easy…
Many fans (mostly female ones) initially protested at concerts. They would shout: “Pete forever, Ringo never!” or “Pete is Best!” Some girls would even sleep outside his house in support. But he lost the support of his friend Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ first roadie. Aspinall, who eventually became the Beatles’ road manager, had started a relationship with Best’s mother.
During an extended business trip of Best’s stepfather, Johnny Best, Aspinall started having an affair with Mona. They had a child together, Vincent “Roag” Best, who was Mona’s third son and Pete’s half-brother. Aspinall denied this for years before he finally admitted that Roag was indeed his son.
Regardless of the family drama, Aspinall became part of the Beatles’ inner circle. After the group eventually disbanded, he handled the Beatles’ ongoing business. As for Best, he didn’t handle the break with the group very well. He put together another band called The Pete Best Combo. Later on, he wrote in his autobiography that he felt as though there was this invisible shield preventing him from being successful beyond his hometown.
During those post-Beatles years, Best fell into a deep depression, which led to a suicide attempt in 1965. His brother, Rory, broke down his bedroom door to find Best inhaling gas vapors. Times were tough for Best, but he was trying to look towards the future.
Pete Best was married to a woman he met at a Beatles concert. Funnily enough, Best met his wife, Kathy, at an early Beatles show back in 1963. He couldn’t spend all his time wallowing in what could have been – he needed regular work to support his wife and their daughters. For 20 years, Best put any thoughts of a music career on the side and worked in civil service.
But then, in 1988, after 20 years of turning down requests to play the drums in public, Best finally gave in and appeared at a Beatles convention in Liverpool. He performed at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel. “I’d always found an excuse not to do it. This time, however, I ran out of excuses and put together a little band with my youngest brother Roag playing drums alongside me,” Best said in 2017.
The Pete Best Band started touring, and things started looking up. The Pete Best Band’s album Haymans Green was released in September 2008 in the US. But he wasn’t finished with the Beatles. In 1995, the Beatles released Anthology, which included Best on drums in several tracks. This meant he had a cut of the royalties, ranging between $1.3 million and $5.2 million.
He’s also keeping his Beatles connection alive by appearing as himself in Lennon’s Banjo, a play at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre. Now 78, Best appears to have made peace with his past. But there are some issues – let’s call it “unfinished business” – with his former bandmates, especially Paul McCartney.
For years, Best has lived with the fact that he never knew the real reason why he was sacked. He claims that he doesn’t know who made the decision, but it still bothers him that the band members didn’t do it themselves, face-to-face. “I’m not saying I’d change the outcome,” Best started. “But at least give me the decency of being there and [letting me] confront them.”
When Best was asked if he thinks McCartney owes him an apology, his response was: “Ask him.” Best, who dresses in baggy jeans, white trainers and a hoodie, said he hasn’t spoken to McCartney or Starr since he was kicked out. According to Best, Paul has always hinted that he would like to meet up.
“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,” Best stated. Conspiracy theories were piling up about why he was sacked, like how Paul was jealous of his looks. Also, Best kept his Tony Curtis hairdo while the others got the famous “Beatles haircuts.”
And the fact that they did drugs while Best didn’t surely added to the issues they had. “We were rockers, we were little hardies, we could handle ourselves. But when I got back home, and I told my mother what happened, behind the sanctuary of the front door, I cried like a baby,” he recalled.
While Best has his moments when he thinks about what could have been, he still says that he wouldn’t change his life for “all the tea in China.” He also revealed that he’s glad he’s not a “show business commodity.” After all, as the fifth Beatle, he’ll 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.” Approaching his 80s, Best looks back with pride – not just on his moment in Beatles history, but at his resilience, too. Best remembers an uncomfortable-looking Brian Epstein explaining to him that the other band members didn’t think his drumming was up to par and that they were replacing him with Ringo Starr.
At the height of Beatlemania, Best tried to take his own life. But he has consistently denied that it was related to being fired. “You should never ask someone who has tried to take their own life why they did it. I don’t know why I did it. All I know is my mother, and my brother Rory found me. My mother gave me such a talking to and I vowed I would never do anything like that again. And I never will.”
But trying to cope in a world that just doesn’t let anyone forget about the Beatles can’t be an easy feat. Best explained that if he would have kept reflecting about what happened all the time, he would have ended up bitter. “It was like a nightmare to me,” he said.
“There came a period in my life when I was like, to hell with what happened yesterday.” In the end, being an ex-Beatle gave him purpose – a reason to prove himself. His whole life, he had to listen to comments from Beatles’ members who critiqued his drumming to justify the sacking.
“You’re the Beatle who got kicked out… So there’s always been a point where I’ve had to prove myself,” Best explained. “I’ll perform on stage, and the audience can make their own mind up. I’m glad to say that the consensus of opinion is yeah, you’re a great drummer, Pete. I’m happy with that.”
Best’s mother, who has her own history with the Beatles, kept in touch with them, even after her son was fired.
When the cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was being made, Lennon asked Mona if he could borrow her father’s army medals. He wore them on the cover of the album. Those medals are in one of the hundreds of exhibits in the Magical Beatles Museum in Liverpool, which is run by Best’s younger brother Roag.
Roag has his own connection to the Beatles’ world, seeing as how his father is Neil Aspinall, the managing director of Apple Corps. It’s a small Beatles world, after all. Aspinall was the one who called Best in 1995 to discuss The Beatles Anthology, for which he would be paid royalties. This was another source of pride for Best, with seven out of 60 tracks having his name on them.
Even though they hadn’t spoken for years, Best still cried when he heard of John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Since Lennon and Harrison are both deceased, and Starr had nothing to do with the decision to replace him, the only man left standing is McCartney. Does he forgive him? “I’ve nothing to forgive him about,” Best stated.
At this point, Best believes that they made a decision as young men who were safeguarding their future. “Okay, it could have been handled better. I was the fall guy for it, I suffered, but I’m not holding them to task over it.” He said that if he had been in the same situation and was another member of the band, maybe he would have been one of the bad guys.
“I’ve no regrets. I think I’m a lucky guy. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved as a person, of the examples I’ve set to people to get on with your life, to pick yourself up. I’ve been an inspiration. And I’m proud of that.” In 2007, Best was inducted into the All You Need Is Liverpool Music Hall of Fame as the group’s debut Charter Member.
In 2011, Liverpool further honored Best with the announcement that two new streets would be named Pete Best Drive and Casbah Close. BEST!, a comedy written by Fred Lawless, was staged in 1995 and 1996. The play, mainly fiction, showed a counterfactual scenario after Best’s sacking, where he went on to become a world-famous rock star while the Beatles struggled as one-hit wonders.
Now, if you’re looking to learn about how and why the Beatles broke up, here’s the full inside story…