Brian Epstein: the brilliant but troubled man behind the Beatles
He was the architect of the Fab Four's success, but his life was one of torment, and ultimately tragedy, as he tried to live with his homosexuality in a time when it was against the law. Jon Savage explores the man without whom, there would be no Beatles
In February 1962, Brian Epstein travelled to London to hear the results of The Beatles’ demonstration test they had recorded a month earlier. The meeting with talent scout Dick Rowe was held in the Decca Records executive dining room on the South Bank. Feeling sure that The Beatles would be offered a contract, Epstein was devastated to receive a rejection. His response was typical: “You must be out of your mind,” he retorted. “These boys are going to explode. I am confident that one day they will be bigger than Elvis Presley.”
There was nothing bigger than Elvis Presley, and nothing less current, as far as A&R (Artists and Repertoire) men were concerned, than guitar groups. Despite the fact that the instrumental only group, the Shadows, regularly had top-ten records, the prevailing wind was for solo performers. The UK top ten for 3 February, for instance, contained eight solo singers and instrumentalists (such as Cliff Richard, Chubby Checker and Billy Fury) and two jazz-band leaders (Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball).
Epstein was flying in the face of the trends, but he was offering the future – always a tricky thing for the music industry to handle, preferring as it does simple formulae despite the perennial demand for novelty. His retort would have been laughed off in early 1962, particularly as it came from the manager of a group from Liverpool, but Epstein’s prediction came true. The Beatles eclipsed Elvis, and Epstein had been first to conceive of the thought, even before the group themselves.
Assuming The Beatles’ management in December 1961, Epstein quickly started as he meant to go on. He tightened up their date sheet, gave them itineraries, got more money, and started to seek a record contract. He also got them out of the black leather outfits they had worn for most of 1961 and into smart Italian-style suits. John Lennon later complained about it, but this was the statement of a reformed sinner. All the group agreed to the change because they all wanted success.
Epstein grounded The Beatles. He gave them unconditional love in the widest sense – which they sometimes abused, but basically respected and appreciated – and deftly oriented them within the show-business mores of the day. The Beatles would, from 1965 on, change the music industry forever, but until then, becoming a successful pop group involved doing variety shows, wearing uniform clothes, and being polite and disciplined. With his theatrical training and interest in presentation, Epstein turned a group of Liverpool hard rockers into a prototypical Boy Band.
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Within 18 months of his involvement, The Beatles had the top single and album in the UK: From Me To You (seven weeks at the top) and Please Please Me (#1 for 30 weeks). By autumn, they had become a national phenomenon and, by April 1964, Beatlemania swept the US, with the top five singles in the Billboard charts. This was a cultural revolution, and – apart from the group and producer George Martin – the man who had engineered it was Brian Epstein.
The Epstein factor: 5 reasons why he was so successful
Before Brian Epstein, The Beatles were without a manager or a plan. They smoked and ate on stage, and swore at the audience. Epstein gave them a basic discipline, a written weekly structure, and – in collaboration with the group – designed stage suits to replace their black leather gear. Lennon later used this fact as an example of the group ‘selling out’, but agreed to it at the time. To make themselves presentable to agents and people who ran radio and television, they had to fit into the show-business conventions of the time.
Epstein was determined to get the group a record contract. After trying Decca, Pye and several other smaller labels, he landed a contract – through a circuitous route – with George Martin at EMI’s Parlophone Records. Martin was smarting at the success of Norrie Paramor (Cliff Richard, Helen Shapiro, the Shadows) at EMI’s Columbia Records and wanted his own British pop act. Once a rapport had been established, he worked with Epstein to coordinate The Beatles’ recording times and studio releases.
American success was the great dream of British artists in the early sixties. Only three acts had ever had an American number one, and none had repeated this success. In his negotiations with Ed Sullivan, who ran the highest-rating entertainment show on American television, Epstein insisted that The Beatles had top billing. He had to compromise on the fee, but got his way. The Beatles headlined three Ed Sullivan shows in February 1964 – an incredible amount of exposure that made them superstars in the US.
Films were another box tick for sixties pop stars. Epstein put the group together with Walter Shenson of United Artists and director Richard Lester during 1964. In common with The Beatles’ records, A Hard Day’s Night was an artistic triumph created on the run. Their second film Help! was less of a piece, but remains a fascinating mid-sixties travelogue with some wonderful songs. The script for a third film was still under discussion in early 1967 – as noted in the diaries of famed playwright Joe Orton – but nothing was agreed.
One of Epstein’s last acts for the group was to sign them up for inclusion as the British segment in the world’s first satellite television link, Our World. Their performance of All You Need Is Love, videotaped in London’s Abbey Road Studios, was watched by more than 400 million people across 25 countries. Along with Monterey, this event did more than anything to cement 1967 as the Summer of Love and The Beatles as pop-culture leaders.
- Read more | How The Beatles broke America
Who was Brian Epstein?
Born in September 1934 as the first child to a comfortably off Jewish family, Epstein was an outsider by the time he was a teenager. His education was interrupted by frequent school moves and his army career (this being the age of enforced national service). Dissatisfied while working in his family’s business, NEMS (North End Music Stores) – as a teenager he had expressed the desire to be a dress designer – he went to the prestigious RADA drama school for a year in 1956, but didn’t stay the course.
Nevertheless, his theatrical bent served him in the record shops that NEMS opened after his return. Epstein developed an ear for future pop hits – for instance, buying in hundreds of copies of John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me well before it rose to number one – and a flair for presentation that made NEMS one of the most important record retail outlets in the North West. With an ordering policy of at least one copy of almost every single released, it was a magnet for Liverpool youth, including the four fledgling Beatles.
Despite his business successes, he was drifting, directionless and dissatisfied. Yet all this changed on 9 December 1961, when Epstein went to see The Beatles play a lunchtime session at the Cavern Club. He was aware of the group name from posters around the city and, more pertinently, from customer requests for their German-only release My Bonnie. When he met them that day, he recognised at least one as a regular customer in NEMS. But that wasn’t what hit him.
“Something tremendous came over,” he stated in his 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise, “and I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humour on stage. They were very funny; their ad-libbing was excellent. I liked them enormously… I thought their sound was something that an awful lot of people would like. They were fresh and they were honest and they had what I thought was a sort of presence, and – this is a terrible, vague term – ‘star quality’. Whatever that is, they had it — or I sensed that they had it.”
This was an instinctive decision, indeed a conversion. In the Beatles, Epstein found his cause. He adored them as artists, and they provided a focus for his wish to change the world. Much of his restlessness and unhappiness was caused by one incontrovertible fact – he was homosexual (queer, in the parlance of the era) at a time when society was very proscriptive of same-sex relationships.
Any physical expression of his sexuality was illegal, leaving him open to violence, imprisonment and blackmail (especially since he took risks). Many gay men ignored these oppressive conditions and got on with their lives, but Epstein was sensitive, angry and burning at injustice. In April 1957, he was arrested for ‘persistent importuning’ by a police provocateur in a Swiss Cottage toilet (public toilets, or ‘cottages’, were frequently used by gay men for sex, which was a fact frequently exploited by ‘pretty policemen’ who would indicate interest and then put the handcuffs on).
He was devastated. In a hand-written document to be used in his defence, he railed: “The damage, the lying criminal methods of the police in importuning me and consequently capturing me leaves me cold, stunned and finished.” But this unpleasant event gave him a wider understanding of what it was to be an outcast: “I feel deeply, because I have always felt deeply for the persecuted, the Jews, the coloured people, for the old and society’s misfits.”
Homosexuality and the law
Until 1967, the law relating to homosexuality in the UK – apart from the proscriptions against buggery – was section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, known as the Labouchere Amendment. This prohibited ‘gross indecency’ between males, a catch-all term that covered most male homosexual activity. This was the law under which Oscar Wilde and many thousands of other gay men would be tried and imprisoned.
Allied to this was the sense that homosexuals were the lowest of the low in social terms; outcast and degenerate. This only amplified after World War II in the Cold War paranoia of the time. The defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, along with the McCarthy hearings in the US, helped to create a hostile climate. There was a concerted press campaign and a police crackdown on gay men in the early fifties. Between 1945 and 1955, the number of annual prosecutions for homosexual behaviour rose from 800 to 2,500.
This all changed after the Edward Montagu case, where three well-connected gay men, including Lord Montagu, were tried and imprisoned. One of them, Peter Wildeblood, wrote the influential book Against the Law (1955), which informed the institution of the Wolfenden committee to examine the law on homosexuality.
The report, published in 1957, pointed to decriminalisation, but it still took years of campaigning and lobbying for a bill to be proposed by Labour MP, Leo Abse, and passed into law in July 1967. Attitudes did not change overnight. Convictions for gross indecency went up afterwards.
Various lobbying groups sprung up during the late-seventies, but it was the arrival of AIDS and consequent tabloid persecution that gave gay politics a boost during the mid-eighties. It seemed like a question of get organised or die. From organisations like Stonewall and Outrage came a fresh wave of lobbyists and activists who helped to change, slowly, social attitudes and institutional structures towards homosexuals.
Under Tony Blair’s Labour Government, the drive to equality accelerated. In 2001, the age of consent for gay men was reduced to 16 (the 1967 bill had stated 21). In 2004, same-sex couples were granted Civil Partnerships. In 2007, discrimination against gay men and lesbians in the provision of goods and services was made illegal. And in 2014, same-sex marriage become legal in the UK.
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It was this realisation that led Epstein away from a conventional career path into pop management. In late 1961, he found an outlet for his visions in a scruffy group that nobody wanted. The Beatles also felt like outcasts at that point, and both parties saw something in each other that went beyond business. They recognised a mutual need. Once the Beatles had found success, Epstein did another extraordinary thing in terms of pop management. Instead of the customary Svengali act, he set them free artistically. In this, they were encouraged by producer George Martin.
Rather than tell the Beatles what to do and what songs to play, as was standard practice at the time, he worked with the group to help them realise their vision. Anything more unlike Elvis – who was railroaded during the sixties by manager ‘Colonel Tom’ Parker into a series of poor Hollywood films with dreadful songs – could not be imagined. By 1965, the Beatles were on top of the world, globally successful on their own terms.
Sexuality, drugs and rock and roll
Epstein himself was extremely rich and validated – not only with The Beatles, but with his other acts like Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers – but success did not bring stability. The patterns of his early life were set. He continued to indulge in risk-taking behaviour, both in his private life and his leisure activities, such as his reckless gambling habit and a reliance on pills and prescription drugs that began to take over his daily life.
The year 1966 was when The Beatles found the limits of their freedom, most notably when a chance comment by Lennon about the group being “more popular than Jesus” caused a furore. Death threats and burnings of Beatle products overshadowed the 1966 American tour. Epstein conducted a successful damage-limitation campaign – the shows went ahead but the Beatles had had enough, and unilaterally decided that they would give up touring.
For Epstein, this was a shattering blow. He loved the planning and the activity of the tours. Without this function, he felt his connection with the Beatles weakening. His poor mental state was compounded by the fact that, during the Beatles’ last concert, he had been robbed of money and incriminating documents by his then-partner, ‘Dizz’ Gillespie.
The year 1966 was when the Beatles found the limits of their freedom, most notably when a chance comment by Lennon about the group being “more popular than Jesus” caused a furore. Death threats and burnings of Beatle products overshadowed the American tour
At the end of September 1966, he attempted suicide, but was found by assistant Peter Brown and rushed to hospital. After recovering, Epstein, knowing the Beatles would not reconvene for three months, took on a West End venue called the Saville Theatre and showcased pop concerts. One of his first promotions, in November 1966, was the Four Tops, then at number one with Reach Out, I’ll Be There. In January 1967, he undertook a merger between NEMS and the company of Robert Stigwood, manager of Cream and later the Bee Gees. He began taking LSD, which appeared to have a beneficial effect on his psyche.
There was still Beatle business, though: the renegotiation of their EMI contract in January 1967, the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single, and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. In one of his last acts for the group, Epstein arranged a video recording of their new single to be played as Britain’s segment on the Our World global television link. On 25 June 1967, All You Need Is Love beamed to over 400 million viewers in 25 countries.
Brian Epstein's death
On 27 July 1967, male homosexuality was partially decriminalised. Exactly a month later, Epstein was found dead at his Belgravia home. Although the circumstances were not crystal clear, it seems likely that his death was an accidental prescription-drug overdose. Although this made national news, none of Epstein’s obituaries mentioned that he was homosexual. The relative liberalisation of the mid-sixties had, for him, come too late.
There is a distinct irony in the fact that Epstein died so soon after the passing of legislation that would, in time, make life better for homosexual people. With the Beatles, he helped to instigate the social changes that were the backdrop to the liberalising legislation of the sixties, but he was unable to benefit. The stigma had gone too deep. The guilt and poor self image that built up over all those years in the shadows made it impossible for him – as it still does for many gay men – to avoid extreme risk-taking and the attendant consequences.
For years, history was not kind to Epstein. He died early in the story and was not around to defend himself. He was accused of personal and financial misdemeanours, most particularly in the disastrous story of the Beatles’ US merchandising company, Seltaeb. No doubt he did make mistakes, but this was an extraordinary event of unreckoned magnitude. Yet, simply, the Beatles would not have happened without Brian Epstein. In this respect, he should be counted as a man who altered the course of 20th-century history.
The Beatles' views on Brian Epstein
The Beatles oscillated between acknowledging and underrating Brian Epstein while he was alive. They did respect his authority and trusted him to make the right business decisions. On hearing of his death, however, John Lennon immediately realised Epstein’s centrality to their success. As he told Jann Wenner in 1970, “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve had it now’.”
“After Brian died there was a huge void,” George Harrison stated in the Beatles’ Anthology documentary. “We didn’t know anything about our personal business and finances, he had taken care of everything, and it was chaos after that.” Ringo Starr described the group’s confusion: “We wondered what we were going to do. We were suddenly like chickens without heads. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”
In later years, all the group remembered Epstein fondly as an integral part of their success. As Paul McCartney remembered in the BBC Arena documentary The Brian Epstein Story, other people offered themselves as Beatles managers after Epstein’s death: “I’d never liked the idea, partly because I’d seen how Brian did it and no one else was ever going to stack up against Brian in my mind. No one would ever be able to do it as good because you couldn’t have the flair, the panache, the wit, the intelligence Brian had… Brian was just too good.”
This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jon Savage is a music journalist and author of numerous biographies on bands like The Kinks, the Sex Pistols and Joy Division. He is also the author of 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded (Faber & Faber, 2015)