“A Cellarful of Noise” by Brian Epstein (published by Souvenir Press)
Inside Beatlemania but with a conspiracy of silence
The “fifth Beatle” refers to the person – they’re all he’s (no she’s) – of the greatest importance to and influence on the world-conquering John, Paul, George and Ringo when they sat at the toppermost of the poppermost throughout the 1960s.
Among the obvious candidates are their manager Brian Epstein and Abbey Road producer George Martin, and the less obvious public relations manager Derek Taylor, sacked original drummer Pete Best, died-young struggling bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, road manager Neil Aspinall or even zany American disc jockey Murray the K, who glued himself to the group personally and lavished on them over-the-top coverage on his radio show as the Beatles blitzed America in February 1964.
The debate was muddied by none other than Paul McCartney, who told a BBC interviewer in 1997 that “if anyone was the fifth Beatle” it was Epstein, before conveniently changing his mind and opting for Martin in a memorial post after their producer died in March 2016. Well, if McCartney couldn’t decide, who can?
It’s McCartney’s choice of Epstein that gets the nod in this new edition of the manager’s autobiography, “A Cellarful of Noise”, which was first published at the height of worldwide Beatlemania in 1964. Otherwise unvarnished, this latest edition contains an introduction by Craig Brown, author of “One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time”, who recounts that in the vast Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool, around the corner from the cabinet containing the four Sgt. Pepper costumes (replicas, surely), and housed in a glass case of its own, is a mannequin wearing Brian’s dapper knee-length blue wool and cashmere coat made by Aquascutum of Regent Street, London.
The spick and span garment stands resplendent under a spotlight and is admired by some 300,000 people a year. In gold letters, embossed on the bottom of the case, is this quote from McCartney: “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”
Brian Epstein can be said to have discovered the Beatles, going to the Cavern Club in Liverpool one lunchtime to see them sweating away, and he managed them from 1962 until his death in August 1967. With his polite side-parting, unflashy suits, diffident manner and public-school accent, Epstein appeared much more mature than the Beatles. In interviews, he would call them “my boys” or “‘the boys”; they, in turn would always refer to him as “Mr Epstein”.
So it comes as a surprise to realise he was only six years older than John Lennon and Ringo Starr. In April 1964, when he embarked on this memoir, he was twenty-nine. That same month, the top five places in the American top ten were all occupied by the Beatles, and there were a further seven Beatles’ singles in the top one hundred, along with two songs about them – “We Love You Beatles” by the Carefrees and “‘A Letter to the Beatles” by the Four Preps.
Since February that year they had become the four most famous young men in the world. Having engineered all this fame, Epstein was clearly in no mood to play it down. In “A Cellarful of Noise” he describes the Beatles as “a worldwide phenomenon, like nothing in any of our lifetimes, and like nothing any of us will ever see again”. Mixing condescension with a dash
of hyperbole he writes, “The haunted, wonderful wistful eyes of little Ringo Starr from Liverpool’s Dingle are more instantly recognisable than any single feature of any of the world’s great statesmen.”
“A Cellarful of Noise” is a period piece. At one point Epstein declares that the Beatles “never sit while a woman stands” and at another that “their naturalness … wins them the admiration of people like Lord Montgomery”. Of one of his signings, Gerry Marsden, he boasts that “Princess
Alexandra twice requested him for cabaret at society balls”. But some of Epstein’s other artistes, as he always called them, have vanished without trace. Who remembers Tommy Quickly or Michael Haslam?
In contrast to the devil-may-care merriment of the Beatles, Epstein cultivated a reserved, fastidious air. He wore a Burberry raincoat, well-polished buckled shoes, gold cufflinks, a monogrammed shirt and a Christian Dior silk tie or a polka-dot cravat. “He was immaculate from head to toe, like Cary Grant,” recalled Cilla Black. “He was everything you wanted a posh fella to look like.” His Liverpool tailor, George Hayes, maintained that he always looked as if he’d just stepped out of the bath.
Epstein’s memoir was actually ghostwritten by Derek Taylor, then a showbiz journalist on the Daily Express but soon to become the Beatles’ press officer. The two men motored down to the Imperial Hotel, Torquay, in Epstein’s chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Taylor was particularly impressed by the electric windows. “I’d never seen such a thing,” he said.
The two got on well. In their first session Epstein opened up about his uneasy childhood and troubled adolescence, but he hesitated before revealing his greatest secret. There came a point when he realised he must. Over lunch, he suddenly asked, “Did you know that I was queer?” “No, I didn’t,’ replied Taylor. “Well, I am, and if we’re going to do this book I’m going to have to stop buggering about saying I was with this girl when I would not be with a girl, it would be a boy. Does that make any difference?”
It must have been an agonising confession – in 1964 homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence – but Taylor was unfazed. Between the two of them, they conspired to render everything seemly. The book makes no mention of Epstein’s sexuality or the deep torment it caused him. Of his time in National Service, for instance, we hear simply that he was “the lousiest soldier in the world”. Wearing a pinstriped suit and a bowler hat, he was charged with impersonating an officer and confined to barracks.
This caused his nerves to become “seriously upset”. Psychiatrists decided he was “a compulsive civilian and quite unfit for military service”, so he was “discharged on medical grounds”. The truth is both more fraught and more interesting. Stationed at the Albany Barracks in Regent’s Park, London, Epstein had hated his “hideous” private’s uniform and had asked his tailor to run him up a rather more elegant officer’s outfit, which he then wore to cruise the West End in search of young men.
At the Army and Navy Club on Piccadilly, military police arrested him and charged him with
impersonating an officer. His parents employed lawyers and they succeeded in saving him from a court martial. He was eventually discharged for being “emotionally and mentally unfit” – code for homosexuality.
Elsewhere in the book Epstein claims, “I lost a girlfriend called Rita Harris who worked for me and who said, ‘I’m not going to compete with four kids who think they’re entering the big time’.” In reality, “Rita” was a boy.
True to character, the callous Lennon taunted him about the memoir. When Epstein was wondering out loud what to call it, Lennon said, “Why don’t you call it Queer Jew?”. Later, when Epstein said it was called “A Cellarful of Noise”, Lennon replied that he would be better off calling it A Cellarful of Boys.
The self-portrait in “A Cellarful of Noise” may be partial but it is not untrue. Epstein portrays himself as lonely, businesslike, scrupulous, obsessive, shrewd, awkward and pernickety, all of which he was. Now that we know how his story ended, the odd phrase flashes on the page like a fork of lightning. Quite late in the book, he confesses that the strain of being in sole charge of management “continues and increases and thrives like a malignant disease”. Soon after, he talks of the pressures he is under: “The chief of them is loneliness, for ultimately I must bear the strain alone, not only in the office or the theatre, but at home in the small hours.”
Epstein could manage others but not himself; he lived in perpetual jeopardy. He took drugs – uppers, downers, acid, heroin, coke – far more recklessly than his boys, and was known to gamble away £20,000 in a single night. Nor could he resist picking up the type of young man who would steal from him, beat him up and blackmail him.
Three years after the publication of the book, on August 27, 1967, Brian Epstein was found dead in the bedroom of his house in Belgravia. He was 32. Two brief suicide notes were found, hidden away in a book, but they were both dated several weeks before. At the inquest his psychiatrist, Dr Flood, reported that “his main complaint was insomnia, anxiety and depression”. Epstein had, he said, “always shown some signs of emotional instability … The patient was homosexual, but had been unable to come to terms with this problem.”
Recording a verdict of accidental death, the coroner said it was due to poisoning by the sedative Carbitral, caused by an incautious self-overdose.
Epstein is buried in Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery, Liverpool. The Beatles remain part of the air we breathe.
It’s time to give “the fifth Beatle” trope a rest. Especially when it concerns Murray the K.
Murray didn’t seek out the Beatles. Epstein came to him. As the top-rated DJ in the most important music market in the world in the ’60s, Kaufman was a logical choice; a well-considered business decision. If Murray the K did not have the influence he did, he wouldn’t have been invited into the Beatles’ hotel suite at the Plaza, to join the group when it travelled to DC, or to accompany them to Miami (and report on their every move to his listeners in NY and, clear channeling over WINS’s 50,000-watt transmitter, as far away as Boston and Kansas City).
Besides, Murray didn’t invent the moniker. George Harrison did. On the train trip from NY to DC for the Beatles first American concert, a security guard tried to keep Murray from following the band between cars. Harrison, who was at the end of the procession, turned to the guard and said, “He’s alright. He’s the fifth Beatle.”
Yet Murray the K was so much more than that. As Alan Freed’s son Lance said to me over lunch years ago, “My father may have given birth to rock ’n’ roll but your father raised the kid.”
Murray combined his radio stint with live shows three or four times a year, gave first breaks to numerous acts and nurtured more established talent. He co-wrote “Splish Splash” with Bobby Darin, picked hits that even A&R men didn’t recognize (he wouldn’t play the “A” side of Dionne Warwick’s latest release because he said the “B” side was the winner: “Walk On By”), created the first music videos 15 years before the debut of MTV, brought The Rolling Stones to the attention of Sid Bernstein (who brought them over for their first US engagement) and suggested they cover “It’s All Over Now,” which became their first Top 10 hit in the States, booked Cream and The Who for their first US gigs on one of his week-long rock ’n’ roll shows, put together the first multi-media discotheque, pioneered the first commercial FM rock station as program director and primetime evening DJ on WOR-FM, and….
So give the man his due, and don’t reduce him to a brief moment in time and a dubious distinction defined by being a “fifth” something when he was the first in too many other things.
Peter Altschuler, The Murray the “K” Archives, Santa Monica, California