Brian Epstein, the man who discovered The Beatles when he was running the record department of his father’s Liverpool music store in 1961, was described by Paul McCartney as “the fifth Beatle” and widely regarded as the man who led them to stardom and whose death marked the beginning of their demise.
A new BBC documentary screening this weekend, though, claims Epstein tried to ensure the band got its break in a rather underhanded manner — by buying up large quantities of The Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do,” to help it reach the British music charts. If so, the ruse did not work particularly well, however.
Screened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the October 5, 1962 release of “Love Me Do,” the BBC film, being shown in the UK on Sunday, features Epstein’s friend and business associate, Joe Flannery, claiming that Epstein personally bought 10,000 copies of the single, released by record company Parlophone, and kept them at the family’s NEMS music store at 12-14 Whitechapel, in Liverpool.
The stacks of records were “in his store room in Whitechapel,” says Flannery. “I’d seen them, they were there, 10,000 copies.”
The documentary also claims Epstein encouraged members of other groups he managed to buy up the single everywhere they played on tour. Billy Kinsley of fellow Liverpool act The Merseybeats quotes Epstein telling them, “Go in this record shop and pick up a few copies [of Love Me Do]? Don’t all go in at the same time.’ Which we did.”
Despite Epstein’s alleged attempts at chart manipulation, “Love Me Do” never got higher than No. 17 — hardly a stellar first-step on the path to the toppermost of the poppermost. It was The Beatles’ next single, “Please Please Me,” recorded that November and flying to No.1 in the British music papers’ charts, and No.2 on the UK’s Record Retailer industry chart, that really launched the band.
Epstein, a would-be actor who was the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania, had first seen the Beatles at a gig at Liverpool’s Cavern Club not far from his shop in November 1961. He watched them perform there several more times in the next few weeks, offered to manage them the next month, and signed a five-year contract with them in January 1962.
He then spent months trying to get them a record contract, but was rejected by almost every major company in London. In May 1962, he finally secured a deal with EMI-owned Parlophone, whose roster was overseen by another much-described “fifth Beatle,” producer George Martin. The deal gave the Beatles one penny for each record sold — between them.
While the 50th anniversary of “Love Me Do” has been widely reported in recent days, the 45th anniversary of Epstein’s 1967 death was marked a few weeks ago, on August 27. It was his death, of an accidental sleeping-pill overdose, that marked the beginning of the end of the group, which fell apart two years later. Epstein was only 32 when he died.
“I knew that we were in trouble then,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. “I thought, ‘We’ve f*ckin’ had it now.’”