Pete Best survived what may be a drummer’s worst nightmare (second only to perhaps Def Leppard’s Rick Allen losing his arm). As those even untouched by Beatlemania may know, Best was rock legend The Beatles’ original percussionist who was replaced in 1962, some insist mysteriously, by Ringo Starr just before the Beatles broke big.
Nearly 45 years later, the reasons for Best’s replacement remain hazy, a constellation of theories shimmering in the annals of rock history as the stardust continues to rain on his former bandmates.
Apocryphally, it was Best’s ability as a drummer, though the notion has been heartily refuted on a recently released documentary “Best of the Beatles.” Not simply a play on words, the film’s title a position statement, supported throughout the film by friends, colleagues and those purportedly close to the Beatles and their early days in both their native Liverpool, England and Hamburg, Germany where they honed their sound and cut their teeth on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in the city’s infamous red-light district, the Reeperbahn.
Those overseeing public art installations in Hamburg still hold a candle for the Beatles as evidenced by a soon to be erected statue intended to commemorate the then Fab Five (when bassist Stuart Sutcliffe was still a member of the band before leaving to pursue a career in art and dying of a brain hemorrhage shortly thereafter). Sutcliffe’s inclusion doesn’t rile Sonoma resident Elizabeth MacDonald, however, who is leading a campaign against the statue’s installation. It’s the fact that they’re rewriting music history by supplanting original drummer Best with his successor Ringo Starr.
Her press release begins ominously, like something out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Book of Genesis: “In the beginning there were five Beatles and Ringo Starr wasn’t one of them.”
Indeed, it’s true – the original line up of the Beatles went John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete, who MacDonald points out played a 1000 live shows with the early Beatles compared to Starr’s mere 300 shows his entire career with the band.
MacDonald, a friend of the former Beatle and independent defender of his legacy, befriended Best when her daughter was the drummer’s driver while his new act, the Pete Best Band, toured Northern California a few years ago. A mutual friend had connected to the band the then 21 year-old because she drove a vintage ’55 Ford Fairlane.
“It was a cheap thrill at 21 to drive these guys around,” laughs MacDonald, who eventually enlisted as the band’s informal media liaison for interviews and radio stops after meeting Best in person after a set at the Sebastiani Theatre. Now, she is the co-organizer of a campaign to set the record straight and have Best represented in the Hamburg Beatles statue.
“There’s no denying that Ringo Starr is the Beatle drummer most of the world recognizes,” says MacDonald. “But ask anyone who remembers the Beatles during those days and they say it was Pete who stood out even while he sat at his drum kit, behind the others. We feel it’s a huge disservice to deny him his rightful spot in the Hamburg sculpture.”
MacDonald discovered the proposed controversial statute while doing her duties as moderator of the online forum on Best’s website.
“I would do Google searches everyday and found this tribute to the Beatles. I thought ‘this would be a cool story.’ So, I’m pasting it up then I look at it and on the caption says ‘John, Paul, George and Ringo with Stu off to the side.’ And I was really irritated. It’s really frustrating. I understand their reasoning. Anybody could – they’re not going to raise money without the ‘Fab Four.’ Yet, you can’t deny that Pete had a big hand in the Hamburg days.”
During their Hamburg days, Best was often lauded as the most popular Beatle, which some have speculated may have fomented his ouster by jealous bandmates.
“He’s still very attractive. He’s still the cutest Beatle,” says MacDonald with a smile. “In my opinion, I think that had a lot to do with it.”
MacDonald doesn’t presume to speak for Best and says that when it comes to his own assessment of his departure from the Beatles, he remains uncertain.
“He’ll look you straight in the eye and say ‘I have no idea,’” says MacDonald.
“Nobody knows,” she continues. “That keeps the mystery about Pete still going.”
Indeed, Best remains rock ‘n’ roll’s favorite trivia question: “Who was the Beatles’ original drummer?” That the circumstances precipitating Best’s dismissal have been obscured by time or as likely by the Beatles infrastructure both fans the legend’s flames as well as inflames its fans.
“He’s pretty quiet about it and everyone always asks him,” says MacDonald, who says that Best, after gigs would just assume “grab a beer and go watch TV. Nobody bothers him. He doesn’t crave attention.”
Moreover, explains MacDonald, Best apparently harbors little in the way of resentment for his erstwhile band.
“He would never say a bad word against the surviving members of the Beatles – never has. I’ve been involved when he’s done interviews and people have asked about the Beatles, but he’s very respectful about what they have done and just appreciates the fact that he’s back into performing. It’s amazing,” says MacDonald.
After the Best and the Beatles parted ways, the drummer continued to pursue a career in music in the early 60s, but seemed to lose his taste for it after a promoter asked him to trade his new bandmates when on stateside tour for a gaggle of American musicians.
Married with two children, Best elected instead to work in the civil service, which he did for twenty years until resuming his musical career in the 80s.
“He went through some tough times,” says MacDonald, who maintains that Best long ago come to terms with his turn of fate and has definitely moved on. “He was happy, he really was, realizing that he had a great opportunity and that was over.”
In the meantime, MacDonald has established an online petition at www.beatleshamburgstatue.com in an effort to set the record straight. Hundreds of Best supporters around the globe have already signed it.
“We want to send it to Hamburg. We have asked people to contact the radio station and the architects who are creating this. I do this on a daily basis – the squeaky wheel gets the grease. My daughter is also very active about contacting people,” says MacDonald. “A lot of Liverpool radio stations are getting the word out.”
Likewise, the Internet community has run rampant with MacDonald’s efforts making her something of an online cause celeb.
“I’m pretty much a rebel when it comes to being proactive and doing things. It needed to be done,” she says. “This is something that needs to be put forth to the public. People need to now about it. If they change it, fine. If they don’t, I can live with myself. But at least I’ve done something.”
When asked if she would be happy if the statue depicted all six original Beatles, including Ringo Starr, MacDonald replied coyly that she would be fine with that so long as Starr was “Way off to the side. Sitting down.” That said, MacDonald is adamant that she is not anti-Ringo. For that matter she says she’s not actually a Beatles fan.
“Their music at the time was not part of my world. But I’m absolutely a Pete Best fan. Just from knowing him I have garnered more knowledge of what went on and it’s just not right,” she says. “They really have tried to whitewash him. I was over it – seeing the statue put me over the top.”
(In this Real Player clip, Best ruminates about his last meeting with Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein preceding his dismissal from the band. Courtesy of BeatlesAgain.com.)