Hunter Davies? Mike Smith? Dick Rowe? Brian Epstein? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: In the early days of the Beatles a record executive evaluated the band to decide whether to offer them a contract. He supposedly said:
We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.
I have heard some other simpler versions of the statement:
Guitar groups are on the way out.
Guitar bands are on their way out.
The decision not to sign the Beatles was the biggest blunder in music history. Decca Records is usually named as the foolish company. Is there any truth to this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this story located by QI was printed in “The Beatles: The Authorized Biography” by Hunter Davies in 1968. The book described the efforts of the Beatles manager Brian Epstein to use his contacts in the music industry to obtain a recording contract for the group. An A&R (Artists and Repertoire) man working for Decca named Mike Smith was very impressed with the band, and an audition was arranged and conducted on January 1, 1962 at the Decca Studios. Boldface has been added to the following passages: 1
The weeks passed and nothing happened. They continued playing their local dates on Merseyside, but all the time expecting Decca to whisk them to the big time. Then in March, after a lot of pestering, Brian heard from Dick Rowe, Mike Smith’s boss at Decca, that they had decided not to record the Beatles. “He told me they didn’t like the sound. Groups of guitars were on the way out. I told him I was completely confident that these boys were going to be bigger than Elvis Presley.”
In essence, the quote was printed in this key biographical work, but note that there was a time-delay and the statement was doubly-indirect. The book was published six years after the rejection, and Davies was presenting the words of manager Epstein who was relaying the evaluation of Decca executive Dick Rowe.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In September 1968 LIFE magazine published an article by Hunter Davies based on the material in his Beatles book. The name of the Decca executive who communicated the bad news was not given in this version, but the words matched: 2
Then in March, after a lot of pestering, Epstein heard from Decca. They had decided not to record the Beatles; they didn’t like the sound, and groups of guitars were on the way out.
Decca was only one of several companies that foolishly decided not to align themselves with the future supergroup as noted in the LIFE article:
Meanwhile Epstein had begun a long and dispiriting trail around the other record companies; they all turned him down. Brian was often near to tears.
In 1979 Stephen Pile published “The Book of Heroic Failures” which presented a collection of unwise actions and opinions. Decca’s ill-fated decision appeared in the form of a direct quotation: 3
‘We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.’ – Decca Recording Company when turning down the Beatles in 1962. (The group was also turned down by Pye, Columbia, and HMV).
The U.S. edition of the book above was called “The (Incomplete) Book of Failures”, and a writer in the Seattle Times newspaper of Washington discussed it in 1980. An instance of the quotation was reprinted from the book: 4
“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out,” a recording executive at Decca told the Beatles in 1962.
In 1998 “The Experts Speak” compendium by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky included the modified quote, and in a footnote the book by Pile was acknowledged: 5
“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.”
—Decca Recording Company executive, turning down the Beatles, 1962
In conclusion, there is good evidence in “The Beatles: The Authorized Biography” based on comments from Brian Epstein that the Decca executive Dick Rowe delivered disheartening news to the Beatles in 1962. This was a monumental mistake for Decca. There is some uncertainty about the exact wording of the rejection because it was based on the memory of Brian Epstein of an event that probably occurred years earlier. The remark was made by Rowe in March 1962; Epstein died in August 1967; and the book was released in 1968.
(Thanks to correspondent Ronald Mc Gregor who reminded QI that Brian Epstein died in 1967.)
Update History: On January 3, 2017 the 1981 citation was added.
- 1968, The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies, Quote Page 131, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968 September 13, LIFE, Volume 65, Number 11, The Beatles by Hunter Davies, (Part one of the “authentic unexpurgated biography”), Start Page 86, Quote Page 106, Published by Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) ↩
- 1981 Reprint (1979 First Publication), The Book of Heroic Failures: the Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club Of Great Britain by Stephen Pile, Quote Page 215, Futura Publications, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1980 March 9, Seattle Daily Times, Section: The Seattle Times Magazine, ‘Incompetence is what we’re good at’ by John Hinterberger, Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1998, The Experts Speak (Expanded and Updated Edition) by Christopher Cerf and Victor S Navasky, Quote Page 201 and 379, Villard Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩