When Brian Epstein died of an overdose of sleeping pills in the summer of 1967, he was only 32 years old. He was buried in Liverpool at the Long Lane Jewish Cemetery, mourned over by his doting mother Queenie. The Beatles, the group that Epstein had made famous, had to stay away. There would have been too many members of the press and too many fans. The rabbi told the congregation that “Brian Epstein was a symbol of the malaise of our generation”.
It was an incredibly insensitive remark. Who says such a thing at the funeral of a 32-year-old? It was also very wrong. But it did reflect one faint glimmer of understanding. Epstein was indeed a symbol of his generation. And I think understanding that helps to understand both the Beatles and the 1960s. If you write the history of the 1960s with a bigger role in it for Brian Epstein, you write a different history of the 1960s and see the present differently.
In 1965, when the Beatles received the MBE, George Harrison quipped that the letters stood for “Mr Brian Epstein”. But there hadn’t been an insignia for the group’s manager and his early death meant that there never would be one. It is easy to see why Harold Wilson hadn’t added him to the list. He was just a suit, after all, not the talent.
Yet without Epstein there wouldn’t have been the Beatles. Not as we know them, anyway. It is as simple as that.
When the lads were playing their lunchtime concerts at the Cavern Club in 1961 they were a fabulously tight and talented rock’n’roll band. But that’s all they were until Epstein offered to be their manager. It was only then that they properly became the Beatles.
He was the owner of a large local record store and Harry Epstein’s boy, son of a wealthy businessman. And easily the most impressive person who had ever offered to be involved with them. Epstein transformed the Beatles into a professional showbusiness act. He put them in suits, protected their image, added theatrical touches to their stage shows, made sure they turned up on time.
Epstein had taste, an artistic feel. Although Queenie never accepted it, her son was gay, with a taste in rough trade, and in love with his group, passionately so in John Lennon’s case. His attempt to disguise his sexuality from his mother, which culminated in an absurd plan to marry the singer Alma Cogan, led him to breakdown and contributed to his death. But it also meant he understood the sexual power of the Beatles; he shared more than a little bit of the fan’s hysteria. He helped the group to exploit it.
The Beatles weren’t his only client. He had a knack for finding new talent — Cilla Black, for one — which rarely failed him. (Though it did once. When he was taken to see the young unknown Paul Simon in a dingy folk club, he rejected him. “He’s a bit small and Jewish looking,” he remarked). Epstein acts spearheaded the British invasion of the United States and helped London to obtain its swinging reputation.
Some of his early business deals were a disaster, it has to be admitted. He basically gave away the publishing rights of the Beatles songs and lost millions with a naive merchandising deal. Paul McCartney, surveying the damage years later, remarked that Epstein “looked to his dad for business advice, and his dad knew how to run a furniture store in Liverpool”.
But Epstein’s insistence on controlling the quality of the products associated with the Beatles name was a masterstroke. It is possible to argue that the group’s entire success has rested upon this. And that it remains, even now, the central plank of the Beatles’ commercial strategy and an important reason that they have attained iconic status.
Appreciating the role of Epstein, allows one to appreciate that the Beatles are as much a triumph of commerce as of art. They were not merely brilliant musicians fusing avant-garde influences with rhythm and blues music. They were a showbiz act managed by an inspired entrepreneur. They weren’t simply class rebels against the Establishment, they were the brilliant product of capitalist enterprise, the early pioneers of globalisation.
Money normally enters the Beatles story only as a reason for their demise. When Epstein died, the group famously began to argue about management and contracts and cash. Born out of music, killed by money, that’s the usual story.
However, Tony Bramwell provides a different account. Bramwell was friends with all the group, present when Paul met John; he was Brian Epstein’s right-hand man, fixing gigs for Jimi Hendrix and mixing drinks with the Rolling Stones; and was still there when Phil Spector produced Let It Be. In his recent book Magical Mystery Tours (a wonderful insider memoir) Bramwell argues that it was penal tax rates that helped to destroy the group’s cohesion.
First told to give away vast amounts to avoid tax bills — which they did in a series of madcap ventures, offering money to any old person who dropped by with a demo tape — then told they had to make £120,000 in order to keep just £10,000. Soon their finances were in chaos and their energy sapped, as nutters beseiged Apple HQ pressing tapes on them. They also ran a clothes shop as a tax dodge.
Bramwell blames Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, directly. “There were enough new regulations and red tape to tie up free enterprise for years ... One minute Swinging London was like a giant theme park, the envy of the world, then they — Wilson and his gang — closed it down. It was as if they went out and stamped on it.”
The reason why the influence of the 1960s endures is because it was the dawn of modern consumer capitalism. It was this culture — of commerce and consumption — rather than the counter-culture that made the era and now shapes out time. And of this era, Brian Epstein was a symbol. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/daniel_finkelstein/article6826591.ece