Brian Epstein

Brian Epstein
Brian who? Few people below a certain age who find themselves buying a Beatles CD or listening to a Beatles song on the radio will have any idea about Brian Epstein. The man who discovered the Beatles. Mr Twenty-five percent. The Beatles manager between 1961 and 1967. Brian was instrumental in defining an era that he never left. As well as the Fab Four, Brian managed Cilla Black. He looked after the interests of Gerry and the Pacemakers. He guided the careers of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. In 1963 Brian’s acts spent 37 weeks at number one. Brian raked in £5,000,000 in 1964
[1]. Mr Brian Epstein. The fifth most famous man on earth through from ’64 to ‘66. Brian presented the Beatles to the world. From the first meeting to the first hit single – ten months. Ten months of graft. Ten months of disappointment. Ten months of rejection. Of hard sell and hawking the boys around London. And then the long train journey back north, devising new schemes to keep the dream alive. Met at Lime Street by John and Paul. Brian finding a way to break the news. Ten months of not letting on to the boys just how grim the responses had been. No one wanted to know about the Beatles. Guitar bands were old hat. Brian persevered. Brian didn’t give in. He boxed them up and gift wrapped them. Neat and tidy. Zeitgeist. Ready to go. But no one would remember Brian. Time would roll by and the fame would melt. Brian would diminish. Brian would fade out. Slowly getting quieter until he made no sound at all. The moments of triumph would die with him. He would become an anonymous face in black and white photographs surrounded by the eternally recognizable. The public awareness of Brian will evaporate. John, Paul, George and Ringo will remain. They’ll get all the credit. They’ll stand alone. They will abide. Brian will be forgotten in his Liverpool graveyard. The only one who will ever go back home.

Forty-two years ago this August Bank Holiday weekend Brian Epstein was reported dead in his house at 24 Chapel Street, London. He was thirty-two years old.

Brian’s was a background of comfortable affluence. His life, for all appearances, was safe. His parents successful in that moderate, local way that will make most smug and self-satisfied and serves to sap all ambition. But Brian was a troubled soul. At his public school Brian is lazy. Brian doesn’t concentrate. Brian dreams of becoming a dress designer. Brian spends his maths lesson thinking about the bias cut. He designs theatre programmes for mythical productions. He thinks about Norman Hartnell. He thinks about Cecil Beaton. The marvellous designs. The wonderful creations. The stage. The West End. The glamour of Hollywood. He spends his time looking out of the window and seeing fashion parades. Fuchsia pink married to bright powder blue. Soft peach and mint green. Perfect for this season at Royal Ascot. He imagines himself famous in a discrete, exclusive way. You’re so clever, Mr Epstein. His own studio in the West End. A beautiful boutique. His own label. Princess Margaret calls him up direct. A new hat? A new dress? Some evening wear for a soiree on Mustique? The Ambassador’s ball? Yes, ma’am, no ma’am, three bags full, ma’am. Brian gets kicked out of school. Reports about his lack of work. His laziness. His day-dreaming. His softness. The schools are anti-Semitic. The schools hate Jews. The schools hate Brian Samuel Epstein, Jew. Brian grows up racked with guilt and confusion over his sexuality. Brian is queer. A pansy. Brian is an outsider. He can’t be himself. He can’t join the club. He’s driven by a sense that he wants to achieve something with his life yet seems constantly stalled by one problem or another. He has a buzz for the stage. Perhaps there he’ll find some outlet. Somewhere to fit in. He joins RADA. He stays a few months. He leaves RADA. Brian was a complicated individual. Brian doing his National Service. Heading to London. Miserable. Trapped. Escaping into a world of his own imagination. Caught by the Red Caps in some West End bar, impersonating a major in the Guards regiment. Awkward questions. Brian stuttering replies. Brian getting flustered. Brian’s been trawling for men. Meeting men in public toilets. Young boys. Seedy. Needy. Gay. Brian gets picked up by the police. A sting operation. Brian sees a boy. The telltale signals. Brian is tempted. Brian hesitates. Brian leaves and then returns. He plucks up the courage. Why not? He follows the undercover copper into the public lavs. He gets lifted. He gets taken to the police station. He gets cautioned for importuning. You don’t tell that story in your little book, do you, Eppy? A cellerful of boys. And you don’t tell them about getting discharged from Her Majesty’s armed forces because of your unnatural appetites. You gloss over that one, don’t you, Brian? Epstein returns to Liverpool and is gifted a job managing his parents’ furniture shop. He accepts his fate. To be comfortable and affluent and bored. He knuckles down. He wears nice clothes and goes to the theatre. He works hard. Plays hard? Who knows? Epstein’s Mr. Brian. Always punctual. Always diligent. But Brian refused to accept the safety. Something in him won’t rest. He needed a gamble. He wanted to take risks. He branches out and starts selling records. He pledges to get any record in the world through his shop in Liverpool, Lancashire. Brian is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He trawled the pubs for rough trade. He kept an eye out for vicious rent boys. He wants a slice. He needs a taste. He has to have a piece. The other Brian at the Walker Gallery, in raptures over some canvas daub. The other Brian keeping office hours in his clean, white shirt. Epstein’s Mr. Brian sitting down to the day’s work with the angry welts underneath his clean, white shirt.

And then Brian stumbled into the Beatles. The legend is that he fell in love with John Lennon. Brian spellbound in the clammy, sweaty atmosphere of the Cavern Club below Matthew Street in Liverpool. Condensation dripping off the painted walls. Smoke collecting in the low, curved ceiling. The air thick and degraded. Brian mesmerized by Mendips’ Master John on the badly lit stage. Mendips’ Master John playing the part of the hard man as he crunches out ‘That’ll be the day’ to the Caver
n faithful one grey northern afternoon. Everything still in black and white. Mendips’ Master John laughing at cripples and spastics. Mendips’ Master John stumbling forward without a thought for the future. Mendips’ Master John and the rest of the boys laughing at queers. It’s possible. Brian was attracted to men who didn’t appreciate him. Brian was drawn to men who responded to his affection with cruelty and unkindness. Brian liked a bit of rough. Brian went for the tough boy look. Brian took beatings because of his love of the tough boy look. Brian got the shit kicked out of him because of his love of the tough boy look. Brian got cut up with a broken milk bottle because of his love of the tough boy look. The Beatles played the tough boy part well back in 1961. Leather jackets and Teddy Boy haircuts. Cigarettes and cheap amphetamines. Flirting with the girls from the stage. Stopping mid song to cadge cigarettes from the front row. To exchange funnies. To swear. To take requests. To pull John’s spaz faces. For George to munch on an egg sandwich. For Paul to set up a date with a girl who worked the make-up counter at Boots. Brian saw something. Brian saw an opportunity. Brian turned his artistic eye on the Beatles. He applied his RADA training. He schooled them in stage craft. He directed them in manners. He prompted them in deportment. He implemented the synchronized stage bow. Deep and low, bend from the hips. He demanded professionalism. He showed them what they could achieve. He took on the gamble. To make them bigger than Elvis. He groomed them for fame. He made them his project. He found someone he could belong to. A world where he could fit in. Without Brian we would never have heard of the Beatles. Brian picked them out of apathy and carried them to become the biggest musical phenomena ever. He gave them the scope to create the cultural landscape beyond their own achievements. What were their plans if Brian hadn’t turned up? Where were they heading? A ten year residence at the Bootle Working Mens’ Club; sandwiched between the bingo and the blue comedian, knocking out old rock n’ roll covers. Still in the Hamburg leather jackets and the Teddy Boy haircuts. Doing Elvis tracks in working mens’ clubs across Merseyside. In Blackpool. In Bolton. In Preston. In Manchester. In Leeds. In Halifax. In Newcastle. In Sunderland. In Doncaster. In Barnsley. Johnny Silver and his Silver Beetles. Direct from Liverpool. Knocking out the old rock n’ roll hits. ‘C’mon everybody’, ‘Blue suede shoes’, ‘Peggy Sue’. Still with no money in the bank. The future narrowing. Mal’s still driving the van. They split the cash. John starts a fight with the entertainments committee. Old men in brown suits with grey sideburns. No complimentary bar bill. Flat north country vowels. No fucking swearing on stage, this is a fucking family club. And if you drink all that booze you’ll have to bloody pay for it! Paul flirts with the girl behind the bar. That’s my fucking wife, you Scouse bastard. George leans forward to catch what someone is asking. Some old dear in horn-rimmed specs, hair like candy floss, a spent bingo card in front of her, supping gin and lime. You want what, love? Requests for Tommy Steele hits. Half a fucking six pence? Get fucked! And what would we have had without the Beatles? A Cliff and the Shadows 1960s. Good grief. It doesn’t bear thinking about. It is a horrible glimpse at a future that might have been. Hitler in Buckingham Palace. Emperor Hirohito in the White House. Cliff singing ‘Summer holiday’ at Shea Stadium. Imagine…

Brian enjoyed the trappings of his success. He revelled in his fame by proxy. He found confidence in the Beatles apparent invincibility. You were only as good as the next record and the next record was going to be a hit. You didn’t argue with Lennon & McCartney. Eighteen number ones. Twelve hit albums. Each one more original than the last. Each one an evolution. Brian had the plum Bentley – just like the Queen’s. He sits comfortable in the deep leather upholstery and watches London drift past between meetings and interviews. The handmade suits from Savile Row. The new glossy friends. The shiny, exclusive doors opening. The complimentary boys. The glittering parties on his London roof garden. The exclusive clubs where he swapped jokes with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The showbiz premieres. His friendship with Alma Cogan. His appearances on television and radio. Brian picks two of Paul’s songs for his Desert Island Disks. Keep the royalties coming, Brian. Brian bought himself a house in the country. Kingsley Hill just south of Heathfield in Sussex. He had his own TV show – Hullabaloo. He ate at the best restaurants. He owned his own theatre that hosted concerts by Jimi Hendrix and Cream. He was the subject of two Beatles’ songs, both written by Lennon – ‘Hide your love away’ and ‘Baby, you’re a rich man’. He mixed with all the fabulous people of the decade. But Brian still had his flip side. Mr Hyde still clawed at him from the inside. He still liked the hard boys. He still liked to gamble with huge stakes. Financial and personal. First in Liverpool – where he became the complainant Mr X at a trial at the Crown Court in a case of blackmail – then in London where he could really go wild. Late nights spent in the Curzon House, the high class gambling den. Thousands on the table. His trips to Fascist Spain to drool over bullfighters. Sat rigid in the Cordoba sunshine with a tall glass of something cool to watch some homoerotic ballet where an animal is made to die slowly so that Brian can get a shot off. Brian disappearing on tour. Twenty-four hours AWOL in Cincinnati on the ’64 summer tour. Brian comes back walking stiff. Bruises on his ribs. A pale look to his face. Minus his wallet. Minus his watch. Minus his lighter. Where the bloody hell have you been, Brian? Brian the fifth Beatle. The fat Beatle. Brian with his Windsor knot and his officer’s voice. His manicured nails and classical LPs.

Brian does the dirty work. Brian earns his twenty-five percent gross. The Beatles: John, Paul, George and Pete. Pete the attractive one with all the fans in Liverpool. Pete who got the boys bookings in the early days. Pete with his head in the gas oven as the Fab Four are on TV. Rattle your jewellery. Pete in Liverpool. Pete on Merseyside. Pete looking ‘round for a job. Pete having to pull himself together in the face of the hurricane. Didn’t you used to be in the Beatles? Pete fucked. Pete fucked over. Pete dumped. Pete with his head in the gas oven as they collect their Variety Club golden hearts from Mr Wilson. Brian does the dirty work. Brian earns his twenty-five percent gross. Brian gives Pete the bad news. Erm, Pete, I’m afraid the boys feel that… Pete sticks his head into the gas oven as the boys run through the streets in A Hard Days Night chased by screaming teens. Brian remembers Pete. Brian thinks about Pete. As Brian slips away Pete Best is kneading baps for £12 a week in a Liverpool bakery.

Brian was an industry joke. The subject of spiteful sniping. The object of jealous criticism. Brian was a patsy. Brian was overwhelmed. The Americans carved up Brian’s boys. The Yanks were bleeding them dry. The Americans had a feeding frenzy. The Americans were having their pants down. Brian could sell the boys a thousand times over and the Yanks would still be coming back for more. The figures were off the scale. There was no precedent. Brian didn’t know what he was dealing with. No one did. Not until it’s too late. Not until the signatures were dry. No one was expecting anything on this scale. Brian is willing to take what they’ll give him. Brian doesn’t understand that they’re willing to give a shed load more. A lot more. A massive amount more. Millions more. Brian nods. Brian is personable and reasonable. Brian doesn’t see the need to be ruthless. Brian doesn’t think it’s necessary. Brian thinks he’s got a good deal. They’ve given everything he asked for. Brian asked for nothing. Relatively. Brian feels pleased. Brian tells the boys not to worry. Brian says they’ve got it sewn up. Brian throws some cash around. The money seems limitless. The earnings are amazing. The floodgates have finally opened. More than they dreamed. Brian sees the crowds and his heart sinks. Brian does a rough head count. Brian adds it all up. Brian does his sums. Brian calculates. Brian multiplies. Brian converts. Dollars. Pounds Sterling. Brian quietly panics. Brian sees the cash bleeding away. Brian sees a fortune fall into someone else’s hands. Someone who knows nothing about his boys. Who cares nothing about his boys. Someone who’s done nothing to bring his boys this far. Brian nods coldly to ‘I want to hold your hand’ from the side of the stage. Jelly Babies reigning down. The white noise of teenage mania. Brian gets a whiff of ammonia coming from the piss-sodden front rows. Brian’s felt his arse drop. Brian keeps doing the figures. Brian folds his arms. He taps his polished shoe to Ringo’s pounding beat. To the Beatle noise. Brian smiles rigidly. Brian is aware of the camera flashes. Brian slaps on a smile. He nods encouragement. The smile doesn’t reach his eyes. The nod misses the beat. Brian has fucked up. The man who made the Beatles.

Monday 29th August 1966. The Beatles had played their last official concert. Candlestick Park baseball stadium, San Francisco. They’d only sold just over half of the tickets. The promoter had made a loss. Broad banks of seats empty. 1966 wasn’t 1965. John had opened his big gob and put his foot in it. Corporate America was flexing its muscles and fighting back after the Fab Four nearly destroyed the Billboard Chart. Corporate America dividing the audience with The Monkees. Back home other acts were stealing their thunder. Bands that played harder. That seemed cooler. Dressed differently. The Who. The Small Faces. The Kinks. The Rolling Stones. Candelstick Park was an end. Brian had missed the show. All thirty-five minutes of it. He’d rushed in when it was all over. Sweat beading under his perfect shirt collar. Damp gathering in the creases of his beautiful suit. Too late. He’d missed the boys last appearance. After John had hinted at the future with the opening chords of ‘A Day in the Life’ and they walked off the stage forever. Brian had been in time to see big Mal and Neil putting away the kit. Where the bloody hell have you been, Brian? Brian had experienced some trouble. A bit of a hitch. Nothing to concern the boys. Nothing to worry them about. An ex-boyfriend had half-inched his attaché case. Compromising papers mixed up with the Beatles business correspondence. Some dodgy top-shelf muscle magazines. Some dubious prescription drugs. A couple of joints. A bag of grass. Some nasty photographs. A dirty boy on boy skin film. The police were brought in. There’d been more trouble. Brian balked at pressing charges. He didn’t want to criminalize the boy. He thanked the police kindly for their efforts to recover his property. No, no need to check, he was sure that it was all there. Brian made a contribution to the police benevolent fund. Brian shook hands. He arranged Beatles’ autographs. Brian became urbane. He played it down. Brian was compromised. Brian was scared. Brian played it polite and retreated gracefully. Brian’s personal life was a mess.

Monday 29th August 1966 had marked the end of an era. A period of usefulness was now over. Brian had no more concerts to organize. No more tours. No more itineraries to arrange. No more TV appearances to sort out. The boys were growing up. The boys were coming to their own conclusions. The boys are making their own decisions. Brian feels slightly wrong-footed. Brian’s not sure about the wisdom in putting out the Sgt. Pepper cover. Brian’s worried about the new hairstyles. Brian’s making the best of the drug disclosures. Brian’s loyalty for the boys never wavers. The boys spend more time in the studio. Brian rarely visits the studio. He’s rarely been there since he was word slapped by John when he appeared in the control room. You here to count your percentages, Brian? Brian starts to see less and less of the boys. A day in the life. All change. What now Brian?

Just under a year later, on Sunday 27th August 1967, and Brian was dead.

Epstein’s death was the first real tolling of the bell for the Beatles. Even Lennon’s Jesus remark and ‘Paperback Writer’ not hitting the top spot in its first week the previous year were incomparable to the affect Epstein’s death would have on them. As Lennon would later say: ‘I knew we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music and I was scared. I thought, “We’ve fucking had it now.”’ With Brian gone, in-fighting ripped the band apart. The fractious relationship between Paul and John got out of hand. The rumbling power play between them. Paul with the Eastmans. John and Yoko and Allen Klein. They were slated for their meandering self-indulgence over The Magical Mystery Tour film when it premiered on the BBC over Christmas. Then 1968 took them to new lows. The paranoia began to climb the walls. The mistrust smothered them. John got into Yoko and Bagism. Paul wanted more control. George was tired of taking guitar lessons from Paul. Ringo felt unloved. Drugs addled their brains and the sharks began to circle. It all spiralled out of control. The band went into a tailspin. Less than two years after Brian’s death and the Beatles would make their final album together.

I find it difficult to read any account of Epstein’s death and not see cover up written all over it. Something more happened that weekend. There’s a back story that we haven’t been made privy to. That was kept secret. The most obvious deduction is that in some way his death was linked to his sexuality, and consequently something that wouldn’t look good reported in the press. Did Brian kill himself? There are many that say not. That try to rationalize behaviour. He wouldn’t have done it, his father had recently die
d, he wouldn’t have left his mother…
But that’s with a benefit of hindsight. Behaviour in real time is rarely rational. Even more so in the case of suicide. Brian had been depressed and unhappy for some time. His father’s death, his failed relationships, his worries over a future with the Beatles. His mood made worse by his spiralling drug misuse. By a need to maintain composure. Brian was under incredible pressure. He’d tried the Priory clinic before it became fashionable. Before it became a route to recover your career. Brian had checked in to recover his nerves and kick the bad habits. He’d bought Kingsley Hill to escape from London. Brian was up against it. It was all getting too much. Though I don’t necessarily think that a suicide in itself would have been covered up. There would have to be aggravating circumstances. It seems the only chance of this happening would be dependent on what – if anything – Brian had to say in any note he left behind. Would that note have seen the light of day? None ever did. The house was thoroughly cleaned. The carpets hoovered. The drawers emptied. The cabinets rifled. Everywhere made safe. Did a note exist? Brian had written suicide notes previously. But not this time? What might it have said that some thought should be left unsaid? What might have caused Brian to plunge to the bottom of his own personal well? What might have left Brian unable to take any more? Brian’s despair at his homosexuality? At the venality of his lovers? His fears over the future? His sadness at his father’s death? His life breaking apart? Did Brian die accidentally? As the coroner decided. As the death certificate stated. A relief to all concerned. Accidental overdose. Years of prescription medication abuse coming on top. A build up of toxins. Through his haphazard use of Carbitral. Through his lucky bag crunching of Preludin. Perhaps. But I’m not entirely convinced he died at Chapel Street. Or that the accident was the one we’ve been given to accept. Kingsley Hill slumbering in the fat English countryside. Did the rent boys actually turn up? Did the party down in Sussex go ahead? Did the party down in Sussex go wrong? Did something happen to Brian at the party? Did somebody make a mistake? Did something go wrong? Did someone hurt Brian? Kingsley Hill. Brian’s thrown a fortune at the interior design. Trimmed it up. Every detail thought out, imagined in his head, through his mind’s eye, made real. Brian loved it. Brian had earned it. For the first time in his life, something that he’d gone out and made for himself. No Harry, no Queenie, no Hebrew Mafia. Brian Epstein, the man who made the Beatles. Brian’s down for the warm and sunny Bank Holiday while the boys are in Wales with Sexy Sadie. Brian will have the long weekend at Kingsley Hill and join them later. Brian in his queer arcadia. The green rolling hills. The fat trees. The blue skies. The thrills. Prescription drugs, marijuana and a punnet of rent boys. The climax of the greatest British summer of the greatest British decade of all time. Our apotheosis. The Garden of Eden to which we would all forever try to return.

What happened, Brian?

[1]If the Great Train Robbers’ haul of £2.6 million is estimated at £38 million in today’s money, then in one year Epstein earned the equivalent of roughly £75,000,000.

For more on Brian Epstein click here to watch a 1999 documentary.


One comment

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