“So which of you lads can do the best British accent?”
The four young men, scruffy Texans with barely a dollar between them, squirmed in their chairs. A single lamp and a desk several decades out of style bedecked the shabby office, yet the suited Brit in front of them exuded a contrasting air of confidence and expense.
“I do a right good ‘pression of an Englishman, Mr. Epstein.” Dusty Hill cleared his throat. “I’m Dusty and I jolly good like tea and biscuits. Crumpets, scones, God save the Queen.”
“Stop! Oh, that’s terrible!” The man in the suit scribbled “George Harrison” onto his pad of paper, then ripped the sheet off and gave it to Dusty. “You be George and stay quiet. Now, for the rest of you: who’s got the best impression? Speak up, let me hear you talk.”
The remaining three lads gave each other passing glances, waiting for someone to bite. At last, Frank spoke up, “I’m doing me best English impression. Limey boys who love taxes and tea, wot wot.”
“Good enough.” Epstein, pulling back his nice sleeve wrote “Paul McCartney” on his pad, handing this to Frank. “You be Paul.”
“But I’m the drummer-“
“So’s Paul, if you ask Ringo.” The man in the suit cleared his throat. “We’ll just get you boys matching bowl cuts and suits. No one will notice the difference.”
2 MONTHS EARLIER – SEPTEMBER, 1963
“Ah, Brian Epstein.” The man pointed to a seat opposite him, then waved to the waitress to summon a tea. “It’s not every day one gets to chat over tea with an up-and-coming headhunter.”
“Not everyday I get to speak with a veteran headhunter.”
“Liar.” He tossed a card with “Bill Kehoe, Delta Promotions” emblazoned on the front. “You talk with bigwigs and veterans every day. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have got your lads as far as you have.”
The waitress delivered the teapot and two cups. Brian dropped a cube of sugar in his cup while Bill poured the tea.
Once she left, Bill blew over his tea then said, “Everyone knows you don’t have tea with Brian Epstein without a reason. What do you want?”
Epstein swallowed the hot sip of tea. “England’s a small fish when you look at the consumption of music, and I have a band that can make it in America, where the real money is. I’m sure the Yanks’ll just eat it up. But the record labels are cocking up the deal – I’ve given them five singles plus several deep cuts, and not one bloody record company can put together an album!”
“And what can I do about it?”
“You’ve got dealings across the pond. I want your advice how to get my boys over there, touring and selling music.”
“If I knew how to do that, I’d already be rich. Tell me, your boys get along?”
“Well enough. They’ll stay together if there’s money in it, I suppose.”
“Sounds like they’ll break up soon enough, which works in your favor. Here – I’m going to give you my latest strategy, but only ‘cause my band the Zombies are fighting more often than they’re singing. My band’s more likely to explode than make it big anywhere.” He took a sip of tea. “The problem is the music business in America doesn’t want to support a band without a fan base. You have to tour to get a fan base, and you have to have support before you can tour. Vicious cycle. What you have to do is break into the cycle, any way you can.”
Brian shook his head. “I can’t foot the bill-”
“But that’s the beauty of my system, see. Only bill you have to foot is a couple flights for yourself over there, then the rest of it pays for itself.” He grinned. “You go over, find a few boys that can sing and play – doesn’t matter if they’re similar to your boys – and hire them to pretend to be The Beatles. Give them your lads’ music, set up a couple gigs, and you’ll have teenage girls screaming for your English albums faster than you can make them.”
“That’s lunacy. It’ll be an obvious hoax.”
“No one over there’s seen The Beatles. No one even cares, Brian. What’s more, your real Beatles won’t know the difference. They make music here, be a good little English band, and you make the real money with a fake band.”
“Is it legal?”
Bill Kehoe shrugged. “Well, I haven’t heard it’s not illegal. Just keep your eggs in separate baskets, and you’ll be fine…”
“So John’s got fanmail. What’s to complain about?”
“The bloody cowboy hat.” Paul McCartney reached into his jacket, searching for something. “Some bird in America sent John a photo to autograph. It said ‘The Beatles’ and had our names on it, but the man depicted as ‘Paul McCartney’ was wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t wear cowboy hats.”
Brian picked up the photo Paul lay before him. Sure enough, Frank-the-Paul-impostor wore a cowboy hat over a rangy head of hair in his promo picture. What was worse, and probably the next thing Paul would complain about, someone had faked Paul’s signature on the picture. Brian chuckled and handed it back. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Some group in America has the same band name, or perhaps some bird just got confused.”
“The picture was printed with my name on it, Brian.” He shoved it back onto Epstein’s chest. “You’ve been making money off us for years, keep telling us how we’d make it big in the States if you could just get Capitol to listen. So what kind of deal did you make? What’s going on?”
Brain held up his hands in surrender, innocent. “Look, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that picture. If someone’s impersonating you in the states, I’ll find out about it. It means their record companies are screwing me over, too.”
Paul crumpled the photo. “Good. John and I are coming up with tons of stuff, and we can’t have some impersonator destroying our image.”
“No. Of course not.”
Brian clutched the telephone so tight his fingers tingled. With the cost of the trans-Atlantic phone call, he might as well have booked a flight. “What do you mean, ‘your own stuff?’”
The Texas drawl of Dusty clamored over the call, “You know, our songs. We’ve been singing your boring old Beatles stuff, but we didn’t have time to learn all of it. We had to fill in with something.”
“That wasn’t the deal. You’re being paid to be the Beatles just long enough so I can break the real band over there. It was bad enough you didn’t get the haircut and wore cowboy hats in your photos, but singing ‘your own stuff’ tears it.” He put his hand to his forehead. “Didn’t you listen to the songs I gave you to learn?”
“Yeah, but some of it just wasn’t our style, and we had to learn an awful lot in a short time. You gave us a ton of gigs, Mr. Epstein.”
Epstein pursed his lips and held back his anger for just a moment. “I’m going to cut you loose if you can’t play by my rules. You know who I got interested in your group? Ed Sullivan, that’s who. Now you’ve been good to me, boys, and all the Beatles singles are flying off the shelves. But I could take my boys, the real ones, and you’d be back on the streets. Is that what you want?”
“Now shape up. Get your hair cut, get fitted for those suits, and learn your music.” He moved to hang up, then remembered, “Oh, and George – I mean, Dusty?”
“Let Paul do all the talking.”
John sat calmly on a pillow, anger seething somewhere deep inside him, while Paul reddened and steamed.
“That’s all I ask,” Brian said. “The American market is cracking, I know it. You just have to write something tailored for them. Something with more blues influences, something more rural. You boys are good at this. You can do it.”
“But our songs are great already.”
“Your albums are great, boys, but we’ve got to start thinking of the next album. Hey, George is into that Indian mysticism and whatnot – get together, make an album with international flavor. How does that sound?”
John stood. “You can’t control our creativity. We write what we write, and you are powerless to change that.”
“And people buy what they buy, and you are powerless to stop that.” Brian pointed to each young man in turn. “Come on. You’ve got it in you. Write the songs for me, make an album.”
Paul swallowed. “We’ll see what comes out, Brian.”
John nodded in agreement. “Yeah. We’ll see.”
JULY 3, 1964
Brian read the headline of the culture section in the Daily Mail and coughed on his morning digestive. He pounded his chest with a fist to clear the blockage and, hand shaking, picked up his cup of morning tea to wash down the crumbs.
He took a key from his pocket and shoved it into a desk drawer. There, in a box sitting next to a bottle of fine Scotch and a couple glasses that needed cleaning, sat a row of business cards. Brian sorted through the cards and took out an ivory piece of cardstock. His hands shook as he took the card and closed the desk door, whiskey and glasses clinking as he did so.
His shaky fingers trailed around the rotary dial. “Please be in the office,” he begged. “Please pick up…”
The dial tone hummed twice before the line clicked and a man answered, “Bill Kehoe.”
“Oh, Bill.” Brian wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned forward. Despite the distress in his body, he kept his voice even. “I was just getting in the office, and I noticed the newspaper. Have you seen the article in the Daily Mail about my boys?”
“The Mail? Brian my boy, I’ve seen about it in the Independent. Your boys’ arrival back on English soil is everywhere in the entertainment pages. Good show, I say, good show-”
“You don’t understand-”
“I don’t? Why, it means you’ve cracked the American market and successfully toured the planet! No one’s done that, not even me.”
“Shut up, Bill. It’s you who’s got me into this mess, and it’s you who’s got to get me out.” Brian huffed, looked to the door to make sure his secretary hadn’t heard his outburst. “I made the fake band like you suggested. Problem is they sold like hotcakes, and the American public wanted their image, not the real thing. I couldn’t substitute my real band back in before the Ed Sullivan show, and then it was far beyond too late.”
Bill grumbled on the other end of the line. “You’re saying the boys in the article are the Fake Beatles.”
“Yes. They weren’t supposed to come here!”
“Do your real boys know about them?” The telephone line crackled a bit as he spoke.
“They might suspect, but I haven’t told them anything specific.”
“Oh.” Bill Kehoe coughed on the other end. “What do you plan to do?”
“I don’t know!” Brian reached for a cigarette even though he didn’t like smoking indoors. “I haven’t lost control yet. None of them get out of bed this early, after all. They might even be working on this mystical Indian nonsense, in which case I might have a day, maybe two on the outside, before they figure out the ruse.”
“Then you have a little while to come up with something.” Bill grunted on the other end of the line. “I see three options, Brian: one is to tell your boys what’s going on, then try to hold their money out of reach in order to force them to work with you.”
“It’s not their money in the first place. I’ve done all the work.”
“Will they see it that way?”
Brian paused a moment. “Their contract gives me complete control over their image and brand.”
“So they’ll complain and eat everyone’s profits away in court. You’ve got them by the small and curlies, my boy. Offer them greater royalties for writing, singing, and recording their songs, but let your American boys with their American smiles keep touring. Not a bad deal for anyone, really.”
“What’s the second option?”
“Get all the money you have in cash. Preferably American dollars or Soviet rubles. Then take all you can in a couple of briefcases, go to some third world country, and establish yourself as a king of sorts amongst the savages.”
Brian clenched his fist. “You’re no help, Bill.”
“But I got you rich-”
Epstein hung up the phone before Bill could finish.
JULY 4, 1964
Brian slammed the door behind him. Dusty and Frank roused themselves from where they slept on the Brighton hotel room’s couch.
“Mr. Epstein!” Dusty shouted, his voice still quiet and stuffed from having just awoken.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Epstein fumed. He kicked an empty can of beer out of his way and made a path to the expensive couches. “You were supposed to return to the States after you finished at Brisbane. The real band is here in England, and they weren’t supposed to find out you existed.” He tried to rouse the sleeping band members, but their eyes batted just briefly before they fell back to snoozing. “Get out. My boys will do this Brighton show.”
The closet doors opened. John, Paul, Ringo, and George stepped out. Their faces were bedraggled, their facial hair fuzzy and scraggly like that of poor-kempt young men. “You really think that will work? That anyone will be expecting us?” John asked.
Epstein stammered wordlessly. Senselessly.
“You’ve had this fake band touring for so long that not even our own countrymen recognize us,” Paul accused. “We’re not the Beatles anymore. These dumb yokels are.”
Frank smiled and Dusty nodded in agreement.
Brian clenched his fists. “So you know what’s going on.”
“With that article in the paper advertising the Beatles’ arrival back in England? Of course we knew, you fool.” Paul pointed a finger. “How much money did you steal from us?”
“Nothing. I earned every pound I made.”
“Bullshit.” Paul’s brows furrowed into deep, angry trenches. “We made the songs. We sang the recordings. These bloody yanks jumped around the world however you told them – they did more work than you.”
“Well they bungled that last trip,” Brian cried. He pointed to the Americans on the couch. “You’re fired. I don’t care if you’re popular in the States.”
Dusty and Frank chuckled on the couch. “You can’t fire us.”
“I hired you to be front men, and you’ve frustrated me since day one! I can fire you whenever I please!”
“They don’t work for you anymore,” Paul spoke up. “None of us do.”
“Your contract –”
“Making a second band in our name was illegal, Mr. Epstein,” John said. “The lawyers Mr. Kehoe hired for us back in June agree that our contract was voided as soon as you hired the impostors.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Mr. Kehoe?”
“Our new manager.” Paul pointed to the door. “It’s you who are fired, Mr. Epstein.”
Brian gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “That traitor! This was his plan all along – he’s the one who told me to hire the impostors! It’s his fault!”
“Get out of this room.” Paul opened the door and pointed to the exit with an angry finger. “It’s your fault we’re no longer The Beatles. You killed us, Mr. Epstein. You ruined our names and our fortunes, and I never want to see your wormy face again!”
As Epstein turned to leave, he wiped a tear welling in his eye. He stepped over the threshold into the wood-floored hallway. “You could always make a new band. Hell, I’d manage you for free, after everything that’s happened. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.”
Epstein lowered his head. Taking all his money and becoming a king in some desert island sounded better every second.
The meeting took place in Bill’s office. A beautiful secretary filed her nails at her little desk, ready with a pen and stenographer’s pad if need be. “The song’s a massive hit,” Bill explained. “Not like your Beatles stuff, but we couldn’t expect lightning to strike twice, could we?”
Paul grumbled. “Those silly fake ‘Beatles’ still make money off our songs.”
“But you’re back from the dead as ‘The Zombies.’ Better than ever and 100% genuine…”
I’ll admit, this story was written for a themed anthology about the Beatles. They were looking for speculative fiction including alternate histories, so I gave them one based on mashing together the true stories of “The Beatles” with the even weirder true story of British Invasion band “The Zombies.” Since this story wasn’t chosen for the anthology, I was like, “Wtf am I supposed to do with this now?” and thus you receive this tale. Ta-da!
As far as I’m aware, no one has claimed copyright on the photo. At least this is what it says on Wikipedia…