Peter Asher: Eyewitness to the Birth of Beatlemania

Music vet says British Invasion was '90% the Beatles and 10% everybody else'

Peter Asher
Monica Schipper/FilmMagic

Before he embarked on a long career as a top-flight record exec, manager and producer, Peter Asher was in the vanguard of the British Invasion as a member of the vocal duo Peter & Gordon. Paul McCartney wrote four hits for Peter & Gordon, and he also lived in the Asher family home in the mid-1960s while dating Peter’s sister, Jane Asher.

As CBS prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with its “Night That Changed America” special on Feb. 9. Asher spoke with Variety‘s Christopher Morris about his memories of the early days of Beatlemania.

Variety: You first heard Paul and John perform “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in your family’s house?

Peter Asher: Paul was living in our house off and on when he was going with my sister. In the basement there was a small music room that my mother used to give private oboe lessons. Paul used to use the piano – it was a small upright piano – and there was a music stand and a sofa, that was it. Shortly after Paul had moved in, John came over, and Paul stuck his head up the stairs and asked me if I wanted to come hear the song that they’d written, and I went down and sat on the little sofa. And they sat side by side on the piano bench and played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time to anybody anywhere.

Variety: Were you able to observe how the Beatles felt about the prospect of the band succeeding in the U.S.?

Asher: What I do remember very specifically was the moment when they got the news that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had gone to No. 1. That was extraordinary. It’s impossible to imagine now how distant, unachievable and magical America seemed to us…The idea of being successful there was beyond any of our wildest dreams. It still didn’t forecast the degree of insanity that would happen. Up until then the only British hits (in the U.S.) were Lonnie Donegan and Rolf Harris, and Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You,” or Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore.” They were one-off hit records. We didn’t see Americans taking to British stars. So we never expected it.

Variety: The first song Paul gave to Peter & Gordon, “A World Without Love,” has an unbelievably clever melody.

Asher: It’s a great song. And that was just sitting around. It was an unfinished, orphan song…The reason the Beatles didn’t do it was that John thought the first line was laughable. “Please lock me away…” When we got a record deal a little later, I think we were being seen by EMI as folkies. When we auditioned, we were singing “500 Miles” and an Everly Brothers tune. I think they thought we were the British answer to the Kingston Trio, or to Peter, Paul & Mary without Mary, as it were. But they did say, “Do you know of any other tunes that you’d like to try out on your first session?” That’s when we went back to Paul and said, “Look, if that song is still sitting around, we’d love to record it.” He said, “Fine.” 

Variety: You and your vocal partner Gordon Waller were among the greatest beneficiaries of Beatlemania.

Asher: Yes, we were. I believe “A World Without Love” was the first British No. 1 (in America) after the Beatles. It became this whole British Invasion, which of course we were thrilled to be part of. But of course in essence it was 90% Beatles and 10% everybody else put together, in that early stage. We were sort of substitutes. I remember being in an elevator in a hotel with a family, and this clean-cut all-American kid turned to me and said, “Are you a Beatle?” I said, “No.” He said, “But you’re a Beatle, right? You’re English.” It was almost like, “Are you part of that tribe?”

Variety: Did you have a sense that there would be such permanence to the music?

Asher: No. I don’t think any of us did. I’m not sure we really had time to think about it. I think tacitly everyone shared the assumption that the media undoubtedly shared, which was, “This all will be over in a couple of years.” One of the questions the Beatles got asked, and therefore we did, too, was, “What are you going to do when this is over?” In their case, they intended to continue as songwriters…It was almost as if that was the (career) that could go on – “after all the fuss about your little band goes away, dear boy.” I certainly had no clue that I’d still be in the music business 50 years later, that’s for sure.

Variety: So things were moving so quickly that you didn’t have a chance to think about what was going on?

Asher: That’s correct. But it began a process of people of the older generation taking young people a bit more seriously. There was previously a sense of, “Oh, they’re just young kids,” and by its very nature it couldn’t be any good. It couldn’t be important, because important stuff was done by proper grownups. That all changed.