By Chris M. Junior
The storied history of The Beatles includes its share of important geographical locations, among them Liverpool, New York City, London and San Francisco. But there’s no telling how different the history of The Beatles — and the history of rock ’n’ roll, for that matter — would be had they never gone to Hamburg, Germany.
Details vary about some of their adventures in the seaport city. Even so, Hamburg is where The Beatles met and bonded with Ringo Starr. It’s where they made their first commercial recording, which would lead them to manager Brian Epstein. And Hamburg is where, over the course of five visits between August 1960 and December 1962, they would play the most gigs of their career, putting them on course to explode internationally.
1960: The Indra, the Kaiserkeller and making new friends
In the months leading up to its first Hamburg trip, the group was known as The Silver Beetles, playing random hometown gigs in Liverpool as well as other parts of England, despite not having a regular drummer (guitarist Paul McCartney often handled drumming duties). These were not glamorous, lucrative engagements — and they were not without some awkward moments. One of the band’s more unusual jobs took place in June 1960, when the quartet — McCartney, fellow guitarists John Lennon and George Harrison, and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe — spent a week at a basement Liverpool venue as the backing band for a dancer known as Janice the Stripper, according to “The Beatles Encyclopedia” by Bill Harry.
It was around this time that Bruno Koschmider, a club owner from Hamburg, was in London looking to hire bands. Derry Wilkie and the Seniors became the first Liverpool group to play in Hamburg. By way of Jacaranda Enterprises (run by Liverpool club owner Allan Williams), the former Silver Beetles — now calling themselves The Beatles — became the second.
The contract between Koschmider and Jacaranda Enterprises clearly stated that The Beatles include five musicians, not four. In order to meet this requirement, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Sutcliffe decided to find a permanent drummer.
Enter Pete Best, a man who had a reputation for being “mean, moody and magnificent,” McCartney said many years later. Following Best’s quick audition at Williams’ Jacaranda club in Liverpool, the musicians piled into a van, and Williams (considered the band’s de facto manager) drove them to Hamburg.
On Aug. 17, 1960, The Beatles made their Hamburg debut at Koschmider’s Indra club, located in the red-light district neighborhood of St. Pauli. It was a gig to forget: According to “The Beatles Encyclopedia,” the band played for more than four hours in front of an “uninterested audience of half a dozen people.”
The Beatles’ contract with Koschmider called for them to play even longer on weekends: six hours each on Saturday and Sunday nights. As Lennon recalled later, sometimes a little pick-me-up was needed in order to get through the daily grind of gig after gig.
“The waiters always had these pills called Preludin,” Lennon said. “And so the waiters, when they’d see the musicians falling over with tiredness or with drink, they’d give you the pill. … you could work almost endlessly until the pill wore off — then you’d have to have another.”
Meanwhile, the long sets allowed The Beatles to improve as musicians, which in turn attracted bigger crowds. As Harrison later put it, they were also learning how to “make a show for the people” while in Hamburg.
“The songs were exclusively American,” recalled Best in the book “How They Became The Beatles,” written by Gareth L. Pawlowski. “Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, along with Elvis [Presley] and Little Richard. … By this time we were drinking more than our share of Hamburg’s booze … ‘making show’ could create an enormous thirst.”
“Making show” also contributed to the excessive noise at the club, and the ruckus led to police closing the Indra on Oct. 3, 1960, according to Pawlowski’s book. The next day, The Beatles played at Koschmider’s Kaiserkeller club, just down the street from the Indra.
Sharing the Kaiserkeller stage with The Beatles that first night was the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, whose drummer was Liverpool native Ringo Starr. After a while, when he wasn’t playing with the Hurricanes, Starr would spend his late-night downtime checking out The Beatles. Collaboration proved to be inevitable, and in mid-October 1960, Starr and his new friends, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, backed Hurricanes guitarist Wally Eymond during a recording session in Hamburg.
That same month, The Beatles met a group of young Hamburg artists known as the Exis, which included photographers Astrid Kirchherr and Jurgen Vollmer, plus illustrator Klaus Voormann. They soon became part of the band’s inner circle. Kirchherr and Vollmer photographed the band members collectively and individually around Hamburg. Kirchherr, who had been dating Voormann, quickly became smitten with Sutcliffe. And depending on the source, it was either Voormann’s or Vollmer’s hairstyle that led to The Beatles’ mop-top look (see sidebar).
Later in the fall of 1960, The Beatles were offered a chance to replace Tony Sheridan and the Jets at the Top Ten Club, a venue along the Reeperbahn, a main thoroughfare in Hamburg. When Koschmider caught wind of this, he wasn’t pleased. His contract with the group clearly stated that The Beatles could not appear “in any place of public entertainment within a radius of 25 miles of the place of entertainment mentioned for 30 weeks before and 30 weeks after this engagement.”
Adding insult to injury was a letter signed by Koschmider and dated Nov. 1, 1960, requesting that the band leave on Nov. 30. The notice was issued “by order of the Public Authorities,” who had learned that Harrison, at 17 years old, was underage and therefore in violation of St. Pauli’s curfew.
McCartney and Best weren’t about to go quietly. As they were packing up their belongings at Koschmider’s Bambi Kino cinema, where the band had been living, Best found a condom in his luggage. And just for a laugh, McCartney recalled in the TV documentary “The Beatles Anthology,” they pinned it to the exterior of the Bambi Kino and set fire to it, leaving a black rubber stain on the concrete wall. Koschmider didn’t find any humor in this prank, so he called the police, who put McCartney and Best in jail for about three hours before deporting them.