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.
1961: The Top Ten, Sutcliffe’s departure and backing Sheridan
The Beatles returned home to Liverpool, but not for very long. In March 1961, they were back in Hamburg (with Harrison now 18 years old) to begin a long residency at the Top Ten Club that ran from March 27 to July 2. Sutcliffe, however, would not last for the entire run, amicably leaving the band early into the residency so he could return to art school (and continue his relationship with Kirchherr).
His departure seemed to make perfect sense for both him and the other Beatles. In the “Anthology” documentary, Harrison remembered Sutcliffe as someone who “couldn’t play at all” when they first met him.
“He learned a few tunes; occasionally it was a bit embarrassing, if [the song] had a lot of changes to it,” he added. “But he knew that, too. That’s why he was never really at ease being in the band.”
Harrison said he and Lennon were not willing to switch over to bass, so McCartney did, and The Beatles continued their Top Ten residency as a quartet. And it was at the Top Ten where The Beatles would back singer Sheridan, who was no longer playing with the Jets.
It didn’t take very long for the Beatles/Sheridan relationship to progress from the stage to the studio. Around late June 1961, the band backed Sheridan during a recording session at Friedrich Ebert Halle in Hamburg that resulted in the first commercial record featuring The Beatles: a version of “My Bonnie.” Released in Germany on Polydor during summer 1961, “My Bonnie” was credited to Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers; reportedly The Beatles didn’t know that label executives wanted all groups backing Sheridan to have the Beat Brothers name on his recordings.
But fans in The Beatles’ hometown knew the truth. In late October 1961, according to Pawlowski’s book, an 18-year-old man brought “My Bonnie” to the attention of Liverpool record store manager Brian Epstein, who quickly became intrigued by the buzz surrounding this local band. In early January 1962, “My Bonnie” was released in the United Kingdom and credited to Tony Sheridan and The Beatles — the first time the band’s name appeared on a record label. More big news came later that month, when the band signed a management deal with Epstein.
1962: Settling in at the Star-Club
On April 10, 1962, Lennon, McCartney and Best flew into Hamburg ahead of Harrison and Epstein to begin a stint at a new venue called the Star-Club. Waiting for them at the airport was Kirchherr, who broke the news that her fiancé, Sutcliffe, had died earlier that day of a brain hemorrhage. He was 21.
With their Star-Club residency starting April 13, The Beatles had little time to mourn. Harry writes in “The Beatles Encyclopedia” that the band had the good fortune of sharing the billing at the venue with Little Richard and Gene Vincent.
The band continued its Star-Club stint through May 31, and in the interim, Epstein had arranged for an audition with the EMI label at Abbey Road studios in London. After arriving 30 minutes late on June 6, The Beatles were introduced to producer George Martin, who listened to them play a handful of songs that included the originals “P.S. I Love You,” “Ask Me Why” and “Love Me Do.”
In July and August, The Beatles performed regularly at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and on the surface, all seemed well within the ranks. But on Aug. 16, 1962, a shocked Best was fired, with Epstein breaking the news to him.
The reasons vary for dismissing Best, a crowd favorite. In Pawlowski’s book, Best is quoted as saying that Epstein simply told him the other Beatles didn’t think he was a good enough drummer. It was believed in certain circles that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were jealous of Best’s ability to attract women, and that Best lacked stage charisma. In the Aug. 23-Sept. 6, 1962, edition of Harry’s Mersey Beat publication — under the headline “Beatles Change Drummer!” — the official word from The Beatles was that Best left “by mutual agreement. There were no arguments or difficulties, and this has been an entirely amicable decision.” (Years later, in “The Beatles Encyclopedia,” Harry would write that The Beatles’ comments, issued by Epstein, were false.)
Regardless, a new drummer was needed. Singer Cilla Black, whose manager was Epstein, claimed that drummer Johnny Hutchinson was the first choice to replace Best, according to “The Beatles Encyclopedia.” It is also believed that Epstein wanted Hutchinson and offered him the job, but Hutchinson turned it down. Hutchinson did play with The Beatles for at least one show before Starr, the drummer they became friends with in Hamburg, took over for Best by Aug. 18 or 19.
A few weeks after their first single, “Love Me Do”/“P.S. I Love You,” was released in the United Kingdom, The Beatles returned to Hamburg in late 1962 for two more stretches at the Star-Club. The first stint at the venue began Nov. 1 and lasted for 14 nights, and the second started Dec. 18 and ran through New Year’s Eve.
The last Star-Club show marked the end of The Beatles’ nightclub days in Hamburg, but it would not be their final show in the German city. On June 26, 1966 — more than two years after they arrived in New York to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and roughly two months before their days as a touring band would come to an end at Candlestick Park in San Francisco — they played at Ernst Merck Halle in Hamburg.
Keeping their Hamburg history alive
Today in Hamburg, there are plenty of reminders about The Beatles.
The Indra and the Kaiserkeller are still in operation, and there is a marker where the original Star-Club once stood.
These places and more are all part of singer/songwriter Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour. Raised in East Germany, Hempel became a Beatles fan at age 9 and since then has become versed in The Beatles’ Hamburg history.
Armed with a ukulele, the personable Hempel performs a few Beatles-related songs at various stops on her informative tour. For bookings, visit www.hempels-musictour.com.
Along the Reeperbahn, there’s the record-shaped Beatles-Platz, which contains steel silhouette sculptures of the band. Nearby is BEATLEMANIA Hamburg, a five-story museum devoted to The Beatles’ entire career; it opened May 29, 2009. One of the items currently on display is an original Star-Club pay receipt signed by Lennon.
Bernd Zerbin, who handles publicity for BEATLEMANIA Hamburg, says there are plans in the near future to expand the band’s Hamburg-related offerings at the museum, as well as other exhibits. To learn more about BEATLEMANIA Hamburg, visit www.beatlemania-hamburg.com.
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