Friday, August 13, 2010

Hamburg: an apprenticeship in rock and roll, 50 years on

August 17th marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first performance in Hamburg,Germany, beginning a period that would not only define the band themselves, but also help to shape the 1960's and beyond. What really went on in Hamburg is the story of how five provincial nobodies became rock star contenders.

The Beatles career is often all too easily compartmentalised into periods of musical or social significance, and the bands early days are no different. The group in its various forms, graduated from Skiffle to Rock n Roll, Merseybeat to Beatlemania, and Folk Rock to Psychedelic, before reverting back to their roots and finishing up playing good old Rock ‘n’ Roll on a rooftop in London. It was to those Rock ‘n’ Roll roots, forged in the dockside cafes and bars of 1950's Liverpool and Hamburg that the group would turn to escape the madness of stardom. After all, in their own words, they were, at best, just scruffs, teddy boys...”a band that had made it very very big, that’s all”.

In August 1960, teenagers John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison left Liverpool for Hamburg, a rough and ready seaport strikingly similar to their own hometown. Travelling with them were recently acquired bassist and artist Stuart Sutcliffe, and drummer Peter Best.

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had been knocking about Merseyside playing church halls, working men’s clubs and bus depots as a skiffle band from 1956, and aside from progressing to the finals of a skiffle competition in Manchester, they had scored little success. Without a steady bass player, and cursed by ever deserting drummers, the band may have eventually melted away into the obscurity of a normal life, most likely for careers at sea, as electricians or primary school teachers, but for an offer to travel to Germany. Hamburg was about to make history, Hamburg was about to ‘make’ The Beatles.

So much of this period has been covered in films and documentaries that myth and legend have often eclipsed the facts, yet this is a fascinating and significant period of the history of rock music which should be remembered fondly and studied closely.

So many vital components of what was to become the most successful rock band in history were assembled in this small and unsavoury city that its contribution to rock n roll should never be overlooked. It was in Hamburg that the Beatles played seven hours a day, seven days a week forging themselves into the dynamic musicians and songwriters that would explode in Britain in 1962. It was in Hamburg that the Beatles mop-top haircut was adapted, a look that was copied by every British invasion band who followed, and which permeated every level of western society for the next ten years, from school yards to Hollywood screens. It was in
Hamburg that John Lennon acquired his 1958 Rickenbacker 325 guitar, and McCartney his Hofner 1961 Viola bass, the two instruments which were to figure significantly in forging that early 1960's electric sound which was to influence so many other bands. It was in Hamburg that one Richard Starkey, AKA Ringo Starr first sat in with the Beatles on drums,sometimes with Paul McCartney on bass. So it was thus in Hamburg, and not Liverpool that the Beatles were born.

In fact the group changed their name from the Silver Beetles to The Beatles on the eve of leaving for Hamburg, and as a result the very first public performance by 'The Beatles' took place at The Indra Club, on the Grosse Freiheit, a seedy side street off the Reeperbahn, August 17th, 1960.

For five teenagers working as professional musicians, exposure to life on The Reeperbahn, Europe's premier red light district at the time, was to open their eyes and change them forever. Boys literally became men overnight. It was during this first trip that George Harrison, just 16, lost his virginity, and various other members of the band were involved in some particularly shocking acts of violence and depravity; mugging drunken sailors, knife fights on stage, stealing instruments, taking to the stage in just their underpants, and urinating from a balcony onto church-goers below. The entire group were evicted from the Indra club for being, of all things too loud, and had to be moved up the road to a larger venue. Paul McCartney and Pete Best were arrested and jailed for attempted arson, and later deported, while George Harrison was also deported for working as an illegal minor. All this took place against a backdrop of raw rock ‘n’ roll thumping along eight days a week, with seemingly endless sexual encounters with girls from the audience fuelled by a daily cocktail of alcohol and drugs, while Lennon persisted in deriding the German audience from the stage about their Nazi past. It was quintessential rock ‘n’ roll behaviour, before such behaviour was invented, the like of which would not be seen by the general public until the arrival of the Who, and it made The Rolling Stones look about as dangerous as Jedward by comparison. So if they tore it up in the capital of sleeze and sailors, why did the Beatles end up with such a squeaky clean image, while the Rolling Stones were perceived to be the bad boys of 1960's rock?

Brian Epstein understood that to sell the Beatles to a national and possibly an International audience, he would have to 'de-Hamburg' the group, to eradicate all of the unsociable habits they had picked up on the banks of the rivers Elbe, and Mersey. To do so, Epstein carefully suppressed the Beatles Hamburg days, which included bribery to bury pictures of John Lennon walking around Hamburg in his underpants, and a press story which was close to informing the British public how Lennon had violently and mercilessly beat Cavern Club DJ Bob Wooler senseless at his own 21st birthday. At the helm Epstein was so successful in his endeavours, that by putting a rough working class band into suits and steering them through a carefully groomed early career, he scored huge International success, and simultaneously paved the way for the British invasion of America. By ensuring that the Beatles lived up to the fabricated 'nice boy' image of his creation, his actions ironically facilitated the deliberate marketing of The Rolling Stones as the ‘anti-Beatles’ by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham would mould the Stones; middle class London boys, into the very rough and tumble image The Beatles had just cast off.

If one pivotal event in Hamburg defined the Beatles career, it was being contracted to record a single for Polydor records by Bert Kaempfert. After seeing them perform in the Kaiserkeller,Kaempfert booked the group to back another Scouser, Tony Sheridan, on a recording of ‘My Bonnie’. One dedicated Beatles fan on the scent of this elusive single recorded in Germany walked into a local Liverpool record store looking to import a copy. The man who took his order was the proprietor, Brian Epstein. Surprised to discover the group were not German, but local lads playing at the Cavern, and who frequented his store, he wasted no time. One month later they were contracted to Epstein, seven months after that they were contracted to EMI, and eight months later the group were number one. The Beatles were made in Hamburg.

The group finished their fifth trip to Hamburg on New Years Eve 1962. Those days were behind them now. They had a chart hit in the UK and 1963 would catapult them out of Hamburg and Liverpool into the national spotlight. The Grosse Freiheit, the German groupies, the dark and smelly clubs and the cheap booze had all served their purposes and were no longer necessary for the Beatles’ rise to international stardom. Those Hamburg days however, continued to shape them for the rest of their career. Klaus Voorman, whom they first met at the Kaiserkeller, designed the album covers for ‘Revolver’ in 1966 and the ‘Anthology’ project in 1995. Klaus later played bass with Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’, featuring on such huge hits as ‘Instant Karma’ and ‘Imagine’. Lennon later turned to his Hamburg days to record his 1975 covers album, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which featured a photograph of him on the cover taken by Astrid Kircherr during their first Hamburg trip. Astrid had been engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe, best friend of Lennon and the former Beatles’ bass player who had dropped out of the group and enrolled
in Hamburg’s College of Art and died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962.

Little is left of the original Hamburg the Beatles experienced, save for a plaque on a wall informing the passer by where it did actually all begin. The exterior of the Indra still exists, complete with plaque, although the interior has changed. The Kaiserkeller remains intact; still hosting bands and still selling cheap beer. Although a plaque also marks the spot, The Star Club burned down in 1969, while the building which housed the Top Ten Club still stands on the Reeperbahn.

Although the Grosse Freiheit has now taken on that tacky ‘Beatles tourism’ look which befell Matthew Street in Liverpool, visitors should remember that this seedy little street played a pivotal part in the formation of modern Rock music. Less than 14 months after stepping off stage at The Star Club for the last time, The Beatles stepped onstage at The Ed Sullivan Show in New York, in front of 70 plus million TV viewers. Known as 'the night that launched a thousand bands', that show was responsible for demonstrating to an excited youth that you could play electric instruments loudly on stage and that being in a band didn’t mean you had to have a band leader. The rest is history, and many a modern rock band, be it Oasis, Nirvana, or Kings of Leon can trace their ancestry back to that night. Arguably you could trace it all back to 219 hard days and nights of hedonistic sex, booze, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll on the Elbe.

Essential viewing, Backbeat (1994)

Essential reading, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman, (Harper Collins)

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