The Beatles in Hamburg: 50 years on from the band's first concert
By Adrian Bridge
17 Aug 2010
It is not hard to see how five young lads from Liverpool who had barely been abroad before might have been taken with Hamburg. The German port had a reassuring grittiness to it. It had the raw energy and power that comes with a seafaring tradition. It had creative tension and edge. It had money. It had amphetamines. And it had sex. No wonder they liked it.
Like many British bands back then, the Beatles – who at the time of their first visit to Hamburg numbered five: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe – went there to seek their fame and fortune. And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Incredible though it may seem, today it will be 50 years ago to the day since the band played the first of what, during the course of five separate visits over the next two and a half years, would be 281 concerts in Hamburg.
Their work rate was phenomenal – at one point in 1961 they played for 98 nights in succession, frequently starting at 7pm and going through until 7am. They learnt how to survive on their wits, their flair for improvisation, their innate cockiness – and on a steady stream of uppers.
It is no exaggeration to say that it was in Hamburg that the Beatles properly learnt how to play as a band ("It was our apprenticeship," Harrison said); it was in Hamburg where they made their first recording (as the backing band on a Tony Sheridan version of My Bonnie); and it was in Hamburg that John, Paul and George first played together with Ringo Starr (he was at the time the drummer with the rather superior Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and told the lads that they had better work on their act if they wanted to get him to join).
That first performance 50 years ago was at the Indra Club – a dingy little place that doubled as a strip joint in the Grosse Freiheit ("Great Freedom") on the fringes of Hamburg's Reeperbahn red-light district. The band had driven from the Hook of Holland in an Austin minivan and had been given digs in a couple of bleak storage rooms in the back of a nearby cinema, the Bambi Kino ("It was a pig sty," Lennon recalled later. "We were right next to the ladies' toilet.")
Rock 'n' roll glamour it was not, but for the first time in their lives they were being paid proper money to perform. Their eyes were being opened to a world of prostitutes and sailors and gangsters, and their ears to a wealth of new music. Hamburg felt like the place where the action was; they stuck it out…
The Bambi Kino and the Indra are firm fixtures on the growing number of Beatles-related tours being offered in Hamburg in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of that first concert. And both will feature in a series of events today that mark the moment.
At the Indra, a band of five Beatles and Hamburg enthusiasts calling themselves Bambi Kino will be performing the original set performed at that concert on August 17 1960.
There will be further celebrations at Beatlemania, an outstanding new exhibition dedicated to the band that opened last year on the similarly newly created Beatles-Platz, a square on the Reeperbahn that takes the shape of a vinyl record containing the stainless steel silhouetted figures of the Beatles.
On Tuesday, Beatlemania will stage Let it Beat, a series of concerts by bands and solo performers and DJs playing mixes of classic and new-style Beatles beats. Male visitors will be invited to try a moptop haircut, the style the band adopted while in Hamburg.
With the naming of a square after the band and the opening of Beatlemania, the city is making a great deal out of its connection with the Beatles, but this has not always been the case.
For decades it was played down – largely owing to a reluctance to highlight the fact that the band spent nearly all its time in the less than salubrious surroundings of the Reeperbahn.
One of the first to recognise the need to take pride in the Beatles link was Stefanie Hempel, a huge fan of the band who grew up in East Germany and who on coming to Hamburg six years ago was shocked to discover there was almost nothing marking their time here.
She started her own magical mystery walking tour, involving explanations of the key sights – and musical accompaniment in the form of Beatles songs played on her ukulele.
In addition to the Indra and the Bambi Kino, Hempel's tours typically take in the Top Ten club (where the band played those 98 nights in a row in 1961), the Gretel & Alfons kneipe (pub) where they used to like to drink and the Kaiserkeller (still a functioning music venue).
It was the Kaiserkeller to which the Beatles moved after the Indra was closed down within two months of their first arrival (there had been complaints about the noise).
At the new club they were asked to play long sets seven days a week – and to "mach schau" – or put on a show, something Lennon in particular liked to do (he once turned up on stage wearing nothing but his underpants – and a toilet seat around his neck; he frequently addressed his audience with the greeting "Heil Hitler".)
Hempel explains how they played right through the night with only short breaks and drew on every musical influence they could. They learnt fast. As Lennon recalled: "Every song lasted 20 minutes and had 20 solos in it. That's what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud."
An early admirer was Klaus Voormann, a graphic artist who became a friend (he later designed the cover for the Revolver album). He recognised in them an "amazing talent". He says: "I'd never seen anything like it: they were wild; they had that Liverpool attitude; they had a freshness and quickness of ideas."
Through Voormann they came into contact with their first subculture, the "exis" (existentialists), and met Astrid Kirchherr, who is credited with having converted them to the moptop haircut.
Kirchherr, Sutcliffe's fiancée before his death from a brain haemorrhage in 1962, captured the Beatles' time in Hamburg in a series of moody black-and-white photographs that are among the most impressive exhibits at the Beatlemania exhibition.
As Stefanie Hempel leads us along the Grosse Freiheit (it may have been cleaned up a bit but it still boasts plenty of strip joints), it is clear that she enjoys her work. "Most visitors who come here know that the Beatles came to the city but have no idea just how much time they spent here or how much it shaped their development as a band," she says.
"I love the fact that even serious Beatles fans can discover a lot of new things here – that this was the place where they first properly met, recorded and learnt how to play, that Harrison was only 17 in 1960; that he, McCartney and Best were all deported. Hamburg was a huge adventure for them."
As it continues to be for visitors today. Hempel's tour concludes at Beatles-Platz and the nearby plaque marking the spot of another venue in which the Beatles performed, the Star Club (destroyed by fire in 1987).
It was at this club, on December 31 1962, that they played the last of those career-defining early concerts in Hamburg. Ten days later their second single, Please, Please Me, was released and went to the top of the charts.
If you don't want to drive across from the Hook of Holland in an Austin Minivan, there are several airlines with direct flights from Britain. Search www.fly.com
for the best fares.
The Bambi Kino no longer accommodates impoverished musicians – and when Paul McCartney returned to play a concert in the city in December he stayed at the rather grander Kempinski Atlantic (www.kempinski.atlantic.de;
0049 402 8880). The city also has several more modern hotels, including East, Side, and the 25Hours hotel. Check www.designhotels.com
In addition to Stefanie Hempel's unique ukulele take on the city, there are several Beatles-related walking and coach tours, including a Magical History Tour by bus. See www.stattreisen-hamburg.de
A veritable treasure trove of memorabilia, films (great footage from Strawberry Fields), a climb-aboard model yellow submarine and a wealth of information charting the course of the Beatles' journey – from Liverpool to Hamburg to the craziness of the 1965 Shea Stadium concerts to India and back to Abbey Road. For details of opening times and prices see www.beatlemania-hamburg.com
or telephone 3117 1818.
Continuing the tradition of encouraging fresh new live acts, the city now stages an annual music club festival in the Reeperbahn. This year's dates are September 23-25. See www.reeperbahnfestival.de
Hamburg Marketing (www.marketing.hamburg.de);
Hamburg Tourism (www.hamburg-tourism.de/en