On 27 December 1960 The Beatles appeared at the Litherland Town Hall Ballroom in Liverpool in a performance widely regarded as being a turning point in their career. The band, in one form or another, had been playing in the Liverpool area for over three years, and in May 1960 had gone on its first tour, albeit a mere seven days in Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle.
The Beatles had not previously been considered one of the city’s top beat groups. Yet the band that stood on the Town Hall stage was far removed from the previously-named Silver Beatles (or “Beetles”) – as they stomped through a powerhouse set of rock ‘n’ roll classics, the audience surged to the front of the stage, screaming, and later besieged the group for autographs.
What had happened to change the group can be summed up in a single word: Hamburg.
Had it not been for the “Hamburg Experience,” The Beatles might well have carried on playing the same Liverpool circuit for a few more years until their energy and ambition had faded, eventually splitting up and leaving the world none the wiser about their existence.
But three months of playing in Hamburg, Germany, to an audience of gangsters, hoodlums, sailors on shore leave, prostitutes, strippers, “slumming” nightclubbers, and art students had changed the group irrevocably from hobbyists into professionals.
Before arriving in Hamburg, the group had played no more than 60 or so shows; in Hamburg, it was expected to play for four and a half hours every week night, and six hours on the weekends. It was a backbreaking schedule that forced a group to sink or swim.
By the end of 1961, it was clear which path The Beatles had taken; They were one of Liverpool’s top draws, had returned for another successful season in Hamburg, made their first professional recordings and had acquired a manager in Brian Epstein.
But strangely, for being such an important period in their lives, The Beatles‘ Hamburg years have yet to be examined in depth.
There are books that focus on just about every other aspect of their career (the early Liverpool years, Beatlemania-era tours, the Apple years), but the story of their Hamburg sojourns has been largely relegated to one or two chapters in Beatles biographies.
So although the general public undoubtedly knows that The Beatles came from Liverpool, most would be unaware of how their trips to Hamburg helped forge them into the group that would later take the world by storm.
That situation changed dramatically in 1994, primarily due to the release of the film BackBeat. Though the film was not as great a success in the USA as it was overseas (particularly in Britain), a number of music and entertainment magazines ran stories about the film, often illustrated with Astrid Kirchherr‘s historic photos of the early Beatles.
For the first time in many years, Kirchherr granted several interviews, both to promote the film and the publication of Liverpool Days, a collection of photos by herself and Max Scheler.
Pauline Sutcliffe, the sister of Stuart Sutcliffe, the original “fifth Beatle,” also gave numerous interviews and put in appearances at different Beatles conventions to promote exhibits of Stuart’s artwork and the publication of her own book, also entitled BackBeat (subtitled Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle), and co-written with Alan Clayson.
As a result, more people have begun to realise that the story of The Beatles‘ early years lies as much in Hamburg as it does in Liverpool.
The group appeared in Hamburg on five separate occasions before finding success in Britain. The story of how a Liverpool group came to play in the seedy bars of Hamburg’s notorious red light district known as the Reeperbahn involves a number of curious twists and turns, coincidences and the hand of fate, a story that was largely overlooked in BackBeat.
It began in 1960, when Allan Williams, a small-time entrepreneur and friend of The Beatles, discovered that the steel drum band he’d engaged at one of his clubs, the Jacaranda, had departed for Hamburg.
The group then contacted Williams, inviting him over to survey the club scene and promote his other groups. Williams duly took up the challenge, and arrived in Hamburg with a reel-to-reel tape containing recordings of different Liverpool bands. During his stay, Williams did make contact with one club owner, Bruno Koschmider, but found that the tape he’d made had been damaged during his journey, and was unplayable.
Discouraged, Williams returned to Liverpool. But unknown to him, Koschmider’s curiosity had been roused by his visit, and Koschmider set out to England to obtain some rock ‘n’ roll groups himself. Not surprisingly, he went to London, not Liverpool, where he first discovered Tony Sheridan and brought him over with a newly-assembled group, The Jets. The group proved to be highly successful with German audiences, and when it moved on to another club, Koschmider returned to England in search of other groups.
Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, Williams was having new problems. Working with promoter Larry Parnes, Williams had secured summer work for another of his groups, Derry and the Seniors.
In anticipation of this work, the band members had quit their day jobs, and were irate when Parnes summarily cancelled their booking. To smooth the situation over, Williams drove the group to London, took them to The 2i’s coffee bar and talked the manager into letting the band perform that night.
By chance, he encountered Koschmider at The 2i’s, and was at last able to introduce him to rock ‘n’ roll, Liverpool style. After watching Derry and the Seniors play, Koschmider agreed to hire them, and the group arrived in Hamburg on 24 July.
The Seniors were also successful, and Koschmider soon contacted Williams about sending over other Liverpool groups. Williams first considered Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and Cass and the Cassanovas, but both groups were presently engaged elsewhere.
Gerry and the Pacemakers were then approached but turned the offer down. Finally, Williams asked The Silver Beatles, whose line-up then consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison – all on guitar – and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass.
The group found a drummer in Pete Best, a member of another band, The Blackjacks, that was playing its final gigs before the other members returned to college. Best eagerly accepted the offer, the group dropped the “Silver” from its name, and hit the stage at Hamburg’s Indra Club, formerly a strip club, on 17 August 1960.
After the Indra was closed in October, The Beatles moved on to the Kaiserkeller, where Derry and the Seniors were playing. When the Seniors’ contract was up, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes arrived. Shortly after the Hurricanes’ arrival, Allan Williams arranged for Lennon, McCartney and Harrison to make an amateur record with two members of the group, singer/bassist Walter Eymond and drummer Ringo Starr; it was the first time The Beatles played with their future drummer.
But the group’s first trip to Hamburg would end ignominiously, due to the ever-present rivalries between club owners. The Beatles had become friendly with Tony Sheridan and the Jets, and were sitting in with the group at the Top Ten; this enraged Koschmider, and he cancelled their contract.
The group was not initially dismayed, as plans were quickly laid for them to move to the Top Ten officially, but Koschmider was still intent on retaliation. First, the German authorities were alerted to the fact that Harrison was only 17, hence a minor and not allowed to play in German nightclubs; he was duly deported. Next, McCartney and Best were deported on trumped-up arson charges.
Without their group, Lennon and Sutcliffe were at loose ends; Lennon eventually followed the other three members back to Britain, while Sutcliffe remained in Hamburg with Astrid Kirchherr, now his fiancé, not returning to Liverpool until February 1961.
But once their deportation mishaps had been cleared up – and Harrison turned 18 – the group returned to Hamburg on four further occasions; April to June 1961, when it played at the Top Ten (after which Sutcliffe left the group); April to May 1962, when they played at the Star Club; and, with their new drummer Ringo Starr, November 1-14, and December 18-31, 1962, again at the Star Club.
Their second and third trips to Hamburg saw the group recording as backup musicians with Tony Sheridan, and their final show of 1962 was also taped on primitive equipment.
They then returned to Liverpool; within two months, the group would have its first #1 when Please Please Me topped the charts. Like their time in Liverpool, their Hamburg period was now behind them.
Those interested in studying The Beatles‘ Hamburg years have a number of sources they can turn to. Hunter Davies was the first to examine the Beatles’ Hamburg period in depth in his authorised biography of the group, simply titled The Beatles, which, for the first time, gave readers a clear sense of the impact the Hamburg period had in the band’s development.
Other biographers who gave further insight into this period include Philip Norman, in Shout!, Ray Coleman, in Lennon, and Mark Lewisohn in both The Beatles Live! and The Complete Beatles Chronicles.
Jurgen Vollmer’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Times and Gareth Pawlowski’s How They Became The Beatles were pictorial records of the early Beatles, and two other close associates of the group told their side of the story in The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, by Liverpool promoter Allan Williams, and Beatle! The Pete Best Story by Pete Best.
There are also recordings available from the Hamburg years. The eight songs The Beatles recorded with Tony Sheridan, first released in 1961, have been repackaged innumerable times since the early ’60s. On six of the numbers, where The Beatles only served as backing musicians, it’s difficult to assess their skill as musicians, though their recognisable whoops of delight (especially from McCartney) are a testament to their energy and their backing harmonies on Why are the clear forerunner of their later work on such songs as This Boy.
Their own numbers offer a clearer look at their developing talents: Cry For A Shadow is a light-hearted parody of The Shadows’ instrumental style, and Lennon’s ragged vocal on Ain’t She Sweet displays the punishing workout the group’s vocal cords were put through on a nightly basis.
The band’s New Year’s Eve performance in 1962, first released on the double-album Live! At The Star Club In Hamburg, Germany, 1962, gives a better indication of what the group sounded like onstage.
Though the band rushes through its set at a breakneck pace (a clear indication of its desire to hurry through the engagement in order to rush back to England in order to promote its next single), the range of material, from Falling In Love Again to Twist And Shout, is fascinating, and a last look at the band’s vast catalogue of cover songs.
Like the material recorded with Sheridan, the 30 tracks from the Star Club performance have been repackaged many times since their first appearance in 1977 (after The Beatles tried unsuccessfully to prevent their release).
There was initially some confusion about the origin of the tapes used to make the record; the liner notes claimed they’d been recorded by Ted Taylor, of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes on a night when Starr just “happened to be ‘sitting in’ for Pete Best.”
In fact, since the recording date was 31 December 1962, Starr had been a member of the group for over four months. And according to Bill Harry’s The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia, it was Adrian Barber, formerly a member of Cass and the Cassanovas and The Big Three, who made the original recording when he was stage manager at the Star Club, on the PA/recording system he’d designed for the club himself.
There are also speculations that amateur recordings of a Beatles rehearsal previously believed to have been done in the spring of 1960 in Liverpool were actually done in Hamburg that fall.
Even at this early date, whether spring or fall, the harmonies on The One After 909 are strong and confident, and not far from how they would sound when the composers would finally release the song a decade later.
The most complete sessions are available on the bootleg LPs The Quarrymen Rehearse With Stu Sutcliff [sic] Spring 1960; The Quarrymen At Home (also on CD), and Liverpool May 1960, and the CD The Quarry Men: 58 To 62.
In addition to BackBeat, an earlier film also looks at the Beatles’ Hamburg years. The 1979 made-for-TV feature The Birth Of The Beatles is one of the few films actually about the Beatles (i.e., not “inspired” by them, a la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or I Wanna Hold Your Hand), and was filmed in London, Liverpool and Hamburg. Considering the medium for which it was intended, this is a decent effort to tell the Beatles’ story, though the usual “artistic license” is freely taken, despite Pete Best’s billing as “Technical Advisor.”
Stephen Mackenna, as a thoughtful and sometimes angry Lennon, is the only character who makes much an impression; Rod Culbertson’s Paul is ambitious and eager to please, but the rest of the group is relegated to occasional one-liners. The music was provided by Beatles soundalike band Rain.
BackBeat ostensibly presents a more “realistic” look at The Beatles’ time in Hamburg, which means there’s far more rough language and nudity, though the same artistic liberties are freely taken with the story.
Lennon (played by Ian Hart) is again the dominant character, with Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) coming in a close second; McCartney (Gary Bakewell) is clearly a secondary character, and the other Beatles are again relegated to the occasional one-liner, more understandably in this case, as BackBeat is really the story of Lennon, Sutcliffe and Kirchherr.
The music was provided by a grunge “super-group” featuring Greg Dulli, David Pirner, Mike Mills, Don Fleming, Thurston Moore, and Dave Grohl, produced by Don Was, who also wrote the instrumental music for the film (the rock and instrumental numbers appear on separate soundtracks).
The best audio/visual documentation of the Hamburg years may well be The Beatles’ own Anthology video series, when The Beatles themselves share their memories of the period. But the stories about the other people who were participants in the Hamburg scene often concentrate solely on their relationship to The Beatles, overlooking the rest of their lives.