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24th February, 2017

Mersey Beat to Hamburg Sound: A Tale of Two Cities

John Lennon famously said "I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg" and during a recent city sales mission to the famous German city we took time out of our busy schedule for a trip down to the Reeperbahn to relive this important chapter in history.

Hamburg is the city where John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best performed regularly between August 1960 and December 1962. It’s fair to say that their time spent in Hamburg (Mark Lewisohn clocks them doing 1200 hours in total) was crucial in honing their performance skills, increasing their reputation and ultimately led to their first recording.

 

The Beatles Story, Liverpool’s award winning attraction, features a Hamburg room which captures this key time in history and tells the story of what the young George Harrison called his apprenticeship years. Whilst in a taxi en route to the St Pauli district, Julia Baird, John Lennon’s sister, tells us all a lovely story of a fresh-faced 17-year-old George arriving in Hamburg armed with a ‘Huntley & Palmer’ biscuit tin filled with sausage rolls and scones made by his mum … in case the continental food wasn’t quite to his taste.

 

It was a grey, drizzly February morning in Hamburg when our group including Julia Baird, John Lennon’s sister, and a mixture of city ambassadors including The Cavern Club and Visit Liverpool, met up with Hamburg Beatles tour guide Stefanie Hempel at the stainless steel sculptures in memorial square (Beatles-Platz) on the Reeperbahn. Also known as ‘the sinful mile’ it still today has a bustling nightlife and is home to one of Europe’s largest red light districts.

Beatles' booking agent, Allan Williams had decided to send the Liverpool group to Hamburg as other groups he managed had proved successful there. The Silver Beetles, as they were then known, were not Allan’s first choice and he had approached 3 other bands who were unable to go before asking the boys. Having no permanent drummer at the time, they recruited Best just a few days before their departure.

 

 

Whilst in Hamburg, the boys lived in humble digs in the Bambi Kino (a local cinema) given its name as lots of children’s shows were shown there. Standing outside the Bambi, Stefanie informs us that the boys didn’t like it here and renamed it ‘the black hole of Calcutta’ as they slept next to smelly men’s toilets in two small storage spaces without windows. The children’s cinema shows started early and as the boys worked long hours playing in the clubs, they obviously didn’t get much sleep.

Like Liverpool and its many iconic Beatles tourist hotspots such as The Cavern, Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, visitors to Hamburg can follow in the footsteps of the band and visit the clubs where The Beatles primarily played in.

 

The Indra Musikclub is where the Beatles first played in Hamburg and a plaque outside marks the occasion. On their opening night in the Indra, the band had changed their name and it was that night that they played their first concert as The Beatles. They only had four songs in their repertoire, says Stefanie, so they needed to stretch their songs to fill their slot and a stripper was brought on to fill in the gaps. So it seems that their first gigs in Hamburg they were actually a backing group for a stripper.

The former Top Ten Club (now known as The Moondo) was The Beatles’ second engagement in Hamburg. The band did their longest run here of 92 days in a row and Stefanie tells us it was their favourite club as the mics had an echo system on which they thought was really cool. They were told to ‘Mach Schau’ (make a show) so their trademark was to jump around. There were often many gangsters in the audience who requested the boys to sing particular songs and as they didn’t want to get into any fights they would go along with them. Stefanie shows us a picture of a gangster (the godfather of St Pauli) singing on stage with The Beatles.

 

Up the road from the Indra, we head into the Kaiserkeller and out of the drizzling rain down the stairs into darkened rooms, smelling of stale smoke. We pass a Klaus Voorman illustration on the wall depicting The Beatles’ famous winklepicker shoes stomping on the Kaiserkeller stage. Stefanie tells us that there was a hole in the stage that the boys had to dance around during their concert which is still there all those years on. We eagerly walk over to check out the stage, only to find that it has only recently been fixed up.

 

 

Across the road from the Kaiserkeller is the place where The Star Club once stood. It burnt down in a fire in 1987 so unfortunately just a plague remains within an inner courtyard. Formerly an old cinema, The Beatles played at the Star Club at the end of 1962 along with Ringo Starr who had then replaced Pete Best. Their first night at the Star Club was not a happy night as Astrid had told the boys just earlier that day that Stuart Sutcliffe had sadly died from a brain haemorrhage. The venue was home to concerts from many famous musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry … to name just a few.

 

As we thank Stefanie for a being such a learned tour guide and head up the Reeperbahn past the many nightclubs, sex shops and dance bars, you feel that not much has changed in the 57 years since the night that a young, enthusiastic band from Liverpool came to Hamburg, spent 1200 hours honing their craft and within just one week of leaving Hamburg exploded on to worldwide fame and ultimately became the phenomenon they are today.

And there’s no denying that the two great cities of Liverpool and Hamburg love to tell their story …

Diane Glover

Diane is Marketing Manager at The Beatles Story and an enthusiastic ambassador for the city of Liverpool.

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