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04th September, 2018

Interview: Klaus Voormann it started in Hamburg

Born in Berlin 1938, graphic designer, illustrator, musician and producer Klaus Voormann is best known as the artist responsible for The Beatles’ Revolver album artwork, for which he has received many international awards. Klaus designed more than 100 record, book, magazine covers and concert posters during his career as an artist, for bands such as The Beatles, the Bee Gees, Wet Wet Wet and more recently, Liam Gallagher.

As a musician Klaus played bass guitar for Manfred Mann, Paddy, Klaus & Gibson, and was a member of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. He also featured as a session musician for Carly Simon, Harry Nilsson, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and many others, and appeared on several of John, George and Ringo’s solo records.

Klaus’ affiliation with the Beatles began in early 1960s Hamburg, on the Reeperbahn in the city’s notorious St. Pauli district. Hamburg provided residency and performing venues for many Liverpool bands during the early 60s and the five Beatles, John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete regularly performed at the Kaiserkeller, the Top Ten, the Indra and the Star-Club.

 

 

It was the Beatles’ first manager, Allan Williams, who decided to take the band to Hamburg when other bands he had managed became successful there. Hamburg was an important chapter in the Beatles’ history which honed their performance skills, widened their reputation, and eventually led to their first recording and attracting the attention of Brian Epstein.

One day, Klaus found himself wandering down the Reeperbahn and heard music coming from the Kaiserkeller. He walked in on a performance by Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the next group to play was The Beatles…

Can you tell us about the first time you saw The Beatles perform?

"Well I first heard rock ‘n’ roll from the outside through the window of the cellar (Kaiserkeller – keller means cellar). When I saw them I was left speechless, the very first impression, before they even started playing was Stuart Sutcliffe who was still in the band, he looked outstandingly good. He looked just incredible. I thought he was the boss of the band, but then he went to the other side of the stage and picked up the bass and the rest of the band came on. Then you had John and Paul, but the great thing about them was they were so cocky and so fresh, and it was Liverpool, you can’t get that anywhere else in the world. Liverpool for me is so special, it’s amazing. That humour, if it were Gerry Marsden, John Lennon, Kingsize Taylor, or whoever, there’s a fresh, friendly humour.

 

 

"They didn’t yet do the ‘big show’, but they were already very good, and very friendly. Paul was always nice to people and George learnt German in school, so they used the little German they had to say ‘Gutten Tag’ and actually treat people nicely, and bit by bit they got better because the boss told them to ‘Mach Schau’ (make show)."

What was it about Hamburg that you think was so special for The Beatles?

"For them, it was their first time out of England and were of course completely flawed by the Reeperbahn because you had pimps, prostitutes, criminals, gypsies, you had fights going on, lots of drunkards, it was Sodom and Gomorrah, just awful.

"They were treated badly, slept in terrible conditions but got paid and that was the wonderful thing for them - they could say they earnt more money than their dads.

 

 

"I think the main thing is they earned their chops, the ability to just play and not even look at the chords and do whatever they wanted with their instruments. They had a huge repertoire of songs and particularly picked the good ones, if it were Chuck Berry or whatever else, they picked all the right songs. They didn’t play any of their own material, they played only cover versions and by doing that of course learned their trade before they even started to write songs."

You mentioned Stuart Sutcliffe before, who was also an artist and the bass player in The Beatles at the time. He decided to leave the band whilst in Hamburg to continue studying art and died less than a year later, what was he like?

"We became really, really good friends. First thing is he looked amazing, he could’ve been an actor, he could’ve been a painter, but a rock musician not so much. He loved rock ‘n’ roll but realised his musical ability was limited. I think he was a great bass player for The Beatles, he had the right tone and timing for it, but when it came to playing more complicated songs and being freer on the instrument he just couldn’t do it. He was much more interested in art than he was in music."

 

 

You remain good friends with Astrid Kirchherr who was also an important figure during Hamburg, and encouraged the band to wear Mop Top haircuts, do you ever reminisce with her about time spent with the Beatles?

"Sure, I see her quite frequently. She had two strokes but she’s okay, she can talk alright. We often talk to one another about those days. I’m going to see her next week. She’s a great woman, just beautiful."

Two cities play a central role in your life and work but what convinced you to move from Hamburg, a city you love so much, to London?

"In 1963/64 I moved to live on Green Street in London with George and Ringo. I was working as a commercial artist. It was amazing, it was the time when you had hundreds of kids standing outside and you couldn’t get out. If they wanted to go somewhere the police had to come and make it possible. Of course, the people who lived on the street must’ve gone nuts because of the screaming that was going on.

 

 

"I also had a band. Gibson Kemp, the drummer from Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, had a group called The Eyes and he called me when I was in London. He was actually married to Astrid at the time and asked me to join his band. I explained I had never played a bass before, but he talked me into it, so I got the song list and the records, listened to them and learnt all the songs. Then a few days later I was on stage in the Star-Club in Hamburg playing with this band called The Eyes, which later on turned into Paddy, Klaus & Gibson. Paddy Chambers played guitar in The Big Three, another Liverpool band. I had to learn pretty quickly how to play the bass."

Is it fair to say that you’re most famous for the Revolver cover artwork?

"From a graphic point of view, yes, but musically it’s a different story, those things are important too. I’d consider Revolver my best piece of work, I like it. I mean it’s the importance of it, I made the cover for the best band in the world. I did the job, and I did it good. I did it exactly right."

 

 

What do you consider to be The Beatles’ best piece of work?

"It’s difficult. You can’t take just one song and say that’s the best one, it’s impossible. You have a song like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ which at the time was sensational but then other songs come, and you can’t say it’s better than the last because if you think about the time it was actually created and the big steps forward that the Beatles made, they developed and grew up. To see that happen was amazing."

Do you remain good friends with Paul and Ringo?

"I saw Ringo recently, when he was in Hamburg and asked if I would go around and show him the places where they used to play. I showed him where the Star-Club was, but it’s been ripped down since."

Do you have a favourite memory of Hamburg?

"It’s difficult as there were moments in Hamburg that were amazing but nothing to do with the Beatles, like meeting with my art teacher and photographer. Of course, going to the Reeperbahn and being in the clubs like the Top Ten, and playing for the first time myself, those were amazing things that happened to me.

 

 

"Hamburg has changed a lot over the years, the Reeperbahn does not have the same flair. It has changed because of the whole scene, it’s just not the same anymore. When I was there you had a lot of criminals, prostitutes, sailors, people playing the accordion, you still have the harbour, but the seaport feeling has changed a lot now."

When did you first visit Liverpool?

"The first time was when Stuart died and I went to the funeral. I was immediately drawn in by the city, even the taxi drivers were funny and helpful, and of course I could understand them because I’d had all those Liverpool groups in front of my nose.

"I went to see the Cavern Club, the Jacaranda, the Blue Angel, and again it was the whole feeling of how the band played, you can always hear it. There was a certain feeling to each club that was typical to Liverpool."

 

 

Do you think things would’ve worked out if Stuart and Pete had remained in the band?

"Yes, I think that would’ve worked out too. I mean Ringo is fantastic, and I loved Ringo from the first time I heard him. He played with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in Hamburg and he already played great, no matter what anybody said. It didn’t matter about his technique, it was the way he was swinging and playing rock ‘n’ roll. The way his kit sounded he was already great. I don’t think that dimension would’ve grown out of Pete Best I’m sorry to say, I think that change was apparent. In Hamburg we were already talking about how great Ringo was. The Beatles knew him, he was always at the table, coming around making his jokes. He was a perfect fit, which only improved over the years."

You have a new book out, and a work show opening at the Reeperbahn festival this month, what can people expect them?

"I didn’t create this book, my children picked out all the images and then surprised me for my 80th birthday. And it’s a work show rather than an exhibition, I don’t really know what’s going to be presented but it’s a show where people can see works from when I started as a kid, to what I did later such as album covers, book covers and illustrations.

 

 

"It gives an overview of what happened when I was attending art school in Hamburg. The main improvement of my art work was in Hamburg, I went to art school and I did my first covers, not for the public or the record company I just wanted to do record covers.

"When the music came all that graphic stuff was in the background, I didn’t do any art. Even the Revolver cover was like ‘oh shit now I have to do some graphics’. It was hard for me because I was into music, I didn’t want to do any graphics. After the cover you would’ve thought I’d get lots of jobs doing graphics, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to play in the Manfred Mann band for a couple of years and then all the other stuff came, started with John Lennon, then George and then all over the place playing for other people."

Klaus’ book and exhibition project entitled ‘It Started In Hamburg’ is dedicated to his substantial creative work beginning in Hamburg in 1958. You can experience Voormann’s work from September 19th – 23rd in the heart of Hamburg St. Pauli at the Reeperbahn Festival Village. To find out more visit voormann.com.

Dave Milner

Dave is Marketing and PR Executive at The Beatles Story and holds an MA in 'Music Since 1900'.

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