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volume 13
july 2010

Fifty years Beatles in Hamburg


  From the Hamburg Sound to the club scene of today
by Matias Boem
  On August 17th, 1960, the Beatles entered Hamburg's music club Indra. Now fifty years later, on the same day and place, a yet completely unknown band named Bambi Kino, will play their songs from that period. Presenting the festivities, Matias Boem here recollects the ways in which Hamburg moulded and shaped the Beatles.

Hamburg, August 17th, 1960. Strictly speaking the following message would just be a marginal note of the music business: On August 17th, 2010, a yet completely unknown band named Bambi Kino will play in Hamburg's music club Indra. But as a matter of fact this is a rather unique event. Because exactly on this day fifty years ago in exactly the same club, (in a neighbourhood which is probably the most famous in the world), the Beatles kicked off their career. Two shabby back rooms of the Bambi Kino (Bambi Cinema) right around the corner were their lodging then and the members of the band Bambi Kino, who are world famous musicians in their own right, will re-create exactly the songs the Beatles performed on that very day. So on August the 17th 2010, pop history will be brought back to life in the music metropolis of Hamburg. Beatles fans from all over the world will jump at the chance to experience this anniversary concert and after that explore what else Hamburg has to offer. From The Beatles to Hamburg's new fresh pop music sound.

  It all began with a shock. When the Beatles got their first engagement in Hamburg on the 17th of August 1960, they where full of anticipation. The Hanseatic City was considered to be the perfect place to make good money by giging. And the Reeperbahn was the incarnation of adventure for those naive from Liverpool. Where nowadays countless cutting-edge music clubs line the neon bright streets, back in the day, the audience craved for all night entertainment — especially for exciting music, such as Rock'n'Roll and it's British exports. Derry and the Seniors very successfully performed here, as did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and Tony Sheridan and the Jets. Hamburg, which is widely known nowadays as the live music capitol of all northern Europe, was just about to become the German hotspot of the international music scene.
  And the Beatles wanted to be close to the action. Just a couple of days ago they had got themselves a drummer to meet the conditions of their contract. So John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison as well as their then bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and their new member Pete Best entered the Indra for the first time on the evening of the 17th of August — and were amazed. While Hamburg's Reeperbahn has become an entertainment boulevard during the last twenty years, hosting exciting live music, theatre shows, big musicals, delicious restaurants and lots of subculture, during the Sixties it's offering was comprised of just sex for sale and pubs for sailors.

The Hamburg Sound. Back in the Sixties no cool music club awaited the Beatles, rather a seedy strip joint. Their audience did not consist of hip night owls or enthusiastic music fans but of prostitutes and their punters. And they themselves were not the main attraction of the programme, but the stopgaps between the performances of the strippers. When Bruno Koschmider, owner of the Indra, finally thrust their contract into their hands, they were shocked. On weekdays they where supposed to play four and a half hours, during the weekend even six. Ignoring the fact that their repertoire could fit barely one hour and rehearsals with Pete Best hadn't even begun. A world collapsed — a world career was about to begin. The following two and a half years passed with 281 gigs played. Nowhere did the Beatles play more often during their whole career than in Hamburg — laying the foundation for what this band was to become: a blueprint of pop music.

  The harsh working conditions on the Reeperbahn contributed essentially to the evolution of the "Hamburg Sound." They forced The Beatles — like all the other bands grinding away on the Reeperbahn — to permanently grow artistically. In the beginning they prolonged their two minute cover versions of well known Rock'n'Roll songs by twenty-minute guitar solos, helping them to become better musicians. Then they started to write more original material, which widened to their repertoire. Finally Bruno Koschmider's daily demand: "Macht Schau, Engländer!" (Put on a show, Englishmen) inspired the boys who repeatedly stood on the stage like frightened rabbits to break their mould and come out of their shell, encouraging a bigger and loyal following. The Beatles found out very quickly how to withstand Hamburg's wearing nights, as there was simply no chance to ever get enough sleep. Bruno Koschmider had put them up in his cinema Bambi Kino just around the corner of the Indra. In two tiny windowless rooms without heating and shower, just behind the flickering movie screen and the blasting speakers. This was when they got to know Preludin, slimming pills which have long been banned. Combined with alcohol, they produced a high, which the whole Reeperbahn was taking instead of speed.
  The Beatles used to call their new home at the Bambi Kino "The black hole of Calcutta." Today a plaque in the Paul-Roosen-Str. 33 commemorates these days. Members of the highly praised bands Maplewood, Nada Surf, Moby and Cat Power from New York City continue that commemoration by forming a band which will again perform the earliest of all Beatles songs on August 17th, under the moniker Bambi Kino at the Indra. In 1960, after seven weeks, the episode at the Indra came to an end, as neighbours constantly complained about the infernal noise. After that for nearly fourty years not a single concert took place at the Große Freiheit 64 until the Indra was brought back to life in 1998. But the show went on seamlessly: Bruno Koschmider unceremoniously uprooted and moved the Beatles to the Kaiserkeller which he owned as well. Today the basement club serves as a club, while the higher Große Freiheit 36 is one of the main stages of the Reeperbahn Festival, which has taken place on the last weekend of September since 2006. Germany's biggest club festival invites about 170 international newcomers to "Germany's most creative neighbourhood" St. Pauli — for an amazingly low entrance fee of 59,00 Euros for three exciting nights of fantastic music.

The Hamburg experience. Every year thousands of festival guests curiously inspect the historic poster at the entrance of the Große Freiheit 36, which announced the Beatles as supporting act of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, whose drummer happened to go by the name of Ringo Starr. "Those guys had to practice for another year before I was interested in joining them," he joked later on. But somebody else was spontaneously attracted by them: the designer and musician Klaus Voormann. He dragged his whole circle of friends into the Kaiserkeller, including Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer, both photographers and like Voormann members of the "Exis," Hamburg's existentialists. They styled the Beatles with their typical hairstyle, which later on became famously known as the mop top.

  Astrid Kirchherr freed them from their pink checkered jackets and caps and introduced them to the Lederdschungel (leather jungle), a leather shop in St. Pauli's Thadenstraße that is still in operation, where the Beatles bought their first custom tailored skintight leather suits. Astrid herself sewed Stuart Sutcliffe a collarless jacket, which the whole band afterwards chose as their stage outfit. Klaus Voormann designed the cover of the Beatles album "Revolver," published in 1966, for which he was awarded a Grammy. Later on he played on several of John Lennon's, George Harrison's and Ringo Starr's solo records. Astrid Kirchherr shot the first professional photos of the Beatles, including classics like the Beatles on the Dom (fun fair) on the Heiligengeistfeld, or Paul McCartney in front of the air-raid shelter in the same location. Jürgen Vollmer photographed John Lennon standing on the stairs of the entrance to a brick house in Jägerpassage 1 in St. Pauli, while Paul, George and Stuart pass him by as shadowy figures. An image, which Lennon in 1975 chose for the cover of his solo record "Rock'n'Roll."
  The Jägerpassage, hidden behind a big wooden gate, appears to be frozen in time. Today it is one of the most beautiful destinations of countless guided Beatles tours. Stefanie Hempel for example does not only tell lots of anecdotes from that time but sweetly sings an arrangement of Beatles songs, accompanied by her tiny ukulele. And the Beatles museum Beatlemania at Nobistor 10, close by the Beatles square right at the start of the Große Freiheit, fills five storeys exclusively devoted to commemorating the Fab Four.

From the Top-Ten to the Star-Club. Back then, in the beginning of the Sixties, the band helped two more of Hamburg's musical institutions to hit the big time. During 89 nights in 1961 they played their biggest continuous guest slot in the brand new Top-Ten. Where nowadays the Moondoo tempts sultry dancers with Black Music and House Tracks, in previous years the Hippodrome attracted large crowds by showcasing naked ladies riding horseback in the ring or playing tag in the mud. 1962 saw Manfred Weißleder opening the legendary Star-Club at Große Freiheit 39. His sensational programme presented lots of international acts, many of them soon-to-be stars or even already established. This job is nowadays very well done by the tiny but very creative Molotow at Spielbudenplatz 5. Bands like the White Stripes, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem or Blood Red Shoes have played there, usually before the rest of the world had discovered them.

  Weißleder relentlessly lured away all the attractions of the Top-Ten when he opened the Star-Club, of course including the Beatles. They even gave three extended guest performances in Hamburg's newest stage and during the first their new manager Brian Epstein sent a message which read: "Congratulations, boys. EMI requests recordings!" During the second Astrid Kirchherr was commissioned to shoot the Beatles in their new plain suits. And during the third, their first single "Love Me Do" reached number 17 in the British pop charts. During those times, Hamburg made the Beatles stars and nowadays invites everybody to newly discover this magnificent legacy. The Beatles themselves never tired of stressing the importance of their apprenticeship years in the music metropolis Hamburg with John Lennon confessing: "I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg."
  2010 © Soundscapes