The Beatles In Hamburg by Spencer Leigh

It is well known that The Beatles’ formative years were in Liverpool and Hamburg, port cities in England and Germany. In John Lennon‘s words: “We were born in Liverpool, but grew up in Hamburg.”

Writer and BBC Merseyside presenter Spencer Leigh is the Liverpudlian author of books about the Cavern Club, the Star-Club, Elvis Presley, Paul Simon, Billy Fury, Buddy Holly, Lonnie Donegan and various Liverpool musicians including The Beatles, Pete Best and the Merseysippi Jazz Band. His 2008 book The Cavern: The Most Famous Club In The World is perhaps the definitive text on the cellar club which saw the birth of the Mersey beat sound in the 1960s.

The Beatles In Hamburg contains Leigh’s usual hallmarks: authoritative, thorough and enlightening, with various myths debunked, new stories told and long-overlooked characters interviewed.

We meet the gangsters and hard men that made their trade by running the music and sex clubs of St Pauli in the 1950s and 60s; learn of the local sex workers who befriended and protected the touring groups; of the other groups – German and English – who also played in the clubs, the pills, the fights, the hair and clothes, and the often squalid living conditions the musicians put up with.

There was a flat above a strip club across the road from the Star-Club, which was one of the places that we stayed. It had bare boards and four beds, a couple of chairs and a table. One of The Beatles had been sick and the cleaning lady wouldn’t remove it and it was there for two or three days. She complained to Manfred [Weissleder, Star-Club owner], who told The Beatles to clean it up, and all they did was put cigarette ends in it, matchsticks and what have you. After a few days she went back and told Manfred, and when he went to see it, they told him it was their hedgehog.
Lee Curtis, musician
The Beatles In Hamburg, Spencer Leigh

The Beatles were a raw rock ‘n’ roll band prior to Hamburg. Five teenagers who had previously played in various venues around Liverpool to little notice, they were musically naive, rough and ready, and hungry to perform.

They got the Hamburg gig through their one-time manager Allan Williams, who had already booked Derry and the Seniors to perform at Bruno Koschmider’s Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg. The Seniors impressed the club’s Koschmider, who asked for another band to perform at the Indra.

The Seniors begged Williams not to send The Beatles, thinking they were too amateur to impress. As the band’s saxophonist Howie Casey says: “I wrote back immediately to say, ‘Don’t send The Beatles, you will ruin the scene. Send Rory Storm instead.’”

Regardless, they arrived in Hamburg on 17 August 1960 and quickly proved their mettle. Performing for four hours each night at the Indra strip club gave them stamina, expanded their repertoire, and encouraged them to work on their performance skills.

It quickly paid off, and they progressed from the Indra to the Kaiserkeller, then the Top Ten Club and finally the Star-Club. All these venues were on either Grosse Freiheit or the Reeperbahn, the latter the main artery through the St Pauli district.

The Beatles had a repertoire of more than 200 songs – mostly cover versions – during their four residencies in Hamburg. During their time they lost a member – bassist Stuart Sutcliffe left to study painting, leaving Paul McCartney to take over. They also recorded a number of songs, including My Bonnie with Tony Sheridan, and befriended three locals who would change their lives: Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann and Jurgen Vollmer.

Voormann first saw the group performing at the Kaiserkeller. Struck by the raw power of The Beatles’ rock ‘n’ roll music, he encouraged his two friends to come the following night. The three bohemian Hamburg residents had a profound effect on The Beatles, and in particular their image. Kirchherr and Vollmer took a series of iconic photographs which define The Beatles in the early ’60s, and the trio all sported the moptop hairstyles which were popular among Hamburg’s art students.

The Beatles arrived in Hamburg wearing lilac sports jackets and trousers. They returned to Liverpool in black leather jackets, polo neck t-shirts and jeans. They bought cowboy boots from a shop on the Reeperbahn and had tailored leather trousers made. And if their image had been transformed, they were no less different as people and as musicians: they were worldly-wise in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a musical powerhouse ready to take on the world.

Although the basic facts of The Beatles’ stints in Hamburg are reasonably well known, no previous English-language book has so evocatively and thoroughly documented those times. The Beatles In Hamburg is a slight book – just 128 pages long – but is stacked full of facts, photographs, and old and new quotations from those who were there.

The book concludes with items on the Live At The Star-Club album, The Beatles’ brief 1966 tour of Germany, and what happened to St Pauli after they left. It takes us to the latter days: the 1994 film Backbeat, McCartney’s 1989, 2003 and 2009 visits to the city, and the 2008 opening of the Beatle-Platz square and the excellent Beatlemania museum.

The Beatles In Hamburg is published in association with the museum, and many of its exhibits are reproduced here: paintings by Stuart Sutcliffe and Klaus Voormann, flyers and posters, autographs and dozens of photographs.

Despite the proliferation of Beatles book, works on their Hamburg connections are less common, with Ulf Kruger’s pocket-sized A-Z-style Beatles In Hamburg a notable standout. There have been photo anthologies and books on specific aspects of the group’s time in the city, but Leigh’s and Kruger’s books are essential acquisitions for those interested in the whole period.

Unlike Liverpool, which occasionally feels like a city-wide Beatles theme park, Hamburg doesn’t make too much of its Beatles connections. It is possible to spend time in the city without encountering any of the key locations, and barely any are signposted as part of a tourist trail.

In a sense this is unsurprising. After all, the group only performed at a handful of St Pauli venues, all within a short walk of one another, and Hamburg has much to offer besides. But as the city changes and living memory recedes into the past, we should be grateful that those exciting, terrifying, era-changing moments have been given a full and fitting chronicle.

One response on “The Beatles In Hamburg by Spencer Leigh

  1. Zig

    Great review, Joe. I just finished this book recently and highly recommend it. The following passage from your review could not be more true…

    “But as the city changes and living memory recedes into the past, we should be grateful that those exciting, terrifying, era-changing moments have been given a full and fitting chronicle.”

    Well done, sir.

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