Beatles live on in Hamburg

Beatles live on in Hamburg

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Beatles live on in Hamburg

LOVE ME DO: Some of the Beatles memorials in Hamburg.  Photos by author

It’s half-past eleven and I’m walking along the busy Reeperbahn, the main thoroughfare of Hamburg’s St Pauli district. Half-past eleven at night, that is. The street is teeming with revellers enjoying a Friday night out. Some of the girls are tottering on their heels as they wander between the bars and clubs. It’ll be busy for many hours yet says Tomas, my guide.

I’ve joined him on a walking tour of St Pauli, the Kiez as locals call this part of town. We’re running late and it’s my fault. Our tour took an informal turn when we stopped off at the zum Silbersack bar to check out the pub with the oldest jukebox in the city. “This is a real St Pauli pub,” Tomas informed me. Atmospheric and packed, couples still managed to dance in the area close to the door. Rather than squeezing straight back out onto the street I ordered a couple of Astra beers, the local brew, and we stood chatting. It turned out that both Tomas and I share an interest in The Beatles, the Liverpudlian band whose breakthrough came while they were here in Hamburg.

On May 9, 1962, while The Beatles were in residence at the Star Club on the Grosse Freiheit, they were sent a telegram by manager Brian Epstein. “Congratulations, boys, EMI requests recording session. Please, rehearse new material,” he wrote. They would soon be signed to EMI’s Parlophone label and on December 20, while they were again playing in Hamburg, their single Love Me Do charted at number 17 in the Music Week Top Twenty.

LOVE ME DO: Some of the Beatles memorials in Hamburg.  Photos by authorThe Star Club is long gone, but a polished stone plaque — made from Indian marble — records the names of bands which performed at the club between 1962 and 1969. It provides a handy backdrop for fans who wish to have their photo taken during the tour.
Despite it being late at night we walk between Beatles related sites. The public transport runs 24 hours on weekends, so I won’t have problems getting back to my hotel.

Hamburg has changed a lot since the unknown band from Liverpool took up residency in the Indra Club on August 17, 1960. Back in those days, St Pauli was infamous; a portside red light district. These days it has reinvented itself as an entertainment district. A smattering of smart restaurants cater to the theatregoers who now head here to be entertained by Broadway style musicals. If you’d have told a 1960s sailor that limelights rather than red lights would draw the clientele to St Pauli in the early 21st century, he may well have thought you’d spent too much money in the district’s bars.

Surprisingly, Tomas tells me that the Hanseatic city had no attractions honouring the band until last year. Beatlesplatz, which symbolically represents the band members standing on a record turntable, was unveiled at the intersection of the Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit. It was in clubs on these streets that the band had their residencies.

A fifth figure stands slightly apart from the outlines of John, Paul, Ringo and George. This represents Stuart Sutcliffe, The Beatles’ bassist when they arrived in Hamburg. Sutcliffe left the band to concentrate on his passion, art, and died before his former band made it big. Backbeat, the 1994 film, depicts Sutcliffe’s tale and his relationship with the photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who photographed The Beatles at locations around the city.

The period from 1960 to 1962 was an important time in the development of The Beatles.

The band played hundreds of gigs, worked hard to hone their act, altered their line-up and did much to develop their image. Their experiences during their residencies in northern Germany helped forge the Liverpudlian musicians into an iconic band. “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” said John Lennon. Their long sets — lasting as long as six hours on weekends — are now seen as integral to the band’s development into world class entertainers.

We meet Ulf Krueger, one of the most knowledgeable people around on the subject of The Beatles in Hamburg. He wrote Beatles Guide Hamburg, a book in both German and English. It provides information on the people and places associated with The Beatles and their stays in the city. He is also one of the people who were involved in launching the interactive attraction, Beatlemania.

“We have the Beatles Square and now a Beatles museum, Beatlemania. I think it’s overdue that we have institutions like that in Hamburg. I have a lot of friends in Liverpool and they have an amazing Beatles scene there, and if there’s another Beatles city in the world, it’s Hamburg,” says Krueger. “Besides Liverpool, Hamburg is the Beatles place, so there’s a lot of Hamburg things that are going to be shown, including really important things such as the original contract between The Beatles and Bert Kaempfert. There are postcards from Ringo Starr sent from Hamburg to his grandmother, saying that the clubs in Hamburg are much better than those in Liverpool.”

Beatlemania has five floors and it’s more than a traditional museum experience. “There’s a cafe, and in the cafe you have the opportunity to listen to interviews we’ve done with people like Alan Williams, the man who brought The Beatles to Hamburg; Astrid Kirchherr, talking about her famous photos; Tony Sheridan and Horst Fascher, who was the managing director of the Star Club. You can watch them on a screen and listen to their stories,” says Krueger, who also played at the Star Club, but years after The Beatles appeared.

Back on the walking tour, Tomas impresses me with an impressive repertoire of historical anecdotes and trivia, which he delivers well. He informs me that it was here that The Beatles first wore their distinctive “mop top” hairstyles. Apparently, one of the reasons why drummer Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr, in 1962, was his reluctance to adopt the lads’ new look. The band members’ friends in Hamburg, particularly the group of young existentialist intellectuals and artists, known as “the Exis”, are credited with influencing the Liverpudlians’ adoption of their now famous hairstyle and the black leather clothing.

The walking tour was conducted at an easy pace and provided a good overview of St Pauli’s heritage as well as opportunities to see locations associated with The Beatles. And when the tour was finished we didn’t have to go far to find a decent bar where we could talk music over another couple of Astra beers.

Find out more at www.beatlemania-hamburg.com.

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