Hamburg, Germany, and the Beatles’ yesterday


A Paul McCartney in steel strums his guitar on Beatles-Platz in Hamburg, Germany. (Axel Heimken/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
July 27, 2012

They’re just steel silhouettes, but instantly recognizable, an iconic lineup of four figures striking familiar poses with their instruments. Revelers passing through this busy intersection on Hamburg’s so-called “Sinful Mile” gravitate toward them, posing for photographs alongside the Fab Four: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and a drummer that represents both Ringo Starr and original percussionist Pete Best.

“I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” Lennon once said, referring to the more than 300 nights the Beatles spent playing in clubs along the notorious Reeperbahn red-light district of this north German port city in the early 1960s.

Where to go and what to know in Hamburg, Germany.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of their most famous residency, or series of gigs, at the legendary Star-Club, which means that even more Beatles fans are flocking to the area than usual. And Beatles-Platz, a circular plaza designed to resemble an old vinyl record, with the steel statues standing to one side, is where they congregate. I’ve been listening to the Beatles since I was a child, their songs part of the soundtrack to my life, and joining the pilgrims at Beatles-Platz, I feel almost as if I’m meeting my heroes.

But instead of the Fab Four, I find myself drawn to a fifth statue that stands a few yards away, walking toward the others, bass guitar slung low. No visitors are clamoring to have their pictures taken beside this figure, which represents Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bassist. Even here, attention eludes the lost Beatle. In case you haven’t heard of — or have forgotten about — him, Sutcliffe gave up his role in the band in 1961 to study art and live with his fiancee, the photographer Astrid Kirchherr, one of a number of young Hamburg artists called the Exi’s whom the band befriended.

I find the sight of his silhouette, standing on the fringes of the legendary lineup, oddly touching. It’s a snapshot of a life that took a tangent and met with tragedy: Sutcliffe would never see his former bandmates change the face of popular music, as he died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, aged just 22.

Just days after his death, the Star-Club opened a few yards from Beatles-Platz, on the colorful, bustling street called Grosse Freiheit. The remaining Liverpool lads were on the opening bill, still coping with the shock of their friend’s death. They played three long series of shows there throughout 1962, and those dates are now seen as the key turning point in the band’s development.

For Beatles fans like me, visiting the St. Pauli neighbourhood around the Reeperbahn is a powerfully evocative experience. A lot has changed in the past half-century, but I could still discern the last vestiges from the band’s time here. For starters, the area has retained its characteristic permissiveness. It’s still a wildly hedonistic street after dark, with crowds hopping from loud bars to gaudy strip clubs to lively music venues.

“It was always like that,” says Tony Sheridan, who was the first English musician to move to Hamburg in the summer of 1960 and who became a mentor to the five young men who arrived a few months later. (The Beatles’ first-ever recording was as Sheridan’s backup band on “My Bonnie,” released the following year.)

“In the old days, when you went off the Reeperbahn to the side streets, everything was gray, no color, no little bars,” he told me when I visited him at his country home north of Hamburg. “That was the charm of the Reeperbahn, because everywhere else there was nothing, they were still suffering from the effects of the war, and the only place to go to have a good time was St. Pauli.”

Eight days a week

Two blocks north of Beatles-Platz is the Indra, where the Beatles made their Hamburg debut on Aug. 17, 1960. Today, the building still hosts a music club; a plaque beside the door denotes its place in history. Now as then, the place suffers from being on the wrong end of the street, a block north of the main strip. This meant that the band played in front of small crowds, often no more than a dozen audience members. On the evening I visited, some middle-aged men were taking advantage of an open-mike night, playing jazzy soul to a mostly empty room; it gave me a good impression of what it might have been like for the Beatles as they played to dispiritingly small crowds.

The Indra is a pleasantly understated music hall, with a few framed posters harking back to the glory days of a half-century ago and inflatable dolls of the Fab Four hanging jauntily above the bar, an ever-present reminder that, no matter how hard the guys up on stage try to please, the place will always belong to the greatest act of all.

The Indra was run by a former circus performer named Bruno Koschmider, who hired the Beatles in an attempt to replicate the success he was enjoying with another club down the street. At the Kaiserkeller, Tony Sheridan and his band were thrilling young Hamburgers eager for new sounds. After 48 grueling consecutive nights of what was effectively paid practice sessions at the Indra, Koschmider moved the Liverpool five-piece to that same venue.

Today, the Kaiserkeller is more of a nightclub than a music venue, a dark, atmospheric basement space that hosts an eclectic range of music, from metal nights to, unsurprisingly, Beatles tribute bands. I had a fun night here with a soundtrack of ’90s rock and Britpop, featuring many bands that could be considered direct descendants of the Beatles. As I danced to some Blur and Oasis songs, it struck me that I was in the spot where the timeless template had originated — right over there, on that very stage in the corner.

A day in the life

During its first spell in Hamburg, the band lived in the Bambi Kino, a small cinema, also run by Koschmider, at 33 Paul Roosen Strasse, right at the top of Grosse Freiheit. This is where McCartney and Best got involved in a notorious condom-burning incident: The damage was minimal, but Koschmider conveniently used it to accuse the young men of arson and have them deported just as the band was on the verge of moving to a different club.

At first I struggled to find the old Bambi, until I realized that I was standing right beside it. The entrance to the old cinema is covered by heavy ivy, like a holy grotto, with leafy shadows dappling photos of the band and a small, weathered plaque announcing its brief habitation. A stenciled painting of Disney’s little deer decorates the garage door that was once the theater entrance.

When they weren’t playing in Koschmider’s clubs or sleeping in his movie theater, the boys were eating and drinking in local establishments, few of which remain. At 29 Grosse Freiheit is a venerable little kneipe, or pub, called Gretel & Alfons that was the site of many drinking sessions for visiting English bands. With its traditional wooden interior and the slightly cheesy German pop music that plays on the stereo, Gretel & Alfons feels a world away from the hedonism beyond its doors. In 1989, McCartney famously settled an outstanding bar tab from 1962 — being the gentleman that he is, he also paid the interest — and I can understand his loyalty to the place. There’s a dependable, old-fashioned character to it, and in an area that doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughtful preservation, it’s a refreshingly authentic slice of old Hamburg.

Another survivor from that time is Cafe Moller, just off the Beatles-Platz. It’s largely unchanged from the days when the young Beatles used to come here for breakfast — except for the framed Fab Four posters that now line the walls.

Top Ten hits

When the Beatles returned to Hamburg in 1961, they joined Sheridan at the Top Ten club on the Reeperbahn itself, and all the practice at their previous venues began to pay off. “The Top Ten is where it all happened,” said Sheridan, describing it as “a little academy of music.”

It had formerly been the Hippodrom, a kind of indoor circus-style entertainment hall in one of the more unusual buildings on the Reeperbahn, with an ornate facade and a steeply pitched roof. With rock music taking off, a promoter named Peter Eckhorn refashioned it as a music club in late 1960 with the assistance of Sheridan and others. “We opened the place, painted the walls black, made it acceptable for a music venue, got it off the ground, built the stage,” Sheridan said. “Anything that reminded of the old days, of the Hippodrom, was all gone, nothing left at all.”

So I was delighted to find one last trace of the old Hippodrom, a small clue to its history. The ground floor now houses a Pizza Hut, but the doorway still includes the old Hippodrom sign, a mark of the past that has yet to be erased.

It was while the Beatles were playing at the Top Ten that Jurgen Vollmer, one of the Hamburg Exi’s, photographed Lennon standing in a St. Pauli doorway, with a blurry McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe walking toward him. Lennon used the image on the cover of his 1975 solo album, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” and Beatles fans regularly visit the doorway in question, in a row of old apartment buildings on a lane called Jagerpassage, a few blocks north of Grosse Freiheit, to re-create the pose.

According to Sheridan, this area was devoid of life in the ’60s, but today it’s full of cool cafes and bars, and the streets are plastered with art and graffiti. I was walking to one of my favorite cafes when I happened upon this particular Beatles site almost by accident. The wooden gate in the archway to Jagerpassage was ajar, and the glimpse of the leafy, cobbled courtyard beyond was enough to lure me in. Inside, there was the familiar doorway, with a row of door buzzers along the side that Lennon had leaned against. The current residents must be very patient with all those Beatles fans copying the pose, I realized, as they inadvertently ring all the doorbells in the building.

Breakout

It wasn’t until the spring of 1962 that the band began its most famous residency of all. A local bar owner, Manfred Weissleder, repurposed the old Stern Kino on Grosse Freiheit, almost directly across from the Kaiserkeller, as the Star-Club, determined to make it the biggest music club in Hamburg. The Beatles played on opening night, April 13, 1962, and played three series of gigs in the following few months. By the time they returned to the Star-Club for late November and December, they’d released their debut single, “Love Me Do,” and their Hamburg era was about to be replaced by their global domination era.

The Star-Club building burned down in 1983 and was replaced by boring buildings standing around an anonymous-looking courtyard. Only a tall plaque on a wall in the courtyard marks the site of the legendary venue. I wasn’t expecting a lot, and in truth, the marker isn’t much to look at: Despite the cheery inscription listing all the famous acts that appeared here and the image of a guitar, it vaguely resembles a tombstone, which I guess is fitting in some ways. But I found it an interesting twist to the notion of popular culture’s evanescence — the building has been outlived by the supposedly disposable pop music it helped give birth to.

“All the English acts went home after being in Hamburg,” Sheridan told me, summing up the era, “and took this new stuff with them, this new confidence, put it into action, and it took off. Without Hamburg, that wouldn’t have happened.”

So true, I thought, walking the city’s byways. These old venues and loud streets were a crucible for something special, something important; half a century later, we’re still listening to the songs and singing along.

Where to go and what to know in Hamburg, Germany.

O’Dwyer is a freelance writer based in Hamburg and Dublin. His Web site is Davinodwyer.com.

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