It was 60 years ago tonight (August 17th, 1960) that the Beatles began their first stint in Hamburg, Germany's Indra Club. At that time the group consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison — all on guitars — along with Lennon's art college buddy Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and drummer Pete Best, who had joined the group only five days earlier.
During their initial 48-date booking, each band member received less than four dollars a day, and was contracted to play four-and-a-half hours every weekday night — between 8:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., and for six hours a night on Saturday and Sundays. Their Saturday shift ran between 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m., with Sunday's set starting at 5:00 p.m. and ending at 1:30 a.m. The band lived in squalor, rent-free, in the back of the Bambi-Filmkusttheater, a movie theater owned by the Indra's proprietor and the Beatles' employer, Bruno Koschmider.
It was while performing in Hamburg that the group, who were barely professional upon arrival, grew into a tight rock n' roll ensemble by sometimes playing as much as eight hours a night.
Pete Best recalled the scene of the Beatles' opening night in Hamburg on August 17th, 1960 at the legendary Indra Club: “We got some crowd in — but compared to the crowd that we built it up to before it closed, that happened very quickly. But on that opening night, I'd turn around and say it was a quiet night. But once word was out. . . once they'd actually seen us, people kept flocking in.”
George Harrison, who was only 17-years-old when the band first played in Germany, recalled in The Beatles Anthology that, “Hamburg was really our apprenticeship. We had to learn millions of songs, because we'd be on for hours — we'd make stuff up. Saturday would start at three or four in the afternoon and go until five or six in the morning. We'd have breakfast when we finished.”
In many ways Harrison felt that it was all downhill for the Beatles as a band following their early Hamburg days: “In the Beatles, I think the sad bit came when we got famous. Because before that, we played all them clubs, little clubs all over the place and in — particularly in Germany, we played months and months in these nightclubs. We played eight hours a night. Then it was good, cause you were just. . . everybody was just dancing and drinking, the band was up there just drinking and playing and, y'know, there was no big emphasis on how groovy you were.”
Paul McCartney added that sex played a tremendous part of the band's Hamburg era, explaining, “Hamburg was quite an eye-opener. We went as kids. . . We were just Liverpool guys who, as far as we were concerned, could not get arrested back home. . . and suddenly you'd have a girlfriend who was a stripper. If you had hardly ever had sex in your life before, this was fairly formidable. Here was somebody who obviously knew something about it, and you didn't. So we got a fairly swift baptism of fire in the sex scene. There was a lot of it about and we were off the leash.”
McCartney recalled the band's pre-Hamburg career as being pretty dire and humiliating at times: “Music? Nah, we couldn't even win talent contests. We certainly weren't great talent. But eventually, we sort of got it together and decided we wouldn't do talent contests anymore. We used to keep getting beaten by this woman who played the spoons — this old lady. 'Cause everyone was out of it 'round about half-eleven and kept voting (imitates a drunk) 'Ah, she's great!' And we'd come on — 'Oh God, how you gonna follow that?'”
In 1970 John Lennon revealed to Rolling Stone that Hamburg was also the Beatles' first taste of drugs, as they learned to depend on the amphetamine preludin to combat their alcohol intake and keep up their strength for their marathon sets, remembering: “I've been on pills since . . . I became I musician. The only way to survive in Hamburg to play eight hours a night was to take pills. The waiters gave you them. . . The pills and the drink.”
After their initial residency was over at the Indra, the group began playing at Koschmider's bigger Kaiserkeller Club, which is where they became close with fellow Liverpool drummer Ringo Starr, who was then alternating nightly sets with the Beatles' main competition, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes.
Eventually, after continually sitting in with fellow British performer Tony Sheridan at a rival club called the Top Ten, word got back to the Koschmider, who according to legend, had the underage Harrison deported. McCartney and Best were also deported a week later for allegedly setting fire to their meager living quarters. Lennon returned home to Liverpool shortly thereafter, with Sutcliffe staying behind with photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr (pronounced KERR-shirr).
Shortly before her 2015 death, Lennon's first wife, Cynthia Lennon, went to art school with Lennon and Sutcliffe, told us that their personalities balanced each other out perfectly: “What John gave Stu was the ability to laugh at himself and have humor, because he was such a serious student. And what Stuart gave John was a kind of. . . he was inspirational. I mean, John had no faith in his abilities to do anything serious — or complete anything. And Stuart was constantly supporting him.”
She says that even while still in her teens, she was able to recognize Sutcliffe's brilliance and originality: “Stuart was special. He was in art college with us. He was the most brilliant student. He was awesome, the stuff that he did. And he was a gentle, gentle young man.”
After their ill-fated first Hamburg stint, the band regrouped in Liverpool with McCartney eventually taking over bass duties from Sutcliffe. The Beatles returned to Germany to headline Hamburg's Top Ten Club on April 1st, 1961. On June 22nd, 1961 they backed Tony Sheridan in what was their first professional recording session.
Pete Best told us that the Beatles' greatest nights were during their original stand in Hamburg during the fall of 1960. He revealed that the group's original bassist, Sutcliffe, while hardly a virtuoso, wasn't the incompetent player history has portrayed him as: “I've always turned around and I'll always defend his corner, because what you have is a situation where someone has said many years ago — the same as I've been stigmatized over the years — someone turned around and said 'Stu wasn't a good bass player' and it's lived with him ever since. He's no longer here to defend his corner so I will. There were better bass players and there were worse bass players, OK? But what Stu gave on stage was that he played with 200 percent and he played with his heart and he played with his feelings.”
Although no movies of the Beatles' time in Hamburg exists, a number of photographers, including Astrid Kirchherr, documented their extended stays in Germany over the two years the band performed there. Sadly, this past May 12th, Astrid Kirchherr died of cancer only days before her 82nd birthday.
During his 2012 keynote address at Austin's South By Southwest music festival, Bruce Springsteen spoke about the importance of seeing the photos of the Beatles during their Hamburg era for the first time: “And then in some fanzine, I came across a picture of the Beatles in Hamburg, and they had on the leather jackets and the slicked-back pompadours, and they had acne'd faces, and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, those are. . . those are the guys I grew up with' — y'know, Liverpool wharf rats. So, minus their Nehru jackets and haircuts, (I thought) 'These guys — they're kids — they're a lot cooler than me, but they're still kids. There must be a way to get there from here.'”
While researching his globally acclaimed book — All These Years Vol. 1: Tune In — Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn uncovered an incredible fact about the band's Hamburg debut on August 17th, 1960, which underlined the Beatles being the mark between the past and future of Europe and eventually the world: “There's that nice fact in the book of the Beatles striking up in Hamburg, which is, y'know, white guys from England with an Irish-Scottish background — and in Pete (Best's) case, Indian, as well, playing black American music from Africa, originally, to Germans — to the survivors of the second Word War on the 20th anniversary of the day — or the night, even — that the Germans began bombing Liverpool. And they were all war babies. So, y'know, they're making peace, if you like, by bringing together all these things. They certainly had no concept of that and they were not trying to do anything like that, but that, when you step back and try to look at the picture is exactly what was going on.”
During John Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview, he set the record straight once and for all about the Beatles' abilities as a live act: “We were four guys, that. . . I met Paul (McCartney) and said, ‘Y’wanna join me band? And then George (Harrison) joined, and then Ringo (Starr) joined. We were just a band that made it very, very big — that’s all. Our best work was never recorded, y’know? We were performers — in spite off what Mick (Jagger) says about us — in Liverpool, Hamburg, and around the dance halls, y’know? And what we generated was fantastic, when we played straight rock. And there was nobody to touch us in Britain, y’know? But as soon as we made it, we made it — the edges were knocked off. Y’know, Brian (Epstein) put us in suits and all that and we made it very, very big — but we sold out. The Beatles’ music died then — as musicians. That’s why we never improved (laughs), y’know? As musicians, we killed ourselves then, to make it. We always missed the club days, ‘cause that’s when we were playing music.”
For the definitive look on the Beatles' Hamburg era, check out the top Beatles podcast — FABCAST with its special episode “LEATHER” on iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, and Stitcher.