Hamburg, the city that saved rock n roll

PUBLISHED: 13:00 19 November 2017

The Beatles getting off a plane, Hamburg, 1965

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When the Beatles turned up in Hamburg, rock ‘n’ roll was on its knees, says IAN WALKER. By the time they had ended their stay in the city, its future was guaranteed

One night in late October 1960 Hamburg art student Klaus Voormann got into an argument with his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. To calm down he walked down to the docks on the River Elbe.

To get to the river from Kirchherr’s house, Voormann had to cross through St Pauli, the notorious dockside district of Hamburg. This dangerous, violent part of town was the haunt of gangsters and prostitutes, a place of drugs, booze and brazen and transgressive sexuality.

Nice middle class college boys and girls were told by their parents to keep away from there – especially from the Reeperbahn, the main road that ran through the district.

Crossing the Reeperbahn, Voormann began to walk up one of the side streets – the Grosse Freiheit. As he passed the Kaiserkeller nightclub he heard rock and roll music coming from the basement. It sounded thrilling.

Voormann’s taste in music was wide – mainly classical and jazz, but rock ’n’ roll by the likes of Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had started to come onto his radar.

However he had never heard music like this being performed – not in Germany.

He wanted to go in to listen properly. But he was scared; clubs like this were intimidating enough but this one also had a gang of leather-clad young men menacingly milling around the entrance. Voormann walked on.

But the music had sounded brilliant and this was too good to miss and so, building up his courage, Voormann turned back and went down the stairs into the dark basement club. He found a seat in a corner, bought a drink and watched the band.

The band that was playing wasn’t the band he had heard as he walked past the first time. This band was Rory Storm and The Hurricanes. They were a rock and roll band which Voormann would later describe as having “a show band thing” going on. He also later recalled that he noticed the drummer – one Ringo Starr.

When they left the stage Voormann stayed glued to his seat and waited for the next band. Stuart Sutcliffe was the first person to take the stage – he was ridiculously handsome, with a huge quiff piled up on his head and he was wearing shades. “Why is he wearing shades in a basement?” thought Voormann. Then the rest of the Beatles followed, all of them looking as just as mesmerising.

John Lennon then ploughed straight into Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. The band stamped and rocked and laughed their way through cover version after cover version including songs by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

By 1960, many thought rock ’n’ roll was over. In 1958 Elvis had joined the army and seemed more interested in achieving mainstream success. Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was a wreck after he married his 14-year-old cousin, Little Richard had found God, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly were dead.

Rock ’n’ roll had been seen as a temporary craze or a fad. It had been lucrative and the money men, the managers and promoters who tried to make as much cash out of it as possible seemed to have bled it dry. This process had tended to sanitise rock ’n’ roll. Dull middle-of-the-road crooners and easy-listening balladeers did atrocious cover versions of rock songs – George Harrison recalled how disappointed he was when someone in his family bought him the bland Mills Brothers’ version of Bill Hayley’s Rock Around The Clock.

And as well as the mainstream sanitising rock ’n’roll, it was also the case that some of the rock ’n’ roll talent had moved into the mainstream. It was Elvis who led the way when he got his hair cut and put on a soldier’s uniform and when he started to appear in terrible films.

In Britain, where almost all rock ’n’ roll was pretty anaemic to start with, this shift was even more marked. In 1958 Cliff Richard appeared on television singing Move It. Everything about Cliff at that point was an Elvis rip-off, but with Move It it was a decent rip-off. The song was urgent and immediate and Cliff, as pretty as he was handsome, oozed an off kilter and dangerous sexuality. Fast forward a few years later and there was Cliff gently pleasuring your nan with songs like Summer Holiday.

But before rock ’n’ roll had started to become safe it had thrilled. Bob Stanley in his excellent book Yeah Yeah Yeah describes Elvis as someone who had “invented himself, a true modernist, drawing on the best of everything that surrounded him and making it new”. This was true of Elvis and it was also true of Bill Hayley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

They all made themselves up and did so in ways that were original. The influences may have been obvious – mostly from R&B, country and gospel, but the finished package was like an explosion. Rock ’n’ roll was urgent and insistent, it had energy it was sexually-charged, it lacked cliché, it delighted in language and it delighted in the physicality of rhythm.

And it all appeared fully-formed and brand new and unlike anything that went before it. These early rock ’n’ roll stars were all about the assertion of raw personality and heightened individuality – and at its very best it felt like it came from another planet.

Liverpool was the British city where rock ’n’ roll really took hold. Why this was so could be down to a couple of things. It may have been to do with the so-called ‘Cunard Yanks’ – the sailors who worked on liners or merchant ships who, when returning to Liverpool from the USA, brought with them records. Or it have been to do with Liverpool having a culture, rooted perhaps in something Irish, where live music was still a big part of social life.

Music was certainly very much a part of the Liverpool childhoods of all the Beatles. Whatever the reason was, it was the case that rock ’n’ roll records sold better on Merseyside than they tended to elsewhere.

And rock ’n’ roll was the basis of the very close friendship that existed between John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Famously Lennon and McCartney first met at the Woolton fair in July 1957. Lennon was performing with his skiffle group the Quarrymen and McCartney noticed, and was quite impressed, with how Lennon was making up and improvising words to the Del-Vikings’ song Come Go with Me. Later the same day McCartney impressed Lennon with his ability to play and sing Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock.

Not long after this, McCartney joined Lennon’s band.

McCartney and Harrison got to know each other, perhaps even as early as 1955, because both got the same bus from Speke to their grammar school, the Liverpool Institute, in the city centre – but their friendship really bloomed in 1957 around the common bond of rock ’n’ roll and guitars.

McCartney introduced Harrison to Lennon and despite Lennon’s initial concern about Harrison being only 15 he invited him to join the band.

By the time Harrison joined, the Quarrymen had dropped all that skiffle stuff and were really a rock ’n’ roll band. Over the next three years, they slowly got better and – after trying all sorts of other names (Johnny and the Moondogs, the Beatals, the Silver Beatles, the Lennon and McCartney duo, the Nerk Twins) – became the Beatles.

How good they were in this period is difficult to judge. People mentioned the harmonies between John, Paul and George as having something special and they did get paid work including, in the spring of 1960, being the backing band for the singer Johnny Gentle as he toured around north Scotland. But this gig was as about as low on the pecking order as you could get; Gentle was not a big star – and they were not first choice as the backing band.

The biggest difficulty they had was that they didn’t have a permanent drummer or bass player. The bass player problem was sort of solved when John cajoled his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe into buying a bass guitar with some money he received in an art competition.

Sutcliffe joined the band but was nowhere near as good a musician as the other three – and McCartney in particular never let up in criticising him. The drummer issue was less easily resolved and they carried out without a permanent member.

The work they got supporting Gentle had come via the Liverpool musical promoter and nightclub entrepreneur Allan Williams. He was a short Welsh man with a high voice who had huge reserves of self belief. He also liked a wear a top hat.

Williams ran The Jacaranda, a coffee bar which he hoped would become a centre for the nascent Liverpool rock ’n’ roll scene, much like the 2i’s coffee bar was in London’s Soho. Art students Lennon and Sutcliffe helped decorate The Jac and managed to secure a few gigs there for the band.

Hamburg and The Beatles

Williams began to arrange other gigs for the Beatles including a stint providing musical backing for a local stripper named Janice. By the time of the Johnny Gentle tour Williams was acting as the Beatles’ booking agent and manager. Around this time Williams visited St Pauli. His interest was professional, he wanted to see the legendary Reeperbahn clubs and was fishing for ideas for things that he could do back in Liverpool.

Whilst in Hamburg Williams visited the Kaiserkeller. The club was packed, it was dark and a bit dangerous and offered more than a hint of illicit thrills. The house band, however, were about as edgy as a church fete. Williams asked to speak to the manager Bruno Koschmider, and pitched the idea of providing rock ’n’roll bands from Liverpool. Koschmider was intrigued.

A short, squat, club-footed thug, he supposedly interrupted the meeting with Williams to beat up a drunken sailor who was causing bother. During the meeting Williams offered to play a tape of one of his Liverpool bands to Koschmider only to discover that he had accidentally taped over it. However, despite the violence and the ineptitude, these two extraordinary characters somehow ended up arranging for a Liverpool band to play in Hamburg.

The first Liverpool band to go to Germany were Derry and the Seniors and they were a success. Koschmider owned a second club, The Indra, which at the time was a transvestite cabaret bar, and he wanted a Liverpool band to play there as well. Because Derry and the Seniors were a five-piece band and because Koschmider was an especially pedantic man, the band for the Indra also had to be a five-piece.

Williams asked Rory and the Hurricanes (with Ringo Starr on drums) but they had already been booked to play in Butlins in Pwllheli for the summer. Cas and the Casanovas couldn’t do because they were a four-piece and had a Scottish tour booked, Gerry and the Pacemakers didn’t want to give up their day jobs. So Williams turned to the Beatles and they jumped at the chance. Even though they were a four piece – and didn’t have a drummer.

The Beatles knew drummer Pete Best, who had played with them a few times. But they had fallen out with his rather fierce and protective mother and didn’t really rate him as a drummer. However, he had a decent kit and wasn’t doing anything, so they asked him (and his mum) and he agreed. The Beatles were now a five-piece band with a residency in a Hamburg nightclub. One indication of how good – or bad – the Beatles had been back in Liverpool came from Derry and the Seniors. They were unfriendly when the Beatles turned up in Hamburg. They knew the Beatles from Liverpool and hadn’t rated them at all and they were worried these new kids would ruin what they had going for them in Germany.

But they were wrong because the Beatles were an almost immediate success. Part of that came from the way Lennon, McCartney and Harrison dealt with the musical inadequacies of Best and Sutcliffe. To keep the rhythm going the three of them would stamp the beat with their feet.

This gave their songs a powerful, physical urgency. As well as this, the band were charismatic. Despite their youth (Harrison was still only 17) the personalities of these three shone through. They joked and laughed and took the piss out of each other and out of the crowd – a dangerous game, since some of the gangsters in these clubs had murder on their CVs.

Lennon always had that hint of menace and McCartney always took the edge off it with his crowd-pleasing ways. The women – many of whom were strippers and prostitutes – wanted to mother Harrison, whilst the thugs loved his sharp-tongued cockiness. The band just sweated and dripped personality. Plus, all of them – all five of them – were really, really good looking.

And this was what rock ’n’ roll was about: sex, energy and immediacy, wit and personality – and that slight hint of violent danger. Rock ’n’ roll music may have been sanitised almost everywhere else but here, with the Beatles, in St Pauli, all that danger and sexuality and immediacy and wit was still very much alive.

After six weeks the Beatles moved from The Indra (partly because of complaints about the noise caused by their stomping) to the bigger Kasierkeller. And this was where Voorman saw them (along with Rory and the Hurricanes, who had just finished their Pwllheli booking). The usually reticent and reserved Voormann was blown away by what he had seen that night.

He left the venue when the performance was over and headed straight to Astrid Kirchherr’s house. She was irritated to be woken so late but she knew something was up – this enthusiasm wasn’t like Klaus. This had to be special.

The next night Voormann, Kirchherr and fellow art student Jürgen Vollmer returned to the Kaiserkeller. Kirchherr was scared; as she put it: ”It was a dark and disturbing place for me to go, a very harsh environment. (…) the typical Reeperbahn crowd – yobs and thugs with broken noses”. Intimidated, she was going to leave – but then she saw Stuart Sutcliffe and changed her mind.

These three German art students befriended the Beatles. They started with Sutcliffe hitting it off with the fellow art student immediately. There they were, these four art students, in a bar full of thugs and strippers, sitting in a corner overcoming the language barrier and talking about art and music.

Kirchherr and Sutcliffe became infatuated with each other (Voormann seemed happy to accept this) and their relationship opened whole new worlds to the Beatles. Kirchherr and her art school finds were nicknamed the ‘exis’ – the existentialists. This was because they were obsessed by Paris and the left bank culture of the time – the culture of black clothes, jazz, Juliette Gréco and coffee bars.

Kirchherr and Vollmer were both very talented photographers. Their photography at the time was informed by a Parisian left bank ‘existential’ aesthetic. Both took black and white portrait photos, the subjects were usually somewhat moody and posed in a way that emphasised personality. Kirchherr took photos of Sutcliffe, Vollmer of Harrison. And they both went on to photograph the band.

And because the band were now hanging around with fashionable and good-looking European art students they started to take a real interest in their appearance.

They bought leather suits and cowboy boots (all the better for stomping out the rhythm with) and even bought matching pink caps which, being Scousers, they called ’twat caps’. Later they would all copy Voorman’s and Vollmer’s haircuts, getting rid of their quiffs and replacing them with what the Germans, in true German prosaic slang, called the mushroomhead.

They would also copy the Francophile Vollmer’s dress sense.

Three of the great art forms of the 1960s were photography, pop music and fashion. All were about youth, personality and sex and all three screamed ‘here I am’. So much of that started here (or was re-born here after rock ’n’ roll’s false start) in St Pauli with the Beatles and with Kirchherr, and Vollmer and Voorman.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers argued that the Beatles success was down to the sheer amount of stage time they put in in their early days, especially in Hamburg. He has a point. They played a minimum of four hours a night, six – sometimes seven – nights a week. There is no question that they improved as a band. Even Sutcliffe and Best got much better.

When they returned to Liverpool after their first trip to Hamburg their improvement was immediately apparent. In dance halls people would stop dancing and just rush to the stage to watch them. They began to attract a fan base and there were the first stirrings of what later became Beatlemania.

The music scene in Liverpool was become a more coherent thing. The Mersey Beat newspaper, the Cavern and the NEMS music store were all part of this, and at the heart of it all was the Beatles.

But Gladwell really misses the main point. The reason why the Beatles were setting the pace in the Mersey Beat scene wasn’t just because they had lots of practice in St Pauli but it was because they were fans of rock ’n’ roll.

They instinctively understood all that stuff about it being urgent and insistent, that it had energy, that it was sexually charged, that it lacked cliché, that it delighted in language and it delighted in the physicality of rhythm.

This was at the heart of what the Beatles were about during their Hamburg period – and later it would find its way into their songwriting and their music recorded with George Martin, a man whose genius was his capacity to put personality on vinyl.

The Beatles played twice more in Hamburg. Sutcliffe would leave the band before the third residency. Absolutely besotted with Kirchherr he was to settle in Hamburg and become an artist. He died there in 1962 of a brain haemorrhage.

Whilst in Hamburg the Beatles got to know Ringo Starr. Pete Best was never a good fit with the band. He wasn’t their friend, he didn’t socialise with them, he didn’t have their personality and wit and he just wasn’t good enough. Ringo Starr was a much better fit and he replaced Best.

Klaus Voorman remained friends with the Beatles. For a while, at the height of Beatlemania, he shared a flat with Harrison and Starr in London, and he designed the cover of Revolver.

He also bought Stuart Sutcliffe’s bass and took up the instrument and would later play with Harrison, Lennon and Starr during their solo careers.

In 1975 Lennon recorded an LP of rock ’n’ roll covers. This LP was Lennon attempting to rediscover something that he had lost along the way – that initial spark from rock ’n’ roll that made him what he was. The cover of the LP is of a photo of Lennon standing in a St Pauli doorway. It was a photo Vollmer took in 1960.

Astrid Kirchherr remained friends with the Beatles after Sutcliffe’s death, especially with George Harrison. Her photos taken of the band in 1960 remain extraordinary. The band were unknown outside of a few nightclubs in St Pauli, but in these photos not only do they look like a rock ’n’ roll band but they also look like the future. These photos really capture a moment when a small group of young people were in the process of inventing the 1960s.

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