The Beatles in Hamburg

The Stories, the Scene and How It All Began

by Spencer Leigh

27 October 2011


Where Things Diverse and Different Blossom

More than 100 years before the Beatles arrived in the city, the Hamburg-born composer Johannes Brahms spent his early life playing piano in the bars and brothels of St. Pauli. The prostitutes fondled him as he was playing (something that never happened to the Beatles!) and this affected his adult relationships. We don’t know what he was playing, but there wouldn’t have been much call for lullabies in St. Pauli.

Given that it is today a container port, the sailors no longer stay over in Hamburg for days at a time. Hence, St. Pauli has been improving its image, with mainstream theater shows and live bands and disco bars. The sex clubs are still there, but they are mostly for tourists (and presumably some randy residents). It is amusingly symbolic that a museum formerly devoted to erotica has been replaced by the Beatlemania Museum.

Germany’s Elvis, Ted Herold, with an EP featuring his first Top 10 single, “Hula Rock,” produced by Bert Kaempfert; teen queen Conny Froboess with a number 3 from 1962; Peter Kraus with a hits package from 1959; and Freddy Quinn, who hit number 1 in 1959.

Germany’s Elvis, Ted Herold,
with an EP featuring his first Top 10 single,
“Hula Rock,” produced by Bert Kaempfert;
teen queen Conny Froboess with a number
3 from 1962; Peter Kraus with a hits package
from 1959; and Freddy Quinn, who hit number 1 in 1959.

In 2002 legislation was passed that made prostitution a business. Prostitutes pay taxes and are entitled to social benefits. Hamburg resident and music historian Bernd Matheja says, “Today the Reeperbahn is just a place for tourists. There are more music clubs and restaurants than in the ’60s and not so many sex clubs. It is the only place in Germany that looks like that, even today. Neither Berlin nor Cologne has an area like the Reeperbahn. The authorities have raids from time to time, but they have never wanted to close it down because they make money out of it.”

As you might expect, there was much gang activity around St. Pauli in the early 1960s. The respectable daily newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt usually focused on the club life in St. Pauli when there were criminal court cases to report. For example, in 1964 the security staff from the Top Ten and the Star-Club had a showdown that led to criminal charges being brought against several people.

However, it would be wrong to think of St. Pauli as nothing but sex and violence. There is plenty of humdrum daily life with normal people in the smaller streets off the Reeperbahn, and children walk along them to school in the mornings.

Nevertheless, the official emblem of St. Pauli (and its football team) is the skull and crossbones, revealing the area’s dark humor. The Liverpool musician Kingsize Taylor, who now lives in Hamburg, says, “I love living here. The residents have a very similar humor to ours and they also have a back slang the same as Liverpool. We made friends for life in Hamburg.”

Both are great soccer cities. Liverpool and Everton both top the list of UK soccer clubs, and Liverpool’s record is exceptional. Hamburger SV were European champions in 1983, and Kevin Keegan moved from Liverpool to Hamburg with great success. St. Pauli’s team has never threatened to win anything of note but is followed fanatically by the city’s more bohemian and left-leaning residents.

In the 20th century, a great explosion of jazz music came out of New Orleans, spearheaded by Louis Armstrong. The music existed alongside the brothels and the strip clubs in Storyville, and the same could be said of St. Pauli. It became a creative quarter where anything diverse or different could blossom, but in 1960 no one could have guessed just how different that was going to be.

In West Germany in the 1950s, Schlager described the popular music of the day, but the term dates back to the previous century. It represented friendly, undemanding music—a middle-of-the-road sound, if you like—and its stars included Freddy Quinn (who was discovered singing in a St. Pauli bar in 1954), Heidi Brühl, Peter Kraus, Ted Herold, and Peter Alexander. Some of the songs in the genre were written by German composers (notably Michael Jary, who was based in Hamburg), but most were German versions of British and American hits.

Hamburg music historian Ulf Krüger can appreciate why Schlager was so popular: “That generation had lost the war and they wanted tunes that looked forward to better times. Going to Italy for your holidays was an example of better times—sitting in the sun, having a nice drink, swimming and so on. There are a lot of German songs about Italy and they were supplying people with dreams.”

Although the James Last Orchestra plays Schlager to this day, generally the sound is kept alive by singers in small groups. Tommy Kent, who figures in our story, was a very successful Schlager singer, and he describes the music this way: “you sing for all the people, for families, and it is light music, middle of the road. My real name is Guntram Kühbeck but in 1959, my record company said it was not a good name for a singer. My record producer, Bert Kaempfert said, ‘I think Tommy is good for you; you look like a Tommy. Take these singles and go to your hotel and pick one to sing.’ There were about 100 American records and I went through them and found ‘Susie Darlin’’ by Robin Luke. We tried it the next day and it was a big success. I was selling in Germany, Switzerland, and Luxembourg and I was number one in Austria for six weeks with ‘Alle Nächt’ (‘All Night’). Bert Kaempfert became a famous musician and I was a star.”

Tommy Kent had his first hit in Germany with the plaintive “Susie Darlin’” when he was only 16. He is now an architect and an acclaimed painter.

Tommy Kent had his first hit in Germany with the plaintive
“Susie Darlin’” when he was only 16. He is
now an architect and an acclaimed painter.

An example of the American equivalent of Schlager would be Pat Boone’s cover of “Tutti Frutti”—well done but bland and lacking in the excitement of Little Richard’s original. To be fair to Pat Boone, his version was still a hit single (number 8 in the US, and number 5 in Germany). Alternatively, you could say that Schlager sounds like one long record by easy-listening star Connie Francis.

Fortunately for the Beatles, many teenagers in Hamburg were bored by Schlager and wanted music as exciting as Little Richard’s. “The young people did not understand the language at first so they were interested in learning English,” says music historian Bernd Matheja. “They also did not want to hear the songs in German. If a chapter of a book in English is four pages, it will be five in German. It is always longer and so German lyrics were often clumsy.”

Frank Dostal, a member of the Rattles, a 1960s rock ’n’ roll band from Hamburg, agrees. “Schlager did not have anything to do with reality: it was all, ‘How about you and me getting together in Hawaii?’ The songs were about mountains, the beauty of nature and going away on holiday. It was corny and we would never have dreamt of singing Schlager when we were in the Rattles.”

Spencer Leigh was born in Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles. His program, “On the Beat”, has been broadcast on BBS Radio Merseyside for more than 25 years, and he has contributed to several BBC music documentaries. His is the author of The Cavern: The Most Famous Club in the World, Everyday: Getting Closer to Buddy Holly, Tomorrow Never Knows: The Beatles on Record, and The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked. He writes for the Independent and has contributed to Country Music People, Now Dig This, and Record Collector.

© Spencer Leigh

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