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The Beatles in Hamburg

(Chicago Review Press; US: Oct 2011)

In the book of transcribed in-studio chatter that accompanied the British box-set release of the Beatles’ ill-fated Dear-John letter, Let It Be, our lads squabble a lot about how the songs they are recording in a post-Pepper desire to return to their stripped-down roots should be debuted. Such venues as the Roman Coliseum and a luxury liner get tantalizingly tossed about, revealing the band still has a sense of occasion, if not grandiosity.

Yet it is Paul McCartney, the thorn in the increasingly tender sides of John Lennon, George Harrison and Pete Best (and later Ringo Starr) (in order of irritation), who offers up the best and obvious response: Since at least one of the overall weakest programs of songs was written pre-stardom, why not book themselves into a small club under an assumed name? At least, expectations would have been low.

Had they followed this line of thought to its obvious conclusion, they might have hit on playing four of five sets in a rowdy bar in Germany’s Reeperbahm district in Hamburg, where they spent the apprenticeship that turned all four of them (Starr with another band) from rock ‘n’ roll fans into rock ‘n’ rollers. Who knows? Had they fuelled themselves with enough bennies and beer (as opposed to junk and pot), they may have even made songs as tuneless and raw as “I Dig a Pony” and “Dig It” sound decent, especially had they been slotted between covers like “Besame Mucho” and “Save the Last Dance For Me”.  Maybe they might have even learned to act like a band again.

Though The Beatles’ German residencies in 1960-62 were critical to the band’s subsequent breakthroughs, it’s usually given only a chapter or two in the big bios. The music made there is represented only by the utterly unrepresentative eight studio tracks they cut as “The Beat Brothers”, (six of them backing English singer Tony Sheridan), and thank the stars, the songs heard on the many permutations of The Beatles Live at the Star Club. The Beatles sued to prevent the Star Club sets, recorded in 1963 on a home reel-to-reel recorder by the leader of another visiting Liverpool band, from being released, on the grounds they had already signed their Parlophone contract, but it was like trying to suppress the STASI files; too many people had a need to hear the truth.

The Beatles at the Beginning as one pirated LP version of the Sheridan tracks advertised itself in the midst of Beatlemania, is now given ample documentation in English journalist Spencer Leigh’s The Beatles in Hamburg a handsomely-designed paperback that collects a great many photographs and anecdotes and information in a single volume of 128 pages.

Leigh has at least done some legwork (or at least deskwork) in securing new interviews with the few who remember it all. They include the Star Club co-owner Manfred Weissleder and other principals of St. Pauli’s sin strip clubs; members of Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Searchers, two other fine Liverpool bands that also played the circuit; and Kingsize Taylor, who made the infamous tape, which, while legally shady, can still be found without any great effort . (I wish Leigh, who has written at least four previous Beatles-themed books, had dug up the huckster who sold them those ridiculous tooled cowboy boots they’re seen wearing in public in some of the photos.) Interested parties may want to spend a couple of hours with this book while listening to the band run through rowdy, half-drunken, and exhilarating covers of songs they later recorded at the BBC, like “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Hippy Hippy Shake”, as well as unlikely oddities like Tommy Roe’s “Sheila”.

Even without a soundtrack, Leigh’s book is an evocative stroll, and along with the photographs and chronology of the group’s visits (and in the case of the underage Harrison, a deportation) Leigh also takes us on side trips that include a capsule history and tour of of Hamburg and the St. Pauli’s long and storied inventory of vices and temptations (sex, drugs and rock and roll, all available while hanging on to your beer stein or even your guitar). We also get a capsule history of German pop (all we need, since it was every bit as wimpy as the French response, one reason these invaders were embraced), and an account of the group’s triumphant 1966 return on a European concert tour. It may be notable that while the band had already recorded Revolver, they were still playing “Roll Over Beethoven”  and “Twist and Shout” on stage.

Lennon famously described these days as “You shoulda been there,” but fans and followers may already feel like they’ve been there before, even if they haven’t seen the fine 1994 film Backbeat. Still, there’s always a kick to be gotten out of Harrison’s cool Teddy Boy quiff,  worn even after photographer Astrid Kirchherr gave the band their beginner moptops, Lennon’s unceasing audience baiting, and McCartney’s non-stop bird-pulling.

The Beatles in Hamburg might actually prove more eye-opening to middle-agers convinced rebellious rock and outrageous behavior were invented by Nirvana (or in the case of a child, Lady Gaga). Been there, done that, have lots of black-and-white pictures to prove it.


Terry Lawson was a film critic for 30 years, lastly at the Detroit Free Press, where he also contributed music and book reviews, and a weekly DVD column. He has won numerous awards for his journalism and criticism, been nominated multiple times for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, and was twice a runner-up. He has taught Screenwriting at the University of Michigan for more than a decade, and lives with his wife Kate and two feuding cats, in Bloomfield Hillls, Michigan.

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