[27 October 2011]
Excerpted from the Introduction and Chapter 1: Hamburg and Liverpool, from The Beatles in Hamburg: The Stories, The Scene, and How It All Began by Spencer Leigh, published October 2011 by Chicago Review Press. Copyright © 2011 Elephant Book Company Limited. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Available everywhere books are sold and online at IPGbook.com. Some images have been omitted for this online publishing format.
“The people in Hamburg feel separate from Germany and also from Saxony or Bavaria. They won’t say, ‘We are German. We are Bavarians.’ The Hamburgers say, ‘We are from Hamburg.’ That is not just in the 20th century. It has been that way for hundreds of years.”
—Dr. Ortwin Pelc Museum of Hamburg History
In 1871 The German empire was formed from several principalities. Its swift rise to importance on the world stage can be partly attributed to its so-called Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck developed national legislation and a common currency, and he was the first European statesman to appreciate the importance of social security. Hamburg became a huge, important, and prosperous port, a distribution center for the whole of Germany, somewhat bigger than Liverpool in size.
Bismarck also engendered a feeling of national pride, which arguably helped precipitate World War I (1914–18). Devastated by the war, Germany tried to rebuild itself, but the new Weimar Republic was crippled by the depression. In 1933, Adolf Hitler exploited the unrest to become elected as Chancellor. World War II (1939–45) led to further devastation and enormous losses of life in both Britain and Germany, with Hamburg and Liverpool being badly hit.
After its defeat, Germany was split into four occupation zones; Hamburg was in the quarter occupied by the British. British troops were not withdrawn from Hamburg until 1955, but they had no quarrel with the residents (most of whom had suffered under the Nazis as much as the British had) and they could visit the bars and clubs with impunity.
Both Liverpool and Hamburg had suffered serious damage during the war, but rebuilding in Hamburg took place much more rapidly than in Liverpool. When the Liverpool bands came to Hamburg, they left behind bomb sites and were greeted instead with the rebuilding of a city. Germany also had the Autobahns, established 30 years earlier, which offered an ease of travel not available to UK residents.
Nevertheless, in 1960 the populations of Liverpool and Hamburg shared certain similarities. Specifically, their residents, even if they did not articulate it, regarded themselves as somehow separate from the rest of their country.
Wonderland by night. The St. Pauli district of Hamburg in the early ’60s—don’t fear the Reeperbahn.
In My Liverpool Home
Liverpool on the River Mersey had a rich industrial heritage, which resulted in some wonderful civic buildings. Its huge warehouses indicated the port’s past importance, but by the late 1950s, Liverpool gave the impression that the best was over. The city was synonymous with strikes and protest. The buildings were black with soot and pollutants, but because the residents were stoic and vibrant, to them it didn’t seem such a depressing place.
Liverpool Exchange MP Bessie Braddock in 1954
discussing poor housing and demolition
in her constituency, which included the Cavern Club.
Liverpool-born residents, known as “Scousers,” were (and still are) quick-witted and friendly, and, perhaps because the city looked toward Ireland and beyond that to America, they felt apart from the rest of the UK. A lighthearted song about city life, “In My Liverpool Home,” advocated “Home Rule for Liverpool,” a ridiculous assertion (and deliberately so), but it conveyed that feeling of being special, of being, in a funny sort of way, the chosen race. If you meet someone from Liverpool, almost the first thing he tells you is his identity— and that does not happen with natives of many English cities.
Both cities catered to itinerant sailors, but, undoubtedly, the sailors who wanted booze and girls found what they sought much more readily in Hamburg. Liverpool’s dock Road was famed for its public houses (pubs), but strict licensing laws curtailed the drinking hours. The authorities were loath to allow strip clubs in the city. Prostitution was illegal but the girls operated from street corners, hence the cheerful Liverpool song about a prostitute robbing a sailor, “Maggie May,” which the Beatles recorded during their Let It Be sessions. There is a street in Liverpool that was aptly named for its attraction to sailors—paradise Street—but by 1960, the prostitutes had gone.
Liverpool has a love for entertainment, with a rich history of music halls and concert halls. Around the same time, in 1956, rock ’n’ roll and skiffle music had started in the suburbs and then spread into the center of the city, focusing on the Cavern. This undoubtedly helped the rise of beat music (this new term replaced “rock ’n’ roll,” which seemed old-hat), as there were so many venues for the groups to play in—dance halls, church halls, theaters, and clubs.
Bill Harry, the founder of the Mersey Beat newspaper, says, “There is a staggering difference between the venues in Liverpool and the ones in Hamburg. There were well over 100 venues on Merseyside and the Beatles played half of them. The beat clubs in Hamburg were confined to St. Pauli with just four venues. Indeed, the Beatles was the only band to play all four.”
Situated on the Elbe River in northern Germany, Hamburg is Germany’s second city and its largest port—like Liverpool, a container port but still with an enormous volume of trade.
Most shows in St. Pauli were raunchier,
but modesty forbids us from showing something stronger.
This is from the Colibri, which today offers live sex shows
with taste—they make love to classical music.
Hamburg espouses freedom, and all manner of behavior is tolerated in its St. Pauli area. There are elegant department stores and beautiful town houses elsewhere, but St. Pauli is a vibrant, working-class district down by the docks.
The main thoroughfare of St. Pauli is the Reeperbahn, which means “Rope-Making Street,” another reminder of its link to the shipping trade and to the past. At first the Reeperbahn was divided from the rest of the city by a wall, and the gypsies and beggars gathered there, as well as the prostitutes who catered to the needs of sailors. This lent the area a cosmopolitan aspect, and this worldliness meant that there is little especially Germanic about the district.
Just off the Reeperbahn is Grosse Freiheit, which means “Great freedom.” If you had a trade but were not in a guild, you could work in Grosse Freiheit. Originally, the name “Grosse Freiheit” referred not to sexual freedom but to religious freedom. Going back 400 years, Hamburg was a protestant city, but people were free to follow the religion of their choice in St. Pauli. St. Joseph-Kirche, the Catholic church in the midst of Grosse Freiheit, provides a significant link to the past.
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.
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.
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.”