The Beatles in Hamburg: The Stories, the Scene and How It All Began
When the Beatles went to Hamburg in 1960, in the company of gangsters and prostitutes they changed their sound, wore black leather, lost their bass player, sacked their drummer, developed a vast repertoire of raucous rock ’n’ roll songs, and fashioned a new hairstyle.
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 British troops were not withdrawn from Hamburg until 1955, but they had no quarrel with the residents (most of whom had suffered under the Nazis as much as the British had) and they could visit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.
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.
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.