The Beatles remembered

The Fab Four became Fab in Hamburg, 50 years ago.

Posted: August 13, 2012

HAMBURG, Germany - They're just steel silhouettes, but instantly recognizable, an iconic lineup of four figures striking familiar poses with their instruments. Revelers passing through this busy intersection on Hamburg's so-called Sinful Mile gravitate toward them, posing for photographs alongside the Fab Four: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and a drummer who represents both Ringo Starr and original percussionist Pete Best.

"I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg," Lennon once said, referring to the more than 300 nights the Beatles spent playing in clubs along the notorious Reeperbahn red-light district of this north German port city in the early 1960s.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of their most famous residency, or series of gigs, at the legendary Star-Club, which means that even more Beatles fans are flocking to the area than usual. And Beatles-Platz, a circular plaza designed to resemble an old vinyl record, with the steel statues standing to one side, is where they congregate. I've been listening to the Beatles since I was a child, their songs part of the soundtrack to my life, and joining the pilgrims at Beatles-Platz, I feel almost as if I'm meeting my heroes.

But instead of the Fab Four, I find myself drawn to a fifth statue that stands a few yards away, walking toward the others, bass guitar slung low. No visitors are clamoring to have their pictures taken beside this figure, which represents Stuart Sutcliffe, the band's original bassist. Even here, attention eludes the lost Beatle. In case you haven't heard of - or have forgotten about - him, Sutcliffe gave up his role in the band in 1961 to study art and live with his fiancee, the photographer Astrid Kirchherr, one of a number of young Hamburg artists called the Exi's whom the band befriended.

I find the sight of his silhouette, standing on the fringes of the legendary lineup, oddly touching. It's a snapshot of a life that took a tangent and met with tragedy: Sutcliffe would never see his former bandmates change the face of popular music, as he died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, just 22.

Only days after his death, the Star-Club opened a few yards from Beatles-Platz, on the colorful, bustling street called Grosse Freiheit. The remaining Liverpool lads were on the opening bill, still coping with the shock of their friend's death. They played three long series of shows there throughout 1962, and those dates are now seen as the turning point in the band's development.

For Beatles fans like me, visiting the St. Pauli neighborhood around the Reeperbahn is a powerfully evocative experience. A lot has changed in the last half-century, but I could still discern the last vestiges from the band's time here. For starters, the area has retained its characteristic permissiveness. It's still a wildly hedonistic street after dark, with crowds hopping from loud bars to gaudy strip clubs to lively music venues.

"It was always like that," says Tony Sheridan, who was the first English musician to move to Hamburg in the summer of 1960 and who became a mentor to the five young men who arrived a few months later. (The Beatles' first-ever recording was as Sheridan's backup band on "My Bonnie," released the following year.)

"In the old days, when you went off the Reeperbahn to the side streets, everything was gray, no color, no little bars," he told me when I visited him at his country home north of Hamburg. "That was the charm of the Reeperbahn, because everywhere else there was nothing, they were still suffering from the effects of the war, and the only place to go to have a good time was St. Pauli."

Two blocks north of Beatles-Platz is the Indra, where the Beatles made their Hamburg debut on Aug. 17, 1960. Today, the building still hosts a music club; a plaque beside the door denotes its place in history. Now as then, the place suffers from being on the wrong end of the street, a block north of the main strip. This meant that the band played for small crowds, often no more than a dozen.

The Indra was run by a former circus performer named Bruno Koschmider, who hired the Beatles in an attempt to replicate the success he was enjoying with another club down the street. At the Kaiserkeller, Tony Sheridan and his band were thrilling young Hamburgers eager for new sounds. After 48 grueling consecutive nights of what were effectively paid practice sessions at the Indra, Koschmider moved the Liverpool five-piece to that same venue.

Today, the Kaiserkeller is more of a nightclub than a music venue, a dark, atmospheric basement space that hosts an eclectic range of music, from metal nights to, unsurprisingly, Beatles tribute bands.

During its first spell in Hamburg, the band lived in the Bambi Kino, a small cinema, also run by Koschmider, at 33 Paul Roosen Strasse, right at the top of Grosse Freiheit. This is where McCartney and Best got involved in a notorious condom-burning incident: The damage was minimal, but Koschmider conveniently used it to accuse the young men of arson and have them deported just as the band was on the verge of moving to a different club.

I struggled to find the old Bambi until I realized that I was standing right beside it. The entrance to the old cinema is covered by heavy ivy, like a holy grotto, with leafy shadows dappling photos of the band and a small, weathered plaque announcing its brief habitation. A stenciled painting of Disney's little deer decorates the garage door that was once the theater entrance.

It wasn't until the spring of 1962 that the band began its most famous residency of all. A local bar owner, Manfred Weissleder, repurposed the old Stern Kino on Grosse Freiheit, almost directly across from the Kaiserkeller, as the Star-Club, determined to make it the biggest music club in Hamburg. The Beatles played on opening night, April 13, 1962, and played three series of gigs in the following few months. By the time they returned to the Star-Club for late November and December, they had released their debut single, "Love Me Do," and their Hamburg era was about to give way to their global domination era.

The Star-Club building burned down in 1983 and was replaced by boring buildings standing around an anonymous-looking courtyard. Only a tall plaque on a wall in the courtyard marks the site of the legendary venue.

"All the English acts went home after being in Hamburg," Sheridan told me, summing up the era, "and took this new stuff with them, this new confidence, put it into action, and it took off. Without Hamburg, that wouldn't have happened."

So true, I thought, walking the city's byways. These old venues and loud streets were a crucible for something special, something important; half a century later, we're still listening to the songs and singing along.

Davin O'Dwyer is a freelance writer based in Hamburg and Dublin.

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