“I may have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” – John Lennon
August 17th, 1960. The day when four wide-eyed, leather jacket wearing young lads from Liverpool played their first ever Hamburg show at St. Pauli’s Indra Club on the notorious Grosse Freiheit. Back when the Fab Four was indeed five, Pete Best was still their drummer, Stu Sutcliffe was flicking the bass, and George Harrison had to lie about his age – which was 17 – just to be allowed in the country.
They say that to become world-class in any field, you have put in 10 000 hours, and Hamburg is where the Beatles put in theirs. Due to gruelling playing schedules, Hamburg turned the Beatles from a teenaged skiffle band into tight, creative rock n’ rollers.
Before my visit to Hamburg, as I did once before in Liverpool, I planned out every step of my Beatles journey. I wanted to see Hamburg through their eyes, witness where they honed their chops, and meet some fellow music-loving characters along the way. In fact, most of the stories below were told to me firsthand by a man I met in Hamburg named Ralph.
As I do in most cities where they’re offered, I signed up for a free walking tour courtesy of a local tour company. Ralph, a 50-something native Hamburg man was leading my particular walking tour and graciously took myself and about 10 other visitors around St. Pauli and the Harbour. An extremely knowledgeable man, I quizzed Ralph up on many of the tour stops regarding The Beatles, and when the main tour was finished and the last of our fellow travellers had scattered, he took me around on my own mini personal tour to many of the places listed below.
It should be noted that all of the sites mentioned here, except for St. Michael’s Church, are located in Hamburg’s anarchist, “anything goes except fascism” district of St. Pauli, not to mention some of them smack dab on the Hells Angels-controlled Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district. With its gritty alleyways, liberalism, fascinating history, and artistic ways, St. Pauli is easily my favourite neighbourhood in Hamburg, but keep all of this in mind if you plan on doing some family oriented tourism or feel like heading out at night.
It gets wild.
Beatles-Platz (Reeperbahn 174)
The first stop on my journey was Beatles-Platz, a plaza at the cross-section of The Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit that lays ode to the mop tops.
To be honest, during the day this plaza isn’t much; it’s a few statues of cookie-cutter Beatles figures, a vinyl record-looking sidewalk, and some song lyrics, but at night the statues light up to satisfy your neon dreams.
Either way, the plaza does act as a great gateway stop to Grosse Freheit.
The Indra Club (Grosse Freiheit 64)
The Beatles’ initial jaunt to Liverpool was due to a contract their then manager, Allan Williams (also owner of Liverpool’s Jacaranda Club), made with a man named Bruno Koschmider. Bruno was the owner of two Hamburg clubs, the Indra Club and The Kaiserkeller, and he was willing to pay The Beatles 2.50 Euros (30 DM) per person, per day for a two month Indra residency, while Williams would earn the DM equivalent of 10 Euro per week.
Koschmider was a ex-military brute of a man who, with seemingly little interest in music, pushed the Beatles to their very limits and beyond. The club owner demanded that if The Beatles wanted to keep their residency, they were required to perform for clients all night long, and sometimes, that meant from 7 PM until 7 AM the next day.
To get though these gruelling hours, The Beatles would take Preludin, a stimulant.
As George Harrison so eloquently put the experience, “We were frothing at the mouth.”
While, as Bruno Koschmider put the experience, “Mach Schau (Make a show)”.
The Kaiserkeller (Grosse Freiheit 36)
The Beatles performed at the Indra for forty nights until it closed mid October due to noise complaints. From there, the band moved to the slightly larger Kaiserkeller.
As it turned out, there would be another Liverpudlian band performing alongside The Beatles, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes; the drummer for which was none other than Ringo Starr. Both bands were to play the same long nights as The Beatles had already endured at The Indra Club, and were to alternate sets on stage.
Speaking of the Kaiserkeller’s stage, it was made up of no more than planks of wood set on top of crates. It was so rickety that the bands placed bets to see who would be the one to break it; that prize eventually going to Rory Storm.
As Rory performed a rock n roll jump one evening, he crashed through the wood and took Ringo’s cymbals along with him. After the incident, both Rory Storm & The Hurricanes and The Beatles went across the road to a cafe, where an infuriated Koschmider sent his doormen to rough them all up.
It was also at the Kaiserkeller that the Beatles met one of their most influential German ladies, Astrid Kirchherr. Astrid was a Hamburg-born artist and photographer who, despite her disgust at the seediness of Grosse Freiheit, went with musician Klaus Voorman to see the Beatles perform. It was Astrid who took the early, era-defining Hamburg photographs of the Beatles, Astrid who introduced them to a sleeker style of clothing, Astrid who gave the Beatles their moptop hair do’s, and Astrid who would eventually steal the heart of Stu Sutcliffe.
But perhaps one of the most enduring legends from The Kaiserkeller involves a man named Horst Fascher, the Kaiserkeller’s bouncer (and Star Club owner), and John Lennon.
One night as The Beatles were gearing up to begin their set, Lennon was nowhere to be found. After frantically searching for him, Fascher eventually found Lennon canoodling with an enthusiastic young lady in the loo. To break up the couple and get Lennon back onstage, Fascher turned on the shower. When Lennon berated Fascher for leaving him dripping wet, Fascher said, “I don’t give a shit, you’re going onstage and I don’t care if you do it naked.”
Something you shouldn’t just offhandedly say to John Lennon.
A few minutes later, to a titillated audience, Lennon appeared onstage wearing nothing but his underwear and a toilet seat draped around his neck.
The Top Ten (Reeperbahn 136)
Opened in 1960 by Peter Eckhorn, The Top Ten was an enticing idea for The Beatles, who were over putting up with Koschmider and his abuse. Eckhorn offered The Beatles better equipment, more money, and a marginally more comfortable place to sleep right above the club. However, taking the gig would mean breaking their contract with Koschmider.
When the decision to leave The Kaiserkeller and begin working at The Top Ten was made, Koschmider decided to fire back at them by reporting George Harrison for working underage, soon after which he was deported. Then, when Pete Best and Paul McCartney went to the Bambi Kino to retrieve their belongings, they found the place to be in total darkness, due to Koschmider cutting the power. As a great middle finger to Koschmider, the boys found a condom, nailed it to the concrete wall, and set it on fire for light.
Koschmider reported them for attempted arson, and Best and McCartney spent three hours in the police station before being deported as well.
While Stu Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg for a while longer with Astrid, John Lennon soon followed his three deported band mates. After playing a stint back in Liverpool, Harrison celebrating his 18th birthday, and all immigration problems having been sorted, the boys went back to Hamburg to begin their residency at The Top Ten, where they would play until July 2, 1961.
The Star Club (39 Grosse Freiheit)
The Star Club, the baby of Horst Fascher, first booked The Beatles on April 13, 1962 in celebration of the club’s opening, and then again that November.
And by that second Star Club gig, Ringo Starr had become their permanent drummer, The Beatles were able to afford single rooms in hotels, and they were good enough and had big enough of a following to have their performance recorded in the form of The Beatles: Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962.
While it was must-stop for many major artists of the time (The Beatles shared the bill with artists such as Gerry & the Pacemakers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard), The Star Club’s heyday was short-lived. By 1969, after a few years of Fascher’s prison sentence for assault, the venue’s finances were in trouble and it closed its doors.
While the building later burned down, there is still a small gravestone-like memorial at the site dedicated to The Star Club.
The Bambi Kino (33 Paul-Roosen Strasse)
The first steady address the Beatles had in Hamburg was the Bambi Kino – a cinema just around the corner from the Indra that showed pornography and westerns. With no window or heating at the Bambi, The Beatles were roughing it.
“We lived backstage in the Bambi Kino, next to the toilets, and you could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint; and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers— Union Jack flags—we were frozen.” – Paul McCartney
Today, the Bambi Kino is no longer a cinema, but a private residence. However, the current owners have hung plaques paying ode to its famous former inhabitants.
Fischmarkt (Grosse Elbstrasse)
While it is a traditional market, the Fischmarkt in Hamburg is also the place where all the partiers go after a rowdy night on the Reeperbahn. This practice rings just as true today as it did back in the early 60’s when The Beatles traipsed the area.
During the era of The Beatles troubles with Koschmider, they somehow managed to pull one of their weirdest stunts. After a night of performing and partying, the boys headed to Fischmarkt to cap off their night with a bang. There, they spontaneously decided to buy a pig, which they named Bruno. Bruno and The Beatles caused quite a commotion as the boys chased the hunk of pork around the market; an act which eventually led to the police being called.
Sadly, Bruno wouldn’t get to live out his days being chased around many more markets, because as a final ‘fuck you’ to Koschmider, he was butchered.
St. Michael’s Church (Englische Planke 1)
Right before my journey to Hamburg, I stumbled across the following quote from a 1975 Spin Magazine interview with John Lennon:
You know what I have written — carved — on a church in Hamburg? “John loves Cyn.” That was my first going out with her at that time. A church that overlooks… just outside the Reeperbahn. But out right in town, and it’s got a big green tower, that you can walk up in. And we all carved our names on there. You can have a look. There will be John + Cyn, Stu [Stuart Sutcliffe] + Astrid, Paul + … what the hell was the girl at that time?
Were they all English girls?
Except for Astrid with Stu. I think Stu and Astrid is up there … but I know John + Cyn is. We stuck our names up there with whoever we were hanging on then. I didn’t go out with a German girl. I ended up with an American, I never saw her again.
Despite a thorough google search, I came up totally short with finding the name of the church on the internet. So, when my time with my personal Hamburg historian, Ralph, was almost to an end, I pulled up the quote on my phone and asked him if he had ever heard of the carving. He hadn’t.
Thankfully, as an ever curious spirit in all things Beatles, Ralph wanted to know the answer to my question as well. So he called up his good friend and Beatles Historian Stefanie Hempel. Stefanie is the originator of the one and only Hempel’s Beatles Tour in Hamburg. If anyone knew where to find this carving, surely it would be her, right?
Only… she had never heard of it either. But her and Ralph agreed that the only church that fit the bill was St. Michael’s, so off I went.
I must have scoured each and every corner of that church. I started by walking the grounds and canvassing the outside, and slowly worked my way in and up, up, up. My fellow tourists and the church’s staff must have branded me a lunatic, I’m sure. Because while everyone else was admiring the fascinating architecture and incredible views the sky-high church offered, I was nose to the grindstone – literally – checking every effing inch of that building for the simplest of carvings.
Spoiler alert: I never found it. After what seemed like forever, a 10 euro fee to get me to the top, and acquiring a massive headache, I never found it. Whether John was referring to a different church, or whether the carving has been lost to time and renovations, I never found it.
Calling all Beatle-freaks: If you know where find this carving, let me know. I can’t say I’m ever going to go back to St. Michael’s, but like, just for my peace of mind, you know?
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Do you know of any great Beatles stories from their time in Hamburg? Let’s discuss in the comments!