Take Five: The Beatles’ Hamburg

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Not many people know about the role Hamburg played in the early mythology of The Beatles. The lads may have hailed from Liverpool, laid down their records in Abbey Road Studios in London, and performed historic gigs in any number of existing venues around the world, but it was Hamburg that provided the fire in which the phenomenon of The Beatles was truly forged.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, as well as then-band members Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, and later Ringo Starr, racked up a preposterous number of musical hours on the stages of Hamburg’s dive bars. They became, in the words of Best, a “charismatic powerhouse,” tightened as a musical unit, broadened their output, and developed a visceral live energy that they would later struggle, initially, to recapture in the antiseptic environment of the studio. Taking inspiration from the “Exis”—the young Left Bank-style existentialists The Beatles befriended—they even cultivated a new hairstyle.

Hamburg was essentially The Beatles’ apprenticeship, and the jagged, dirty sound of the band in 1960-62 was well suited to the streets of St. Pauli at the time, frequented as they were by gangsters and thieves. (Some underworld figures even took over singing duties while The Beatles played cautiously on).

The area is markedly safer now, and more populated by students and visitors—but the rough, pockmarked Hamburg that The Beatles experienced more than 50 years ago can still be relived in a few choice locations.

Here are the hits of Hamburg’s Beatles Tours.

1. The Indra

The Indra, a former strip club located slightly away from the action on the Grosse Freiheit, wasn’t just the site of the first Beatles concert in Hamburg; arguably, it was the site of the first Beatles concert ever: signing their first ever contracts the day they arrived in Hamburg—Aug. 17, 1960—it was where The Beatles settled on a band name for the final time. They played four-and-a-half hours every weekday night and six hours on Fridays, cranking their Vox AC30 amplifiers in battle with the noise-deadening cabaret curtains and symbolically melting through the preposterous lilac jackets they were wearing at the time.

In 1960, The Indra welcomed visitors with the sight of a neon elephant slung across the street. The glowing pachyderm is gone, but the remodeled Indra is still a popular live music destination whose rooms are decorated with Hamburg-era Beatles memorabilia and are as lovably shaggy as ever.

2. Kaiserkeller

The Beatles’ move from The Indra to Kaiserkeller was a graduation akin to leaving off-Broadway for Broadway. Forced to compete for supremacy with another Liverpool group on the bill, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Beatles upped their ante even further, with the chemical assistance of “pep pills,” or Preludin. It was here that Astrid Kirchherr first noticed The Beatles’ then-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe—a love story rendered in fittingly arty inks in the graphic novel Baby’s in Black. Even more notably, it was also here that the drummer for The Hurricanes, Ringo Starr, first took notice of The Beatles.

Positioned on the busy corner of Grosse Freiheit and Schmuckstrasse, today the Kaiserkeller has a beckoning neon aura in the evenings, with a guitar looming over its entrance. It remains a very active music venue—it’s a major player in the Reeperbahn Festival—and is still bringing rock and metal to enthusiastic audiences. The concert stage, thankfully, is of a sturdier kind than the one that The Beatles and The Hurricanes managed to destroy through overenthusiastic stomping in 1960.

3. Moondoo/The Top Ten Club

In 1961, The Beatles’ performance schedule was even more intense than it had been in 1960; they went from performing 30 hours per week to playing 38 hours per week, for 90-something nights that year. They did so in what was, from 1960 to 1998, called the Top Ten Club. They even lived in the attic above the club at the time—resident artists in a very real and squalid sense. Though in years to come, jaded by over-touring, The Beatles would plow through their sets, in these pre-fame years a number like “I Saw Her Standing There” could take around 10 minutes to perform and comprise multiple guitar solos.

The Top Ten Club has since been rechristened the Moondoo, and transformed into an über-trendy two-floor nightclub playing house, dubstep and hip-hop tracks for fashionable clubbers and scenesters. In short, the tunes have changed, but the venue is every bit on the musical cutting edge now as it was in 1961.

4. Gretel & Alfons

In 1962, The Beatles played the Star-Club. Manager Manfred Weißleder only allowed his musicians three beers per night, so they ventured to Gretel & Alfons cafe, a few doors down, for sanctuary between sets. It was popular with other musicians and entertainers too—years later, Jimi Hendrix frequented it.

The spot stills serves drinks and snacks and is a much-needed refuge from the bustling Reeperbahn. Stopping by Hamburg on his 1989 world tour, Paul McCartney paid it a visit and, remembering there was an outstanding balance to be paid, coughed up the 50 marks and wrote on the receipt: “Paid in full.” The receipt is still on display.

5. Jägerpassage

A small, enclosed courtyard in St. Pauli, Jägerpassage may not look like much at first. But Jürgen Volmer, a Hamburg photographer who took some of the best early concert shots of The Beatles, evidently saw something in it. Keen to test his long exposure skills, Volmer chose one of the courtyard’s dramatic doorways as the setting for what would become an iconic image of John Lennon: the leaning, leather jacketed, Marlon Brando-in-The Wild One pose that would grace the cover of his Rock ’n’ Roll album.

Understandably, it’s the most popular and photographed spot of any Beatles tour of Hamburg. Have your teddy boy gear and most disaffected expression at the ready.

Darryn King is an arts writer and critic based in New York.