By Gordon Thompson
The Beatles reinvented themselves several times over their career, from comic mop-tops to psychedelic gurus to post-modern self-directed artistes; but perhaps one of their most remarkable transformations occurred before most of Britain or the world even knew they existed.
Fifty years ago, as the winter 1960 seeped into Britain, the Beatles returned from a little over three months on the stage boards of Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller where they had put in hundreds of hours of performance. Back in August, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe had recruited Pete Best (and his relatively new drum kit) at the last minute for their very first club residency in the St. Pauli District of West Germany’s busiest port.
This red-light district would evaporate much of whatever pretence to innocence they still held and amphetamines would fuel the energy they needed for the strippers and barmaids they dated and the hours they kept. But the reason they were there, the reason they were the center of attention in this back pocket of civilization, resided in the music they played at the Kaiserkeller.
When the band first arrived, they had quickly exhausted their meager repertoire, so they resorted to repeating songs, placing different grooves behind existing material, extending solos, and frantically learning repertoire from other bands and from records. In what must have seemed a moment of eternity, they went from being a college band with little more than attitude to a decent rock band with a robust stage presence.
George Harrison would later observe that, if nothing else, they possessed ambition. With each night, as they grew more competent, they attracted the attention of other club owners and musicians in Hamburg’s St. Pauli District, such that when they attempted to work in a different club, Bruno Koschmider (the owner of the Kaiserkeller and the sponsor of their work permits) pursued having them deported.
Suddenly the police learned that Harrison violated the district’s age curfew and imprisoned him in St. Pauli’s gaol. Next, when McCartney and Best lit a condom on fire as a prank, police charged them with arson. All three of them soon found themselves on their ways back to Britain.
Sutcliffe, in the meanwhile, had moved in with his German girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, leaving Lennon to strap his amplifier to his back and pick up his guitar and suitcase to make the lonely trip back to Merseyside. It might have ended there, in disarray, back in their parents’ and guardians’ homes, like naughty boys sent home from school for an academic infraction; but it did not.
Returning to Liverpool may have temporarily depressed them. Hamburg, like Liverpool, had seen more than its fair share of bombs; but with America’s Marshall Plan flooding through its ports to rebuild Western German as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, this port city flourished. Liverpool, on the other hand, seemed a forgotten stop on rusting rails.
Nevertheless, the undaunted Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Best reunited and tapped into their network of Liverpool supporters to secure a gig. With Sutcliffe warm in the arms of Kirchherr in Hamburg and rediscovering his passion for art, the band needed someone to play bass and convinced college student Chas Newby to join them temporarily. After a brief rehearsal and two small and under-advertised gigs, they made an appearance at the Town Hall Ballroom in Litherland, on the northern side of Liverpool where an old acquaintance, Bob Wooler functioned as the DJ. Their billing for the event listed them as “Direct from Hamburg,” leading some in the audience to believe they were German.
Musicians know the feeling. You are about to play a new venue and you can hear the ambient discord of the audience, a mix of murmurs and shouts while boots and heels clatter on the dance floor as the evening’s prelude to the music, the dancing, and often a fight. You recheck the tuning on your guitar and the chip on the bead of your drumstick and try to be at once comic and calm.
Wooler advised the band that, when he announced them, they should come on strong. With the adrenaline rushing through their veins, they needed little convincing. The difference from the previous summer, when they were at best an uneven band, was that they now applied the experience of Hamburg. When these leather-clad rockers hit Litherland’s stage, they resembled almost nothing that the locals had ever seen.
Accounts suggest that the room froze the moment they launched into “Long Tall Sally,” Paul McCartney doing his best imitation of Little Richard. Bouncers pivoted in anticipation of the fight they thought might be about to erupt, only to see the audience rushing the stage to feed on the energy emitted by the band.
Musicians and audience members remember gigs like this one. The Beatles erased any lingering memories of the middleclass college-pudding band they might have been and commenced the long march to the toppermost of the poppermost. That this journey began in an otherwise nondescript suburban dance hall should be reassurance for every high-school band in the world.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.