By Gordon Thompson
Although Americans often talk about a “British Invasion” that started in February 1964, the groundwork for that cultural phenomenon may actually have begun fifty years ago this month when, on 17 August 1960, the Beatles began performing at the Indra, a small club in red-light district of the West German city of Hamburg. The van and ferry ride to Hamburg with manager Allan Williams had the Beatles arriving at night in one of Europe’s most decadent enclaves. The St. Pauli district thrived on sex that brought in the customers and on the alcohol and entertainment that served as sideshows. Into this environment floated five teenage innocents who were about to earn the education of the lives.
After the American Marshall Plan (1947-1951) had pumped investments into Europe to rebuild devastated economies and to build a democratic bulwark against the Soviet block, the port city of Hamburg found itself the transit point for substantial economic stimulus. As the British port of Liverpool stagnated (her inner core pocked with bombsites for decades), Hamburg rebuilt as sailors, soldiers, and scoundrels arrived to ship, steal, and squander.
Classical musicians endure conservatories where they learn the practice of their art. The Beatles had Hamburg. Bruno Koschmider’s The Indra provided their freshman experience, soon followed by a graduation to the Kaiserkeller. On their first night, they played longer than they had ever played, quickly exhausting their limited repertoire, and pushing their musical stamina to its limit. Between playing and partying, fatigue quickly overtook the youngsters, prompting the club staff to supply them with amphetamines. For some, the Reeperbahn (one of St. Pauli’s main streets) proved the road to perdition. Perhaps for the Beatles, they found a road to erudition.
At first, their audience consisted almost completely of sailors, longshoremen, and prostitutes until an art student, Klaus Voorman, stopped in on a whim. What he heard struck him as rough and original, if not a little exotic, and he encouraged other students to show up at the Kaiserkeller to hear this English version of American rock ‘n’ roll. Many came out of curiosity about British Teddy Boys, which is how the leather-clad Beatles presented themselves.
The German college students who adopted these musicians and who began to reshape them came from a parallel cultural planet. Where the Beatles had been born to German bombs falling from the skies, these Exis (a self-reference to their fascination with Existentialism) had Allied bombs and troops on their doorsteps. Nevertheless, these students came from comfortable middle-class families, embraced a modernist intellectualism, and now brought these British waifs into their cultural fold.
Perhaps most importantly, Voorman’s photographer girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr sensed an inherent contradiction between these boyish faces surmounted by greased curls and street-tough facades. Subsequently, they began to see themselves through her eyes. With Kirchherr’s photos as their mirror, the Beatles gained a profound new understanding of the importance of image, something they would put to great advantage in the coming years.
Cold War tensions escalated in the fall of 1960 as the Americans elected a young senator to be President and the Soviets blockaded Berlin. Meanwhile in the Kaiserkeller, the long hours (3 1/2 months and approximately 500 hours or performances), decadent surroundings, and these existentialist students transformed the Beatles. Joseph Campbell might have imagined such an enigmatic band of heroes. Building a repertoire from bar requests, current hits, and personal favorites as well as the glimmers of composing their own music, the Beatles became consummate students of rock and pop while developing a style that drew increasingly larger audiences.
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.