When John Lennon was once asked what it was like growing up in Liverpool, he quipped: 'I didn´t grow up in Liverpool. I grew up in Hamburg.'
That´s because though The Beatles formed in Liverpool, they learned their licks in the backstreet clubs of the gritty northern German port city.
This August marks the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four´s debut 48-night stint at Indra, a strip club on Große Freiheit, a notorious side street that runs off the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's infamous red-light boulevard.
Five decades after The Beatles's German sojourn, you can still recreate your own magical mystery tour around the iconic hotspots of the Hanseatic city where the world´s greatest pop group came of age.
When the Beatles rolled into the shabby dockland neighbourhood of St Pauli in a small van early in the morning of August 17, 1960, Hamburg´s post-war resurgence was just beginning.
That same night, the then Fab Five of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, a raggle-taggle gang of leather-jacketed, pompadoured Scousers played their first gig at the Indra, a self-styled `music and vaudeville´ club. This tiny venue, at Große Freiheit 64, is still going strong today.
Fuelled by a heady mix of youthful enthusiasm, raw talent and Preludin pills, the nascent Beatles hurtled through an eclectic assortment of rock, pop, and R & B covers at high volume and breakneck speed. The boys bunked in a windowless cell behind the screen of a local cinema, the now defunct Bambi Kino, at nearby Paul-Roosen Strasse 33.
After two months of incessant gigging at the Indra, five hours a night for 30 marks each, owner Bruno Koschmider promoted The Beatles to his flagship club, the Kaiserkeller, a short stroll down Große Freiheit towards the neon lights of the Reeperbahn.
The band shared the bill with rival Liverpool group, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, whose drummer happened to be Ringo Starr. Today the Kaiserkeller is an alternative rock club housed within the Große Freiheit 36 music venue. Across the street is Gretel und Alfons (#29), a cosy old-school bar where The Beatles found regular sanctuary from the myriad sex shops and strip clubs, and where McCartney ran up a huge bar tab only to return in 1989 to pay it off, with interest.
A broken bottle´s throw away is the site of the Star Club (Große Freiheit 39), where The Beatles shared the bill with fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & the Pacemakers and big-name US acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It went up in smoke in 1983 and only a gravestone-shaped plaque remains etched with the names of other Star Club legends such as Gene Vincent and Jimi Hendrix.
Prior to their stint at the famous Star Club the fledgling Beatles had graduated, in the words of McCartney to ´the big club where we aspired to go,´ The Top Ten, situated in a basement in the heart of the Reeperbahn (#136). Formerly the Hippodrome, a subterranean circus, today a disco, it was here the band really found their feet with an echo-laden, reverb-friendly sound system, perfect for The Beatles´ raucous performances, and slightly less dingy sleeping arrangements, in an attic above the club itself.
Upon leaving their former lodgings at the Bambi Kino, McCartney and drummer Pete Best played a prank on owner Koschmider. They hung a lit condom outside their room, were duly accused of arson, arrested and banged up overnight at the Davidwache police station at Spielbudenplatz 31. Deportation swiftly followed. The 17-year-old George Harrison had already been sent packing back to Liverpool for being underage.
CCTV cameras sit aloft the modern extension of Davidwache Polizei today, trained on Herberstraße, the infamously seedy, block-long bordello. Its imposing walled entrance bar views of the brothels, declaring them off limits to men under 18 and to women of all ages. This didn´t stop a 19-year-old John Lennon and his 17-year-old partner in crime Gerry Marsden, of Gerry & the Pacemakers, paying the brothel a visit, before legging it at the sight of prostitute who, according to Marsden, ´looked like a bus with a bra on.´
Round the corner is Paul Hundertmark´s Western Store where the Beatles assembled their trademark Hamburg look: cowboy boots, drainpipe jeans and Gene Vincent-style leather jackets. You can still go and get yourself kitted out in Beatles clobber at Paul´s store at Hundertmark 9. Then head for Wohlwillstrasse 22 and re-create the publicity shot taken by local snapper Jürgen Vollmer, who became a fast friend of the band, in 1960. John Lennon posed in the doorway of Jäger-Passage 1 as three blurry figures walked past him in the foreground. Those figures are McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe. The photograph was unearthed years later and became the iconic front cover of Lennon´s 1975 Rock `n´ Roll album.
The Beatles spent most of their early years performing in clubs along the Reeperbahn and Große Freiheit streets in Hamburg's infamous red-light district. During that period they also played at clubs in their native Liverpool. Alan Williams, a Liverpool club owner, had arranged the Hamburg gig for his fellow Liverpudlians.
In August 1960, too short on money to afford the train, the Beatles hitched a ride in a van with Williams. (At that time Stuart Sutcliffe was the fifth member of the band, but he had dropped out by the summer of 1961.)
The first Beatles appearances in Germany began at the Indra Club (Große Freiheit 64). By the time most of the Beatles had been deported back to England in November 1960, they had also worked their way up to the tonier Kaiserkeller (Große Freiheit 38) and the Top Ten Club
George Harrison was kicked out of Germany because he was underage (17) and in violation of German child protection laws. Paul McCartney and Pete Best were deported after being charged with arson. All of the Beatles' problems arose out of a contract dispute with the rather unsavory German club operator Bruno Koschmider.
After Lennon and Sutcliffe also returned to England in late 1960, the Beatles beg
an making many appearances in England, most notably at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where they had some 300 performances. But soon they would return to Germany.
“I grew up in Hamburg, not Liverpool.” - John Lennon