The Beatles made a total of five trips to Hamburg between 1960-1962, and it would be difficult to over-estimate the impact of those trips. John Lennon once said, “I grew up in Hamburg, not Liverpool” (Anthology, page 45), and sure enough, all five boys – who ranged in age from 17 to 22 – did a lot of growing up during those visits.
The band as a whole grew, as well. As a result of the sheer quantity of time spent performing (they played for 6, 7, 8 hours a night, 7 days a week), the Beatles greatly improved their stage presence. "That's where we found our style," said George Harrison in the first espisode of The Beatles Anthology film. "We developed our style because of this fellow there - he used to say, "You've got to make a show for the people" and he used to come up every night yelling "Mach schau!". So we used to mach schau, and John used to dance around like a gorilla and we would all dance around and knock our heads together, and things like that".
Also as a result of their grueling performance schedule, Hamburg was the Beatles introduced to drugs, specifically an amphetamine called Preludin. "The waiters always had Preludin (and various other pills, but I remember Preludin because it was a big trip) and they were all taking these pills to keep themselves awake, to work these incredible hours in this all-night place. And so the waiters, when they'd see the musicians falling over with tiredness or with drink, they'd give you the pill. You'd take the pill, you'd be talking, you'd sober up, you could work almost endlessly - until the pill wore off, then you'd have to have another" (Anthology, page 50).
Similarly, the inevitable and frequent repetition of songs over the countless hours performing functioned as practice time, and all five musicians' technical facility on their instruments dramatically increased as a result. “I couldn't believe how much they'd changed since I'd last heard them play,” said Lennon's wife Cynthia after the Beatles returned from first Hamburg stint, “After so many hours of performing in Germany, they'd improved beyond all recognition. They'd gone from good to fantastic and the fans screamed with delight” (Lennon, page 62). But one bandmember lagged behind the others. While not a bad bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe never had the ability nor the determination to be a professional musician. He much preferred painting, at which he was exceptionally talented. As the other four Beatles improved by leaps and bounds, Stu realized it was time to call it quits, symbolically handing over his bass to Paul, who would forever more be the Beatles bassist.
Stuart Sutcliffe, of course, wasn't the only bandmember change. Though Ringo Starr wouldn't join the band permanently for another few years, it was in Hamburg that he befriended John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. At the time, Ringo was the drummer in the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who coincidentally had a similar job playing clubs in Hamburg. Though all four men were born and raised in Liverpool and knew of each other, it wasn't until their simultaneously gigs in Germany that the four bonded as companions. When this happened, Pete Best's days as a Beatle were numbered.
Hamburg was also the location of the Beatles' first commercial recordings. The famed German record producer Bert Kaempfert attended one of their shows and was sufficiently impressed to invite the band to record as the backing group for singer Tony Sheridan. The Beatles ecstatically accepted the offer and recorded rock versions of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "When the Saints Go Marching In".
The single “My Bonnie”/“The Saints” was released in Germany, but the Beatles were not credited. Beatles sounds awfully similar to the word 'peedles', which is German schoolyard slang for male genitalia. Thus, the very first commercially released Beatles recording is actually credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.
Lastly, it was in Hamburg when the Beatles finally got their own recording break: an audition for George Martin of Parlophone Records, a division of Electric and Music Industries Ltd (EMI). On 9 May 1962, the band's manager, Brian Epstein, cabled the Beatles with the good news: “Congratulations boys. EMI request recording session. Please rehearse new material” (Spitz 312).
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. DVD. Apple Corps Limited, 2003.
Lennon, Cynthia. John. Crown Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. Little, Brown and Company, Time Warner Book Group, New York, NY 2005.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.