With a new BBC sessions album just out and a book on the Fab Four’s early days recently published, we take a long look back—through the eyes of three lifelong fans.
By A.D. Amorosi
When it was announced in 2012 that the Beatles museum in Hamburg, Germany, would close due to a lack of interest, a part of me died. Beatlemania opened on the Reeperbahn in 2009, near venues such as the Star Club where the Fab Four had played their earliest, grungiest, speed-fueled shows. It was no more than a year before Beatlemania opened that I toured Hamburg to see the groundbreaking of Beatles-Platz, (Beatles Square) and its erecting of steel silhouetted statues during that town’s annual Reeperbahn Fest.
Picture SXSW at its wildest transplanted from Austin to Germany during Oktoberfest, and you get the mayhem and mad musicality that is the Reeperbahn Fest. Add the excitement of a too-long-in-coming tribute to the Beatles’ stay in this once-seedy, now-tony town, and the trip was a panic. Steffi Hempel, the ukulele-strumming guide, ran through the paces of the Beatles’ first steps along the St. Pauli region, cubby-holes like their first showplace, Indra Club, and its neighboring cinema, Bambi Kino, where the boys slept upon arrival in August 1960 (I found a fun quote from Paul McCartney, saying “We lived backstage in Bambi Kino, next to the toilets. You could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint; and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers—Union Jack flags—we were frozen.”).
As Beatles-ish day-tripping occurred in the afternoons, we boozed our way through the nightly Reeperbahn Fest on the area’s broad main block, one of Europe’s naughtiest streets. The Reeperbahn was once Hamburg’s red light district, and its raw remnants still stand, in particular, at Herbertstrasse, a gated street where prostitutes sit in shop windows, and women visitors are not allowed dare they get doused with water. There’s a glowering red patina over everything this area beholds, a sloppy, smelly, phenmetrazine-filled vision that the Beatles lived nightly for the better part of two years.
“If you were going to write fiction, you couldn’t come up with the terrible conditions, colorful characters and stories these guys had from the start,” says Larry Kane, whose new book (and third Beatles -related tome) When They Were Boys: The True Story of The Beatles Rise to the Top, looks longingly into the Fab Four’s transition from greasy Hamburg rockers at warp speed to clean-cut mop tops.
With the close of Hamburg’s Beatles museum and the latterday focus on the group’s later catalog, has interest waned in the Beatles early works? Who cares about such rough, druggy but quaint (in comparison to the present) times?
With Kane’s book and the focus of Capitol’s newest release, On Air: Live at the BBC 2, trained on that 1960-1963 transition and featuring a wealth of cuts centered on tracks that made their amphetamine-fed debut in Hamburg (Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” a thrashing cover of “Beautiful Dreamer,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Chan Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” and Carl Perkins’ “Glad All Over” and “Sure To Fall” amongst them), you get the feeling that the best is yet to come when recounting the Beatles’ first moments.
“There’s a lot of energy and spirit,” says Paul McCartney in press notes for On Air. “We are going for it, not holding back at all.” The 70-year old McCartney’s enthusiasm must have spilled onto his own album of vibrant, rocking songs, New, to say nothing of the fact that the widow Lennon, Yoko Ono, has revived the concept of her one-time group with John, the Plastic Ono Band, for her new album on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Take Me to the Land of Hell.
“We were just artists at our start who did exactly what we wanted to do,” says Ono when asked if she saw a correlation between John’s raw earliest years in Hamburg, and her own initial avant-garde forays into performance art around the same time. “I don’t think we tried to draw such lines or ever thought of things in that manner. I know that it might interest critics such as yourself,” she says, softly stifling a laugh. “I just don’t think that we were so pre-meditated.”
Hamburg was crucial to them, notes Kane, in regard to the Beatles having to play several shows each day and night. “It made them into crack musicians, let alone a unit,” says the one-time on-air journalist and writer, who is pictured below with Paul and John.
Kane didn’t have a Beatles trilogy in mind when he penned the best-selling Ticket To Ride. Yet, as the only American reporter to travel with the group for every stop of their 1964 and 1965 tours, Kane caught the most unguarded sides of the foursome. That’s particularly telling when it comes to Kane’s newest book, one whose title comes from a recent conversation with Ringo Starr. “Ringo told me “you write this because you recall more than I do, but remember Larry, we were just boys then.” From there, Kane withdrew elements from his memory bank that, in retrospect, weren’t there when he dealt with the Beatles at first. (Below: Kane interviewing George.)
“When I played my tapes from 1964, I had real gems that I didn’t realize what they meant, because they were about their pre-fame escapades,” says Kane, who toured Hamburg on his own, to find the names and places the Beatles had name-checked during their early conversations. “When I was with them they were making references to places they played, and moments where they were depressed about their careers, so much so Paul got a job driving a truck, and George considered going back to school. Nobody had really written a good book about how they really got started without lionizing them. I saw a lot of myths. I wanted to get through those.”
Go here to read our additional interview with Yoko Ono about musical roots, the Beatles and more. Photos courtesy EMI-Capitol, Larry Kane and A.D. Amorosi