When did The Beatles ascend from being just a band to being an era-defining cultural force? Most people will pick ‘Sgt. Pepper…’, or ‘Revolver’. It’s always the later albums that generate all the hyperbole, and make it on to those tedious ‘best album ever’ lists.
It’s a shame, though, that the endless praise for those albums has blinded people to just what a volcanically exciting band The Beatles were in the very beginning – back when they actually played live, and made people dance, as opposed to conducting high-minded experiments in the studio.
An early shot of The Beatles in Hamburg, 1960
It’s now 50 years since The Beatles’ first show at the Indra Club in Hamburg, on August 17, 1960. It heralded the start of an astonishing period for the band, during which they honed their abilities as performers. And I’d argue that, for all the genius of their later recordings, the foursome never again managed to be quite as thrilling as they were in those Hamburg days.
When The Beatles first travelled to Hamburg, Pete Best was still their drummer, and George Harrison was so young – just 17 – he had to lie to authorities in order to be allowed into the country. I took a trip to the German city for the anniversary of these formative shows, and to learn more about the very early Beatles.
“They were a different band with a different look”, says Horst Fascher, the man who helped start and run the Star-Club, where The Beatles famously played during their 1962 return to Hamburg. At the time, the band were wearing tight trousers, leather jackets and pointy shoes, and they had Elvis-like haircuts.
Were The Beatles ever cooler than during the Hamburg years, which lasted until December 1962? Back then they were a proper gang, almost punk-like in the rawness of their performances. And they worked unbelievably hard.
They spent an estimated 1,500 hours on stage, sometimes playing all night long (from 7pm to 7am). The only way for them to keep that crazy energy going was to load up on amphetamines.
After a raucous gig playing rock’n’roll covers, they’d spend late nights out on the infamous Reeperbahn, and stayed in the back rooms of a cheap, seedy cinema where the only place to wash up was the public loo.
And that very first show at the Indra was actually shared with a stripper – The Beatles just played during her breaks.
Fascher even recalls one time when John Lennon jumped off of the stage and smashed a guitar over a sailor’s head for asking his then-wife Cindy for a dance.
These aren’t really images you’d associate with The Beatles. But these are the images that fans got excited about in the early ‘60s.
When people think of The Beatles today, they think of four cartoonish blokes in matching suits and moptop haircuts. That wasn’t the real, early Beatles.
John Lennon famously once said, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” George Harrison once described those years as the band’s “apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”
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During those early Hamburg years, the boys from Liverpool experimented with drugs and strippers, and ran up huge bar tabs that they couldn’t afford to pay for. Isn’t that more rock’n’roll than what came later: smoking dope, visiting the Maharishi, meditating?
Sure, the band’s late-60s output was important and influential for music. But if you could go back in time, which era of the band would you want to see live?
The jaded bunch that played on the roof of Apple HQ in 1969? Or the hungry, bug-eyed gang that used to blast through ‘What’d I Say’ in the sweat-dripping clubs of Hamburg?