The fascinating history of the Beatles in Hamburg
No history of the Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame would be complete without mentioning their episode in Hamburg. In the rags-to-riches story of the Beatles, their stint in the West German port city represents the obligatory montage scene in which our heroes finally put in the work, pay their dues and come out ready to take on the world.
Hamburg in the early 1960s was a grungy, even dangerous city, not exactly the first place you would think to send a bunch of teenage boys (in fact the youngest, George Harrison, was briefly deported for being underage).
The parents of both John Lennon and Paul McCartney had to be convinced to let their sons go; in McCartney’s case by a personal visit from booking agent Allan Williams, who accompanied the Beatles to Hamburg, and in Lennon’s case by their son exaggerating the amount of money they would make.
The bottom rung
It started out as a very DIY affair. After sweet-talking their way into the country without a work visa by claiming they were students, the Beatles did not exactly have the best work contract of their careers. They worked seven days a week for a salary of 2,50 pounds each per day, with shows starting at 8.30pm and ending at 2am.
The four Beatles shared one cold, concrete room with bunk beds next to the lavatories in the backstage of a cinema, probably not the kind of glamorous accommodation they envisioned when leaving Liverpool.
On the up and up
Slowly, over the course of the more than 1.100 hours of performances the Beatles gave in Hamburg, their situation began to improve. Eventually, they finally graduated from the Indra and the Kaiserkeller, the first clubs they played in Hamburg, to the Star-Club – a 2.000-capacity theatre with an excellent sound system – that provided each musician with a single room in a hotel.
During this time the group had undergone a remarkable transformation. They had their then-new bowlcuts, a new drummer named Ringo Starr, and were starting to perform songs that we recognise as Beatles classics to this day: pieces like I Saw Her Standing There and Twist and Shout.
The sky’s the limit
Of course, the biggest improvement was musical: all members of the Beatles have later attested in interviews that it was in Hamburg that they finally got the performing experience and developed the technical and musical skills that would rocket them to fame a few years later.
George Harrison later recounted, “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.” Stuart Sutcliffe, the band's original bass player, wrote a letter to his mother saying that “we have improved a thousand-fold since our arrival.” Less than two weeks after their last show in Hamburg, the Beatles had their first number-one hit in the UK charts with Please Please Me.
The legacy of the Beatles in Hamburg
The two years during which the Beatles made five extended trips to Hamburg ended up not only having a transformative effect on the band but also yielding some surprising outcomes. One curious legacy of their time in Germany is the two songs to which the Beatles later recorded German versions of Komm, gib mir deine Hand (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) and Sie liebt dich (She Loves You).
Of course, Hamburg hasn’t forgotten the Beatles either: in 2008 a steel statue commemorating the band was erected at Beatles-Platz, serving as a fitting memorial to the most influential band of the century in the city that truly launched their careers.