The Beatles played more gigs in Hamburg than any other city, including Liverpool. Did you know that? I didn’t. Just off the infamous Reeperbahn you’ll find statues of the Fab Four in a square renamed Beatlesplatz in their honour.
“It’s very important to Hamburg. A big part of music history took place here in the early 60s,” says tour guide Stefanie Hempel. If you want to learn about the Beatles’ time in Germany’s second city, and be guided around the bohemian district of St Pauli, then you need to book on one of Stefanie’s tours. Stefanie has an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Beatles and can share stories about them as she takes you to places connected to the band.
On her tour is the doorway where John Lennon was famously photographed. We walked toward the Indra club. This is one of the Beatles’ old performance haunts where they slept and performed on their first day in the city. From 1960 to 1962, The Beatles played a tough crowd in the city’s roughest clubs. Sailors who worked on ships passing through Hamburg’s port wanted to hear rock ‘n’ roll and Liverpool bands were booked because the city was known for music. The bands were also cheaper than London performers, Stefanie explained.
The St Pauli and Reeperbahn district was a rough area. It wasn’t a place where young people would go. “There were brutal fights every night,” said Stefanie. But these difficult gigs helped them develop their live performance skills. “They played 1,200 hours in Hamburg. Sometimes they’d play from seven in the evening until six in the morning. In the early morning hours gangsters would turn up with their entourage and the Beatles would play for them.”
We chatted about life within the alternative St Pauli neighbourhood where Stefanie has made her home. In the 70s the red light district was also a haven of radical thinking. Today it still has a buzz and an energy. The Guardian named it one of the best places to live in the world in 2012. It is more gritty than pretty, the mood changes at every turn. From hip and trendy to sleazy and shadowy – you’ll find vegan cafes yards from strip clubs and adult bars. The Reeperbahn area has always had a seedy side.
“So were The Beatles worried about the area and its reputation tainting their image?” I asked.
“Well, the band wasn’t famous then. They just wanted more experience, to play live and earn money. John Lennon later said that in Hamburg they could try out everything, before their manager started to influence what they could do,” said Stefanie. Things changed as their reputation and popularity grew.
“When Brian Epstein became manager and wanted to bring the band onto television he was very concerned about what happened in Hamburg,” Stefanie explained. “People in Hamburg say that he arrived in the city in early 1963 to get rid of all the photographs of The Beatles with substances that they may not have wanted to be photographed with.”
Stefanie’s personal story is fascinating. She grew up in East Germany listening to Beatles records that her father had acquired using contacts. When her family moved to the west in 1989, she found her new access to music very moving and almost overwhelming. She didn’t want to leave the record stores and spent all of her pocket money on albums and singles.
“So could you get legitimate Beatles records in the former East?” I asked.
“Not the real ones,” says Stefanie. “We had some records available but they were strange compilations. You’d have a version of the Blue Album covering 1967 to 1970 but all of the dangerous songs, like Revolution and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, were omitted.”
Stefanie taught herself to sing and play the guitar after the Beatles inspired her. She takes her guitar out on her guided tours and performs songs on the way. We paused next to the Indra Club for her to belt out a pitch perfect and powerful performance of another song performed by the Beatles in Hamburg – I Saw Her Standing There. Her singing and playing brought applause from passing pedestrians.
“So what songs are directly traceable to Hamburg?” I asked Stefanie.
“I play In My Life at the start of my tour,” she replied. I know it must’ve been about Liverpool but I also think that they thought about Hamburg when they wrote about places and people that ‘you will never forget in your life.’ They mainly played rock ‘n’ roll from the 50s in Hamburg. They were a cover band performing songs like Twist and Shout. But there is one song which they wrote here in Hamburg – Love Me Do.”
Stefanie gives you a different perspective on this unique community in the heart of Hamburg and I’d urge you to book her tour. John Lennon reportedly said, “I might have been born in Liverpool – but I grew up in Hamburg.” I walked away wondering how many great songs would never have been written if four Scouse lads had never lived in this great German city.
You can book Stefanie’s tour at www.hempels-musictour.de.
You can hear my chat with Stafanie here: