The Fab Four discuss Hamburg and their '66 LP in these archive pieces from NME
Taken from NME 01/07/1966
The letter written by John Lennon summed it all up: it was sent by him some years ago to the late Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, and was one of a collection handed back to him in Hamburg on Sunday. In the letter John wrote: “I’ve got one ciggy to last ’til Thursday.”
That’s the sort of memory The Beatles have of Hamburg – miserable poverty. On Sunday, however, they returned in triumph. They swept into the city at the head of an eight-car motorcade escorted by motorcycle policemen. To most of Hamburg, the world-beating Beatles had arrived. But to a handful in the Grosse Freiheit – a tiny street of sordid clubs (they once lived above one) – John, Paul, George and Ringo were back. And the friends they made then filtered through the militant-like German security to renew acquaintances.
There was Betina, the buxom blonde who worked in the Star-Club bar and who had a crush on John. “She used to call out for her favourite numbers,” John later recalled, adding, “She got me drinks when we had no money. And pills – print that!” Friends like Cory, the attractive girl Paul once courted. Her parents own a restaurant in the Grosse Freiheit – the street that houses the Star-Club – and that was often a source of food for the hungry Beatles.
And Bert Kaempfert – the man who recorded The Beatles in their Hamburg days. He called backstage on Sunday to see them and pay his respects like the others. And Astrid Kirchherr, the girl who was engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe.
She arrived with her fiancé, Gibson Kemp, and the little bundle of letters from John to Stu, “the best present I’ve had in years,” he said as he thumbed through them, showing the occasional one to those around him. Many were in picture form – Lennon drawings that would probably fetch a fortune if they were auctioned today.
So The Beatles were in Hamburg. But apart from the friends there was little to remind the four of earlier days spent there. They sang to a crowd of more than 7,000 in the huge Ernst Merck Hall – a concrete palace they had never even seen before. There was no return to the Star-Club where their music first took its shape.
“We’d like to go,” John admitted sadly, “but there’d be millions of people there and it would be no fun. We’d probably get crushed to death.”
They stayed at the magnificent Schloss Hotel in Tremsbüttel – more than 30 miles from Hamburg, deep in the country. Dozens of green-uniformed policemen patrolled the grounds, searching out fans who had journeyed from the city and surrounding towns in the hope of sneaking a glimpse of their idols. There was no return to the little flat over a strip club where they once lived. Although its owner had cleared out the tenant so that The Beatles could go back for a party, the rooms stayed empty.
“Security,” the Beatles-minders explained. “We couldn’t possibly let them go there.”
A pity, for The Beatles will never again see that former home. Within a month, the building is to be demolished. They rode in a limousine heading the procession of vehicles which carried the entourage. The whole fleet of Mercedes cruised uninterrupted in and out of the city as the escort of outriders sealed off side roads and ordered traffic to pull off the road until The Beatles had passed.
Their concerts were promoted by a German magazine which never rated them a mention in their Star-Club days. But rumour has it that the journal paid the group so much for the concerts in Munich, Essen and Hamburg that even with capacity audiences it lost money on the ‘Blitztournee’, as it triumphantly named the three-day tour. Doubtless, Axel Springer, the German press baron who counts the magazine among his collection, would willingly have paid twice the price. To buy The Beatles for three days is no small feat and worth a fortune in prestige.
I was especially interested to report The Beatles’ return to Hamburg – for it was that city that I first met them in in the autumn of 1962. I was there for a week to report Little Richard’s appearance at the Star-Club and The Beatles were on the same bill. There were friendly arguments between Lennon and Little Richard, which always ended with Lennon exclaiming, “Shuddup grandfather” at the older man. But one night I heard Richard remark to the club owner, Manfred Weissleder, “Those Beatles are so good – watch them Manfred, they could be the biggest thing in the whole world.”
Manfred attached no more importance to Little Richard’s words than I did, but we both recalled them well enough when I visited the Star-Club last Saturday night. Manfred also remembered a business argument with Brian Epstein shortly before they began that last season at the Star-Club. The Beatles’ manager was demanding £250 a week for his group – half as much again as they had received before.
Manfred had said it was too much. “Nonsense,” retorted Epstein. “These boys will soon be bigger than Elvis Presley.”
Weissleder didn’t believe the argument – but he paid the money. The tall, blond German had a flood of stories to retell about The Beatles. His earliest memory of them went back to some two years before even he first employed them: “One night I saw them going into a club opposite mine. They looked so strange I turned to a friend and said, ‘They must be visitors from another planet.’”
Manfred laughed at the memory of the night he says John went on the Star-Club stage naked – apart from the guitar. Though John later told me he had on a pair of shorts (“And a toilet seat around me ’ead”). And Weissleder recalled the day he lent them a car to drive to the seaside.
“That night I had to interrupt them onstage to ask Paul – the only one who could drive – where the car was. He said, ‘Oh, the engine is broken so we left it there.’ A practically new £2,000 car, and they had dumped it by the seaside!”
We talked into the early hours of Sunday morning – at a time when the luxury express train specially hired for the Beatles entourage was bearing its precious party the 300 miles from Essen to Hamburg itself. They arrived at breakfast time and went straight to bed at the hotel in Tremsbüttel.
By lunchtime the crowds had gathered outside. I joined John, Paul and Ringo (George was a late-riser) in their suite in the midst of a discussion about the title of their next LP.
“We’ve had all sorts of ideas during this trip – ‘Magic Circles’, ‘Beatles On Safari’ and ‘Revolver’ – that’s the one John likes the best,” Paul told me. Minutes later they made an appearance on the hotel balcony, to the delight of the crowd outside. As they walked to the waiting cars, I heard John comment; “How about Betina being on the station at seven o’clock this morning? Thought she was going to ask for a number!”
The motorcade took a devious route through country roads. There were no incidents but the German police had taken no chances – outside the hall another squad of motorcycles and a number of vehicles that looked like armoured cars stood by. The Beatles, however, made a quick and easy entrance to their backstage dressing room and were safely locked away before a gang of youths attempted in vain to storm the door, aiming tear gas bombs at the police, who retaliated with high-powered water hoses, drenching the would-be Beatles assailants.
Then came the first show. More than 10 minutes after Peter & Gordon’s act had finished, the chanting, impatient audience gave The Beatles a wild reception. The group played well, but John’s voice was showing that it doesn’t pay to keep out of practice for seven months – for after the Munich and Essen concerts he could barely croak a note. It was particularly noticeable in “Paperback Writer”. Even weeks of recording sessions had failed to strengthen his voice sufficiently for concerts. This was the second warning they got about keeping in practice – in Munich I understand they had to rehearse in their hotel room for fear of forgetting their hits onstage!
Between concerts they suffered another insane press conference, answering questions like, “John, how about Ringo?” (To which Lennon replied, “I think you’re soft.”) One irked reporter asked, “Beatles, why are you such horrid snobbies?” to which George replied that they weren’t and that it was all in her mind. Then Paul made a little speech about how they believed in answering questions directly even if it made them unpopular. And he got a round of applause.
Then they retired to the dressing room, where the small collection of friends was waiting. Before the second show, I asked John about a local story that The Beatles had been ‘arrested’ by the police on a previous visit for attempting to set fire to a club where they were appearing.
He said: “That one’s got a bit twisted. We set fire to this, well, this little thing onstage and the club owner – who wanted to get us banned because we had told him we weren’t going to play there anymore but were moving to the Star-Club – called the police.”
Paul nodded. Then Ringo announced, “Come on chaps, let’s go and do another rock’n’roll show,” in his best send-up voice.
After the show, they were whisked straight back to Tremsbüttel where invitation after invitation for them to attend a variety of parties – including one specially staged by a count at his castle in the forest – were declined.
But the saddest message of all was wired on The Beatles’ behalf to Manfred Weissleder at the Star-Club. It said, “Sorry we can’t make it tonight.” And in his office overlooking the Grosse Freiheit, Manfred shook his head and said: “It’s a pity, they never missed a night before…”
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