The Beatles got their start in Hamburg, Germany, and the city offers plenty of Beatles-themed attractions. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
The Beatles' Hamburg
The Beatles were born in Liverpool, but “grew up in Hamburg” — or so the John Lennon quote goes. And, after touring the spots the Fab Four frequented more than 50 years ago, clients will understand why.
In Hamburg, the boys played long hours at several clubs, allowing them to expand their repertoire as well as master their instruments and stage presence. Clients will notice that all the clubs are located in Hamburg’s famous red-light district, St. Pauli, which was a real eye-opener for the boys, who were between the ages of 17 and 20 when they arrived in August of 1960.
St. Pauli is still teeming with music venues, strip clubs, cinemas, discos and bars. Despite its seedier elements, the district is safe and, like Las Vegas in the U.S., attracts entertainment-seekers and tourists as well as bachelor and bachelorette parties. The area’s most active spots — The Reeperbahn and its cross-street, Grosse Freiheit — contain most of the sites affiliated with the Beatles, many of which are still around today. The following locations are listed in order of proximity so clients can easily walk from one location to the next as they enjoy a real Beatles-themed Magical Mystery Tour of Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood.
The story of The Beatles in Hamburg begins on Hamburg’s fairgrounds, the spot of the city’s fairs, which occur seasonally (March, August and November) and feature many rides and food vendors. In the 1950s in Hamburg, carnival grounds were the sight for live, rock music and helped create receptivity to a rock-and-roll music groups.
A short walk from the Dom is the Pacific Hotel, which is famous for housing The Beatles during their last engagement in Hamburg in 1962 as well as other famous musicians that performed at the Star Club. The hotel still maintains a 1960’s decor and contains a bar and restaurant. Perhaps due to a lack of major upgrades, room rates begin at approximately $50 per person and include a buffet breakfast served in the downstairs restaurant. Next door to the hotel is a music equipment shop call Rotthoff, said to be where members of the Beatles stocked up on gear.
Another essential store for the Fab Four as they developed their sound and image was Leder Dschungel, a leather shop. It was in Hamburg that they developed their skills as performers, created a repertoire and found their first look — as leather-clad rock-and-rollers sporting tight jeans, dark boots and pompadours. These outfits could endure the boys long performances, but they also made the band look older and help them fit in with their German audience — a mix of drunken sailors, prostitutes, pimps, rockers as well as the artsy “Exi”— or existentialist — crowd, who would greatly influence The Beatles’ aesthetic.
The Site of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album
Jager-Passage Wohlwillstrasse 22
John Lennon’s 1975 album, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” features Jurgen Vollmer’s photograph of Lennon with the blurred images of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and original member Stuart Sutcliffe in the foreground, taken during the Beatles leather-clad Hamburg days. The photographer picked the doorway because of his love of Hamburg’s backyards, and visitors can still find the doorway, in a residential building, accessible to the public via unlocked gates. If clients choose to impersonate Lennon’s stance, warn them not to lean too enthusiastically against the wall — they might accidentally hit the telecom and summon one of the tenants.
Grosse Freiheit 64
The Indra is famous for being the first venue where the Beatles played. The club is a bit off the main drag of the red-light district and, when the Beatles played there, it doubled as a strip club. Though the club’s closing prompted the members to switch venues, the Indra has since been remodeled extensively and reopened as a music venue. Today’s Indra is spacious, with bar stools, seating, a foosball table and a full bar. The decor is kitschy — the bright red facade matches the rosy interior and is speckled with some Beatles memorabilia. When I visited, an open-mic night lured a young, visiting band, eager to play at the same venue as the Beatles.
Around the corner from the Indra is the site of the old Bambi Kino, a sleazy cinema where the band members slept when they first arrived in Hamburg. It’s probably best that the cinema is no longer there for clients to see — the boys shared two squalid storage rooms and an even more squalid bathroom, which was used by moviegoers. Paul McCartney and original member Pete Best caused a scene in the Bambi Kino, in retaliation against Bruno Koschmider, the owner of the Bambi Kino, the Kaiserkeller and the Indra. Angry that the Beatles left his club to accept a residency at the Top Ten Club, Koschmider had McCartney and Best deported after also turning in George Harrison for playing Hamburg’s clubs underage. Today, an image of a deer as well as a photo of the Beatles members, shown in revealing high spirits, marks the spot.
Grosse Freiheit 36
After the Indra closed, the boys moved to the bigger and better located Kaiserkeller Club, which is located at the end of the lively Grosse Freiheit. The club has since been expanded and remains an active spot for live music. Commemorating the club’s Beatles legacy is a plaque at the entrance — an old poster advertising a live performance by The Beatles, who were the supporting act for Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, which is the band that Ringo Starr performed in prior to joining the Beatles.
The Top Ten Club (formerly the Hippodrome)
The Beatles left their residency at the Kaiserkeller to play at the Top Ten Club which offered relatively better facilities. The club closed in 1995, but it was located on the Reeperbahn, the most animated street of the St. Pauli district of Hamburg. Even the restaurants there are fun — indeed one that I walked into featured a performer wearing a sailor’s outfit, who sang old German folk songs, as some ate their dinners and others danced on their tables.
The Star Club
Grosse Freiheit 39
The Star Club is where The Beatles played when they returned to Hamburg in 1962. The venue was burnt down in the late 1980s, but a plaque commemorates the famous club’s location as well as the musicians who played there, including Jimi Hendrix. Somehow the paltry existence of the plaque is still able to conjure The Beatles — in fact, when I visited, a man was enthusiastically singing karaoke to a Beatles tune in the bar opposite of the plaque.
Gretel & Alfons
Grosse Freiheit 29
This cavernous, wood-paneled, nautically-themed pub was a popular spot for The Beatles when they played at the nearby Star Club. When Paul McCartney visited Hamburg in 1989, he paid the bar his decades-old tab. A signed McCartney poster inside the bar commemorates the event and, though the bar attracts tourists, it still is a popular neighborhood spot.
Where the Reeperbahn meets Grosse Freiheit is a plaza, shaped like a vinyl record with a diameter of 29 meters, which memorializes the band. Built in 2008, the plaza contains five stainless-steel silhouette statues. Four of the instrument-bearing figures are together, to symbolize the final four members, though the drummer statue is a hybrid of both Ringo Starr and his predecessor, Pete Best. One figure stands off to the side — that is Stuart Sutcliffe, who left the band for his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, the German art student who gave the members their signature mop-top haircut.
Another new Beatles attraction on the Reeperbahn, built in 2009, is a five-story Beatles museum that covers nearly 1,300 acres. The exhibit begins at the top floor, which is dedicated to the Beatles’ years in Hamburg, after which it splits off into 10 other themed spaces. Visitors take a small elevator to the top floor, equipped with a passport and a sensor card that activates more multimedia — mainly short interviews with instrumental figures from The Beatles past. Viewers not only learn about the history of the band — they get to interact with the exhibits, my favorite being a life-size cut-out of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” album cover, with ample room at the top to pose by Edgar Allan Poe. I also enjoyed listening to the differences between two recordings of the “Let it Be” album on gigantic headphones. Adult tickets cost approximately $17, while group tickets (15 and more) and children tickets (ages 14 and younger) are $11. The museum also features a cafe and a large space that can be reserved for events that overlooks the Beatles’ old stomping grounds — the Reeperbahn.
The Beatles formative years in Hamburg are not well-known. One reason is that these raucous years predate Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager who helped the boys achieve mainstream success by cleaning up their image, which included suppressing the wild reputation the boys earned in Hamburg. Another reason is that Hamburg, one of the richest cities in Germany, has concentrated on promoting its sophisticated offerings —museums, opera, upscale shopping, the Alster Lake and more — whereas promotion of The Beatles would inevitably highlight Hamburg’s red-light district. Recently, artists, locals and musicians have been working to pay respects to the band within St. Pauli.
Guided tours of these Beatles sites are available by a number of agencies, including Stattreisen Hamburg.