Friday, September 24, 2010

The Endless Search for Material

September 1960

Instead of playing for perhaps a couple of hours a week in Liverpool and knowing exactly what kinds of songs were expected of them, the Beatles had been thrown into a place where they were expected to play for many hours every day.  To keep both themselves and the audience, such as it was, from becoming bored with their repetoire, they started on a quest for more material.  As incongruous as it seems for a rock band, one of the sources coming readily to hand was popular music from their parents generation.  They would have heard these songs since they were babies and simply had to work out a more upbeat arrangement to include them in their shows.  One reason for the Beatles great success later lay in their great facility for making wonderful arrangements of their songs as well as songs written by others.  Here in Hamburg was where they started learning that craft in earnest.

Here are links to a few of the songs, in earlier incarnations, that they incorporated into their Hamburg set list.  And two of their versions of old songs.  (Each will reward a listen in wildly different ways.)

Hoagy Charmichael - Darktown Strutter's Ball
Marlere Dietrich - Falling in Love Again (especially appropriate given the German connection, nicht wahr?)
Gracie Fields - Red Sails in the Sunset
Compare to the Beatles version
Gene Kelly - You Were Meant for Me
The Beatles - Sheik of Araby (written by Harry B. Smith, Francis Wheeler and Ted Snyder in 1921 in response to the sensational popularity of the movie The Shiek starring Rudolph Valentino)

Thanks to Another Girl for compiling this list of their Hamburg Songs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

St Pauli District

September, 1960

Let's take a little walk around the world the Beatles found themselves in circa 1960.

St Pauli was (and is) a district within the city limits of Hamburg Germany.  The main street through it is called the Reeperbahn.  This was the street where respectable people would congregate in the evening for entertainment.  In Europe, it is called "Cafe Society", where people just gather to chat with friends, sip coffee (or something stronger) and just watch the passing parade.  That was the Reeperbahn.

The side streets in the St Pauli district were somewhat more sinister, where you would be more likely to encounter drunken sailors, pimps, prostitutes and small time crooks.  One of those side streets was called the "Grosse Freiheit" or Great Freedom (one block to the west is the "Kleine Freiheit" - I'll bet you can figure out the translation yourself).  About 300 yards north of the Reeperbahn, on the Grosse Freiheit stood the small club called the Indra, owned by Bruno Koschmider, where the Beatles were developing a following among the denizens of St Pauli.  Somewhere around this time, they discovered that the German audiences really loved it when the band would "mak schau" (put on a show).  They became more animated on stage, jumping around to the appreciative cheers of the small audiences.

Another couple of hundred yards north and around the corner on Paul-Roosen Strasse, stood the Bambi Kino, the tenth run movie house where the Beatles crashed between performances.

To operate a business in St Pauli, one had to be tough.  Alan Williams tells the story of a visit he paid to Herr Koschmider in the office in back of one of his clubs.  The meeting was interrupted by a bouncer, who informed the owner of some trouble brewing in the front of the house.  Herr Koschmider pulled open a desk drawer, grabbed a small billy-club and excused himself.  After some semblance of order had been restored, he returned, wiping the blood from the kosch and picked up the meeting where he left off.

Google Earth...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


September, 1960

By now the Beatles must have fallen into a regular routine.  They've been playing six nights a week, although they can't have been happy with having to keep the volume down on their sound equipment, such as it was, to pacify the immediate residents of the area.

It's not difficult to imagine that these long hours spent in Hamburg (and later in Liverpool) were very seminal for them.  Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker magazine with a special interest in personal development.  In his book "Outliers", he proposes that the way to really master any pursuit is to "practice" it for 10,000 hours.  (That is about five years of a full time job - 8 hours a day, five days a week.)  Is it just a curious coincidence that that is about the number of  hours that the Beatles would have played music together as a group up to their first trip to America and their date with destiny?  When I listen to their effortless vocal harmonies and the way their playing styles seem to blend so naturally, I'm convinced that there is something to that theory.  Of course, only a fool would deny that for true greatness to develop, the raw material and the hot-house environment has to be there as well.