Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beatles, Wieder Nach Heim Gehen (Go Back Home!)

November, 30, 1960

Bruno Koschmider is furious.  The nerve of these guys.  To come into my place, where, out of the goodness of my heart, I allow them to stay, and start lighting fires.  It's arson, pure and simple.

Herr Koschmider immediately alerts the police to this dangerous foreign element in their midst.  It's not difficult for the police to find and arrest Paul McCartney and Pete Best.  There were not that many places they could be.  During the night, they are taken the St Pauli police station and booked on charges of arson of a private building,  They are held at the station until morning and then released.  They return to their lodgings above the Top Ten Club and try to get some sleep.  Later in the afternoon, they are again detained by the police and processed at Hamburg Police Headquarters, where they are informed that they will be deported back to England that very night.  On top of everything else, they are working in Germany without proper permits!  Apparently, the wheels of justice turn rapidly in 1960s Germany.

The perpetrators are not allowed to speak to legal council or to a representative of Her Majesties Government. And of course, their command of German is very limited.  This eventful day ends with Paul and Pete boarding a flight from Hamburg to London, unsure of exactly what had just happened to them. 

By necessity in all the commotion, Pete Best leaves his drum kit behind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Little Fire with Big Consequences

November 29, 1960

Bruno Koschmider, fed up with the Beatles "disloyalty" to the Kaiserkeller, has notified them that their residency at that venue must come to an end at the end of November.  Today, Paul McCartney and Pete Best decide that it is time to retrieve the last of their belongings from Koschmider's Bambi Kino, where they were given places to sleep in connection with that gig.  When they arrive there, they find the place utterly dark.  To provide some feeble light (and at the same time to register their dissatisfaction with Herr Koschmider) they mischievously attach a condom to a wall and set it alight.  It flares up briefly, they grab what they came for, and abscond, one suspects, wearing wicked smiles of satisfaction.

The little war between them has just escalated.  Bruno Koschmider, master of the rough-and-tumble world of the Reeperbahn, will certainly not stand by meekly without launching a counter-offensive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Living Arrangements Improving

Late November 1960

Peter Eckhorn, the manager of the Top Ten Club, must think the Beatles have something.  He offers to allow them to "bunk down" in the attic above the club.  These are pretty spartan accommodations, but far better than the squalor they have become accustomed to behind the projection screen in the back of the Bambi Kino.  They begin to catch what sleep they can at the Top Ten, especially as they know their days at the Kaiserkeller are certainly numbered. 

The intimate relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr is quickly developing into an engagement to be married.  He is allowed to stay nights at Astrid's home in a well-to-do district of Hamburg with the approval of her mother.  Even she, a concert pianist herself, has recognized the soul of a budding artist in him.

In Beatles lore, Stuart has gotten the reputation of having been a poor musician, always playing with his back to the audience so the more musically inclined can't see all of the mistakes he is making.  I sometimes wonder how much of that reputation is really deserved.  There is at this time an internal conflict within the band chiefly between Paul McCartney and Stu.  It is easy to imagine that some of this animosity may arise from a competition for the attention of the uber-cool John Lennon.  Pete Best, the Beatles drummer at this period, says that he didn't notice any obvious shortcomings in the bass playing.  And it doesn't take a great leap to believe that a highly competitive and perfectionist young man like McCartney might have tried subconsciously to drive a wedge between the outwardly hardcore John and the sensitive and gentle Stu.  Doesn't it make sense that Paul would take more of an interest in the bass in order to "show the boy how it's done"?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

George Deported

November 21, 1960

The Beatles are enjoying their visits to see Tony Sheridan and others at the Top Ten Club rather too much in the opinion of Bruno Koschmider, who is the proprietor of the rival  Kaiserkeller.  Their contract with him clearly states that they won't perform anywhere other the the Kaiserkeller during the duration of that contract.  However, the lure of playing with such a talented group as the denizens of the Top Ten is too much for them and they are frequently seen on stage there, jamming with the locals.  Koschmider has already informed the Beatles that after the end of November their services will no longer be required by the K'keller.

Meanwhile, the local polizei have demonstrated a worthy zeal in making sure, by announcement from the Kaiserkeller stage, that at 10 pm the time has come for all persons of less than 18 years of age to leave the premises forthwith. (It's hard to imagine that they are allowed in there at all!)  George Harrison, being only 17, must have been carefully tuning his guitar at that time every evening and apparently missed the official announcement.  Or maybe it's that he doesn't sprechen der Deutsch so gut.

Is it that the constabulary can ignore the blatant violation for only so long?  Or has Mr. Koschmider turned vindictive informer now that he has little use for these impudent Beatles?  In any case, George is found out and immediately deported.  He uses every penny he has to make his way back to Liverpool alone.  The rest of the
Beatles decide to soldier on without him, but are only doing the absolute minimum required.  Their sights are set on the Top Ten.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Teacher

November 1960

Another performer from England appearing in Hamburg is named Tony Sheridan.  Tony is at least a couple of rungs above the Beatles on the ladder of musical success.  In fact, he had been a member of the English tour where early rock hero Eddie Cochran had been killed while traveling between venues back in April.  Bruno Koshmider had found his band, called "The Jets" on his first trip to England in search of talent to play at one or another of his Hamburg clubs.  He and the Jets had preceded the Beatles to the Kaiserkeller by a couple of months and were among the trailblazers of the England to Hamburg talent pipeline.

I love what Alan Clayson says about Tony in his book Hamburg - The Cradle of British Rock.  "Ricky Richards proffered, 'Only one reason why Tony came to Hamburg: running away from the police over a guitar...'  Although an admirable young man in many ways, Sheridan had a lackadaisical attitude toward the accumulation of debt.  The London booking agent, Tito Burns, had discovered this when, after lending the twenty year old - technically a minor in those days - the down payment for a guitar and assenting to act as guarantor, demands arrived for unpaid hire-purchase installments."

When Peter Eckhorn had opened the Top Ten Club, a palace compared to the Kaiserkeller, he decided to employ the best talent available and that, of course, was Tony Sheridan and the Jets.  Mr Eckhorn did have to "convince" Mr Koshmider to allow them out of a signed contract to do so, but somehow he managed it, probably more by crook than by hook.

Now. the Beatles, during their breaks will sometimes wander over to the Top Ten to see Tony and perhaps obtain a couple of new guitar licks into the bargain.  As Tony plays a mean lead guitar, George watches intently the magic his fingers make on the fretboard.  Tony, a true musician's musician, spends all of his energy on making music and is generous with his time, often playing in ad hoc jam sessions with anyone who wants to lay down some rock and roll.  The young George Harrison is frequently among them.  Tony's nickname among the musicians of the St Pauli district is "The Teacher".

There is a charming interview (45 minutes) with Tony from Irish Radio here.  What a sweet person he turned out to be!  And listen to some music samples here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Beatles @ Der Dom

November 1960

If you are a Beatles fan at all, you've seen the pictures.

Astrid Kirchherr, captivated by the Beatles rough sound and natural charisma, has been braving the dark atmosphere and coming to the Kaiserkeller for a week or so, and bringing other friends, as well.  A growing clique of college educated artistic types is forming around the Liverpool groups.   To differentiate them from the usual crowd of tough customers, they will be called the "exis".  That term is a reference to the ascendant  intellectual movement of that time called existentialism, often associated with beatniks.  (Astrid later revealed that she and her friends were not up on the latest philosophical trends, but somehow the label stuck.  Probably much like "rocket scientist" is applied to really smart people, today, even if they don't know the first thing about how to design and build an extra-terrestrial vehicle.)

Astrid, as a budding art photographer, summons up the courage to ask the boys if they will pose for some photographs.  They agree immediately.  They don't begin playing music until after dark and she needs available daylight, so the schedules are not a problem. 

She chooses as her location, the nearby fairgrounds, called the Hamburg Dom.  Astrid imagines that the thrill ride machinery and transportation vehicles will  provide an appropriate backdrop for her new working-class friends.  Since it is getting colder in northern Germany, the fairgrounds are mostly deserted.  Could anything be more inspired!

The pictures are the earliest of the Beatles that can be considered something more than the usual keepsake snapshots.  They show John with his newly acquired Rickenbacker 325 guitar and Paul holding John's cast-off Hofner Club 40 with the strings reversed for left-handedness.  George, the youngest and looking on the verge of exhaustion, is still using his cheap Futurama.  Stu holds his Hofner bass, obtained with the proceeds of a Liverpool art show award.  Pete Best brought along his snare drum and a pair of drumsticks.  For a Beatle fan these pictures conjure rich imaginings of what it must have been like to be there on the chilly November day in 1960, exactly 50 years ago.

     Pete, George, John, Paul and Stu         Copyright Astrid Kirchherr

An amazing art book from this time - Hamburg Days by Kirchherr and Voormann

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Astrid Kirchherr Finds a Soul Mate

October/November, 1960

When Klaus Voormann's girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, first hears his enthusiastic descriptions of what he has heard down in the St Pauli district, she is very surprised.  She considers Klaus a "cool customer" and this passionate attitude is most uncharacteristic of him.  After a day or two he convinces her to make the short trip down to the Kaiserkeller to hear this phenomenon for herself.

An apprentice photographer,  Astrid, like Klaus, has an artist's sensibility.  She describes a dark cellar decorated in a maritime theme, with disused fisherman's nets hanging from the ceiling and dirty tables.  This place represents a new and exciting experience for her.  Also like Klaus, she is immediately bowled over by the talent and charisma she sees blasting from the stage with the additional high octane jolt of sexual attraction..  The biggest shock comes when Stuart Sutcliffe turns around to face the audience and Astrid falls in love at first sight.  When she's sees the young man with delicate features and wearing black leather, brandishing a big bass guitar, she knows instinctively that this is everything that she has been looking for.

Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Toilet Humor and Genius

October/November 1960

The Beatles are playing long stints every night at the Kaiserkeller and to keep up the killing pace resort to German diet pills.  With the trade name of Prelludin and the street name of Prellies, they were an over-the-counter amphetamine.  The boys noticed that when they took them they could stay sharp for the long hours of the night and as a side benefit would feel more upbeat, lending more "mach shau" to their performances.

Another side effect might have been the increasingly erratic behavior exhibited especially by their ring leader, John Lennon.  Of course, at this late date it is very difficult to separate fact from legend, but there certainly is lots of legend to be found here.  There is a pretty well substantiated story that John once appeared on the Kaiserkeller stage in his underwear with a toilet seat hanging around his neck!  There are also stories of him urinating out of second story windows on unsuspecting passers-by below.

Many people remember that during these years, John would do anything for a laugh, even when the butt of his antics might view the perpetrator as having a particularly cruel streak. Almost everyone who knew him agrees, John Lennon was not an easy person to be around.  What is that mysterious relationship between the cruel young lout and the miraculous songwriter he was becoming?  No doubt it has much to do with the undeniable need to break the rules, whether of society or of art.