Forget Liverpool. Hamburg, Germany, made the Beatles into the band they became (2023)

Reporting from Hamburg, Germany—

At the tender age of 8, I knew the Beatles were extraordinary. In their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” they sang and played effortlessly, their timing perfect despite rarely looking at one another.

Like thousands of others, I basked in that black-and-white glow on that Sunday night in February 1964, but when it was over, I had a burning question: How did they do that?

I recently had the chance to find out. On a business trip to Germany, I spent three days in St. Pauli, the Hamburg district where the Beatles became really good before they became really, really famous.


My expert guide: Peter Paetzold, a bearded 68-year-old with the street cred of a chain-smoking rock drummer, well versed about St. Pauli’s music scene of the 1960s. He grew up around the corner from the Indra club, one of four venues the group played.

In August 1960, when the Beatles arrived, the Indra was a seedy strip joint complete with a neon-lighted elephant beckoning passersby. The band’s contract required the five of them (John, Paul, George, drummer Pete Best and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe) to perform for 30 hours, six nights a week. Each one received the generous sum of 30 Deutsche marks a week, about $51 in those days.

“We had to learn millions of songs because we’d be on for hours,” George Harrison later said. “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”

(Video) The Beatles - Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962

The Indra’s owner provided the group free lodging. On my private tour, Paetzold and I crossed the street to the entrance of those accommodations, the back door of the Bambi, a movie theater. The Beatles slept behind the screen in two dark, dank, cramped storage rooms with small beds, folding cots and a couch. The nearby men’s room, where broken toilets sometimes overflowed into their rooms, served the group’s personal hygiene needs.


As we stood outside the back entrance of the Bambi, Paetzold removed a photo from an envelope, a black-and-white image of John Lennon taken in 1960 at the theater. The singer is reading a newspaper and wearing only a cap, sandals and white briefs. It marked one of my “oh-my-gosh” moments in St. Pauli.

There were many more OMG moments the previous night.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Hamburg more effusive about the Beatles than Stefanie Hempel. She conducts walking tours, performs the group’s music on a ukulele and is a cultural ambassador for the city. She is organizing a celebration in September of the “Abbey Road” album with a band and orchestra.

Hempel vividly remembers the moment — she was 9 — when she first heard “She Loves You” on a cassette tape her father had acquired surreptitiously in the 1980s because rock music was verboten in East Germany. “It was the moment of my life,” she said.

She often is asked what it was like for the Beatles playing small, noisy, smoke-filled clubs in Hamburg.

“It was a very tough time for them, but it was the wildest time of their lives,” she said, an allusion, I think, to the musicians’ introduction to prostitutes and “prellies,” the nickname for Phenmetrazine, a stimulant.

“They were never again as free as they were in Hamburg,” she said. “As John Lennon said, ‘We could try anything and the audience liked it, as long as it was really loud.’ ”

Magical musical tour

I joined Hempel and 30 others on her weekly Saturday evening musical tour, more magical than mysterious, through St. Pauli’s red-light district. Her clients have included Bob Dylan, Steve Winwood and John Lennon’s half-sister, Julia.

Hempel’s three-hour excursion, now in its 15th year, includes a stop at the site of the Star-Club, where the Beatles and other musical icons, including Bill Haley and Jimi Hendrix, performed in the 1960s. The venue closed in 1969; it was destroyed 18 years later in a fire.

After leading us in a robust sing-along of “Twist and Shout,” Hempel walked us to Beatles-Platz, a circular plaza with five metal silhouettes, a tribute to the pre-Fab Four. Names of their songs (in English), from “My Bonnie,” recorded in Hamburg in 1961 with singer Tony Sheridan, to “The Long and Winding Road,” are incised in the ground representing the grooves of a record.

(Video) The Beatles in Hamburg

Forget Liverpool. Hamburg, Germany, made the Beatles into the band they became (1)

Beatles Square (Beatles-Platz) represents the Beatles during their Hamburg engagements.

(Aija Lehtonen / Shutterstock / Aija Lehtonen)

The plaza is the city’s only public recognition of the group, and I wondered why Hamburg had not capitalized on this extraordinary musical legacy,

“They spent their time in a very sleazy area, and it is still that way,” said British radio broadcaster Spencer Leigh, author of “The Beatles in Hamburg.” “If Hamburg were to clean up the area, they presumably would be turning away profitable enterprises ... a real conundrum.”

Carsten Brosda, head of Hamburg’s office of culture and media, contends the Beatles’ legacy lives on in the annual Reeperbahn Festival, four days in September when rock, pop, folk, soul and jazz abound in clubs and blocked-off streets. The name refers to the half-mile main boulevard in the heart of the red-light district.

“It’s grown to become one of the most important European music festivals,” Brosda said. “So you could say that the lively music culture in this part of town is one of the best commemorations of the Beatles and the long tradition of music around the Reeperbahn.”

Vintage market

That lively culture extends beyond the Reeperbahn. A short walk led me to the waterfront district where the promenade along the Elbe River is filled with locals and tourists. The crowd was almost shoulder to shoulder on a Sunday morning as they converged on the Hamburg Fish Market, which dates back more than 300 years.

I was not shopping for cod, flowers or fresh fruit and vegetables. Rather, I was admiring the street artists and buskers, some of whom may have their sights on this year’s Reeperbahn Festival (Sept. 18-21).

Another St. Pauli tradition, although not three centuries old, is the Flohschanze, a Saturday flea market that was a 15-minute walk from my hotel. With my “find,” an Art Deco picture frame from the 1920s, I strolled around the corner to two more Beatles landmarks.

(Video) Lost Beatles Tape Discovered (BBC 1973) the find of the Hamburg Tapes.

Musik Rotthoff is crammed to the ceiling with Gibson, Fender and other brands of guitars. Claus-Dieter Rotthoff is the third-generation proprietor of this family business. In 1961, his father sold Paul McCartney the stylish violin-shaped Hõfner bass guitar the singer played in concert and in recording studios throughout the 1960s.

The shop is adjacent to Hotel Pacific, where in December 1962 the four Beatles, now with Ringo Starr on drums, stayed two weeks, each with his own room. The group closed its pre-Beatlemania Hamburg run, which totaled more than 1,100 performance hours on five trips from Liverpool, with a New Year’s Eve show in 1962.

Eleven days later, “Please Please Me,” which record producer George Martin accurately predicted would be the group’s first No. 1 hit, was released in Britain. A little more than a year later, the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

If you go

The best way to Hamburg, Germany

From LAX, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, Austria, British, United and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Hamburg. Restricted round-trip fare from $1,070, including taxes and fees.


To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (the international calling code), 49 (the country code for Germany) and the local number.

What to do

Peter Paetzold,

Hempel’s Beatles-Tour, 6 p.m. Saturdays, April-November. About $40 for a 2½- to three-hour tour.

Where to stay

(Video) Hamburg's Music Scene — from the Beatles to the Elbphilharmonie | How Hamburg Sounds and Rocks

Ibis Budget Hamburg St Pauli Messe, 64 Simon-von-Utrecht-Strasse, Hamburg, Germany; 40-31765620. Doubles from $94, breakfast included

Hotel Pacific, 30-31 Neuer Pferdemarkt, Hamburg, Germany; 40-4395095. Doubles with private baths from $100.

Arcotel Onyx Hamburg, 1a Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany; 40 2094090. Doubles from $170 a night.

Where to eat

Captain’s Dinner Restaurant and Cafe, St. Pauli Landungsbrücken, bridge 3; Hamburg, Germany; 40-312121. Lovely waterfront setting overlooking the Elbe River; several fish entrees. Dinner for two from $80.

Freudenhaus St. Pauli, 7-9 Hein-Hoyer-Strasse, Hamburg, Germany; 40-314642. Elegant dining just off the infamous Reeperbahn. Nice array of veal, pork and other “sinful meats.” Dinner for two, $100.

It’s Like Kandie, 16 Wohlwillstrasse, Hamburg, Germany. Specializing in dessert waffles; a two-minute walk from the John Lennon “doorway,” featured on the cover of his 1975 “Rock ’n’ Roll” album.

To learn more

Contact the Hamburg tourism office.


(Video) The Beatles – From Liverpool to San Francisco (Doku über die Beatles, Dokumentation deutsch, Musik)


How did the Beatles get from Liverpool to Hamburg? ›

O n the morning of August 17, 1960, the Beatles emerged from a cramped minibus and tumbled out into a seedy enclave of Hamburg. Arriving after a drive on the long and winding road from Liverpool, they were there to play a series of gigs at a club in the West German city.

What did the Beatles do in Hamburg Germany? ›

The Star Club opened in Hamburg on 13th April 1962 and it brought Rock'n Roll and Beat Music to Germany. Amongst the stars playing gigs there were Tony Sheridan, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and of course The Beatles.

How did the Beatles became a band? ›

The Beatles were formed around the nucleus of members John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who first performed together in Liverpool, England, in 1957. They performed with a changing cast of accompanists and under a changing list of band names before settling on their final members and name.

How did Hamburg change the Beatles? ›

Of course the biggest improvement was musical: all members of the Beatles have later attested in interviews that it was in Hamburg that they finally got the performing experience and developed the technical and musical skills that would rocket them to fame a few years later.

Where did the Beatles get their start? ›

Where were the Beatles originally formed? ›

Based in: Liverpool, United States. The Beatles were an English rock band formed in Liverpool, in 1960. They became the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed act in the history of music. Their best-known lineup consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

What happened when the Beatles went to Germany? ›

On August 17, 1960, the Beatles kicked off one of their earliest professional gigs—a months-long residency at the Indra Club in Hamburg, Germany. Over the next two years, the budding British rock stars, who'd struggled to book venues in their hometown of Liverpool, continued to perform regularly in the German city.

What did the Beatles do in Germany? ›

The Beatles first played Hamburg's pleasure zone in 1960, in a former strip club near the infamous Reeperbahn. It was sixty years ago today, on August 17, 1960, that the Beatles got together to play… their first live performance at the Indra Club in Hamburg's red light district.

Why did the Beatles do songs in German? ›

Odeon Records insisted with Epstein and Beatles producer George Martin that if they wanted to sell more records in West Germany, the band would need to rerecord their biggest songs in German. At that time, recording unique versions for foreign markets was a standard practice.

Why and how did the Beatles break up? ›

Their break-up is attributed to numerous factors, including: the strain of the Beatlemania phenomenon, the 1967 death of manager Brian Epstein, bandmates' resentment of McCartney's perceived domineering, Lennon's heroin use and his relationship with Yoko Ono, Harrison's increasingly prolific songwriting, the ...

What song made the Beatles famous? ›

Wednesday marked 60 years since the Beatles released their debut single, Love Me Do, lighting the spark which ignited Beatlemania and changed music forever.

How did the Beatles end up? ›

After John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment on December 8, 1980 and George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001, the fab four became two and the Beatles were split up forever.

Why did the Beatles leave Germany? ›

The day after they were arrested on suspicion of arson, Paul McCartney and Pete Best were deported from Germany.

How long did the Beatles play in Hamburg Germany? ›

The Beatles arrived in Hamburg, Germany in the early evening of 17 August 1960, for the first of 48 nights at the Indra Club on the Grosse Freiheit street. The group performed at the venue for 48 nights, ending on 3 October 1960.

How many shows did the Beatles do in Hamburg? ›

The Beatles' Star-Club shows were the culmination of endless hours of practice in the Hamburg scene. Between August 1960 and December 1962, the Beatles played over 250 nights in the seedy seaport city, and venues often demanded they play four or five hours a night.

What brought the Beatles to America? ›

The first appearance of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1964, drew the largest audience for any program – 73 million people – in the history of television up to that time.

What was the Beatles first number one hit? ›

On this date in 1964, the Beatles posted their first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their first entry on the list, rose 3-1 in its just its third week on the chart.

Why are they called the Beatles? ›

According to The Beatles' publicist, Derek Taylor, the name came from the 1953 movie “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando. Taylor's memoir details that Brando's character referred to his leather-jacket-donning gang as “young beetles.” And the rest is history.

What were the Beatles originally called? ›

Early incarnations of the band included The Quarrymen, Johnny & the Moon Dogs, and The Silver Beetles. John Lennon dreamed up the band's final name, The Beatles, a mix of beat with beetle.

What American city were the Beatles first landed? ›

On 7 February 1964, the Beatles arrived at John F Kennedy airport in New York, greeted by thousands of screaming fans.

Who were the 4 original Beatles? ›

John, Paul, George and Ringo. The Beatles were a tight-knit gang of four - christened the Fab Four in 1963 after the press picked up the term from the sleeve notes for their second album.

What country were the Beatles banned from? ›

In 1966, The Beatles were walking on water and could do no wrong. Their fame took them to every thinkable corner of the world, including the Philippines, but a misstep during their visit would lead to the group nearly being banned from the Asian country.

Who did the Beatles meet in Hamburg Germany? ›

The Beatles first met Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg, who was instrumental in their adoption of the mop topped Beatle haircut.

Which German city did the Beatles frequently perform in before becoming famous? ›

On a business trip to Germany, I spent three days in St. Pauli, the Hamburg district where the Beatles became really good before they became really, really famous.

Were the Beatles popular in Germany? ›

Founded in 1960, the Beatles' career took off in 1962 in Hamburg's Star-Club, a rock club which served as a steppingstone for many bands. Just a short while later, the foursome become superstars, triggering hysteria wherever they went. In 1966, they came back to Germany - to the joy of their many fans.

What German city did the Beatles go to to play in bars? ›

Between 1960 and 1962, the new Beatles played an estimated 281 concerts in Hamburg's notorious red light and party district, sometimes starting at 7pm and finishing at 7am. In two short years, they played more live music hours in Hamburg than anywhere else in the world in their entire career.

How many times did the Beatles go to Germany? ›

The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night.

Which Beatles spoke German? ›

Paul McCartney speaks in German, Part I.

Did the Beatles actually sing in German? ›

On January 29, 1964 in a Paris recording studio, The Beatles recorded two of their hit songs in German. The instrumental music tracks were the originals used for the English recordings, but the German lyrics had been hurriedly written by a Luxembourger named Camillo Felgen (1920-2005).

What was the original reason for the Beatles to do a movie? ›

The first Beatles film, 1964's A Hard Day's Night, was conceived by United Artists as a cheap cash in on The Beatles' exploding popularity, and was shot in black-and-white for a limited budget of £500,000.

Why did Paul sue The Beatles? ›

McCartney ended up suing the band after disagreements with new manager Allen Klein. "The only way for me to save The Beatles and Apple (Records) ... was to sue the band," he told the magazine, explaining he wasn't able to bring a lawsuit against Klein directly because "he wasn't party to it."

Why did George Harrison get mad at The Beatles? ›

The irritation was largely born out of Harrison's growing songwriting talent. He had started to flex his muscles on previous Beatles releases, something which had both impressed and perhaps annoyed the songwriting partnership of Lennon-McCartney.

Are Paul and Ringo still friends? ›

The two former Beatles got together in Los Angeles at an event in honor of McCartney's fashion designer daughter, Stella McCartney. After nearly 66 years of friendship, it appears Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are still going strong.

What was Beatles biggest hit? ›

"Hey Jude" is still the biggest hit music of the Beatles' run, but it's the best-played song in Billboard chart history. The Beatles have no doubt about their status as best-selling artists on the planet, with 183 million albums certified in America alone.

What is the oldest Beatles song? ›

50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Released Their Debut Single, 'Love Me Do' – Rolling Stone.

What was The Beatles number one hit of all time? ›

At Number 1 on The Beatles' Official Top 50 is, of course, She Loves You. Released in 1963, the track - written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney - logged six non-consecutive weeks at Number 1 is the best selling single of the 1960s in the UK.

How much was John Lennon worth when he died? ›

John Lennon: US$620 million

He is estimated to have been worth around US$200 million – equivalent to US$620 million today – when he was murdered in 1980 at the age of 40, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

Who turned away The Beatles? ›

For 50 years, Dick Rowe has been blamed for the biggest blunder in rock music history: he turned down the Beatles.

Why was one of The Beatles killed? ›

The killer was Mark David Chapman, an American Beatles fan who was jealous and enraged by Lennon's rich lifestyle, alongside his 1966 comment that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus".

Why was Paul McCartney kicked out of Germany? ›

SIR Paul McCartney was deported from Germany for setting fire to condoms. The Beatles' former drummer Pete Best said he and Paul returned to the UK after being accused of arson when they used the rubbers as emergency lighting at the start of his career.

Why were the Beatles banned from the US? ›

Rock and roll musicians were deemed culturally non-valuable by the two unions and were restricted to very limited touring outside of their home country. It was this agreement that enabled the AFM to try to ban The Beatles.

Why did Russia ban the Beatles? ›

“We met a few people while playing in Russia and they seemed convinced that The Beatles' music had something to do with it.” Music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and others was banned in the nation during that era because of the fear that it was “subversive”.

Why were the Beatles terminated in Hamburg because? ›

The group was forced to leave Hamburg because George Harrison was deported for still being a minor. At this time, Stuart Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue his art career and to live with his love, Astrid Kirscher, a photographer.

Why is Hamburg important to the Beatles? ›

Hamburg belongs to the ranks of legendary rock 'n' roll cities, mainly because of the 250-plus nights The Beatles played there between 1960 and 1962. The port city was a key site of their early, primitive phase where they once lived in the squalid Bambi Kino and a drunken John Lennon played a gig wearing a toilet seat.

How old was George Harrison when the Beatles went to Hamburg? ›

once they'd actually seen us, people kept flocking in.” George Harrison, who was only 17-years-old when the band first played in Germany, recalled in The Beatles Anthology that, “Hamburg was really our apprenticeship. We had to learn millions of songs, because we'd be on for hours — we'd make stuff up.

Did the Beatles meet Ringo in Hamburg? ›

It was in Hamburg, too, that the band first met Ringo Starr, who was the drummer of another group playing around the city, and who filled in on drums at a recording session when Best was otherwise engaged.

How many hours a day did the Beatles play? ›

John Lennon talks about this experience (paraphrased) “we got better and got more confidence. We were playing eight straight hours a day, but in Liverpool (England) we could play only for an hour.

When did the Beatles first travel to Hamburg? ›

On August 17, 1960, the Beatles kicked off one of their earliest professional gigs—a months-long residency at the Indra Club in Hamburg, Germany. Over the next two years, the budding British rock stars, who'd struggled to book venues in their hometown of Liverpool, continued to perform regularly in the German city.

Did the Beatles get their start in Hamburg Germany? ›

The Beatles first played Hamburg's pleasure zone in 1960, in a former strip club near the infamous Reeperbahn. It was sixty years ago today, on August 17, 1960, that the Beatles got together to play… their first live performance at the Indra Club in Hamburg's red light district.

How many hours a day did the Beatles play in Hamburg? ›

During this residency on their first of several similar pre-stardom trips to Hamburg, The Beatles performed 104 consecutive nights without a night off. On weekdays, they performed four-and-a- half hours of music. On weekends, they performed six hours of music. 30 of the performances were on weekend nights.

Where did the Beatles first land in America? ›

On 7 February 1964, the Beatles arrived at John F Kennedy airport in New York, greeted by thousands of screaming fans. This Daily Mirror article documents Beatlemania crossing the Atlantic, as the band dubbed the Fab Four arrived to play their first concerts in America.

How many times did the Beatles go to Hamburg? ›

The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage.

Which clubs did Beatles play at Hamburg? ›

After their residency at the Indra, the musicians rocked the stage at other Hamburg clubs, including Kaiserkeller, Top Ten and Star Club. It's where the Beatles celebrated their first successes — and removed the word "silver" from the band's name. Their signature mop-top haircuts were also devised in Hamburg.

Did any of the Beatles speak German? ›

Yes The Beatles Did Speak German From There Frequent Trips To Hamburg. Paul Also Studied German, Spanish, And Latin.

How many songs did the Beatles play in Hamburg? ›

by Joseph Brennan, copyright 1994, 1996. In the summer of 1961, the Beatles recorded eight songs for Bert Kaempfert Produktion in Hamburg. On six songs they were the backup band for Tony Sheridan, lead vocal and guitar. On two, "Cry for a shadow" and "Ain't she sweet", the Beatles performed alone.

How much did the Beatles get paid in Hamburg? ›

They were paid £2.50 each a day, seven days a week, playing from 8:30–9:30, 10 until 11, 11:30–12:30, and finishing the evening playing from one until two o'clock in the morning.

Did Ringo perform in Hamburg? ›

Going back to 1960, the two bands has alternated back-breaking sets in Hamburg, Germany's Kaiserkeller Club. Ringo was their first choice to fill in for Best.

Who wrote most of the songs for the Beatles? ›

Let's start by looking at song counts: out of 208 songs recorded by the Beatles, 71 were written mostly by John, 68 mostly by Paul, 22 by George, 21 were cover songs from their early days, 16 John+Paul songs (songs in which they contributed equally), and 10 that were sung by Ringo, out of which 2 he wrote himself (Don' ...


1. I Was There When The Beatles Played The Cavern
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3. The Beatles – A Long And Winding Road – Episode 1 – There Are Places I Remember (Doku Deutsch)
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