Spencer Leigh goes to Hamburg and researches the links between the city and the Beatles.
This is a chapter from Twist And Shout – Merseybeat, The Cavern, The Star-Club and the Beatles (Nirvana Books, 2004), which can be ordered through the Books page. I’ve reprinted the chapter as it is. I don’t know anyone else who does it, but I like the idea of numbering the direct quotes and then writing about the speakers at the back of the book, but I realise that the chapter might be a little confusing out of context. In other words, buy the book!
4. Germany Calling
I. St. Pauli – Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll
II. Schlager You Than Me
III. The Indra and the Kaiserkeller
IV. 27 December 1960
“We forgave the Germans and then we were friends.”
(Bob Dylan, ‘With God On Our Side’, 1964)
I. St. Pauli – Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll
“I had expected Hamburg to be grimmer – a sort of German Liverpool,” writes Bill Bryson in his travel book, Neither Here Nor There (1991), but he is pleasantly surprised. I expected Hamburg to be a German Liverpool too when I went in 2001, but that would be a compliment in my eyes. I expected this because the Liverpool groups had fitted so snugly into the city, and many musicians spent several years there.
Situated on the Elbe River in northern Germany, Hamburg is Germany’s second city and largest port, now a container port but still with an enormous volume of trade. The director of the Museum of Hamburg History, Dr Ortwin Pelc (146) told me, “The people in Hamburg feel separate from Germany and also from Saxony or Bavaria. They won’t say, ‘We are German, we are Bavarians.’ The Hamburgers say, ‘We are from Hamburg.’ That is not just in the twentieth century. It has been that way for hundreds of years.” Sounds familiar? Already you sense the pride that links the people of Hamburg and Liverpool.
There is a tendency for Scousers to claim that Liverpool people invented everything and in my short time in Hamburg, I noticed a similar tendency. Several people told me that the word ‘hamburger’ came from Hamburg, though why anyone should want to claim that beats me. It appears that the Americans saw the German immigrants frying steaks and discovered they were very tasty: hence, hamburgers were born. I’m not convinced. Frying meat involves no great thought and surely several communities were doing it at the same time. Maybe ‘big fries’ comes from the Grosse Freiheit.
Dr Ortwin Pelc (147) senses that Hamburgers are not like other Germans: “Maybe it is a different humour but there are a lot of parallels between England and northern Germany We have some people working here from Vienna and Austria: they don’t understand our humour and we say, ‘Well, there is a kind of English humour here.’ We have very close connections to London. We have a ferry from here to Harwich. We have an English theatre here and we have British clubs here.”
Hamburg espouses freedom, and all manner of behaviour is tolerated in its St. Pauli area. There are elegant department stores and beautiful town houses elsewhere, but St. Pauli is a working-class district down by the docks. The thoroughfare is Die Reeperbahn, which means ‘Rope-making Street’ and provides another link to the ships, and the Star-Club was in Die Grosse Freiheit, which means The Great Freedom. Some centuries ago, the Reeperbahn was divided from the rest of the city by a wall, and the prostitutes, gypsies and beggars would live there. On the whole, St. Pauli is a cosmopolitan area, created for the needs of sailors (and we all know what sailors want), and hence, there is nothing especially German about it.
Photographer Günter Zint (148): “The Grosse Freiheit goes back 400 years. Hamburg was Protestant and there you could be of any religious persuasion. You could attend a Catholic church, and we had six churches in St. Pauli in the seventeenth century. If you had a profession and you were not in a union, you could go to Grosse Freiheit and work as a shoemaker, for example. It was just outside Hamburg, so everything that was new or funny or anti-establishment was there.”
R&B musician, Henry Heggen (149): “The Reeperbahn is where they let it all hang out. They made the ropes for the ships and then they established the dives, so it became the place to get drunk and be with a woman. The equivalent would be Las Vegas where prostitution is legal, but it doesn’t have the tradition the Reeperbahn has. It is 100 yards to the harbour so over the centuries sailors have been going there for a good time.”
Dr Ortwin Pelc (150): “The history of the Reeperbahn has so much to do with sex because it is the second biggest harbour in Europe. When the sailors came here in the Fifties and Sixties, they stayed in St. Pauli with the music, the sex shops and the sex shows. The authorities in Hamburg would like St. Pauli to have a better image and you have got a theatre which is staging Cats at the moment. If you are in St. Pauli at night, you will meet people that you would prefer not to meet. The harbour isn’t so important for the sailors. The ships are only here for two or three hours and the sailors do not have time to go to the Reeperbahn. The clubs are more for tourists and the people in northern Germany. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a lot of people came from East Germany to look at the Reeperbahn.”
Oh yes, there is culture in St. Pauli. When I was walking round the Reeperbahn, I came across a museum – a museum devoted to erotica. The entrance looked supremely unerotic. What, I wondered, was in it? Inflatable dolls from the 30s, sex aids from the 19th century? If you didn’t get a hard-on, could you ask for your money back?
It was seven at night and 10 girls propositioned me within a hour – if I had said yes to them all, I would have been worn out. A blonde with pigtails put my hand on her breasts to assure me that they were real. I didn’t doubt it but I wondered about the rest of her as she wore a red miniskirt and fishnet stockings, which appears de rigueur for a Hamburg prossie, or indeed anywhere else for that matter. Still, I liked the idea of a free sample from a good-looking girl, but who would want to shag someone who had already been shagged six times that day? Not to mention the possibility of theft or Aids: the best time to steal your wallet must be when your trousers are round your ankles. Most of the prostitutes were good-looking: you’d have to be to compete for the business, I suppose, but a couple did look as though they had been around at the time of the Beatles. Perhaps I should have asked for an interview.
There appear to be no regulations regarding what sex shops can show in their windows and all manners of dildos and condoms are on open display. One shop’s centrepiece was a gigantic, erect penis. Who on earth buys the inflatable dolls, especially the ones with three orifices: would the purchaser ever admit it and wouldn’t you feel like Benny Hill as you cuddled it? I found the answer at the Tate Gallery at the Albert Dock in 2004. One artist had two sex dolls on display and I asked if he had made them himself or had simply purchased them. He bought them at a German airport, I was told, and it is an example of Found Art. I think I will become a Found Artist.
I should add that these dolls can have other uses. When Phil Spector was married to Ronnie from the Ronettes, he was concerned about her driving alone around Los Angeles, so he installed an inflatable doll in the front seat. This is taken as a sign of his madness but it might indicate his consideration. Of course, it would be far better to have darkened windows or to tell her to lock the doors, but there you are. Surely an inflatable doll in the front seat would only dissuade short-sighted muggers.
I walked past the sex shows, scores of them, some of them offering nude photographs of artists who would definitely not be appearing there – Demi Moore and Madonna, for example – but at least you might be intrigued as to what was inside. Others had such unappetizing pictures out front that you would have to be desperate to go in and even then, you might prefer to take a chance on Demi Moore. When the Liverpool groups appeared in St. Pauli, did they put photographs of Elvis Presley outside the clubs?
In Liverpool, such posters would have been riddled with comments, but there is surprisingly little graffiti in St. Pauli. I didn’t feel intimidated when I was walking around. I didn’t come across any beggars, nor anyone selling the German equivalent of The Big Issue. Walking round St. Pauli at night is less menacing than walking in the centre of Liverpool. You do have to be wary of cyclists in Hamburg though: cycles are everywhere and very often they are being ridden on the pavements.
200 years ago sailors would come to Liverpool and find the prostitutes on Lime Street (Maggie May means Maggie will) and the aptly-named Paradise Street. They are still there, though the prostitutes have moved to Liverpool 8. As well as being accosted by prostitutes on the Reeperbahn, there is a whole street of them about 100 yards away in the Herbertstrasse. Walls have been built at each end of the street to hide it from public view. You walk through the entrance and there are terraced houses on either side.
Gerry Marsden (151): “John was at the Kaiserkeller while we were at the Top Ten. They would finish at 2am like us, and we would have a drink together. John was my best pal as you know, and he said, ‘Let’s go down the Herbertstrasse.’ This was a street of terraced houses: the windows were like shop windows and sitting behind the windows were young ladies who couldn’t afford many clothes. John said, ‘Let’s go in.’ I said, ‘No.’ So we knocked three times on one of the doors and this German geezer said, ‘Ya vol, vot?’ I said, ‘Can we come in please?’, and he said, ‘80 Deutschemarks’ which was a lot of money. John had about 20 and so did I, and I said, ‘Is 40 any good?’ He shouted at me, something to do with sex and travel, and we offed. John said, ‘Let’s go in next week’, and so next week, same house, knock, knock, knock, same big man. I said, ‘Here’s the money’, and he said, ‘Danke schoen.’ He said, ‘Back in a moment’, and he came back three minutes later with the biggest woman I have ever seen. She looked like a brick shithouse. I looked at John and he looked at me, and we jumped up and ran out of the door. I said, ‘What a waste of money, John: 80 Deutschemarks and we got nothing for it.’ He said, ‘I did. I got the shock of me bloody life.’ God bless him. We were kids and we enjoyed it.”
Lee Curtis (152): “You didn’t have to be anybody special to go there, and the Herbertstrasse was available to anybody over 18. It had gates on the end, a little maze that you could walk through, and, because the wall was ten foot high, you couldn’t look in from outside. Otherwise, it could be a cobbled street in England. They were little terraced houses, about 14 on either side, and sitting in the windows were almost any woman of any style or design that you could ever want – young girls, old girls, thin girls, fat girls, the schoolteacher, the secretary, the office type, in leather, in lace, in underwear, in suzzies and some of the most beautiful women in the world – in every window was a different type of woman. If you were interested you would tap on the window and they would open it. When you had done a deal, the window closed, the curtain was pulled across, the door opened and in you go. When you went in, you always had to buy champagne, the extras came first. There would be the waitress to serve the drinks. It was fascinating to go round the back. There was a passageway as the houses were all attached and the madams were looking after the needs of the girls.”
Ian Edwards (153) from Ian and the Zodiacs: “The girls of the night in the Herbertstrasse would see us if we walked down there and say ‘Ah, die Beatles.’ It didn’t matter who it was, if you had long hair, you were a Beatle. You couldn’t take a lady down there. I walked down there with my wife, to show her what it was like, and she was insulted something terrible. All it said outside was ‘No servicemen and no under 18s.’ There was nothing about ladies.”
“I have sat in those houses,” says Lee Curtis (154): What, I say, offering yourself for sale? “No, I have been backstage in those houses. The girls became great friends of the bands, they loved the musicians and they would come into the Star-Club in their free time. They would invite us for drinks. The girls around the Star-Club would spoil you bloody rotten. They bought you everything – meals, drinks – if you didn’t have it, you got it. If you didn’t have a woman, they gave you one. They tried to make you happy.” Very happy, it would seem.
In the middle of an all-purpose store, Aladdin’s Cave, I came across a gangster’s paradise selling guns, knives and handcuffs, opposite the kiddie’s videos as it happens. I hung round for a few minutes looking at postcards but hoping I might witness some exciting purchase: just how did thugs choose their knives, but nothing happened. Isn’t there a danger that a customer may say, “Yes, I’ll take this gun. Don’t bother to wrap it and, by the way, hand over your takings as well.” The store was very close to the police station – the very police station in which Paul McCartney and Pete Best were charged with burning down the Bambo Kini. I should think the policemen are kept busy.
Günter Zint (155): “My wife has grown up in St Pauli and it is more dangerous to walk in other parts of town at night because in St. Pauli, it is business and they do not want to scare away the customers. If somebody is talking shit to her, she says, ‘Okay, it costs 1,000 marks’ and he runs off. (Laughs) She feels safe here but the problem is the traffic. It is such a crowded place. We have 60,000 people living on four square kilometres. It is so expensive to live or work here. In the end, I was only making enough money to pay the rent and so we moved away. When we want to go to St. Pauli, we jump on the train and we are here in 15 minutes.”
Maybe the Hamburg authorities prefer the less salubrious night life being concentrated in one area. In 2002, legislation was passed that made prostitution a business like any other. Prostitutes pay taxes and are entitled to social benefits like any other worker. Presumably they can claim any surgical enhancements against tax. I was told that the unemployment rate was high in Hamburg, but I don’t know whether sex workers were included in the statistics. Music writer Bernd Matheja (156): “Today the Reeperbahn is just a place for tourists. There are more music clubs and restaurants than in the Sixties and not so many sex clubs. It is the only place in Germany that looks like that, even today. Neither Berlin nor Cologne has a red mile like the Reeperbahn. The authorities have raids from time to time, but they have never wanted to close it down because they make money out of it. Many people live in the smaller streets off the Reeperbahn, and school-children walk along there in the morning.”
II. Schlager You Than Me
In the mid-Thirties, bunkers were being added to the houses in Hamburg as if the authorities and the residents were expecting something to happen. Dr Ortwin Pelc (157): “The Nazis prepared for war from 1935 and that was exclusive to Hamburg. They had training for bombardments in the town because Hamburg is in northern Germany: it is not far from England and they expected some retaliation. They built battleships in Hamburg because of its big harbour. It should have been obvious to anyone that Germany was preparing for war.”
Sadly, it wasn’t obvious until it was too late. Hamburg was one of the last German cities to be convinced by Hitler’s rhetoric and it suffered badly in the bombing raids.
Intriguingly, there was a movement against Hitler, centred on music. Ulf Krüger (158), who is doing so much to promote the links between the Beatles and Hamburg: “Even in World War II, you had Die Swing Jugend, the Swing Youth, the young boys who loved swing music and mostly listened in private because it wasn’t allowed in public. Some of them were prepared to go the concentration camp for their love of it. Their idol was Glenn Miller.”
This seemed amazing. You could be put in a concentration mp for simply liking Glenn Miller. Could this possibly be true? TV presenter and music authority, Kuno Dreysse (159): “Don’t take this too far: it was simply that Glenn Miller was the music of the enemy. It was not allowed. Today you have the internet and you can’t stop any message getting through but in those days it was forbidden. You couldn’t sing German schlagers on the streets of Britain, so it’s the same thing.” One German bandleader, Hans Carstoe, took a chance as he took the American tune, ‘Joseph, Joseph, Won’t You Name The Day?’ and had a very successful record under a German title.
And everyone sang ‘Lili Marleen’. While I was in Hamburg, I bought a CD featuring 20 different versions of ‘Lili Marleen’ including Lale Anderson and Marlene Dietrich as expected, but also Eric Burdon and the New Vaudeville Band. Old-time music expert Clive Garner (160): “It was originally recorded in 1939 by Lale Andersen who was a Danish born artist. It didn’t become popular until 1941 when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia. Wherever the Germans went they set up a broadcasting station, specifically for broadcasting music to their troops. The radio station in Belgrade didn’t have a large stock of suitable songs. They got a lot of fairly recent, older records from a shop in Vienna, and en route to Belgrade, a lot of these 78rpm records were broken, thanks to the poor state of the roads. One of the ones which survived was ‘Lili Marleen’, and the station was forced to play it over and over again. It became popular with their troops. Our soldiers, also tuning in to music from the German stations, heard it and it became popular on both sides of the lines. One of the most popular versions was by Marlene Dietrich, but many Germans regarded her as a traitor because she had become an American citizen. Years later, a lot of Germans objected when she was used to publicise the German airline, Lufthansa.” In Berlin, I found a superb Film Museum with a special section devoted to her: nobody else was there. Nearby is Marlene-Dietrich-Platz.