When The Beatles played Hamburg


An early photo of George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, when The Beatles played Hamburg, Germany.

CBS News

It was 50 years ago today that the Beatles made their American debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show."  They'd already come a long way from their rough-and-tumble early days in Hamburg, Germany -- experiences that lacked the mellow glow of their 1965 tune "In My Life."  Allen Pizzey takes us back:

They were so big, so famous, it seemed like they'd been that way from Day One.

But a defining part of The Beatles' history is really known to only a few -- one man in particular, who George Harrison introduced at his fund-raising Concert for Bangladesh:

"There is somebody on bass who many people have heard about but they never actually see him, Klaus Voormann."

Voormann befriended The Beatles before any of us had ever heard of them.

"I lived pretty close to the Reeperbahn, so actually when I wanted to let steam off or had an argument with my girlfriend, I went to the harbor," he recalled.

The area near the harbor in Hamburg, Germany, was (and still is) where hookers and pimps and gangsters ply their trade -- not a place where a young graphic art student felt welcome.

It was there he heard, through a basement window, rock and roll music, like he'd heard on the radio from the likes of Chuck Berry. "But I'd never heard it like a live band," he said.

He'd never been in a place like the Kaiserkeller club, either.

"I was scared because I thought, 'I can't go down there because all those rockers are down there,'" Voormann told Pizzey. "I was the mod sort of person. I had a funny hairstyle; I looked kind of bohemian."

One of the bands playing the Kaiserkeller club was Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring Ringo Starr.

But it was hearing the first version of The Beatles (John, Paul and George, along with Pete Best on drums and Stuart Sutcliffe on guitar) that changed Klaus Voormann's life -- and, ultimately, the band's.

Voormann persuaded two friends, photographers Astrid Kirchherr and Jurgen Vollmer, to come and listen.

The artists' look was the antithesis of the hard-edged, James Dean kind of image The Beatles were cultivating. Their hairstyle, for one, was "really greasy and swooped up and duck-tailed and a whole lot."

The example of three artistic Germans persuaded the band to adopt the "mop top" hairstyle that became their trademark.

A limited edition book of Voormann's art and Kirchherr's photographs of the period is the brainchild of musician and unofficial Beatles historian Ulf Kruger.

For him, the Reeperbahn is an archaeological dig of rock and roll.

Kreuger said club owners demanded gigs of up to eight or more hours a night, every night.

"They wanted to earn money, and they used musicians as a living music box, making people drink and dance," he told Pizzey.

The owner of the Kaiserkeller would shout "Mach schau … Mach schau." Meaning, "make a show."

So The Beatles obliged, leaping up and down in the wooden stage until they finally broke it.

The band's earliest gigs were at the Indra, the bottom end of the club chain, and they lived accordingly -- in a broom closet-sized room behind the screen of a soft porn moviehouse called the Bambi Kino.

They kept going by using diet pills as "uppers," obligingly provided by the club's washroom attendant whom they called "Mother."

"If you wanted pep-up pills, she was the one. She had it all there," said Voormann.

The grueling hours upon hours of playing let them develop their unique sound, which would be heard in America a few years later . . . but took a heavy toll.

Voormann showed Pizzey a drawing of John Lennon fallen sleep in his bacon-and-egg breakfast.

"I thought he was making a joke," Voormann said. "Snoring, he was."

Breaking a contract, or taking a better offer, wasn't easy around the Reeperbahn.

"It was, let me call it dangerous," said Voormann.

Paul McCartney and Pete Best were arrested and deported for getting even with one boss by hanging a condom on a wall and setting it on fire.

Hard as it was, everybody wanted to play in Hamburg clubs, especially the now-defunct Star Club.

"I always say everybody played at the Star Club except Elvis and the Rolling Stones," said Ulf Kruger.

Even as their fame grew, The Beatles' friendship with Voormann stayed strong, and years later he was asked to design the cover of the "Revolver" LP. It earned him less than $100 -- but the groundbreaking graphic cover made history by winning a Grammy Award.

Voormann went on to play on solo albums by John, George and Ringo, and with a Who's Who of the rock and roll world -- a list he knew The Beatles would make.

"To me, from the very start I had the feeling they wanted to be famous," Voormann said. "Famous meaning being up there. They just wanted to do good music, and they had those great voices, no doubt"

They also made a good friend in Klaus Voormann, who became an integral part of their journey through rock and roll history.

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