The Beatles Say Goodbye to Hamburg

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 17 2012 12:59 PM

The Beatles Say Goodbye to Hamburg

130128_BTB_hamburgStarClub

Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. In our latest weekly installment, we check in with the group as they play their final 13 shows at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany. Some audio recordings from those shows have survived.

The Beatles’ Hamburg shows are now the stuff of legend, but 50 years ago this month, they just wanted to get them over with. They had recorded for Parlophone Records in London, performed on TV and on the BBC, and had a record rising up the charts, but their old contract demanded that they play one more grueling stint at Hamburg’s Star-Club. “If we’d had our way, we’d have copped out on the engagement, because we didn’t feel we owed them fuck all,” John Lennon later said. But their manager, Brian Epstein, insisted.

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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. The shows were not glamorous. They played for audiences of “inebriated seamen and bored whores,” often antagonizing the audience, and afterwards crashed on bunk beds above the clubs. Early on they were even reduced to playing background music at a strip club. To carry them through the marathon sets, they took “Preludins”—over-the-counter uppers that they got from local waitresses and friends.

Beatles-Platz in Hamburg
The Star-Club building burned down in 1983, but today the location is commemorated with a plaza and memorial in Hamburg.

Of course, as Malcolm Gladwell and many others have suggested, it’s during this period that the Beatles refined their skills as live performers. George Harrison himself called the period their “apprenticeship,” and Lennon agreed. “In Hamburg we had to play for hours and hours on end,” he said. “Every song lasted 20 minutes and had 20 solos in it. … That’s what improved the playing.”

Most of these shows are lost or were never recorded. But we’re lucky to have audio from the Beatles’ final stretch of concerts at the Star-Club, from Dec. 18 to Dec. 31, 1962. The tape, restored and collected on the album The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962, is not widely available, but you can find most of it on YouTube. Sadly it was recorded using only a single microphone, and so the audio quality is poor. But the Beatles’ raw energy, as they tore through raucous sets of mostly covers (here’s the set list), comes through loud and clear. For most of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever come to knowing what those legendary concerts were like.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.