Fab Formative Years (Wall Street Journal)

From a review of Ian Inglis’s The Beatles in Hamburg in the Wall Street Journal, May 25th.

Fab Formative Years
by Christopher Bray


“There are places I’ll remember / All my life,” sang John Lennon on the Beatles’ first incontestably great album, Rubber Soul. One such place, Ian Inglis says in what by my count is his third book on the band, was surely Hamburg—the German port where the Beatles served a goodly portion of their musical training. On five extended visits made between mid-August 1960 and the end of December 1962, the group played for an estimated 800 hours, performing multiple sets over 273 nights in several of the city’s nightclubs.

That’s only one less appearance than the band made at Liverpool’s Cavern club during roughly the same period. So how come, Mr. Inglis asks in The Beatles in Hamburg, everybody has heard of the Cavern while, devoted fans aside, relatively few know much about the Beatles’ time in Hamburg? And why is the Cavern considered “the birthplace of The Beatles,” he asks, when the band played at Hamburg’s Indra nightclub in August 1960, six months before making their Cavern debut?

One reason—as songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” keep reminding us—is that Liverpool was the Beatles’ hometown. Then there’s Liverpool itself, which, with its Beatles museum, guided tours, gift shops and even an English Heritage plaque on the house where John Lennon grew up, is only too keen to assert its claim on the Fab Four legend. Not so Hamburg.

The Germans waited until 2006, fully 40 years after the musicians’ final appearance in Hamburg, before naming a street for them—and even then, the Beatles-Platz event was timed to coincide with the country’s hosting of the World Cup. But, as Mr. Inglis notes, Hamburg has rather more going for it than Liverpool does. The German port remains a muscular industrial center, while Liverpool has patently seen better days—catering to Beatles nostalgia is an essential industry.

But if Hamburg doesn’t need the Beatles, did the Beatles need Hamburg? The late George Harrison thought so, more than once offering variations on his observation that “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.” Even Lennon, a joshing cynic not much given to praise, said that Hamburg was “where we really developed. We would never have developed as much if we’d stayed at home.” Well, maybe. Truer, perhaps, to say that had the Beatles not spent a great deal of their ‘prentice years in Hamburg they might have developed in a different way.

Certainly many crucial things happened to the Beatles during their time in the city. “The physically gruelling and emotionally demanding experience of performing in Hamburg,” Mr. Inglis says, forced the group to become familiar with a wide range of songs and styles; taught them how to perform onstage; and hardened them for competition with their peers, leaving “no time for artistic complacency.” The experience showed them that they could succeed “outside their native Liverpool.”

It was in Hamburg, he notes, that the Beatles made their first studio recordings (under the supervision of the German producer Bert “Strangers in the Night” Kaempfert). It was there that the band began to experiment with clothes and hairstyles in the search for a unifying image. And it was in Hamburg that the quartet the world knows and loves actually came into being. During one visit, the Beatles’ original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, decided to forsake his musical career and remain in the city to pursue his interest in painting. Even more important, it was in Hamburg that the remaining Beatles decided that they preferred a rival band’s drummer, one Ringo Starr, to their own rather more rhythmically challenged Pete Best.

Harrison, Pete Best, John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Harrison, Pete Best, John Lennon, Paul McCartney

Another transformative effect that Hamburg had on the Beatles: While there, they acquired a very un-English openness to the modernist aesthetic. The avant-garde tics and tricks that the band increasingly used as the 1960s wore on had their roots in the self-consciously arty subculture of the city. To be young in Britain at the time, as Mr. Inglis notes, often meant choosing sides in the culture clash between terrifying teddy boys and roistering rockers. In Hamburg, the Beatles—who were barely in their 20s—encountered young intellectuals who, fond of rock music though they were, were also fascinated by the French existentialists. Astrid Kirchherr—Stuart Sutcliffe’s girlfriend and the photographer who took the first iconic pictures of the Beatles (some of which are rather dismally reproduced in this book)—was a self-proclaimed “exi,” a fan of Camus and Sartre with a side interest, according to Mr. Inglis, in de Sade.

Had they remained in Liverpool during those early days, it is unlikely that the Beatles would have developed the intellectual and artistic curiosity, or the taste for experimentation, evident in many later songs, from the jarring disjunctions of “A Day in the Life” to the aural scribbling of Lennon’s “Revolution 9.” Even Paul McCartney, the consummate balladeer who irked Lennon by “writing too many songs for old ladies,” was bitten by the existential bug. What is the titular character of “Eleanor Rigby,” who “waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” if not an emblem of the alienated individual that Sartre and his exi followers were forever banging on about?

The Beatles in Hamburg is marred by the odd dip into sociologese—”the time and place in which cultural forms emerge are as relevant as the forms themselves”—but Mr. Inglis has made a solid contribution to what I suppose we by now ought to call Beatles Studies. As an account of the ideas and ideals that impelled the band through its most formative years, the book is unbeatable.

What it lacks is a sense of perspective. Describing the Beatles’ departure from Liverpool on Aug. 15, 1960, for Hamburg, Mr. Inglis says: “The significance of this small event—and all that followed it—is almost without parallel in the history of music in the twentieth century.” Almost without parallel? What about the riots that followed the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 or Stalin’s repeated denunciations of Shostakovich as a formalist decadent? Still, readers who can see their way past Mr. Inglis’s occasional flights of fustian and flummery will find much of value here.

—Mr. Bray is the author of Sean Connery. He is at work on a history of politics and culture in 1960s Britain.



By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.