Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"B" Day for Germany

August 17,1960

They slept uncomfortably on the ferry on the way across the channel.  The van had been lifted via crane onto the deck of the boat which left on schedule for the Hook of Holland.  On arrival the van was unshipped and its passengers climbed back into its cramped interior for the drive across Holland and into Germany.  At Arnhem, they paused for a break from the road.  It seems that Allen Williams wanted to visit the WWII British military cemetery there. An amazingly prophetic photo shows most of them gathered in front of a memorial inscribed "Their name liveth for evermore". What!?

They arrived that evening in Hamburg and drove straight to the Kaiserkeller Club in the Reeperbahn district just as the night was coming alive.  Neon lights blazed forth to banish the dark.  Hookers and their pimps took to battle stations.  Allen Williams found the club manager and former circus clown named Bruno Koshmider there.  Another Liverpool group, Derry and the Seniors, were preparing to take the stage and gave the Beatles a rather cool reception, but not because they were afraid of the competition.  In fact, just the opposite, they were convinced the amateurish Beatles might ruin the scene for everybody.

The venue for the Beatles performances was a much seedier place, a recently converted strip club called the Indra Club. (Has anyone else noticed the similarity between the name of this club and the Indica Gallery where, six years later, John Lennon would meet an experimental artist named Yoko Ono?)  Their contract stipulated that they would play four and a half hour every weekday night and six hours on Saturday, not including periodic breaks.  As anybody who has ever performed in public knows, this is a grueling schedule, indeed.

They were allowed to bed down in a nearby movie theater called the Bambi Kino, a movie house whose better days were far behind it.  There were a couple of filthy rooms behind the movie screen that would serve as the musicians dormitory.  No showers or hot water.  The "artists" would have to make do with the public toilet for their personal hygiene needs. 

Well, the contract states that they start on August 17th, so start they must (at 150 pounds a week!)  Despite little sleep or food over the last 36 hours, they set up and played their first sets on the continent of Europe that night.  The audience consisted of a few disaffected strip club patrons, who hadn't been apprised of the change of featured entertainment, and an angry old woman, tenant of an upstairs apartment.  Oh, what would I give to have been there that fateful and momentous night!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Journey of 1000 Miles Begins

August 16, 1960

Stuart was the oldest at age 20.  John was 19.  Paul and Pete Best were 18.  And George, the youngest, was 17.  Henceforward, they dropped the word Silver from the band name and became the Beatles.

Passports and visas had been obtained, work permits conveniently forgotten. So all five boys with their equipment were loaded into an Austin van and set out on the long drive from Liverpool, through London, to Harwich and the terminal for the ferry to Holland.  Also on board were Allen Williams, his wife Beryl and her brother.  Allen's amanuensis and friend, Lord Woodbine was there, too.   In London, they picked up a friend to act as interpreter for the time being.  The van was about the size of a VW bus.  I count 10 people, four guitars and a full drum kit (plus personal luggage) so it must have been rather close in there.  (Pictures of the vehicle show a large bag tied to a car-top carrier.  No doubt the suspension was never the same afterwards.)

As to that equipment, Stu had his Hofner President bass (or was it a model 333?), and Pete his new drum kit. Lennon carried a Hofner Club 40 and McCartney a Rosetti Solid 7 guitar.  George Harrison's axe was a Futurama, which was an eastern European knock-off of an early Stratocaster, such as was played by Buddy Holly, leader of the American early rock band (and important Beatle influence) the Crickets. Their amplifiers were little plywood boxes that wouldn't even qualify as decent practice amps today.  But judging by recordings from around this time period, they did manage to generate a pretty exciting sound.

Can it really be that it was just nine years to the day before the first Woodstock Music Festival shook the world?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Best Comes In

August 12,1960

The pace begins quickening now.

Bruno Koshmider, manager of the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg asked Allan Williams if he had any groups who might be able to come over to Germany to play there for a couple of months.  These were real professional jobs and they paid pretty well.  Still, it was no easy task to find a whole group of young men, most of whom were focusing on starting real careers, to up stakes and go across, leaving family and friends behind for months.  Luckily, the Beatles were just such a group.

There still remained the problem of a drummer.  The Beatles all thought Pete Best was a good guy, though kind of quiet, and he could carry a beat and did have that new drum kit...  So, the formality of a "audition" was arranged at the Blue Angel, one of Allen Williams Liverpool clubs.  Pete was in.

Paul, using all his native charm, talked his father into letting him go, even at the cost of missing some school.  George and Pete had mothers who were always ready to support their show biz aspirations.  John and Stu were somewhat older and at an age where they could be expected to make their own decisions (or should that be mistakes?) though John really had to work to get his aunt Mimi on board.  He did that by slightly exaggerating the opportunity (100 pounds a week!) and acting very excited about it.  

In less than a week they would be on their way to Germany.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Best Drumbeat

August 10, 1960

The Grosvenor gig being a thing of the past, the Beatles had even more time than usual on their hands. Of course, it goes without saying they would find something related to rock and roll to fill the extra time.  That quest took them back to a place that they hadn't seen since 1959, The Casbah Coffee Club.

The previous year John's original group, the Quarrymen (including both Paul and George) had played at the club in its earliest weeks.  In fact, they had helped to paint and otherwise prepare the basement rooms that would become the teenage hangout.  Later, a bit of bad blood between the Beatles and proprietor Mona Best resulted from the payment of a few shillings out of the band's fee to a band mate who was too ill to actually play.

The house band by August 1960 had become the Blackjacks, which featured on drums the shy, handsome son of the club owner.  Creator of the Atomic Beat, his name was Pete Best.  No doubt, the Beatles were also suitably impressed by his brand new professional drum kit.

The cover photo on the Best's book about the history of the Casbah shows a silhouette of John Lennon painted before the opening by his then girlfriend Cynthia Powell.  It feels as if part of John is weirdly frozen in time there, like the shadow of an unknown Japanese person emblazoned onto a wall at Hiroshima in August 1945.