Friday, October 29, 2010

The First Fan

Late October 1960

Now entering the story is the person who has to be allowed the title "World's First Beatle Fan".  His name is Klaus Voormann.  Klaus started life in the city of Berlin and had moved to Hamburg to study commercial art at an art school there.  He is a talented artist and left school to pursue a career in art.  Klaus is of a milleu that was light years away from the working class Beatles, let alone the denizens of the Reeperbahn club scene.  He is what we would call continental in style and outlook.  He and his friends are deeply influenced by the art and culture whose center is in Paris.

Klaus is something of a loner and took up the habit of wandering around Hamburg to walk away his troubles.  One fateful day, after an argument with his on-and-off girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, he goes for a long walk to clear his head.  I'll let him take up the story from there.

"I found myself drifting toward the Reeperbahn in the notorious St Pauli district.  I slipped into a cinema but didn't stay long.  The film was awful.  At the corner of the Grosse Freiheit I stopped to buy some chips and hung around for a minute, watching the bouncers trying to attract customers to the bars and striptease clubs...  I heard vague strains of rock'n'roll coming from a  nearby cellar.  'Hey, did they do this too on the Reeperbahn?'  It sounded live and damned good...  On reaching the sunken steps, I checked myself.  'Klaus, hesitate now and it will never happen.'  With resolve, I descended the shadowy stairwell into the Kaiserkeller."

It wasn't the Beatles whose sound has lured Klaus down the steps, but Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  During the break, he ordered a beer and waited for the next band to come on.

"So, the band had made ready.  The guitars were tuned and the music box fell silent.  And then...'For goodness sake, I've got the hippy, hippy shake!'  I almost fell from my chair.  It was totally incredible!... Now the only question was if I should hang on until the band came back on stage, or run home to tell Astrid what had happened to me.  I decided on the second option.  After this incident I had totally forgotten our quarrel."

Klaus, of the millions who came after you, you recognized the magic first of all.

quotes from Hamburg Days by Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Young Man and a Guitar

October, 1960

In their few free hours, being obsessed with rock and roll music, the Beatles would visit the music stores of Hamburg, drawn to the high quality instruments to be found there, instruments that were not readily available in Liverpool.  On one of these excursions, John Lennon wandered into one of those shops (probably the Musikhaus Ratthof  in the Schanzenstrasse) and saw a Rickenbacker model 325.  He was immediately dazzled by its good looks, amazingly good action and short scale fingerboard.  The frets set close together allowed him to easily play chords that he had to stretch to play on his Hofner Club 40.  (Back in Liverpool, some would accuse him of having bought a "toy" guitar, but it was most certainly not one of those.)  John immediately bought it on a rent-to-own plan for the inflation-adjusted equivalent price of something like 1000 British pounds or $1500, a very considerable sum for him then.

Later, after it was beaten up from road use and retired from active service, John would call this guitar one of his most prized possessions.  Any guitarist can relate to how a favorite guitar can become almost a friend.  It will seem to bring music out of him  that even he doesn't know is in there, as if it is co-operating in the creative process.

Up to that point, the model 325, from Rickenbacker's perspective, had been a failed experiment.  The one that John had bought had been on tour to trade shows and was more than two years old at the time he bought it.  One imagines that the reason for the "failure" of the 325 is that it did sound so different from the usual electric guitar, such as we heard on Ventures records.  After all, the electric guitar sound was still in its infancy.

But in John's hands, the 325 would make music that would astound the world.  As with all musical innovation, it took the world a little time to develop the ears we needed to hear it.  Listen to those early Beatle records sometime and just focus on really hearing that rhythm guitar, so unlike anything that went before.  With this watershed event, a very important piece has fallen into place.

Monday, October 25, 2010


October 1960

The Beatles are getting comfortable at the much larger Kaiserkeller up the street from the matchbox-sized Indra.  The boards of the huge stage, however, had seen better days and are slowly rotting away.  The Beatles and their comrades Rory Storm and the Hurricanes get into a little contest amongst themselves to see who would be the first to actually break through the weakened boards.  It's easy to imagine that this contest is instigated by Rory Storm, himself.  He played no instrument on stage and more than made up for it by climbing, jumping and dancing wildly across the stage and beyond.  (Is this a very early punk influence?)  I doubt that it is very long before John Lennon, doing his wicked cripple imitation, takes up that challenge.  The poor old stage has no chance against such an onslaught.

Also helping (or is that not helping?) are the cases of beer sent up by appreciative audience members.  Word is spreading quickly about the wild new groups making waves on the Grosse Freiheit.

Meanwhile, a new club is opened actually on the busy Reeperbahn by a shady impressario named Peter Eckhorn.  It is called the Top Ten Club, and immediately bad blood is made between it and the Kaiserkeller when Eckhorn hires away Bruno Koshmider's head bouncer.  Between the tough club owners, internecine war has been declared.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rings and Records

October 15/16, 1960

Big news for Beatle fans yesterday and today.  On October 15, the Beatles, with their visiting manager, Allan Williams, went to the Akustik Recording Studio, near the Hamburg Train Station to make a record.  Alan decided to team up some members from the Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with some from the Beatles for this "project", including the drummer from the Hurricanes, name of Ringo Starr.  For the first time, all four Beatles played together on record.  They produced a version of the Gershwin song Summertime and had something like six copies made.  The only proof of it's existence is a picture of one of them, so clean out those attics, kiddies.  There are some 78 RPM records out there somewhere that would be worth many thousands of dollars each, even in this depressed market!

On October 16, the Beatles contract with Koschmider was extended through the end of the year.  (Alas, as we will soon discover, it was not to be.)  The band members were making 30 Deutchmarks (2 and a half British pounds) per day.  Oh well, it's a living.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Johnny

October 9, 1960

John Lennon and his band by now are becoming accustomed to playing at the Kaiserkeller, a very much nicer club than the Indra.  Like the Indra, it is situated on "Der Grosse Freiheit", but a little closer to the Reeperbahn, a street which is often crowded with people looking for an entertaining evening out.  The Beatles are sharing the stage each night with another legendary band from (where else?) Liverpool, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, which features a great drummer named Richie Starkey, AKA Ringo Starr.

Today was John's 20th birthday.  There are no extant accounts that I can find of how he celebrated it, but most likely he was too energized/exhausted by the rock and roll lifestyle to do much of anything special.  So let's reflect on the goings on of 20 years previous (70 years ago today), the day John Lennon first saw the light.

On the day John was born, England was in the last throes of the famous WWII "Battle of Britain".  This is the name given to the attempt by Hitler's Germany to counter British resistance to Germany's territorial ambitions by bombing London in the summer of 1940.  When London didn't succumb, Hitler recognized that he was in for a longer fight and directed his bombers to widen their scope to other targets.  Among these was Liverpool, a major center of English shipping and industry.

Thus it happened that John's entry into the world was accompanied, within a day or two, by the scream of air-raid sirens.  He was born at the Oxford Street Maternity Hospital, a couple of miles from the home where he would spend much of his childhood, his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith's house.  Only a few weeks before, Winston Churchill had delivered his famous speech in praise of the Royal Air Force - "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."  Hence, the new boy was given the patriotic middle name of Winston.

Happy Birthday, John.  We miss you.

 Oxford Street Maternity Hospital

Indiana University photo

Sunday, October 3, 2010

End of the Indra

October 3, 1960

The Beatles definitely move up in class after today's "performance" at the Indra Club.  Bruno Koschmider decides to surrender to the complaints from upstairs and return the Indra to a more quiet strip club.  He does recognize a good thing when he hears it, so he moves the rapidly improving Beatles over to his much classier Kaiserkeller.  Stay tuned!