Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mutti and Prelly

May 1961

One of the characters the Beatles encounter on this trip to Hamburg is a middle aged woman named Rosa, familiarly called "Mutti" (say Moo-tee), who kept the public restrooms at the Top Ten clean and orderly for tips.  She also acted somewhat like a house mother to the young men in the bands.  (Mutti is a German pet name meaning "mother", something like the American "mommy".)  One of the little favors that Mutti does for the boys is to provide them with Preludin pills.  "Prellies", in  that more innocent age, were just harmless diet pills with the happy side effect of keeping users awake all hours of the night.  Just what the doctor ordered (lol) for healthy young lads who were required to "mach schau" with rhythm and blues into the early hours every night when their circadian rhythms would have been insistently whispering to them it is time to meet with the sandman.

Preludin, anyone?  Paul and his Rosetti guitar.  Photo by Jurgen Vollmer

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Basic Change

April -May 1961

In looking over the list of songs the Beatles are know to have covered, mostly before their rise to world-wide prominence, one is struck by many things, one of which is how they seemed to make sure that every band mate had at least one song on which he could be "featured".  Another is their abiding love of the songs of Elvis Presley. 

The song chosen to feature Stuart Sutcliffe was "Love Me Tender" by Presley.  I think Stuart sometimes gets a bad rap for poor musicianship.  It sounds to me like one of those after the fact stories that become true based on repetition.  Anyhow, we can certainly imagine that he knew how to put a song like this one across.  So as a farewell tribute to Stuart, imagine it is late at night in a dark and smokey German rock club.  During a lull in the nonstop high-energy rock and roll, a thin and handsome young man steps to the mic and croons this.

Meanwhile, Paul McCartney has volunteered to pick up the bass playing duties for the band and had shopped around for an instrument he could call his own.  He settles on a rather attractively priced Hofner model 500/1 (30 English pounds) and places an order for it at the Steinway music store in Hamburg, quite near the Top Ten Club.  Aside from the price, he also figured that, since the body was more symmetrical than the common electric bass, he could have the pick guard and controls moved to the other side of the body so it could be played left handed without "looking daft".  Note:  you can recognize this guitar in old photos by the fact that the two pickups are up near the neck.  On the similar Hofner he obtained in 1964, and which is the really famous "Beatle bass", there is one pickup near the neck and one down near the bridge.  (Here is a page with examples of all the Hofner models, for comparison.)  It should take a few weeks for his bass to be ready.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Stu and Ed

April, 1961

Stuart Sutcliffe came over a little before the rest of the Beatles on this trip to Hamburg to be with Astrid Kircherr and also to explore the possibility of his getting the artistic training that had been denied him back in England.  He knew that the German kids were sophisticated compared to the people back home who were his age.  And these young people were were hanging around the Top Ten in greater and greater numbers to listen to the wild English rock and roll.  Stu would spend breaks between sets talking to them about recent happenings in the art world.

Somewhere among them he got the idea of applying for instruction to an influential Scottish artist, living in Hamburg, named Eduardo Paolozzi.  (A Scotsman with an Italian name living in Germany.  Very global.)  Mr Paolozzi recognizes Stuarts talent very quickly and not only accepts him as a student, but also finds grant money for him from the Hamburg City Council.

This means that Stu will sometimes play at the Top Ten until 3 am, paint in his room at Astrid's house 'til morning, then attend class with Palliozzi.  No one can burn that candle at both ends for very long, and Suttcliffe's appearances with the Beatles are becoming less and less frequent.  His headaches become more frequent and more sever.  When Stu does not show up at the Top Ten, Paul borrows his bass guitar to round out the sound.

Reading between the lines, I think that Paul was content, maybe even elated, with Stuart's exit from the band.  I also think that John was probably less happy about it, but was probably becoming reconciled to his band being without Stu.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Band With a Hard Edge

April 1961

It is now an iconic photo of John Lennon, one of his favorites, used by him on his solo oldies album released in 1975.  It was taken in Hamburg by Jurgen Volmer, one of the Beatles young German followers (the "exis").  We don't know the actual date, but it was taken sometime around 50 years ago today.

There is a cornucopia of photos from this time here.  A couple of things to look for.  If you look carefully (set one, third picture), you may notice Paul holding a Rosetti guitar strung with a piano string!  That guitar is about to give up the ghost, one victim of the grueling schedule.  During this time of transition for the bass guitar from Stu to Paul, without the Rosetti, Paul would sometime play the house piano on stage at the Top Ten Club.  One can't help but be struck by the strain showing on the faces of the boys in these pictures.  Yet, rock and roll kept them going all through the cold and dreary Hamburg nights.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What They Played

April, 1960

The Beatles are back into the Hamburg grind and enjoying it immensly, I'm sure.  Here they have to give a lot less attention to finding work and moving stuff and people around and much more to music and "mach schau" (German for "kick out the jams!").  It is easy to imagine that the pressure cooker that was Hamburg is essential to the development of the Beatles talent, because it is about performing and very little else.  There are few distractions and they can devote all their considerable energy to just getting the music across.

Recently, I've taken time to look at the carefully researched list of songs known to have been played live by the Beatles, documented by Beatle authority Mark Lewisohn in his master work "The Complete Beatles Chronicle".  (Without this magnificent book, this blog would not be possible.)  There are a few facts about their material that really jump out from this period.  First, is that they had at their fingertips close to 200 songs!  That is an unmistakable mark of their true genius.  Remember, John is just turned 20 and the rest are not yet out of their teens.

At this time, they are mostly a cover band and many of their songs are recent rock standards, but they also play a good number of reworked classics of  another era.  For example, "My Bonnie" which they recorded later this summer with Tony Sheridan.  (Some great pics from around this time in that youtube.  And here's a more traditional arrangement.)  Their constant quest for material is really beginning to bear fruit.

Oh, and just for reference, today is the day that Yuri Gargarin was launched by the USSR to become the first man in space.  I wonder if they even heard the news.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Sour Note

April 8, 1961

In any relationship between numbers of people, and especially where money is involved, there are going to be differences of opinion.  Sometimes, these differences can expand and disrupt, even destroy, otherwise important and satisfying relationships.  Now is just such a time for the  Beatles.

Since he found them their first job in Hamburg and even before at the Jacaranda and around Liverpool, Alan Williams has considered himself their (quasi) "manager".  I don't think there is much evidence that this relationship was ever really formalized legally.  When we are talking about a couple of quid here and there, it doesn't seem worth the effort.  In the rough and tumble world of Liverpool beat music, these things are handled more on a handshake basis. But now, in 1961, we are talking about 15 English Pounds a week!  Substantial money in anybody's book.

In his book "The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away", Alan presents his case that he should have been paid a commission for the 1961 Top Ten engagement.  However, the Beatles themselves have other ideas.

It is their contention that they have obtained this engagement through the efforts of Pete Best and his mother Mona, who did, indeed, contact Peter Eckhorn.  It is Mr Eckhorn, as a result of this contact, who has hired them and made arrangements for having the ban on Paul and Pete lifted after the "arson" incident at the Bambi Kino

From little acorns, mighty oaks do grow.

The Beatles collectively decide to tap Stu Sutcliffe for the task of notifying Alan of the bad news.  (It doesn't take a long leap to imagine that Mr Williams has already been trying to discover when his payments would begin.)  Stu is making his way out of the Beatles and into a career as a painter of pictures, and so has the least to lose personally from the bad blood that is sure to result.

Monday, April 4, 2011

One More Advantage of Being a Year Older

April 4,1961

Since the money is better and they are a year older, there is another advantage the Beatles can take on this trip to Hamburg.  For the first part of it, they can bring over their girlfriends.

Of course, Stewart Sutcliffe, who is really a peripheral Beatle now, is comfortably situated at Astrid's mother's house in the wealthy suburb of Altona.  Astrid invites John's long time girlfriend, Cynthia Powell, to stay with them for a couple of weeks over the academic Easter holiday.  Cynthia, a long way from her mom's controlling influence, will sometimes spend the night in the dormitory type accommodations above the Top Ten Club where John is staying.  Love will always find a way!

Dot and Paul in his back garden

Paul brings over his long time steady girl friend, Dot Rhone.  (This link contains some wonderful insights into Paul's attitudes toward women at this time, attitudes that would thankfully change as he grew emotionally.)  And another new character enters the story on this trip to Hamburg  She is Rosa, a middle aged German hausfrau and the lavatory attendant at the club (classy place, the Top Ten).  Rosa owns a canal barge and she allows Tony Sheridan ("The Teacher") to stay on it.  Paul McCartney and Dot spend a blissful two weeks ensconced there with him.  It must have seemed a million miles from digs behind the movie screen at the Bambi Kino.

Meantime, the Beatles are  re-adjusting to the grueling schedule of playing all night high-energy rock and roll sessions for the hyped-up German audience.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hamburg and the Changing Face of Europe

April 2, 1961

A meditation on renewal and change.

Key to understanding the world that the Beatles are re-entering is the insight that World War II had only been over for 16 years.  The trouble and privation caused by that earth shaking war is still very much on the minds of the generation that went before the Beatles on both sides of the North Sea.  The "German miracle" refers to the transformation of defeated Germany into a world economic powerhouse and was very much in process at this time.  A society in a state of chaos often brings with it social experimentation not possible during more settled times. The Beatles don't come into an existing situation in Hamburg.  They are among the actors in the drama that are remaking post-war Germany.  The experience for the Beatles (and lots of other musical ambassadors) is, indeed, one of liberation from the work-a-day existence they left behind in England.

During the post-war occupation, American GIs had brought into Germany influences that  would have been strictly verboten while the countries were in conflict.  Jazz music was one of those influences and ever-present impresarios sprang up to satisfy the public's desire for it all over Germany, and especially in the entertainment districts like the Reeperbahn.  When American jazz music later gave way to rock and roll, the thirst for American music became even more unquenchable.

At the same time a culture of the "teenager" was changing life all over Europe and America.  Rising standards of living ensured that some of that spending power would come into the hands of young people and at that time of their lives, kids are strongly concerned with establishing their own culture in contrast to that of their elders, hence almost an obsession with new forms of music and dress.  According to Gerry Marsden, the "cheeky" attitude of the English kids towards their German elders was: "Don't tell us anything. We won the war."

All these rivers of change flow inexorably into a place on the Reeperbahn called the "Top Ten Club".  In 1960, a space that had been used to accommodate the German people's love for circus and spectacle had been converted into a rock and roll venue by an entertainment entrepreneur named Peter Eckhorn.  Some of the musician themselves had wielded paint brushes and hammers to make it happen.  The ponies and tigers were gone, but the spectacle was just beginning.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On the Road to Hamburg - Again

April 1, 1961

The Beatles trip to Hamburg is on much better terms this time than last, which was, amazingly, only eight months ago.  First and foremost, they are now a know quantity to the Hamburg promoters.  They are going to play at a very much nicer club, the Top Ten, than they started in last year, the Indra.  The Indra was a glorified storefront,  the Top Ten is a converted exhibition space, large and cavernous inside.  Peter Eckhorn, the manager of the club, is paying for their travel via comfortable European train.  They are given accommodation for the duration of their visit in the relatively nicer rooms above the Top Ten.  And the pay is better, too.

George has turned 18 and is now legal to be playing after 10 pm.  Stuart, who preceded them to Germany, is staying with Astrid.  He has been suffering with depression and was refused reentry into the Liverpool Art College.  (I wonder if the amplifier that the Beatles convinced the college bursar to purchase and which later disappeared with them may have had something to do with that.)  Anyhow, he has decided to pursue his artist's training where he can be near his beloved Astrid and his best mate, John Lennon.

Finally, they will be trading off shifts with Tony Sheridan, whom they all respect and who is generous with his considerable knowledge of the techniques of rock and roll guitar playing.  I you haven't yet, you can meet Tony here, an unsung hero of rock music, if ever there was one!

Their contract with the Top Ten calls for over 500 hours on stage over the next 13 weeks, an astonishing work load.  Quarry Bank High School is John's alma mater.  Its motto is ‘Ex Hoc Metallo Virtuten’ - ‘From This Rough Metal -Virtue’.