Thursday, June 30, 2011

Playing Out the 1961 String

June 30, 1961

The Beatles are finishing up their trip to Hamburg and surely are looking forward to a bit of a rest back home in Liddypool.

I really like one of the reminiscences of Tony Sheridan about the dorm style living they have been enduring for the last couple of months.

"We all lived in an attic... There were bunk beds, and I remember John used to have the top bunk.  He'd crash around when he got up because he could never see a thing without his glasses.  Once he started banging around, we all had to get up...  Our day began at about two in the afternoon when we would swagger down to the Seaman's Mission for a meal.  I don't know why, but we always used to have the same meal all the time, everywhere - tea and cornflakes."

Hamburg Seaman's Mission

The Hamburg harbor and the mission is less than 1/4 mile from  the Reeperbahn so they didn't have far to go.

Yeah, that kind of life would be getting old about now, and a couple of weeks at home with loved ones close at hand would be pretty attractive.  (Even if she was a little tightly wound, Aunt Mimi always made sure John had proper meals to eat.)  But fear not, fans.  The siren song of rock and  roll would be too strong to resist and pretty soon the Beatles would be up to their old tricks in the hotbed of music that was Liverpool.  And with a some real recordings "in the can" things would soon be taking a dramatic turn for the better.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pay Stubs and Platters

June 23, 1961

Tony Sheridan and the Beatles
The Beatles played their usual gig last night, wrapping up at 3 am, and headed to Polydor Studios to finish their recording session with Bert Kaempfert.  Then they head back to the Top Ten for their week's pay envelope and tonight's show.

Today is one of the few dates that can be known with certainty during the Beatles' second Hamburg trip.  Here is a link to some amazing images.  The first shows the signatures of the Beatles on a payment receipt for the Top Ten club dated in the European fashion at the top.  (How'd you like to have THAT in your Beatles memorabilia collection!)  Scroll down for some photographic images of the band on stage at the Top Ten.  Note Paul's brand new Hofner violin-shaped bass in the second and fourth image.  George is still playing his Futurama.  Also note that Stu Sutcliffe is still with them and they are sporting two bass guitarists!  Sam Leach testifies that Stuart's bass guitar was left unplugged during this time and was only for show.

Tony Sheridan remembers that they wanted to use Paul's bass on the recording sessions and worried for a while about how to break the news to Stuart.  Stuart solved their problem for them by graciously announcing that he was going to pursue an artistic career full time with his scholarship at the Hamburg College of Art.

If you've got a few minutes, watch this wonderful video of Sam, one of the most important behind the scenes Beatle people.  It was made at the Grapes Public House, across Matthew Street from the site of the Cavern in Liverpool.  In it he reminisces about working with them in the early '60s.  It's not difficult to see why there might have been some bad blood between Stuart and Paul.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Visit to Polydor

June 22, 1961

Today and tomorrow are huge red letter days for the Beatles in Hamburg.  Today the Beatles open their professional recording careers as a backing band for Tony Sheridan.  They record for the Polydor label at sessions supervised by Bert Kaempfert.  Polydor is the German subsidiary of the magnificent British EMI Corporation with the world's leading recording facility at Abbey Road in London.  The Beatles are certainly  impressed.

One of the songs they record is a version of "My Bonnie".  (If you are a Beatle fan you've certainly come across that recording somewhere.  It is famous in  Beatle lore, as we will see in a couple of months.)  They record "The Saints"  (aka "When the Saints Come Marching In").  Both of these are traditional songs which get rocked up today.

Also, they record a Tony Sheridan original called "Why" and an instrumental song written by George Harrison and John Lennon (unique in Beatles history) called "Cry For a Shadow".  (It is a clever parody in the style of  Cliff Richard and the Shadows, get it?)  George Harrison plays a very creditable lead on his Selmer Futurama.  Thankfully, Mr Kaempfert even allows the Beatles to record a song with John Lennon on vocals.  The material recorded at this time forms the backbone for the CD "Savage Young Beatles" which is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the Beatles development at this point in time.

Just close your eyes for a moment, listen to this and imagine you are there.  Ain't that perfection?!

Paul McCartney holds down the bottom end and is still a relative newcomer to it.  Remember, he only got his first bass guitar a few days ago.  He was born to play bass.
There are some pics of the pressings that resulted from this session here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The First Hofner

June, 1961

No doubt Paul has received his special order by now, a left handed Hofner Bass, model number 500/1.  Any guitarist can easily imagine how excited he must have been, especially since he is moving up from a broken down cheap electric guitar, strung with piano strings.

He ordered the new Hofner, a real professional bass, if an inexpensive one, from a Hamburg music store (likely a Steinway Music Store, situated near the Reeperbahn) with some of his earnings.  This guitar is an early incarnation of the violin shaped bass that he eventually will make famous, but is not the one that most Beatle fans will instantly recognize.  This earlier version of this guitar has both pick-ups mounted close together near the neck.  (This is the guitar that is later stolen during the filming of Let It Be at the tail end of the Beatles story.  The missing bass inspires the plot line dramatized in Paul's My Brave Face video.)

Now, two of the iconic instruments are in the hands of the Beatles.  John has his beloved Rickenbacker 325 and Paul his Beatle bass.  We have to wait a little while yet for George to hook up with his famous Gretsch Duo-Jet, but can't you just feel the momentum building?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

DieGrosse Freiheit (The Great Freedom)

June, 1961

The Beatles are fully enjoying their trip to Hamburg.  The most important contribution that Hamburg makes to the their development is the sense of unfettered liberty they experience there.  For some people, unbridled freedom can be destructive, resulting in nothing more than self indulgence and personal ruin.  (And it must be admitted that John Lennon is coming close to that cliff edge.)  For others, it can open up a world of possibilities and creativity.

The stories of John's scandalous behavior on this trip are myriad.  Mostly, they seem exaggerated by time and retelling.  Still there must often be a kernel of truth in the stories.  Taking a drunken leak in a dark corner in the early morning darkness as a group of nuns passes by becomes urination off a balcony onto the sisters passing by on the street below.  Did he really wear a toilet seat around his neck on stage, or is that the 500th retelling of an incident with John "praying to the porcelain god" after a long night of alcoholic indulgence?  Human memory being what it is, no one can say for sure at this remove.

Still, there is some physical evidence of his rebellious nature, as demonstrated by this photograph.  John, on a dare, has taken a stroll to obtain the Hamburg morning paper and left his pants in his room.  Anything for a laugh, eh John.  In later times, Brian Epstein (whom the Beatles have not yet met) would be horrified to hear of the existence of this picture and would demand that Lennon try to get it back.

John Lennon goes for an early morning stroll
Somehow,  this picture presages the coming of Monte Python's Flying Circus, doesn't it?  (See 1:52 of this clip.  Thank you, Mother England!)