Grosse Freiheit: The Beatles in Hamburg
The Beatles' Coming-of-Age in Hamburg, Germany
John Lennon is quoted as having said, “We were born in Liverpool, but grew up in Hamburg” (Leigh 6), and the incredible amount of documented history available about the Beatles during those formative years abroad justifies the statement and shows that the transformation could not have so occurred in any other time or place. It would be a gross understatement to say that Hamburg challenged and changed the Beatles. Challenged in Hamburg were their musical talent and style, their self-perceptions and representations, their Liverpool backgrounds and views on Germans, their fashion, their views on women and sex, and their relationships with each other, and even this is an incomplete list. Seemingly magically, Hamburg changed the Beatles from “enthusiastic amateurs” to “seasoned professionals with a highly original, entertaining, and energetic take on rock 'n' roll” (Leigh 6). To assess the degree of apparent change and its course, one must understand the condition of Hamburg upon the Beatles' arrival, the condition of the Beatles upon their arrival, and their condition after that chapter had ended. Hamburg presented the not-quite-yet fab four-to-five a blank slate of creativity. That, combined with a remarkable lack of restrictions and accountability, made Hamburg for the Beatles what could be compared to a green world for characters in a Shakespearean comedy1. Given its tolerance of boundary-crossing and its isolation from even the rest of Germany, one could almost say, What happens in Hamburg stays in Hamburg, until, as time would have it, what happened in Hamburg became an international sensation.
At the most basic level, it is easiest to address Hamburg's influence on the Beatles by looking at how their music and their approach to music changed. Having entered the scene with a handful of real gigs under their belt, the sheer amount of time the band was suddenly expected to spend in front of an audience forced their skills to sharpen quickly. Under such pressure, the options would seem to be to break down and quit or to get better fast; the Beatles opted for the latter. One may not often realize it, but the Beatles were much stronger for not having always been great; since the crowd was not always blown away by the mastery of their instruments, the new performers had to find creative and comical ways to appease a drunken room and play on (or to stop for a few minutes, as they are known to have done many times in concert) despite hecklers. Their charisma, both musically and personally, was undoubtedly enhanced as a result. Offstage, the Beatles also spent much of their time together. They shared so many common experiences and had such little privacy that inhibitions had to be replaced with camaraderie. Breaking the mold of the standard Someone and the Less Important Someones, they formed a genuine musical group.
In addition to the non-stop rehearsal time that Hamburg offered the Beatles, to find their sound by sorting through hundreds of cover songs and a willing audience on which to try out attempts at original songs, it offered legitimacy to the group's desire to be a rock 'n' band at all. The Hamburg era marks the point at which their commitment to the music could never be questioned; it was no longer an after school hobby, but what they did. It proved that they could withstand each other enough to survive adversity, crazy times, and uncomfortable surroundings, and move forward in the name of rock 'n' roll. This dedication and team attitude was especially apparent in Paul McCartney's move into the position of permanent bass player for the band. They could not have known it at the time, but this change gave the Beatles a melodic edge that has probably never been surpassed. Playing the bass more like a standard guitar, McCartney composed basslines and fills that added an extra layer to the music, blurring the lines between their melodic and rhythmic sections. It could be argued that this transition laid the tracks for what Ringo would later officially set into motion: the Beatles' sound.
When analyzing a story, one so often takes the setting for granted. It is generally considered a steady environment that serves as the background to a developing plot based on the actions of the characters. Hamburg does not fit that bill; alive, changing, and unusually self-aware, it offered a tremendously unique opportunity for the band. Not only were the Beatles in a strange place, trying to figure themselves out; they were in a strange place that was simultaneously trying to figure itself out and form its own identity. The Beatles then were faced with trying to find ways to be different and to distinguish themselves in a city that was doing the exact same thing. Both the Beatles and Hamburg were products of an ugly, patriarchal war, driven by intolerance and rigidity; In the early 1960s, both were trying desperately to erase that past and redefine themselves as the exact opposite of those “ugly” qualities. Astrid Kirchherr, old enough to remember World War II and the Nazi experience, recalls “We had to say 'Heil Hitler' when we got to school in the morning and it was the standard greeting when you met someone in the street...It was like saying, 'How do you do?'” (Stark 80). Astrid was, of course, one of the greatest influences on the Beatles in Hamburg, so her opinions about the band and culture are highly esteemed. She remembers, as a young, Bohemian, existentialist art student at the time, a conscious decision to sever the ties of the gloomy past: “We didn't want to get our inspirations from the past because our past was the war, was Hitler, was uniforms, so we were searching for something new and fresh and creative” (Stark 82).
Figuratively, and appropriately literally, the stage was set for the Beatles to enter the green world of Hamburg, come into their own as a band and as young men, and return to the real world better and stronger. A green world functions as a temporary vacation from ordinary life during which the characters can alter themselves and their place in the world by doing that which could only be dreamed of in “real life”. A green world can also apparently turn a group of teenage skifflers, self-conscious musical mimics, a lucky-to-be backing band into the main event, quite possibly, of the 1960s. The comparison is so rich and accurate that Shakespeare could have easily been writing about the Beatles. It is in this realm that gender roles exist in order to be switched (a simple photograph of Stuart Sutcliffe suffices as verification) and boundaries are comic foreshadows of what is to be broken. It should not be thought that the Beatles could have known that Hamburg was their stepping stone to a brighter future; – logically, the uncontrolled environment and drug addictions could have ruined and stunted them into never being anything more than a former, average band – but in retrospect, the need to answer to no parental authorities and the chance to invent (and re-invent and re-invent) themselves, with no real risk to their real-world identities (whatever those were), is a perfect mess that gave the world the Beatles forever. Gould captures this freedom quite clearly:
“Apart from the other English musicians on the scene, no one in Hamburg knew them, and no one cared what they did. This extended respite from the familiarity and reflexive debunkery of Liverpool, which blunted ambition as surely as it punctured pretension, granted the Beatles the license to be whoever they wanted to be” (82).
It is impossible to pinpoint whether it was the “neon-lit nightclubs, cafés, restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, cabarets, strip joints, peep shows, gay bars, sex shops, flophouses,” or “brothels” (Gould 80) in Hamburg that made the Beatles what they became; surely, it was all these and more. The freedoms allotted them in Hamburg served as a legitimate green world for “the boys”, to discover themselves and make the transition from awkward teenagers to young men with a world of success ahead of them. As if the story were not already perfectly-written, the Reeperbahn's principal side street is aptly named Grosse Freiheit (“Great Freedom”) (80).
Gould, Jonathan. Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Leigh, Spencer. The Beatles in Hamburg: The Stories, The Scene, and How It All Began. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011.
Stark, Steven D. Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender, and the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Womack, Kenneth, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles. New York: Cambridge, 2009.
1For information on “green world,” begin with the work of scholar Mikhail Bakhtin.