The Beatles' Forgotten Punk Rock Origin Story
Even the greatest artists have to start at the bottom. Never forget that before Michelangelo got to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he had to spend his teenage years delivering pizzas in sewers. But few had more humble beginnings than The Beatles, who before becoming bigger Than Jesus were nothing but small-time punks playing German titty bars.
Before they became the bowl-cut sporting, mod suit-wearing superstars known as The Beatles (literally, they were still wobbling between calling themselves The Silver Beetles or The Beatals), they were just a bunch of teens with guitars trying to get club owners to listen to their tapes. Dressed in leather jackets and with hair slicker than Elvis Presley in a bukake, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison styled themselves more like proto-punk rockers, hissing at audiences while they played covers of Chuck Berry. Roy Orbison and Little Richard.
But no amount of rockabilly bluster could have prepared them for the realities of being a gigging rock band. With Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums, the Fresh-faced Five were shipped off to Hamburg's Indra Club, "the naughtiest place on earth," in the summer of 1960. Surrounded by strip clubs, brothels, and adult cinemas, The Beatles played to crowds mostly consisting of drunk American soldiers or rowdy German johns unimpressed by any stage performance that didn't involve launching a ping pong ball out of an orifice and into their beer stein.
Whatever little downtime they had, they spent washing their beer-soaked clothes in women's toilets or sleeping on cots in the concrete basement of a nearby kino. But it was in their trial by fire that they'd acquire the three things that would launch The Beatles to greatness: their style, their sound, and their crippling addiction to narcotics.
To get some kind of reaction out of the crowds other than a barrage of empty beer bottles, the Beatles quickly learned how to "mach shau" (put on a show) as the impatient Germans would shout. Tightening their set and perfecting their swagger, The Beatles started becoming known as the best thing to happen to Hamburg's red-light district since vulcanized rubber condoms. Younger, hipper crowds started venturing into the seedy district just to see these Liverpool lads rock out with their glockenspiel out. This led to them meeting the two people who turned The Beatles into The Beatles: German intellectual Astrid Kirchherr, who gave them the iconic mop-top haircut that every other German hipster sported, and Ringo Star, then the drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, whom McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison thought was the coolest guy in the world. (Don't laugh).
But despite their emerging talent, they were still nobody gig players sweating on a small stage night after night. They couldn't have developed their iconic energy without a little help from their friends: amphetamines. To stay on their feet during sets that would go from seven at night until seven in the morning, the band would gobble down weight loss pills, which back then were pure speed. Then, to even things out, they would douse their crippling cotton mouth with liters of German beer and hookups with Hanseatic hookers.
Having enough of that Teutonic titty bar lifestyle, The Beatles eventually skipped out on their crushing contract at the Indra and were lured to the Top Ten Club, the hottest joint in Hamburg. This didn't sit well with their former employer, who threw a wrench into their rise by getting George Harrisson deported for being underage. In an act of petty teen revenge, Best and McCartney set a condom on fire in their basement bedroom. (If that doesn't make any sense, remember that these were sleep-deprived teens high on meth). This did manage to get them reunited with Harrison as the pair were arrested for attempted arson and kicked back to Liverpool as well. Being three short of a Fab Four, Lennon retreated to blighty a few days later, literally coming home empty-handed as he hadn't bothered to carry back all of their expensive equipment.
But it was the experience they had gained in Hamburg that turned The Beatles from a loose collection of cover-playing kids into a professional band. Returning to Liverpool with a lifetime's worth of musical experience after a single summer, they blew home audiences away. And in 1962, backed by a hit single, Ringo Starr and Brian Epstein, the fully formed Beatles returned to Hamburg as victors, showing off everything they had learned during their drug-fueled Deutsche days by playing 92 nights in a row. That's much shau.
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Top Image: Michael Donovan, Flickr