Saturday, April 14, 2018
The Beatles: Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany (1962)
(Lingasong 1977; numerous others, 1977-98 or so)
Picture yourself as a penniless rock & roll musician, at a time when the glamor that later came to accompany such a status was unheard-of, arriving in a strange city, inexperienced with anything beyond your home country in the first place, in the middle of a summer night in 1960, together with four bandmates -- one of whom, the drummer, you've hardly even played with yet. The club in which you're to play, under a punishing schedule, to German sleazebags and gangsters and eccentrics with a thirst for American-influenced rock & roll, is closed and you sleep in the lobby, soon finding that your regular nightly conditions are to be even worse: cramped in a room behind a nearby movie theater screen, stuck using urinal water to (barely) bathe in. This doesn't sound like the auspicious beginning of a brilliant career, but in fact it marks the turning point for the band that would eventually manage a domino effect on popular music that continues its ramifications -- across every sort of cultural line -- to this day. For this reason the night the Beatles arrive at the Indra is possibly my favorite episode in their history: the breathless excitement of knowing, in retrospect, that they stood on the precipice of immortality: "Their Name Liveth for Ever More."
It was in Hamburg -- even with a bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, who couldn't really play; and a drummer, Pete Best, who barely could -- that the Beatles became the Beatles, playing for hours a night, learning an endless repertoire of hardened, greasy rock & roll (versions of "What'd I Say" that went on for half an hour or longer were immortalized in various memories but sadly fail to survive for us to hear), and -- responding to pressure from their demanding, often violent audiences -- becoming adept, even phenomenal, at a kind of showmanship that was born of necessity but gave them an incomparable charisma and -- according to many of those who were there and later talked about it -- an avant garde uniqueness: the next step into the void that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had opened a few years earlier, before all of the original rockers got too close to the sun.
The Beatles took five trips to Hamburg in the years leading to, and just after, the point when they signed a recording contract with Parlophone. Behind-the-scenes intrigue and disaster plagued the end of the first one, at the Indra and then another club called the Kaiserkeller, but on that trip they also befriended the "Exis" (short for "existentials," German kids mortified by their country's recent past and looking inward with art and rock & roll), Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, two close confidantes who would have far-reaching effects on the band's future fame: among other things, Kirchherr ushered the "Beatle haircut" into existence and generally defined the band's "look," and Voormann would one day draw the cover of Revolver and play bass on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. At any rate, the enthusiastic support of these new friends was the first of many kicks directly into the future for the band. When the Beatles returned home and played their first Liverpool gig in months on December 27, 1960, they were a new band, their chops suddenly beyond criticism, having worked themselves to the bone until they became great... and on this night, arguably, the first kernels of Beatlemania were born. When they returned to Hamburg the following spring, still under the aegis of their first manager Allan Williams, they made their first professional recordings as a backing band to Tony Sheridan, all while performing in a two-month residency at the Top Ten Club.
A great deal happened between the exit from the Top Ten on July 1, 1961 and the beginning of the first of three Star-Club residencies on the following April 13, and much of it is covered elsewhere much more extensively, but in short: the Tony Sheridan single "My Bonnie" was released and drummed up a tiny bit of excitement among the band's increasingly fevered fan base in Liverpool, which led directly to NEMS entrepreneur Brian Epstein discovering and meeting the group and setting up a management deal with them; they performed a lengthy recording test for Decca Records, who then turned them down; they played for the BBC for the first time; and most jarringly, Stuart Sutcliffe -- who'd left the band at the end of the Top Ten period, choosing to remain in Hamburg with Astrid, now his girlfriend -- died of a brain hemorrhage. The other Beatles were unaware of this until they arrived in Germany for their third round of gigs. A pall was cast over the month and a half that followed, highlighted strictly by a coveted and dangerous spot opening for the wildly unpredictable, gun-wielding rockabilly master Gene Vincent.
Thanks to Epstein, and to Epstein's insistence that they streamline their image for the benefit of the old-world showbiz people they'd soon be rubbing shoulders with (the crashing of this boundary would in fact be one of the most lasting effects of the Beatles' stardom; ironically, their Hamburg performances before Epstein began to wield his influence resemble modern rock concerts more than the enormous, brief, carefully predictable sets they'd end up playing at the height of their fame), the Beatles' last two visits to the Star-Club paid well and were victory laps in theory, but really felt like a retreat: pivotal as it had been, Hamburg was old news by this time, with clearly bigger things on the horizon. The November trip, lasting two weeks, was a major annoyance: by now they at last had the drummer they wanted, Ringo Starr, and had recorded three pivotal sessions at EMI for George Martin, which would form the basis of the band's first single. On October 5, that single, "Love Me Do" -- backed with "P.S. I Love You" -- was released and became a top-twenty hit, in part on the strength of hometown loyalty, but also because (as its later success in America would demonstrate) it was an infectious song that sounded weird and new. And not only were the Beatles a charting band on a major label by the time they were back in Hamburg in November, which felt like reliving the past, on the 12th of October they'd opened for Little fookin' Richard -- and Richard had been floored by them.
And if the Star-Club was already an afterthought in November, it must have seemed like a complete joke a month later. The Beatles spent Christmas and New Year's Eve in the final throes of their relationship with the city in which John had once said he felt he had grown up. Hamburg, at one time, had been everything to their development and continued existence as a powerful band and to their hope for a professional career. (Post-Epstein especially, they made enough money at this that they could have lived off it.) Now it was like placing everything on hold to pay dues. In fact, between these last two residencies, there was one more earth-shattering event: the Beatles recorded "Please Please Me," the record that would make everything explode, on November 26th. On the 18th of December, they were back at the Star-Club.
We're extremely lucky that any recordings of the Beatles from their days as a hard-rocking, beer-swigging club band exist at all, taped (possibly covertly) over what apparently were several evenings by the leader of another Star-Club band, King-Size Taylor and the Dominoes. Despite the obvious flaws of the recording, and despite the fact that this was the tail end of this phase of their career (exact dates are not agreed upon but the current best guess is that the tapes were made on Christmas and over the course of the few days after; the long-held belief that they were a posterity capturing of the band's very last day in the city, December 31st, was apparently baseless), what comes through is an astonishing excitement, which is a dot that can be connected directly to the Beatles' future vitality; but also a looseness, which isn't so much. (Imagine, therefore, what the 1960 and '61 Hamburg sound must have been if this is still so raw and ruthless at its best.) One of the most intriguing facets of Brian Epstein's plan for the group is that he intended to -- and succeeded at -- selling them as performers of their own original material, when their original innate appeal, the very thing that enchanted a pissed-off Voormann sufficiently to compel him to bring his girlfriend Kirchherr along to check them out, had little to do with this particular element of their mystique. (It's known that the Beatles were toying fairly regularly with originals in 1960, but the will and inspiration both seem to have dried up for some time in the following two years.) In fact, even the covers on the tape -- as Mark Lewisohn points out in Tune In -- are mostly relics of Beatles setlists from a year or two prior: evergreen rock & roll numbers and oddities and very few of the then-prevalent Liverpool showstoppers like "Some Other Guy," fewer still of the Lennon-McCartney numbers that had landed them the record deal that would upend their lives. "Ask Me Why," freshly recorded for Parlophone, and "I Saw Her Standing There," a masterful new song of Paul's that was still being perfected (it had been recorded in a rehearsal session at the Cavern in October in a more embryonic state, with prominent harmonica), both show up and are played well, but they are the lone non-covers.
The rest is a time capsule in its song selection, which doesn't stop the band from threatening to tear the songs apart with sheer urgent will. There are a few songs that would later become part of the Beatles' Parlophone canon: Little Richard's version of "Kansas City" and his own "Long Tall Sally," Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," Lenny Welch's "A Taste of Honey" (heard three times from separate gigs, once with John laconically changing his backing vocal to "a waste of money," another with Tony Sheridan amiably guesting on backing vocals), Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" (sung here by John) and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," Peggy Lee's "Till There Was You" (also played at the Decca audition on January 1, 1962, seemingly an eternity ago now), the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" (ever the dependable showstopper), and Dr. Feelgood and the Interns' obscure, Lennon-beloved "Mr. Moonlight." Reproduction quality dictates that almost no one would prefer any of these to the studio versions, especially if vocals are important to you and you don't necessarily need every strum of John's guitar rammed into your skull, but if you can listen through the muck you can tell that when they play "Kansas City" here, even if they hated being in Germany, even if the conditions are worse than on the earlier Cavern runthrough of the same song, they're so much hungrier than they would be two years later on Beatles for Sale... and it's not as if that recording isn't perfectly fine in the first place! All three front-line Beatles sing masterfully throughout the set, Paul completely redeeming his hushed awkwardness from the Decca tape, and even loosening up enough on all three versions of "A Taste of Honey," not to mention "Till There Was You," that you can actually sense why they worked on the Hamburg stage (the amusingly disorganized version of the Marlene Dietrich signature "Falling in Love Again" has the same feature, a kind of Gene Vincent balladeering lilt, a very rock & roll sort of sensitive-bastard schlock), absent of their reputation as conservative copouts on the LPs.
The rest, well, it's all the purest most reverent kind of rock & roll, hard to hear or not, Christmas or no Christmas. We cut in on Star-Club employees Horscht Fascher and his brother Fredi playfully offering vocals on Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and Ray Charles' (via Eddie Cochran) "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," the last ride for two passionate rock obsessives who touched eternity in their random associations with the Beatles. Then, the tantalizing version of Ronnie Hawkins' "Red Hot" that cuts out after a minute but is ferocious for all its valuable surviving seconds. George takes on Tommy Roe's "Sheila" with a bit of trepidation but walks away credibly. The Olympics' song "Shimmy Like Kate" -- their biggest hit "Hully Gully" was notorious for starting riots and doesn't show up -- gets a sour, jokey treatment; and the intrigue slows down a little with "Reminiscing" (Buddy Holly) and "Red Sails in the Sunset" (Ray Sharpe).
But when John steps to the mike for his first solo lead vocal on the presumptive running order of the tape, curtly announcing the name of the song and -- after a quick introductory lick -- launching into "Sweet Little Sixteen," something happens. It's something that only happens when John Lennon sings; it happens on the studio version of "Twist and Shout," it happens on the bizarrely abandoned Beatles for Sale outtake "Leave My Kitten Alone," it even threatens to happen on that 1957 tape -- underneath layers of age and mud -- when he ploughs through "Puttin' on the Style" with an implied middle-finger and what you can picture as a gum-chewing mouth half agape. It's an abandon, a complete rejection of order and peace (whatever he may have later preached to us), an act of absolute destruction and threat directed at anyone listening: it's frightening because he hangs onto nothing, holds nothing dear that will stop him from going off the handle, except for the song -- his love for the song is what inspires this manic possession and what keeps him from losing his grip. You can listen to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" every day for the rest of your life; you could be like Brian Wilson obsessing over the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," playing it incessantly on a turntable situated next to a bed you never leave, and you can love it in a bottomless, unearthly fashion... but it is actually impossible for you or anyone else among the living to love and occupy "Sweet Little Sixteen" in the way that John does in this moment, on a performance that essentially defines him as a human and the base impulses at the core of all of his art.
That includes the late Eddie Cochran, upon whose wild, untamed version of the song the Beatles based their arrangement. But Cochran and his band were tight and controlled. The Beatles, especially John and Ringo, sound like they are coming apart at the seams with every bar. First there's the rhythm guitar line that marches in abruptly after "they're really rockin' in Boston," the relentless loudness of which keeps us from feeling relief when it temporarily goes away during each line of the verses, because we know what the weight of those silences means. Next there is the moment in the first verse when Lennon wrings every bit of life he can out of the line "all over St. Louis." Why does this line merit such worrying and joy? Why is it so important to John? Why does it sound as if he has mined each moment of Berry's (magnificent) record and determined some way to explore the truth and depth of each moment hidden behind the geographic platiudes, and maximize these things so that no one hearing -- in the room at the time, and all these decades later when he couldn't have known his voice would still echo off your walls or mine -- can ignore them, or him, or the band. In the first place, Chuck Berry's song is pointedly not about lust, contrary to the drive-by interpretation to which it's often treated; it's about the act of being a fan, and in so completely pouring himself into it, John's committing the ultimate act of fandom, the ultimate statement of his allegiance to the music he so dearly loves that it has long since overwhelmed all else in his life. The peak comes when he reaches the couplet "Oh Daddy Daddy, I beg of you / whisper to Mommy, it's all right with you" and changes "Mommy" to "Mimi" -- thereby turning Berry's story of a teenybopper music nut into the story of himself, defying all sense of gender, racial, national, psychological boundary in the process. Another performance of "Sweet Little Sixteen" exists in the Beatles' vault (two, if you count a skeletal, mostly Lennon-only rendition from the Get Back sessions), from their BBC sessions (officially released on a band-sanctioned CD, in fact), but this cannot compare to the balls-out gloriousness of these heart-pounding two minutes, one of the best performances by the band ever recorded.
There are other delightful oddities here, like the Fats Waller screwball "Your Feet's Too Big" (dedicated to John's BBW gal pal Bettina in the audience) and the completely inexplicable Frank Ifield cover "I Remember You" (Vee Jay Records hilariously conflated the Beatles with the fellow exotic-accented British-Australian nightclub yodeler on a cash-in LP in 1964 called Jolly What!); and there are bastard missteps either in recording or performance terms. One of the two "Roll Over Beethoven" covers seems to be a victim of a tape fraying at the end, and Paul's voice gets completely lost in the blitz of Berry's "Little Queenie" (a real drag, as this is the only recording of a complete performance of that one by the Beatles) and it's of course a pity how many other cuts are incomplete, but one cannot conjure up many excuses for the maddeningly slapdash versions of Bo Diddley's "Road Runner," and the arrangement of "Besame Mucho" just depends too much on "being there" for the humor to work and for the recording therefore to be tolerable, apart from some very nice guitar work. For the most part, though, the band is remarkably good on the tape, and consistent. There are songs here -- George's engagingly innocent lead on "Nothin' Shakin'," the splendidly haunting arrangement of Phil Spector's first hit "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (switched to "Her"), Paul and John's stunning Everly-like harmonizing on the Carl Perkins number "Lend Me Your Comb" and raucous back-and-forth on Elvis' "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)," plus two versions of Chuck Berry's great Beatles prototype number "I'm Talking About You" -- that one could argue are better served on the cleaner BBC performances, though then again those performances made within the confines of professional studios tend never to be nearly as fresh and unadulterated. The same goes for something like "Twist and Shout"; the band's EMI recording is nearly perfect, and Lennon doesn't demolish the universe and snarl in your face here in the same way, but you can imagine some punk rocker somewhere having a revelation about the Beatles based on this unhinged and messy version.
This brings us to the generalized problem of Star-Club as a listening experience. Unless you're a huge advocate of amateur live recordings who's used to the attendant sound problems and/or a true Beatles obessive, this can be difficult to sit down and enjoy; that said, this is an even more crucial recording, to my mind, than the more conventional The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, largely because the performances are so much less reined-in. It's really the only chance to hear the Beatles without the rest of the world also listening in, the Beatles as a fully formed rock band that hadn't quite conquered the world and become jaded with the problems of fame yet. Of course those Beatles would retreat into the darkness and let records slip out into the world that were possessed of brilliance that was and remains almost incomparable within the pop idiom, certainly in such quantity. But in their heart of hearts, these men -- John Lennon particularly, but also George, and also the others close behind -- came to life on stage as rock & roll performers in the club days more than at any other point since, with the possible exception of Lennon during the Plastic Ono Band sessions, and would never quite recapture that energy. (It's true that the Beatlemania-era live recordings can be extremely exciting, but that's certainly in part because of the crowd response, which would sadly eventually overwhelm any possibility of the band operating well as a unit on stage.)
And again, it must be said that given what a revelation this record is, if you're attuned to its specific needs, it's hard to imagine how astounding a surviving tape from the Kaiserkeller or the Top-Ten Club might have been. And even if you can get with the historical importance of this and love it for what it is, and I strongly advocate trying, you still -- at least on most editions that now circulate -- have the extremely long gaps between the songs to contend with. The Beatles were never the Ramones, with one song stacked atop another with barely the chance to take a breath, and at this point they were closer to Television -- with endless noodling, chatting and tuning between songs. Obsessives will want to listen closely to hear John Lennon picking fights with bar patrons, slipping in and out of bad German and making bad jokes, while Paul tries a little harder to engage sincerely. All of these caveats make it hard to name this as being a live record that exists completely on its own terms, away from the bootleg stigma (despite being a "legal" release, at least initially), the way I would with Television's The Blow-Up or the Velvet Underground's Live at Max's Kansas City... yet those are two examples of bands who came into being as an indirect result of the Beatles and their utterly bonkers early history, of cutting their teeth on those late nights and inventing the idea of the rock band as we know it, carrying forth from the pioneers before them a story they'd experienced and had been in the grips of from the very beginning.
Lastly, we must consider what a mess has been made of these tapes over the years, ever since the flawed initial double-LP release by Lingasong that prompted lawsuits spanning two full decades, ending with the tape in the hands of the Beatles' Apple Records, who've never done anything with it. For a time the recordings were considered all but public domain, like the Decca audition, and so the market on LP, cassette and CD was flooded with various releases, most of them truncating the 37-song tracklist and even mistakenly filling the time out with songs by other bands (King Size Taylor and the Dominoes; Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers). There were speed problems, the order of the tape was endlessly fucked with, and bad edits abounded. The length of the tape was such that you could make multiple "albums" from it without repeating songs, and many enterprising people did. Sometime in the 2000s a full source tape leaked onto the Net, and the definitive version -- the one I'm reviewing here -- is available online under the Purple Chick "label," though I like many others came to know this music, or a large chunk of it, from one of the shitty K-TEL releases of bits and pieces of it way back when. This adds ambiguity of sound quality and tracklist to an already flawed piece of material.
But given all that, there are still some transcendent moments that overcome every kind of doubt and apology you'd ever have to make for Live at the Star-Club, and it's quite incredible that the Beatles didn't make use of any of them for Anthology 1. One is the aforementioned "Sweet Little Sixteen." Another is Paul's roaring take on Chan Romero's "The Hippy Hippy Shake," the best available version of one of the Beatles' favorite covers. And lastly is "Where Have You Been (All My Life)," a wistful miracle: it's John singing a tremendously lovely b-side (backing "Soldier of Love," another Beatles favorite) from one of his most beloved singers, the great Arthur Alexander. (Alexander was the original artist of "Anna (Go to Him)" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," Beatles studio and BBC chestnuts respectively.) Alexander's original version starts out as a plead and grows into a towering triumph as the emotion builds. The Beatles take a different tack, letting Ringo lead and pound his way through the room while Lennon rises above it, the unpredictable clown and dangerous buffoon to end them all pulling his shit together to profess a love it sounds like he fully means. He hated being here in this moment and there he is, giving his full heart to this, even as the rest of the band files behind him (a fine imitation of the record's piano line from George, who also fucking hated being here again) and throws this tender ballad into rocker overdrive, like they're trying to form a room full of psychopaths and criminals and music-crazy kids and whoever else into a small army... doing in this comparatively tiny room what they would, in a matter of months, be doing to an entire country; then to an entire planet; then to the future of music itself.