Monday, August 9, 2010

The Beatles Come to Hamburg (Again)

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the Beatles came to Hamburg's tawdry Reeperbahn district and, dressed mostly in black leather, transformed themselves into the best rock band in the world. Later this month, a group of American indie rockers will play the band's old club, the Indra, to commemorate the raw, fast, very early Beatles.

Named for an X-rated movie theater where the Liverpudlians stayed when they first hit town, Bambi Kino is made up of drummer Ira Elliot from Nada Surf, bassist Erik Paparazzi from Cat Power, guitarist Doug Gillard from Guided by Voices, and guitarist Mark Rozzo from Maplewood. (Here they are playing "Slow Down" at the Bowery Ballroom, by the way.)

[Update: Bambi Kino plays at Taix in Echo Park on Saturday, Oct. 9, which would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday.]

Rozzo -- a gifted writer I know from the journalist trenches, who is so talented can forgive his wrong-headed advocacy of Paul over John -- spoke to the Misread City about the band's upcoming gig. 

What did the Beatles sound like during their Hamburg period and what were their shows like?

Well, they actually evolved a lot during the 28 months they went back and forth between Liverpool and Hamburg.  They started August 17, 1960, at the Indra as a five-piece band with a bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe) who could barely play and a drummer (Pete Best) who hadn’t even been in the band a week.  (His big audition number was “Shakin’ All Over,” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.)  They ended New Year’s Eve 1962 at the Star Club with Paul on bass, Ringo on drums, and their first single (“Love Me Do”) climbing the British pop charts.  (They were, in fact, pretty bummed to be in Hamburg during that crucial time, but the residency had been booked by Brian Epstein months before.  These are the shows captured on the famous Star Club bootlegs.)  

It’s pretty easy to get an idea of their sound through various bootlegs, audition tapes, and the backing they did with Tony Sheridan in Hamburg in the summer of 1961.  It was, to quote John Lennon, “straight rock” – a pretty raw and pounding sound.  In fact, they seemed to set out to be the loudest, rawest band anyone had ever heard up to that time.  But that’s really selling it short.  It was quite a mix of rock and roll, R&B, rockabilly, and the odd standard (“September Song,” “Over the Rainbow”), and as time went on they became better and better at showcasing the individual members and, as they went into 1962, started streamlining their sound, in response to some of the newer music coming out of Motown.  It’s as if the old 50s tailfins were coming off the chassis.  
But the Hamburg shows are famous for the Beatles’ response to the German encouragement to “mach schau” – to make a show.  So they did all kinds of wacky stuff, like playing sets with toilet seats around their necks, stretching out “What’d I Say” for half an hour, having a contest with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Ringo’s band) to see who could be first to destroy (literally) the stage at the Kaiserkeller club.  (The Hurricanes won.)

How did you and others recover these songs and the way they were played... Do recordings exist?

Many recordings of the Beatles exist from the period of 1960 to 1962, which we’ve claimed as our Bambi Kino turf.  You can begin with the home recordings done at Paul McCartney’s house at 20 Forthlin Road in the spring of 1960, which includes early versions of “One After 909” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” along with covers like “Matchbox” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” which they would play for years.  Next would be the Tony Sheridan sessions recorded in Hamburg in the summer of 1961, with Paul now playing his trademark Hofner bass.  (Think “Ain’t She Sweet.”)  

Then there’s the disastrous audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962, which gives an idea of the Beatles’ almost too-broad set list, which by this time literally ran into hundreds of songs.  They did their first BBC broadcast early in ’62, and then the tests and sessions for EMI at Abbey Road that year, a recording for Granada TV at the Cavern in August of ’62 (just a day before John Lennon got married and not long after Ringo joined; you can hear the crowd yelling out “We want Pete!”), and then the Star Club bootleg, from December of 1962.  The first LP, “Please Please Me,” was recorded February 11, 1963, so that gives a good idea of what the band sounded like and what they were playing in 1962.  

But what really interests me for Bambi Kino is the material that never got recorded, which includes anything from Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” to Duane Eddy’s “Ramrod” to the aforementioned “Over the Rainbow,” which they modeled off Gene Vincent’s rockabilly-ballad version.  Many of their set lists have been documented and they do total up to hundreds of songs; I couldn’t tell you the exact number.

What were Hamburg and the Reeperbahn like in the early '60s?

Hamburg was then all of 15 or 16 years out from being leveled by an Allied bombing raid.  I believe it was then perhaps the largest port in Europe.  But much like today, the city had an educated, bourgeois population despite the gritty reputation.  It was no accident that the Beatles’ first avid fans were so-called “exis” – self-styled existentialist art students from middle-class backgrounds, most famously embodied by Astrid Kirchherr (Sutcliffe’s beautiful photographer girlfriend) and Klaus Voorman (who would go on to play bass with Manfred Mann and collaborate with various Beatles on various projects).  

Then as now, the Reeperbahn was the most notorious sex district in Europe.  The Beatles used to like walking down the walled-off Herberstrasse, where prostitutes still hang out of windows in states of undress and fire squirt-bottles full of urine at women who dare enter.  Many of the young Beatles’ fans and friends were drawn from the local population of sex workers.
This is kind of a below-the-radar indie supergroup... What was the thinking in putting the band together?

We didn’t want to be a traditional tribute band that dresses up, does all the mannerisms, plays everything note for note.  That can be a fun experience, but sometimes you end up paying more attention to the haircuts and boots.  I liked the idea of drawing great musicians from great American bands; musicians who have made albums and written songs and toured and generally had experiences of being actual musicians.  Musicians with personality and creativity to bring to the project.

Everyone has a favorite Beatle. For these gigs you play guitar -- George's instrument -- but you are a dedicated Paul guy. What draws you to him over the others?

Remember, John Lennon also played guitar.  And Paul McCartney played guitar in the band until the spring of 1961 (and then, of course, later on many Beatles recordings).  We don’t do role-playing in the band (I know, it sounds like SM), so each of us might sing songs originally sung by John, Paul, George, Pete, or Ringo.  

I’m not sure I’m a dedicated Paul guy.  I don’t think I’d ever say that, but I’d always gravitated toward him for whatever reason.  I think when I was younger my singing voice most closely matched his and I do think he’s a melodist of a very high order and quite obviously the most capable and complete musician in the band.  He was essentially the Beatles’ musical director and the way I’ve said it before is that McCartney is a musical genius while Lennon was a pure artist.  In Bambi Kino, I sing many more John songs than Paul songs.  I don’t have the top of my range that I used to have (remember:  Little Richard sang “Long Tall Sally” in F and McCartney raised it up a notch, to G!) and, since I play guitar, there’s something more organic about singing John’s stuff.  (Although, just to get annoyingly technical, John’s and Paul’s vocal ranges were much more closely matched than most people assume.)  

And yet… oddly enough, when Maplewood was opening for America on some shows last month, a lady came up to me after we played and said, in a mega Jersey accent, “You remind me of Pool McCawtney!”  Um, OK.  Not that I see it!

Photos show Sutcliffe and Harrison up top, George, Paul and John below.

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