Every musician or band must start somewhere, but did you know that none other than the Beatles began life as a bar band, playing clubs in their native Britain as well as Germany? The Beatles made five trips to Hamburg, Germany between 1960 and 1962 and played 281 shows, and as their first manager/booking agent Allan Williams noted, “The Beatles were created in Hamburg. Seven days and nights a week for months. It would make or break any band and it made them.”
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best, and bassist Stu Sutcliffe (an art school mate of Lennon’s) initially set out for Hamburg in August 1960 and in just the space of a few months played more than one hundred gigs at rowdy clubs such as the Indra and the Kaiserkeller. The manager of the Indra coined the phrase “Mach Schau,” which was his way of imploring the Beatles to entertain the audience—to “make a show”—and to not simply stand still and play. And the Beatles certainly did “Mach Schau” – it was at the Kaiserkeller where they were at their savage, raucous best, with onstage antics such as crazed, ninety-minute versions of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” But in addition to the hijinks, it’s also where the Beatles got infinitely tighter as a live act.
“[Hamburg is] where we really developed. To get the [crowd] going and keep it up for twelve hours at a time, we really had to hammer,” John Lennon explained. “We’d be playing eight or ten hours a night. That’s what improved the playing. We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it, with all the experience, playing all night long.”
Extra-long sets meant the group would need to draw on a large catalog of tunes. “We had to learn millions of songs,” George Harrison confirmed. “We had to play so long, we just played everything. We’d get a Chuck Berry record and learn it all; same with Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino – everything. Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.” The young combo also began writing and testing out their own originals onstage at this time. “We never had a day off [in] Hamburg; we just worked, worked, worked,” Paul McCartney remembered years later. “I think that’s what made us so tight as a band.”