55 Years Ago: The Beatles Start 3-Month Residency at Hamburg’s Top Ten Club
The Beatles' first trip to Hamburg, Germany in 1960 ended in disaster. After they'd broken a contract to play exclusively at the Kaiserkeller Club, owner Bruno Koschmider arranged to have George Harrison deported for being underage and Paul McCartney and drummer Pete Best arrested on an attempted arson charge.
But the band – McCartney, Best, John Lennon, Stu Sutcliffe and Harrison, who had turned 18 – returned to Hamburg on April 1, 1961 to begin a three-month residency at the Top Ten Club. The gig was grueling: seven-hour sets on weeknights and eight-hour sets on weekends. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn determined that the band spent 503 hours on stage for 92 nights straight.
The Beatles often backed Tony Sheridan, a wild British singer and guitarist who often brawled with customers and other musicians. In The Beatles: Off the Record, Sheridan recalled sharing living quarters with the group.
"We all lived in an attic at the Top Ten and it was atrocious! It was four flights up and had army bunk beds in it. It had bare floorboards, a bucket to wash in, no windows and it was really drafty," Sheridan said. "It was a bit like Oliver Twist. This old woman lived next door and Peter Eckhorn, the club's owner, paid her to provide us with a fresh bucket of water every day and Lennon really used to take it out on this old girl. John used to have the top bunk bed and he'd crash around when he got up because he could never see a thing without his glasses. Once he started banging around, we all had to get up. John was a wild character."
Lewisohn, in Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, describes the Top Ten club as "one room, big but not overly so, a comfortable space with the stage set along the side wall and raised only slightly off the ground. The bar was to the musicians' right, along the back wall, and white-jacketed waiters bustled back and forth with trays of beer bottles and Coca-Cola with straws. There was no distance between the performers and their audience, no hiding place, full exposure."
The club's sound system was a vast improvement over the Kaiserkeller's. "The Top Ten Club had a mic system called the Binson Echo," Harrison remembered in Anthology. "It was a silver and golden unit which had a small Grundig tape machine with a little green light, that would twitch with the volume. That had a great echo – on it you'd sound like Gene Vincent doing 'Be-Bop-A-Lula.'"
Listen to the Beatles Perform 'Cry for a Shadow'
The Beatles honed their performance skills and developed their iconic look during the three months in Hamburg. Astrid Kirchherr, Sutcliffe's fiancée, cut the bassist's hair into what would become known as the "Beatles haircut." The others, except for Pete Best, soon adopted the style.
Sutcliffe later announced that he would leave the band to study art and spend more time with Kirchherr. His departure meant that the band was without a bass player. "He said, 'I'm out of the band, lads, I'm going to stay in Hamburg with Astrid,'" Harrison remembered. "At that point I said, 'We're not going to get a fifth person in the band. One of us three is going to be the bass player, and it's not going to be me.' And John said, 'It's not going to be me,' and Paul didn't seem to mind the idea. Colin Milander, the bass player in Tony Sheridan's trio, had a Hofner violin bass, which was really a rip-off of the Gibson bass. So, when Paul decided he was going to be the bass player he went out and bought one like Colin's."
After a performance at the Top Ten Club, famed German bandleader Bert Kaempfert signed Sheridan with the Beatles as his backing band to record the album My Bonnie. The June 1961 session produced some of the Beatles' earliest studio recordings. Billed as the Beat Brothers, the Beatles recorded several songs with Sheridan and "Ain't She Sweet" and "Cry for a Shadow" on their own. The two songs and "My Bonnie" were later released on Anthology 1.
The Beatles returned to Liverpool following their last performance on July 1, 1961. Unfortunately, no recordings were made of the Beatles' Top Ten Club appearances.
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