Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Tale of Four Beatles - Part III

by Billy Shepherd

The boys soon met up with Ringo Starr again--playing with Rory Storm in the Kaiserkeller. The boys summed up Ringo: Ringo summed up the boys.

Paul thought Ringo "a fab drummer". John thought Ringo "a deep type". George was most eloquent about Ringo. "He looked moody, but I found he was quite different once I got to know him. At first, though, I thought he was a smarmy, big-headed bloke, fancying his chances. Had a grey streak in his hair. Only when we'd known each other better did I realise he was a good skin."

And Ringo's views?

"I thought they were a fab bunch of characters and I liked the music they played. But I was happy enough with Rory Storm and, certainly during that German trip, had no thoughts of leaving him. All the same, I used to sit in with the Beatles from time to time whenever Pete Best was off sick."

The Beatles, then, in that autumn of 1960, were together--even if not playing in the same group. There was also Stu Sutcliffe, the guy who'd learned to play bass in double quick time.

John recalls: "One of our first followers in Germany was a good bloke named Klaus Voormann. He used to bring his friends into the Top Ten Club during those last few days."

And he also brought a girl-friend, Astrid, who immediately fell for Stu Sutcliffe. Stu, with his personality, his dark glasses and his hair-style, looked a lot like the late James Dean at that time. No-one could blame Astrid for falling. Nobody did--not even Klaus.

John recalls: "Klaus was a real enthusiast. And, oddly, he didn't seem to mind about Stu and Astrid. Just as long as they were happy . . ." In no time at all, Stu was talking about staying on in Germany after the Beatles' engagement, staying with Astrid--and trying to get himself a grant to the art school in Hamburg.

Stu, on stage, was off-beat to say the least. The boys remember: "He'd never buy himself a new bass string. He had a thing about this. He'd just measure up the length and cut himself a few feet off the piano bass strings, then fit it to the guitar. He'd say 'This is arty'--but we didn't really know what he was talking about. But the sound he got was absolutely fantastic. Didn't sound like a bass but it certainly pleased Stu . . ."

But it was all a very short stay indeed in the Top Ten Club. George had gone home. As far as he was concerned, the bottom had fallen out of his world. He thought he'd be in Liverpool weeks before he'd see any of the other Beatles again. What he didn't know was that Paul and drummer Pete followed him there pretty quickly.

Which left Stu . . . with Astrid. And John. With himself. Said John: "We'd spent our money as we went along. I didn't have any to spare. I felt real sorry for myself. And it was a pretty hungry business working my way back to home. Being stuck in Hamburg with no food money was no joke . . . especially just around Christmas.

"When I did get home, I was so fed up I didn't bother to contact the others for a couple of weeks. I didn't know what they were doing. Anyway, after a while I got to thinking that we ought to cash in on the Liverpool beat scene. Things were really thriving and it seemed a pity to waste the experience we'd got playing all those hours every night in Hamburg."

By then, the groups in Liverpool were all doing a Shadows' act. Grey suits, little step movements--"Apache" and "FBI" were samples of the numbers. Everything neat and tidy and copying the style set by the outfit who called the successful Cliff Richard "our singer"!

But the Beatles were different. So different. "We looked like a gang of scruffs", said Paul. "Wore jeans and leather jackets and boots. We started looking round for bookings. We handled our own business, just jotting down engagements in a diary. Let's be honest, we didn't think there was anyone round who could possibly manage a mob like us."

The Beatles, still virtually unknown to Liverpool fans, had to be billed as something. So it was "Direct From Hamburg." Which led to most of the folk around thinking they were four German lads--they were convinced that the style of dress was all the rage in Germany.

The Beatles really didn't understand the scene in Britain. They were booked into various places for about £6 a night. Dance hall dates started coming in for very small fees. They noted that attendances at the halls were getting bigger--but thought all dance halls did good business every night. They just didn't realise that they were proving an above-average attraction. And the Beatles went on whipping up a storm using the same roaring material they used in Germany.

"Don't you speak good English" said the fans. They did think it funny the boys seemed to know Liverpudlian English--after all they WERE billed as "Direct From Hamburg."

There was an "audition" type of basis for a lot of the bookings in Liverpool at that time. The group would turn up in a hall for "peanuts", pay-wise--and if they went down well they'd be given return bookings at a slightly higher fee. At one hall, the Beatles went down particularly well and felt sure that they'd get some engagements out of it.

Truth was the promoter had sent his "bouncers" out into the hall, guarding the way backstage. He wanted to keep other managements away from the boys. And he succeeded. He offered them £8 for a long series of dates--which seemed big money after the £6 10s. top whack they'd earned before. That promoter said he was helping the boys by keeping other agents away. Maybe he was. He was also doing himself no little favour.

They moved into the Cavern Club at lunch-times. There was still a jazz tradition at this now famed stomping ground. Often John would introduce, for example: "And now Big Bill Broonzy's 'What'd I Say' "--a gag! But it went down well with the fans. Ray McFall, the owner and promoter of the Cavern, said the boys had been "blankety-blank fools" for playing for eight quid a time.

The boys, astonished at their new-found drawing power, tended to agree. But there were still no managers on the scene. They coped with their own problems. Which were plentiful. Whatever other people may claim, the Beatles were fast laying the sound basis of the current Liverpool type music. Even though they'd developed it in Germany.

Ringo was back in Liverpool at this time. He would sit in with the group when Pete Best was unable to cope. And Ringo, for a spell, was bearded. Nothing too flash--but a beard just the same.

Meanwhile, Stu had returned to Germany with Astrid. They were clearly very happy together and Stu argued with the authorities loud and long to work his way into the art school over there. On their brief trip back to Liverpool, Stu and Astrid had left no doubts that they planned to get married.

Then letters started arriving from Hamburg for the Beatles. Club owners were anxious to get the bunch of eccentrics back again . . . and besides a whole bunch of local eccentrics had howled for a fast return. There was to be no work permit problem this time. George was 18 in February, 1961, and out of the clutches of the lengthy German arm of the law.

So it was back to the Top Ten Club in Hamburg. April, 1961, the date--and the boys toted their gear over on the train route. They'd ploughed some of their earnings back into equipment and were now down to four in number.

The next three months were to prove among the most memorable of their career as a group.

The Top Ten Club was highly organised by this time. Often, they were the only group on from seven in the evening until two in the morning. They had a quarter of an hour break in every hour and they simply had to produce a full-scale repertoire of numbers.

Said George: "We performed like a gang of lunatics. It was all right once we got the hang of it all and it was great fun. The boss would send up cups of coffee on stage and we take turns to take a sip. The crowds varied a heck of a lot each night."

John, George, and Paul used echo microphones which added to the excitement. Instead of them all singing together, they'd take it in turns to do solo work. That way they saved their throats from what could have been irreparable damage.

Up to ten o'clock in the evenings, the audiences were mostly the under-eighteens--they had to be off the premises under German law by ten. Later, the fans would be more in the 18 to 25 age-group. So it was wild rockers for the first part--then a mixture of the rockers and the wildies and the slower stuff later on. No change in the material. Still Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Presley's stuff like "Blue Suede Shoes". Anything and everything that could whip up a storm.

The club was smoky; the audience restless between numbers. The business excellent. The boys built up an individual following. "And we'd try out any sort of numbers from the current Top Twenty", said Paul. "In a way, it was marvellous--simply because we could experiment. Tired? We were dead whacked but we got great kicks out of watching the audiences, seeing the way they reacted to different gear."

Just a guidance note, here, about the contents of the British Top Twenty in those days. Helen Shapiro was moving up with "Please Don't Treat Me Like A Child"; Cliff was tackling "Gee Whiz It's You"; Elvis was scoring with "Wooden Heart". And Bobby Darin was swinging along on "Lazy River". And Jerry Lee Lewis was getting nearest the Beatles' mark with "What'd I Say".

Among the audiences were artists, all anxious to sketch the visiting Britishers. And photographers, keen on getting some "different" shots. Klaus Voormann was there, constantly bringing in different group of his mates.

The photographers liked the boys to perspire a lot. "Please, will you sveat for us?", they'd plead. And the boys, working flat out for so many hours on end, didn't find it hard to oblige. Their hair-styles were floppy and unruly even in those days. They'd hardly dare to get a hair-cut, because the sketch-artists at the Top Ten would notice the different and kick up a storm of protest in Germanic anger.

"Long-haired and black folk" is the way George sums up the frenzied fringe crowd who packed in night after night to see the Beatles. "Exi's" shouted the more regular patrons. Which was short for "existentialists".

There were a couple of ballet-dancers there often trying to jive and "get with it" to the ultra-modern beat music. They were just about jeered off the floor! The atmosphere was choking . . . but electric, too. To say that Hamburg was fast becoming Beatle-mad is no exaggeration.

And something else happened of great importance to the Beatles. They made a record. Though it was only as backing group to Tony Sheridan, a popular guitarist from Britain who was making a name for himself on the Continent.

The Deutschegramafon Company looked around for a group to work with Tony Sheridan and came up with Beatles as the answer. Their name, originally, was changed to the Beat Boys, simply because this German company didn't think "Beatles" would mean anything to Continental audiences. Or if it meant anything, it would mean the wrong thing!

The boys barely remember those sessions. Tony Sheridan was the "star" name and he sang away on a series of numbers, including "My Bonnie" and a tear-up on "The Saints". The Beatles were just paid for the session, went back to the Top Ten Club and forgot all about it.

But the session was handled, in his capacity as artists' and repertoire manager for the company, by the well-known orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert, who had a world-wide hit with "A Swingin' Safari". Nobody bothered about the disc in Britain--where Polydor was the releasing company.

And here the "Tale of Four Beatles" has to jump a little ahead of itself. It jumps to June, 1963, when "From Me to You" was riding high in the British charts. For Polydor re-issued the "My Bonnie" in Britain, changing the Beat Boys to their now established Beatles' title--and it went into the charts, obviously just because the foursome were doing something, albeit a backing chore, on the disc.

But back to Germany. Back to the swingin' scenes which went on at the Top Ten Club for three months from April, 1961, through May and June. The Beatles had had an increase in pay but they were still spending pretty much as they got it--often having to borrow against the next week's salary. There were parties galore--after one, John found himself clinging to a television aerial on top of the roof of the Top Ten Club. He was photographed, too, in that awkward situation.

They received enquiries from Liverpool, where news of their German success had leaked back. Promoters who'd cashed in with the boys following the first trip were keen to cash in again.

And so they went back to Merseyside. Back to the Cavern Club and their ever-growing band of Liverpool fans. They still weren't conscious of their tremendous popularity. They just accepted it as part of the general widespread enthusiasm for pop music.

Perhaps the most important step in their career had already been taken. And that was their desire to sing and play their own original material. If they had not been given this first big boost by their early audiences they might have been content to play the tunes topping the current hit parade and leave it at that.

Because of the reception that their own material received they knew that they already had the right songs before they ever went into a recording studio.

They hoped that their bookings would be better; that they might develop their act still further. But they never dreamed that they were already on the ladder to fame.

Everyone knew that it was virtually impossible for a Liverpool group to get anywhere without going to London. But the future was going to show them just how old-fashioned that idea was!

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