Any deep-delver into the Beatles‘ catalog is familiar with those raging pockets of sound where this band, so often remembered for their beautiful melodies and graceful harmonic transitions, could be one badass mother of a group.
It’s easy to list favorites indicative of this hell-for-leather slant: the guitar duel on the second side of Abbey Road, the grinding metal-fuzz of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” the jagged, overdriven rhythm and blues coda to “Money.”
But often overlooked are the recordings the Beatles made at Christmastime 1962, all the evidence that exists of this unit as a literal bar band. They are the toughest recordings the Beatles ever made, the rawest, the most fun, perhaps, judging by their comments while making them, and maybe the most purely Beatles-esque, for it was a badass mother of a band the Beatles first set out to be, not the sonic wizards of a Revolver or a Sgt. Pepper.
But first, some problems. The Beatles did not want to be back in Hamburg for the close of 1962. “Love Me Do” had made its brief climb up the charts in October. The band was becoming bigger. Hamburg was the old way, the ascent up the hill, playing in dives for drunken sailors, prostitutes, shady club impresarios who had no problem beating patrons they did not care for in back alleys.
The late 1962 Star Club residency, from December 18th to December 31st, was to be the Beatles’ third and final stint in Hamburg. Earlier in the spring, at their first Star Club stint, they had been informed of the death of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Ringo Starr had come aboard in August. Discounting a few times Starr sat in while with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes as a temporary member, this marked the only time the Beatles, as the world came to know them, would take the Reeperbahn stage.
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We do not know exactly what night or nights these club recordings come from – though New Year’s Eve seems likely – but for all of their shady provenance, there is little doubt with some matters. Former manager Allan Williams, responsible for the Beatles’ first Hamburg gig, claimed that the tapes were recorded over three or four nights. They were made by Adrian Barber, stage manager for the Star Club, at the bequest of Ted “Kingsize” Taylor, leader of the Dominoes, apparently sensing that these Beatles were up to something, and might become commercially viable. The Star Club was easily the best Hamburg club the band played, with a capacity of 2,000 and theater seating, relatively posh compared to the Indra Club from their first Hamburg sojourn in August 1960.
This is where legal issues get tricky. The story is that John Lennon signed over the rights to what was to be recorded in exchange for Taylor buying the band beer throughout the evening(s). (Would this drunken deal really have lasted more than one night, with Taylor repeatedly setting up, stageside, to record?)
In the wake of the Beatles’ fame, an attempt was made to say that the recordings dated from the spring, thus coming before the band’s contract with Parlophone, and Taylor having first dibs. Alas, the vintage of some of the songs themselves, and the band’s own between-song chatter, rule this out. And as George Harrison later said, “One drunken person recording another bunch of drunks does not constitute business deals.”
But what the Star Club tapes do constitute and represent is the truth that the Beatles were once the best bar band in the world. This is what they set out to be: a hard-charging, harder-rocking group that any other act would be terrified to follow onstage.
The tapes comprise 33 songs. Taylor used a Grundig home reel-to-reel recorder, with one microphone, placed near Lennon. It is his rhythm guitar that drives the band’s attack. He holds his Rickenbacker in a seemingly choking grip, left hand relentlessly taut on the fretboard, powering the chords of “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Hippy Hippy Shake” and “Matchbox.” The latter – sung by Lennon in this incarnation – overlays Carl Perkins’ original with the rhythmic drive of Big Bill Broonzy by way of skiffle and Arthur Alexander B sides, and on the Star Club tapes it asserts itself as one of their best-ever covers.
The sound, as you can imagine, is raw and immediate. In the mid-1960s, Taylor tried to sell the tapes to Brian Epstein, who thought he couldn’t make any money off of them, offering Taylor 20 quid. Then we have Allan Williams, ever the opportunist, popping back into the story, when he claimed to have randomly stumbled upon the tapes in 1972 in an office building, saving them “from beneath a pile of rubble on the floor.”
Williams then partnered with Paul Murphy, the head of Buk Records, who bought the material and created a new label for the purpose of putting it out, called Lingasong. A cool hundred grand was spent on cleaning up the sound, but you, dear listener, are not going to know it.
We live in an age of pristine audio niceties, making the Star Club recordings feel like they’ve been patched in from some sonic time machine, but they always resonate as impeccably present. They are loud, ballsy, hilarious at times. It’s a wonder that the Beatles were in the process of being cleaned up by Brian Epstein, because these guys, truly, sound like the older kids at high school who would intimidate the hell out of a younger classmate. And they are fully aware of it.
Despite the Beatles’ claims that they didn’t wish to be in Hamburg for one last kick of the German ale can, you wouldn’t know that either from the energy summoned for these performances. “Sweet Little Sixteen” rocks harder than the excellent BBC version from the following year, and one can understand why the sailors passing through Hamburg had such an affinity for banging their beer bottles on their tables in time to the Beatles’ music.
Harrison’s lead lines are crazily hot, and he solos just as hard as Lennon works his rhythm parts, taking chances that would be reined in at the EMI studio sessions. Paul McCartney’s vocal on the early version of “I Saw Her Standing There” attests that all this band needed, for the best ever start to a debut album, was that famed count in of “One, two, three, fauh!” And on “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” we have Ringo Starr, whirling drum kit dervish, as Keith Moon before Moon was Moon.
Nonetheless, Harrison, who had said that the Beatles were never better than they were in Hamburg, called the Star Club tapes, “the crummiest recordings ever made in our name.” Apparently, he was not feeling the festive spirit that the band clearly were as they drunkenly toasted each other at the end of their stay that had meant so much to what they had become and would be. If the tapes do in fact originate from New Year’s Eve 1962, that seems fitting: It was the last day of the last Hamburg engagement in the last year before the Beatles would mushroom into something larger than a stage at a bar could hold.
A 26 song version of the recordings came out in Germany in April 1977. The Beatles were unsuccessful in blocking it. Numerous reissues of dubious legality followed, along with more lawsuits from the Beatles, with ownership finally being decided in their favor in 1998. By then, it really didn’t matter: If you wished to hear this material and have it rock your core, you had already done so, just as it’s easy to find a version now.
The sound is a little better than it used to be, but some recordings work best when you can all but feel the grime of the club from which they sprang, the condensation from the ceiling, the aromatic undertones of hoppy ale, the roaring mega-beat of the band on the stage. “I’m a roadrunner honey!” Lennon screams at one point, pumping himself up for the next cut. You think they didn’t want to be there? Boll-fucking-ocks.