Four Themes on Hamburg
The Beatles arrived in Hamburg on August 17, 1960 — over 60 Years ago to an incredible apprenticeship
Sixty years ago, just beyond their formative years as the Quarrymen, and the skiffle craze in Britain, the Beatles entered the Hamburg nightclub scene as five lads from Liverpool. The core of the group, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison adopted Stuart Sutcliffe as the bassist and Pete Best, as their new drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe was learning the bass guitar when he joined the band, principally on the strength of his friendship, as a fellow student at the Liverpool Institute of Art, with John Lennon.
Sutcliffe had never played an instrument; he was an artist and a good one. He had won the Moores prize at the Institute for his work, Summer Painting, which was purchased by the namesake of the award for 65 pounds! Stu spent all of it on a new Hofner President bass guitar. Of course, part of the benefit of Stuart’s arrival is that the Indra Club’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, wanted a five-member band under contract. The Beatles first contract had them playing at the Indra in the St. Pauli district. Stu would often turn his back to the crowd, lest they discern his evolving skills.
Pete had auditioned at the Jacaranda club in Liverpool, five days before the band arrived in Hamburg. Of the audition, John Lennon said, in Anthology, “We knew of a guy, and he had a drum kit. So we just grabbed him, auditioned him and he could keep one beat going for long enough, so we took him.” The group desperately needed a drummer.
The core of John, Paul and George accompanied Stuart and Pete across the English Channel, leaving Liverpool on August 16th. Ringo would join after Pete’s ouster in 1962.
We know the route they took from Liverpool to Hamburg. We know that John Lennon nicked (stole) a mouth organ (harmonica) from a shop in Arnhem as they made a stop by the World War II memorial on their way to Hamburg. We also know they arrived on the morning of August 17th tired from their travels but played their first gig that evening to a sparse crowd of prostitutes and their sailor clients.
Apparently, the gathering was not much impressed by Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” or Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” Bruno Koschmider, a tough, blunt and burly World War II vet, hobbled by an injured leg, could be heard that first night exhorting the band to apply energy to their performance by intoning: Mach Schau! Mach Schau! Make Show. He was repeating what Allan Williams, the Beatles’ manager at the time had been shouting to elicit some energy from his weary traveling band.
Over the next two years, the group served an incredible apprenticeship, taking turns performing in both Hamburg and Liverpool. Bear in mind that when they arrived, their sound was developing, but immature. Johnny Hutch of the Casanova’s, an established and popular band in the Liverpool scene at the time had opined that they “were not worth a carrot” after he heard them play prior to the Hamburg residency. Derry Wilkie, the lead singer of Derry and the Seniors, referred to them as a “bum group” when he heard that Allan Williams made the decision to send them to Koschmider. Wilkie thought the Beatles’ lack of polish would ruin the chances for other bands to get in on the nascent Hamburg scene.
We are tempted to think of the period as the Hamburg period for its romantic narrative, the striking photography from Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart’s future fiancée, in and around Hamburg and the legendary jam sessions, playing in the Indra, Kaiserkeller and Top Ten clubs. These hours of performance were often fueled by Preludin or “prellies” a legal over the counter appetite suppressant and stimulant the group discovered in Hamburg to keep going.
However, the Beatles performed more than twice as many performances in Liverpool as in Hamburg, often at the Cavern, Casbah and Aintree Institute. I counted 872 performances over the frame and there were 866 days from August 17, 1960 to December 31, 1962. Sixty three percent of the performances occurred in Liverpool. Still, the five trips to Hamburg are extraordinarily important.
We know they played multiple gigs a day sometimes. We know they took precious few days off. When you look at the monthly average, they performed 26 days a month from August 1960 to December 31, 1962. If you narrow the focus to January 1961 to December 1962, accounting for their deportations (George, Paul and Pete) from Hamburg in November and December 1960, the average jumps 5 days to 31. The group played more than one day a month on average during that critical developmental phase. You might say, they literally played their way onto the cusp of greatness.
We know they played for five hours at a stretch when they began at the Indra — the contract called for 30 hours a week over 6 days. “We had to learn millions of songs because we’d be on for hours,” George Harrison later said. “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.” John Lennon said they would often play a song for 20 minutes with multiple solos to fill the space.
Here are four themes and observations related to achieving high performance we can take away from this period. These themes form the basis of my presentation and how any organization or business can apply learnings to their own performance.
Play, Play, Play. I outlined above the incredible amount of time the group spent playing. What is not known in detail, is how much the band practiced ahead of the gigs. We do know that the amount of time spent created an incredibly tight, focused, hard driving sound.
Walter Everett and Tim Riley in their work, What Goes On confirms the group logged five hundred hours of performance time alone between their arrival on August 17 and November 30th, 1960 at the Indra and Kaiserkeller clubs. At this point, you will likely start to think about the 10,000-hour rule, identified by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.
No matter the precise mechanics of the time element, the focus on playing, and playing deliberately and freely will accelerate progress. Don’t get hung up on the amount of time. I doubt the Beatles set out to break a time record, they set out to be a great band and the momentum carried them along their intended path.
Moreover, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we baseline the Beatles as you or your team’s performance benchmark. However, how can we leverage the lessons learned and apply them on a scaled version for your own teams given different context. In your endeavors as a team or individual, where is it appropriate to simply play over an extended period to groove your own sound together? Intentional practice plays a vital role in learning and grooving fundamentals. The larger question is how do we create a balance between intentional or deliberate practice and play in a way that creates joy in learning.
Take Risks. Traveling to Hamburg itself posed a risk for the young group — none were over the age of twenty when they arrived. Jim McCartney had to be convinced to let Paul go, especially given the fact he was putting off college. What awaited Paul McCartney when he returned, however, was registration at the local Labor Exchange and a delivery job at the Speedy Prompt Delivery Company where he delivered parcels around the docks before Christmas when their Hamburg stint was interrupted. Remember that he and Pete Best, not to mention George Harrison, were all deported in November and December 1960. Still, despite their youth and lack of gainful employment options, they undertook a risk traveling to the Northern German Port city, a metropolis only 15 years removed from the devastation of World War II.
Keep in mind that Gerry and the Pacemakers who were approached before the Beatles, did not want to travel abroad. The sojourn was not tempting for everyone. And, the reputation of the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, where the lads would be playing, according to Philip Norman in Shout sounds more like the reputation of Tijuana with sex shows involving pythons and donkeys.
Musically, the group played a broad set list which underscored a wide and diverse curiosity. Hearing John Lennon croon a gender bending version of Little Eva’s R&B hit, “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby” or Paul McCartney singing Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox”, might not appear risky in the sunlight of hindsight, but they spanned musical genres from R&B to Country and Rockabilly. Moreover, think of the risk it required to employ more than one lead singer, much less eventually allow each member to have their musical solo time in the sun (can you hear Ringo singing, “What Goes On?”)
Bond with Your Team in Play. The history of the group is replete with their team bonding during play. Their sessions took enormous amounts of time (4–8 hours at a stretch), each song would last 20 minutes occasionally to fill the time (John Lennon stated) and most importantly, while not performing, the group played in other ways. Of course, the entire romance of the group hinges on their epic sessions in both Hamburg and the various clubs mentioned and those in Liverpool, most notably, the Cavern Club.
What also sticks out to me, without sounding unbelievably obvious, is the combination of the different personalities. This quote from, Horst Fascher, Bruno Koschmider’s swaggering chief bouncer, mentioned in Philip Norman’s Shout!, epitomizes their differences: “That John Lennon — I loved him, he was mad. A fighter. He is zyniker [a cynic]. You say to him, ‘Hey John…’ He would say, ‘Ah, so fuckin’ what.’ Paul was lustig, the clown. He gets out of trouble by making a laugh. George was schuchtern, the baby one. I could never get to know Stu. He was too strange. And Pete — he was reserviert. You had to pull words out through his nose.”
Be Free. Push Yourself Past Your Perceived Limits. The Hamburg period marked the first time the band members had ever been away from home, on their own, which brings its own sense of freedom. Adding to the poetry, the lads were loitering on the boulevard known as the Grosse Freiheit or “Great Freedom” in the Reeperbahn. We are by now familiar with the late nights fueled by music and “prellies” — or Preludin, a legal over the counter upper the band used for stamina and energy.
Of course, the scene the group entered combined a mix of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, literally. The Grosse Freiheit formed the backbone of the red-light district. So, while not the heart of the observation, there are ways to recreate a sense of freedom to explore and discover new talents at work or in your individual efforts without the debauchery available to a group of young lads pushing their limits musically for the first time.
In one of my stops, I lead a project team for two years devoted to reimagining the entire sales platform for the company. We employed a diverse group of team members, although most had sales experience, and included a cross section of people with different backgrounds and personalities. Because I wanted to foster a free environment when we met, we would sit close together in a big open space, play music throughout the sessions, outline a broad agenda of objectives, but then meander through our work, running down alleyways of work intuitively.
We would musically range from Beethoven’s 9th to Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” and Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corner” to a variety of Latin Pop (Luis Miquel), playing in the background during work. We spent time meditating at the beginning of some sessions. At breaks we would watch compilations of “Seinfeld” on the big screen courtesy of YouTube — “George is getting angry.”
In a company setting, with hard deadlines and very meaningful work, we created an atmosphere of freedom which allowed us to recreate in our work the spirit we wanted to achieve in the product. The results were pretty great, and we had a ton of fun along the way. We pushed ourselves beyond our perceived limits because we were “all in” on the process of creation and enjoying it. The team worked long hours when we met and even longer hours between sessions when the individual members worked their regular day jobs and on project deadlines.
The team members could not wait to arrive for the work sessions and had a significant impact on the business. We even created a training regime, replete with a role-playing practice system we deployed across the company. Practice, practice, practice.
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Tune In. Mark Lewisohn. Crown Publishing. 2013.
What Goes On. Walter Everett and Tim Riley. Oxford University Press. 2019
Shout! Philip Norman. Fireside. Simon and Schuster. 2003.
The Beatles in Hamburg. Ian Inglis. Reaktion Books Ltd. 2012