Sunday 30 December 2012

The Hamburg Tapes

The recordings that The Beatles made in Hamburg do not get as much attention as their later work. Yet without these early recordings, they would not have come to the attention of Brian Epstein, and would not have subsequently been signed to EMI.

Tony Sheridan and The Beatles at the Top Ten Club, April 1961.
Photo by Ellen Piel
When The Beatles returned for their second trip to Germany in April 1961, they found themselves working in the Top Ten Club, 136 Reeperbahn, Hamburg. Apart from their own sets, they were required to back Cheltenham born singer and guitarist Tony Sheridan, who had got himself a job as the resident performer in the club. Sheridan lived with The Beatles, sharing the tiny apartment in the attic of the Top Ten.

One night in April 1961, Alfred Schacht, European director of Co-ordination with Sheridan's publishing company Aberbach Music, visited the Top Ten Club. He had heard that Sheridan wrote songs, and, looking for new material to publish, went along to hear them. That night, he witnessed Sheridan, backed by the Beatles. Impressed, he in turn recommended them to his friend Bert Kaempfert, an A&R man at Polydor, who was also known as a bandleader, and who had recently scored an American number one hit with "Wonderland by Night".

Kaempfert made several visits to the Top Ten. Then, on 19th June 1961, The Beatles were invited to Kaempfert's office, where they signed a one year recording contract - not with Polydor, but with Bert Kaempfert Produktions,  effective from 1st July 1961, with an option for renewal after a year, and an agreement to record four songs per year. Kaempfert had an exclusive licensing deal with Polydor, who would release the recordings on his behalf.

The Friedrich Ebert Halle, Hamburg - location of The Beatles' first recording
session with Bert Kaempfert and Tony Sheridan
There were 2 recording dates with Sheridan and Kaempfert. The "studio" for the first recording session was the Harburg Friedrich Ebert Halle, Hamburg, a civic concert hall annexed to a local high school.

The first set is thought to have taken place on Thursday 22nd or Friday 23rd June 1961, and these are the dates given in a December 1984 CD, and reported (with a great deal of doubt) by Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Chronicle.
Pete Best: "When the great day of our debut arrived, four bleary-eyed Beatles left for Polydor studio around 8am after only four hours in bed. We must have looked something like sleepwalkers when we reached it.

Studio? We wondered if we had come to the right place. We had been expecting a recording set-up on the grand scale: after all, Bert was a big name and Polydor an important label, part of the Deutsche Grammophon company. Instead, we found ourselves in an unexciting school hall with a massive stage and lots of drapes. The recording equipment was backstage. We were expected to play behind Tony on the stage, as if the whole thing was an outside broadcast. Surely this couldn't be the place where Bert made his own smoochy bestsellers? It was - and he was perfectly satisfied with the conditions."

(Source: Beatle!: The Pete Best Story, Pete Best & Patrick Doncaster, Plexus 1985, p106)
The Beatles, along with Tony Sheridan and Stuart Sutcliffe, were collected from the Top Ten Club at 8am. They had finished playing at 2am that morning, and only Pete, who abstained from the pep pills that the others regularly used, had gone to bed. The others had eaten and had some more to drink, killing time until their transport arrived.
Tony Sheridan: "We did the recordings on a Preludin high, there was no other way we could have done it."
(Source: Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn, Little Brown 2013, p461)
The personnel on this first recording session were:
  • Tony Sheridan lead vocal, lead guitar (Gibson ES175)
  • George Harrison lead guitar (Futurama guitar), backing vocal
  • John Lennon rhythm guitar (Rickenbacker 325), backing vocal
  • Paul McCartney bass (Hofner 500/1 bass guitar), backing vocal
  • Pete Best drums (blue Premier drum kit)
  • Bert Kaempfert Producer
  • Karl Hinze Engineer
(Source: Source: Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments from Stage to Studio, Andy Babuick, Backbeat Books, 2002)

Stuart Sutcliffe was present at this first recording, but did not take part. He left the Beatles in November 1960, and McCartney took over bass a month later, restringing his Rosetti Solid 7 guitar with strings stolen from a piano in a Liverpool club. Unable to take the increased tension required for the bass strings, the Rosetti eventually snapped, and McCartney was forced to look for a new bass. He found a cheap Hofner 500/1 in Steinways music shop in Hamburg, but it was a right-handed model. Fortunately, he was able to place an order for a custom built left-handed version. The Hofner Violin bass went to on to become McCartney's signature instrument, and he still plays one to this day.

Although The Beatles and Sheridan brought their own instruments with them, the amplifiers were provided by Kaempfert,[1] and replacements were brought in after problems developed. But engineer Karl Hinze identified another problem: he didn't think that Pete Best was a good enough drummer (just as George Martin would reach the same conclusion a year later).

Tony Sheridan: "Kaempfert suggested Pete not play his bass drum, because he used to get too fast... the tempo was a problem"

(Source: Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn, Little Brown 2013, p462)
None of the tracks recorded during this session had kick drum or tom-tom on them. Kaempfert had Pete's kick and tom-tom removed from his kit, leaving only snare, hi-hat and ride cymbal.

The Beatles were paid 300 marks (around £26) for the session, and did not receive any royalties. The first tracks to be recorded were:

  • My Bonnie Harrison plays the opening guitar sequence, but the solo is by Sheridan. McCartney can be heard shouting in the background.
  • The Saints
  • Why (Can't You Love Me Again) an original composition by Sheridan
  • Nobody's Child Only Sheridan (guitar, vocal), McCartney (bass) and Best (drums) play on this recording.
  • Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby (aka "If You Love Me Baby")
It had been Kaempfert's idea to record My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. The Beatles and Sheridan had been playing it at the Top Ten Club. They were inspired by versions of the song by Gene Vincent and Ray Charles, but the Beatles rocked harder than either of them. German children learned this Scottish folk song at school, and Kaempfert reckoned that Sheridan's rocking arrangement had hit potential.
Tony Sheridan: "I told George he could play whatever he felt like playing [on My Bonnie], but that I would take the solo. It was a blues solo, nothing to do with the song and not thought out beforehand. I don't remember how many takes we did, but they would have been different each time. John had to chug away on rhythm to compensate for the drums, though I still had to instruct him on what was needed: to play sevenths all the time, C7, F7, G7"

George Harrison:  (in a May 1962 letter to a fan) "When Tony sings then it is me playing lead, but the break in the middle is Tony playing. The shouting in the background is Paul."
(Source: Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn, Little Brown 2013, p463)
There was still some time left on the session, so The Beatles asked Kaempfert if they could record some material themselves, probably hoping for a publishing deal similar to Sheridan's. They played him a number of Lennon / McCartney originals, but Kaempfert was not impressed.[2] With Lennon on lead vocals and playing Sheridan's ES-175 guitar, The Beatles recorded two more tracks.
  • Ain't She Sweet 
  • Cry For A Shadow a Lennon/Harrison instrumental, with the working title of "Beatle Bop"
Cry For A Shadow was a parody of The Shadows, written by Harrison, with help from Lennon, during their previous trip to Hamburg. The tune had it's genesis when The Beatles wanted to add The Shadows big UK hit Man of Mystery (Columbia DB4530, released 4th November 1960) to their repertoire, but being in Germany, had never heard it. They got Rory Storm, not long arrived in Hamburg from Liverpool with his band, the Hurricanes, to sing it for them. Storm could only remember the beginning, and Lennon and Harrison invented the rest themselves.[3] This new piece, which they called Beatle Bop, became a regular in their set during the long hours at the Top Ten.[4] It was a favourite of Kaempfert's, and, according to Best, was recorded at his request. On 28 June 1961, Harrison and Lennon signed a publishing contract with Tonika, a new publishing company owned by Alfred Schacht, and Beatle Bop was renamed Cry For A Shadow.[5]
The January 1962 German release of "My Bonnie"
The first single, My Bonnie (Mein Herz ist bei dir nur)/The Saints (Polydor NH 24673), was issued in Germany on 23 October 1961, credited to Tony Sheridan & The Beat Brothers. Kaempfert had decided on the Beat Brothers name in preference to that of The Beatles, which was too similar to peedle, a north German slang word for penis. (This has since caused some confusion to chroniclers because Sheridan continued to record for Polydor with various musicians and the released records continued to credit his backing musicians with the name the Beat Brothers). The intro to "My Bonnie" is sung in German, and is known as the "Rock" version. The single sold 100,000 copies and climbed to number 5 on the German charts.

After The Beatles returned to the UK on 3 July 1961, several advance copies of the single were forwarded on to them. Copies were given to Liverpool DJ, Bob Wooler, who played it in the Liverpool clubs, and to journalist Virginia Sowry, who worked for the local pop paper, Mersey Beat. The 20 July 1961 issue of Mersey Beat carried the front page story "Beatles Sign Recording Contract!". This so impressed Brian Epstein, owner of North End Music Stores, that he ordered 200 copies from Polydor in Hamburg.

The single was released in the UK on 5 January 1962 (Polydor NH 66833) and was re-released in Germany (Polydor NH 24673). This version, known as the "Twist" version, has the intro sung in English. The UK version is credited to Tony Sheridan and The Beatles. The single was reviewed in the South Liverpool Weekly News, who wrote:
"The boys have always been full-time musicians ever since they left school, and are making quite a name for themselves locally. Who knows it might not be long before they achieve nationwide acclaim."
By March 1962, Brian Epstein had become The Beatles' manager, and following a series of meetings with George Martin, had secured them an audition with Parlophone records on Tuesday 27th March 1962 (qv Brian Epstein Negotiates Beatles Deal With Parlophone). They returned to Germany on Wednesday 11th April 1962 to take up a seven week residence at the Star Club, Grosse Freiheit, Hamburg, where they shared the bill for two weeks with Gene Vincent.
The personnel on the second recording were:
  • George Harrison lead guitar (Gretsch Duo Jet guitar), backing vocal
  • John Lennon rhythm guitar (Rickenbacker 325 guitar), backing vocal
  • Paul McCartney bass (Hofner 500/1 bass), backing vocal
  • Pete Best drums (blue Premier kit with 26" kick drum)
  • Roy Young piano

  • Bert Kaempfert Producer
  • Günther Sörensen Engineer
(Source: Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments from Stage to Studio, Andy Babuick, Backbeat Books, 2002)

Their 27th March audition had been successful, and Parlophone wanted them to record their first single as soon as possible after they returned from Germany on 31 May 1962. Epstein approached Kaempfert to release The Beatles from their 1961 contract, which was due to expire on 30 June 1962. Kaempfert agreed to an early release, on the condition that The Beatles recorded two more tracks with Sheridan. This condition was fulfilled at Studio Rahlstedt, Hamburg, on Thursday 24 May, 1962, when The Beatles, accompanied by Star Club resident pianist Roy Young, recorded two backing tracks. Sheridan, who was not present at the session, added his vocals on Thursday 7 June, 1962
  • Sweet Georgia Brown Sheridan re-recorded his lead vocal on Friday 3 January 1964, with lyrics rewritten by his engineer, Liverpudlian Paul Murphy, referencing The Beatles, their hair, and Liverpool
  • Either Swanee River (aka "The Old Folks At Home) (reported in Mersey Beat, May 1962) or Skinny Minny (according to Pete Best in his autobiography). Whichever song was recorded, the Beatles recording was destroyed in a fire. A version of Sheridan singing Swanee River has been released, but this recording does not feature The Beatles.
The Beatles had not brought their amplifiers to Germany, as the Star Club had its own backline of Fender amplifiers. It is likely that they used whatever was available at the studio for these recordings. Epstein had asked Roy Young to join The Beatles on a full time basis, but Young turned the offer down, preferring the security of his job at the Star Club.
Beatles Bop - A complete compilation
of The Beatles Hamburg recordings
Just over a month later, on 6 June 1962, The Beatles were in EMI's Studio 2 at 3 Abbey Road, London, for their first recording session for Parlophone.

The tracks recorded by The Beatles in Hamburg with Tony Sheridan have been released many times in the intervening decades, along with material recorded by Sheridan with other musicians. Ritchie Unterberger, in The Unreleased Beatles, suggests that the best compilation is a 2001 bootleg called Beatles Bop - Hamburg Days: Once Upon A Time In Germany (Bear BCD 16583 BH). This 38 track 2-CD package contains every mono version, stereo version and alternate or overdubbed take known.
[1] Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn - p462 ?
[2] Beatle!: The Pete Best Story, Pete Best & Patrick Doncaster, Plexus 1985 - p107 ?
[3] Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn - p393 ?
[4] Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn - p456 ?
[5] Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Mark Lewisohn - p464-465 ?