On New Year’s Eve 1962, four boys from Liverpool took the stage at the Star-Club – a rock ’n’ roll venue just off the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s notorious red light district. Just 11 days later, their single “Please Please Me” skyrocketed to the top of the charts in the U.K., ushering in Beatlemania.
Vienna, Milan, Berlin or London might come to mind when you think of Europe’s great music centers. But Hamburg? Like many of the port city’s many assets, its rich musical heritage often slips below the tourist radar.
But this heritage extends well beyond those formative years when the Fab Four cut their teeth. Hamburg’s ties with music stretch back to the opening of the first public opera house in 1678, through the golden age of classical music and on to today, with the recently debuted Elbphilharmonie, one of the most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world.
While evidence of the legends that have played on the stages of Hamburg isn’t at all overt, it does exist – in a poster hanging outside a St. Pauli club or an unassuming doorway where John Lennon once stood. And loyal fans of all genres will likely hear their brand of music overflowing from the city’s venues, and with a little digging, might discover some surprising connections to its history.
Tour guide Stefanie Hempel poses in a doorway where a famous John Lennon photo was taken — Photo courtesy of www.mediaserver.hamburg.de / M. Boem
The Beatles, Live from Hamburg
John Lennon once said, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”
In many ways, John and his first bandmates – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe – did come of age in Hamburg, both musically and otherwise. There’s no place in the world where The Beatles played more than in Hamburg, with the numbers adding up to some 300 concerts at four clubs, totaling about 1,200 hours of stage time.
And few people in the city know more about The Beatles’ time in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962 than Stefanie Hempel, the ukulele-playing singer-songwriter and superfan behind Hempel’s Beatles-Tour.
Stefanie Hempel plays the ukulele at the location of the old Star-Club in St. Pauli — Photo courtesy of Christian Spahrbier
For more than 13 years, Hempel has been walking in the footsteps of John, Paul, George, Ringo, Pete and Stuart with Beatles fans from around the world. “When I came to Hamburg in the late '90s, there was nothing here that commemorated this big part of pop music history,” Hempel explained. “As a fan you had to look up and find all those places – all those hidden backyards and clubs – on your own.”
This pop music journey through the red light district of St. Pauli begins at the Bambi Kino movie theater where the band slept in a cramped room next to the toilets after playing their first several gigs at the Indra Club in August 1960. Hempel points out a black and white photo of them – John, Paul and George grinning with eyes wide from uppers – hanging outside the building before strumming “In My Life” on her ukulele as the group sings along.
Beatles-Platz on the Reeperbahn — Photo courtesy of www.mediaserver.hamburg.de / Martin Brinckmann
Over the next two years, The Beatles would go on to play at the Kaiserkeller (a dark wave gothic club since the 1980s), The Top Ten Club and the Star-Club. All that remains of the latter is a memorial plaque depicting an electric guitar and the names of the top acts that once played the storied stage, among them Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Reeperbahn Festival – The SXSW of Germany
Some of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest names of the late 20th century played a show on a smoky stage along the Reeperbahn and its narrow side allies. Today, the neighborhood remains a proving ground for emerging artists trying to make it big, both in Europe and internationally. No time is this more evident than during the annual Reeperbahn Festival.
Gurr takes the stage at the 2016 Reeperbahn Festival — Photo courtesy of FlorianTrykowski
For four days each September, Europe’s largest club festival hosts more than 500 concerts by international artists at some 70 venues within walking distance of each other. Previous acts have included Bon Iver, Lykke Li and Boy. Ed Sheeran played one of his first gigs here, treating festival crowds to a raspy, mournful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in 2011, well before his rise to fame in the U.S.
Film screenings, workshops, exhibitions and public art installations round out the calendar of events in what Hamburg bills as its answer to South by Southwest.
Best Music Festival (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2020)
Best Music Festival (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2020)
Honoring the past in the Composers' Quarter
To understand Hamburg’s musical roots, you must understand its history. Never ruled by kings or princes, the city has always been “by the people and for the people.” This meant the early introduction of public music venues, like Europe’s first opera house in 1678.
Music historian Charles Burney said of the city during a 1772 visit, “The number of operas in Hamburg staged at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century is greater than in any other city in the German Empire.”
The Beatles may well be the most famous musical act to have played in Hamburg, but the city was no stranger to big name musicians long before the Fab Four were even born. Renowned Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann was the music director of Hamburg’s Lutheran churches for more than four decades, followed by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of the more famous Johann Sebastian Bach) for another two decades.
Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
The city is also the birthplace of Johannes Brahms, the son of an impoverished musician who composed his early works in the city while playing the piano in seedy taverns to supplement his family’s income. Felix Mendelssohn spent the first two years of his life in Hamburg (1809 to 1811), and Gustav Mahler served as chief conductor at the Hamburg State Opera during the 1890s.
To honor these world-class musicians with ties to Hamburg, the city inaugurated the Composers’ Quarter in 2015. Former townhouses of the city’s bourgeoisie in the Peterstraße now contain five museums (with a sixth in the works), each taking visitors through a chapter of Hamburg musical history with artifacts and interactive exhibits.
Elbphilharmonie – Ushering in a new musical era
Exterior of the Elbphilharmonie — Photo courtesy of Thies Rätzke
Hamburg’s musical landscape took shape during the Baroque and Classical periods, so it seems fitting that things have come full circle with the 2017 opening of the Elbphilharmonie, a new architectural landmark on the Elbe River.
The Elbphilharmonie, or Elfie for short, encompasses three concert halls, a hotel, public viewing platform and 45 private apartments. Its crowning jewel is the 2,100-seat main concert hall, considered one of the most acoustically advanced in the world.
The hall is detached from the rest of the building for better soundproofing, and the surprisingly intimate interior – no audience member is more than 99 feet from the conductor – features 10,000 individually shaped gypsum fiber sound panels.
As important to the Elbphilharmonie as its precision acoustics is the goal of making music accessible and approachable to everyone. Since the venue opened in January, performances have run the musical gamut, from orchestras and operas to electronic and pop concerts.
Main concert hall of the Elbphilharmonie — Photo courtesy of Michael Zapf
And the venue is just as accessible as the music. The Concerts for Hamburg series features classical music performances, each lasting no longer than an hour, with no dress code and ticket prices starting at €6 ($6.50), in an effort to dispel the myths that classical music is boring and expensive.
The contemporary venue has enjoyed Hamilton-level success since its opening; tickets are sold out through the end of the year.
So Berlin can have its electronica, London its Britpop and Vienna its classical. Hamburg has long enjoyed a much broader musical spread, one that's set to continue well into the future.