The Magazine

Fab Foreign Adventure

The Teutonic roots of Beatlemania.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By DAWN EDEN
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Back when the expression “longhair music” evoked Handel, not Hendrix, William Mann made history as the first “serious” scribe to give a well-manicured thumbs-up to the Fab Four. On December 27, 1963, the Times of London critic declared in his column that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were “the outstanding English composers” of the year, raving about the group’s “pandiatonic clusters” and “submediant key switches.” Most famously, he praised the “Aeolian cadence” in the group’s album track “Not a Second Time,” likening it to the chord progression that ends Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. (Lennon, in one of his final interviews, confessed, “To this day, I don’t have any idea what [Aeolian cadences] are. They sound like exotic birds.”)

Thus began the academic pursuit known as Beatleology, the latest addition to the field being the volume under review here, sociologist Ian Inglis’s The Beatles in Hamburg. The author’s stated purpose is to correct an “imbalance” between the level of importance ascribed by historians to the group’s time in Liverpool and the lesser importance ascribed to their time in Hamburg.

Noting that the Beatles, during their early career, performed 273 times in the German city compared with 274 performances at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, Inglis finds it “surprising” that

It is the Cavern which has been consistently promoted as occupying a unique status in the story of the group, which enjoys a global reputation as “the birthplace of the Beatles” .  .  . while the club scene in Hamburg, where the Beatles first performed six months before they made their debut at the Cavern, receives little of the same detailed scrutiny.

To that end, he seeks to capture “the histories of Hamburg and Liverpool and the social and personal contexts in which the Beatles decided to go to Germany,” as well as other things the group gained during their time there: “new friendships— personal and professional .  .  . development as performers and songwriters,” and relationships with other Liverpool bands playing the Reeperbahn.

At this point, Beatles fans may be thinking of the Yellow Submarine track “It’s All Too Much.” One of the first rules for rockers and rock historians alike is to know your audience, and it’s not clear that Inglis really knows his. Those aficionados who are dedicated enough to buy a specialized book about the Fab Four (as opposed to one of the numerous general histories) typically have some idea of how important Hamburg was to the group’s career. The Beatles’ time in the north German port city holds fascination not because it’s been underemphasized but, rather, because it’s been dissected, memorialized, and celebrated in dozens of books, as well as television shows, documentaries, and the 1994 feature film Backbeat.

Moreover, in comparing the number of the group’s Hamburg performances to the number of their Cavern performances, Inglis is stacking the deck. The Beatles’ members all grew up in Liverpool, and the Cavern was not the only stage they graced in that city. Lyrics of songs by Lennon, McCartney, and George Harrison are speckled with references to their years by the Mersey—“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “All Those Years Ago”—while, as Inglis himself admits, “Hamburg and its personalities supplied the subject matter for none of their songs.” The author finds this “strange,” but it makes perfect sense that the locale where the Beatles had their roots, and where they spent the greatest part of their youth, was the one that played the largest role in shaping them.

That said, it is undeniable that the Beatles’ Hamburg experience played a critical role in their development as musicians and songwriters. Inglis is at his best when summarizing the environmental forces and personal relationships that fostered the intense level of artistic growth the group achieved during their time in that city. In his chapter on the Beatles’ musical influences, he adeptly summarizes, in a short space, the unusual variety of musical currents that entered into their repertoire, including rhythm and blues, rockabilly, doo-wop, and Brill Building pop. None of the insights he relates is new, but the beginning Beatleologist should find it helpful to have the key points of chroniclers such as Alan Betrock, Spencer Leigh, and Charlotte Greig in one place. Likewise, Inglis’s chapter on Lennon and McCartney’s progress as songwriters capably encapsulates other authors’ observations about how the cramped confines of the Beatles’ living and working space in Hamburg led to their interacting more creatively, and in a more fruitful manner, than they had at home.