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.
Although Inglis’s historical scholarship is generally first-rate, his original observations are few and uneven. He is most convincing when analyzing why Pete Best, the Beatles’ enormously popular drummer who was replaced by Ringo Starr, was dismissed. The reasons most commonly given for the dismissal—personal conflicts, jealousy, or Best’s lack of ability—were likely overshadowed by the birth of a new member of the drummer’s family: Vincent “Roag” Best, the child of Pete Best’s mother, Mona, and his best friend, Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall.
[A] significant proportion of [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein’s energies were devoted to concealing any factors that might threaten the success of the Beatles: his own homosexuality, Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia Powell in August 1962 and the birth of their son Julian in April 1963, the paternity suit brought by Hamburg waitress Erika Hübers against McCartney after the birth of her daughter Bettina in December 1962. Epstein’s concerns about the damage that would have been caused to the group’s newly polished image by revelations that the drummer’s mother had given birth to a baby fathered by her son’s best friend are easy to imagine.
Getting inside Epstein’s psychology comes easily to Inglis; the Beatles’ own psychology, not so much. One doesn’t have to read too far into The Beatles in Hamburg to realize that it is unlikely that the author has had much contact with rock bands on tour—at least not ones of such humble origins as the Liverpool lads. For example, in an effort to discern the extent to which the Beatles took advantage of the prostitutes, drugs, and alcohol available on the Reeperbahn, he repeats various oft-told stories of the band’s misbehavior, but then asserts that the comments of one Jim Hawke are perhaps “most revealing.” Hawke, the (presumably British) manager of the Seaman’s Mission in Hamburg, claimed that the Beatles “were never any trouble . . . just nice, quiet, well-behaved lads. They didn’t even smoke then. They’d sit and play draughts or go upstairs for a game of ping-pong with my daughter Monica. . . . [They] liked reading. . . . They’d be quite subdued.”
Inglis seems to believe he has found something new here. He observes that Hawke’s words “could not be more remo ved from the stereotyped accounts of sex, drugs and violence that abound in the pages of the group’s many biographers.” It never seems to occur to him that young men from working-class families, lonely for their homes and relatives, might put on their best face for a middle-aged seaman and his daughter.
In the years since Beatlemania broke, Hamburg, compared with Liverpool, has done “relatively little” to capitalize upon its pivotal role in Beatles history, Inglis says. He attributes this to the difference in fortunes between the city on the Elbe and Alster—Germany’s wealthiest metropolis—and the one on the Mersey, one of England’s more depressed: “Put crudely, Liverpool needs the Beatles; Hamburg does not.”
Perhaps. But in implying that Beatles fans need a trip to Hamburg to understand how the group became fab, Inglis lacks (dear) prudence.
Dawn Eden is the author, most recently, of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.