“There’s nowhere in the world the Beatles played more than here,” says tour guide Stefanie Hempel, as we stand in Hamburg’s Beatles Platz. “Here the foundation stone was laid for their career.”
That may be so, but that doesn’t explain the ukulele. For Hempel, a musician herself, is toting the diminutive stringed instrument as we set out on her tour of the band’s Hamburg hangouts. However, its purpose soon becomes clear. After explaining how the Beatles were lured to the German port city by a promoter who wanted to entertain sailors with live music, Hempel performs the song In My Life.
This is the essence of the tour: details of the Beatles’ time in Hamburg, backed up by music, performed live via ukulele (which I later discover was a favourite instrument of Beatle George Harrison). Hempel doesn’t hold back, her fine singing voice matching her virtuosity on the instrument. As she plays, the lyrics drift across the flagstones of the square with its stylised metal statues of the Liverpool musicians, and I’m immediately smiling.
Next stop is the site of the former Top Ten Club, where the Beatles played for three months in 1961. Here Hempel sings their version of an old sea shanty, My Bonnie, another nod to the maritime background of their audiences. We head from the Reeperbahn nightlife strip deeper into the St Pauli district, through residential streets, to a back street doorway where John Lennon stood for the cover of his solo album Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1975.
Not far away is the former Bambi Kino, a cinema where the Beatles lived within two converted storerooms in 1960, describing their cramped quarters as “The Black Hole of Calcutta”. The photo on the side of the building shows the grinning musicians holding packs of Preludin, an over-the-counter drug which they used to stay awake. It’s a hint of how frantic their lives were here, performing night after night for hours at a stretch.
Next stop is the Indra Club, where the band gave their very first Hamburg performance. It wasn’t an auspicious start, says Hempel, as they were effectively the backing band for a stripper. She then belts out Chuck Berry’s hit Rock and Roll Music, and we head to the most famous Beatles venue in Hamburg: the Kaiserkeller.
Standing on a busy corner in the heart of St Pauli, beneath a huge guitar-shaped neon sign, the Kaiserkeller is the oldest rock and roll club in Hamburg. It still presents live indie music today. Back in the 1960s it had nautical décor, says our guide, with fishing nets and boats you could sit in with your drinks. It was a rough place too, with professional boxers moonlighting as bouncers.
Nowadays it’s a less edgy venue, but there’s a reminder of the old days: a poster headlining the Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Ringo Starr was a member of that band. The Beatles met him here, and he would eventually replace drummer Pete Best in their line-up.
The tour ends in a courtyard behind the former site of the Star Club. There’s a plaque listing the musicians who performed here between 1962 and the club’s closure in 1969, and it’s an extraordinary roll call of talent: including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Chubby Checker, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, the Beatles.
The band gave the final performance of their Hamburg residency on New Year’s Eve 1962, and a few months later scored their first number one hit in the UK. It was the end of an era. To mark this sombre thought, Hempel energetically renders her final number, I Saw Her Standing There. And I join in the “Ooh!” in each verse.
Emirates flies to Hamburg via Dubai. See emirates.com
Hempel’s Beatles Tour runs on Saturdays from April to November, €28, see hempels-musictour.de
St Annen Hotel is within walking distance to St Pauli’s nightlife zone, offering rooms from €89 a night. See hotelstannen.de
Ameron Hotel is in the historic warehouse district of Speicherstadt, with rooms from €105 a night. See ameronhotels.com
Tim Richards was assisted by the German National Tourist Office.