❚ ON THIS THIS DAY 50 YEARS AGO four Scousers played the first of 292 gigs at the Cavern club in Liverpool — 292! They were paid £5 and Pete Best was playing drums that day, although when they played their last Cavern lunch date two years later, in Feb 1963, Ringo Starr sat behind the kit and Please Please Me was heading towards No 2 in the charts to be followed by four No 1 hits in a row.
Two hundred and ninety two gigs is the equivalent of playing every night for 48 weeks without break. In fact, many of those dates were, like the first on Thursday Feb 9, 1961, played to few dozen office workers at lunchtime. Practice may well make perfect but, even so — 292 at one venue! The Cavern’s deejay Bob Wooler booked the bands and gave The Beatles their residency, “playing lunchtime and evening sessions for about 25 shillings a session”, according to Ray Coleman in a definitive biography of John Lennon. “The Cavern, with little ventilation, appalling acoustics, walls dripping with dampness… would tax even the most enthusiastic of young musicians.”
Coleman explains why playing in this club was a decisive tipping point: “It was a hotbed of traditional jazz… The audiences were, in John Lennon’s opinion, snobs against rock’n’roll. He hated them for their superior attitude. The Cavern was to represent, to John, something more than success for The Beatles. He saw it as a crusade against jazz and all it stood for.
“John told jazz singer [author, journalist and cultural guru], George Melly, who had played the club with the Mick Mulligan Band: ‘You lot kept us from getting into the Cavern and other places much earlier. All that jazz crap held us back.’
“Melly conceded this point to Lennon… With rock’n’roll groups, led by The Beatles, pulling in students, previously jazz’s natural audience, ‘the game was up’, as Melly succinctly puts it. Lennon relished the kill.” On that cramped stage in that desperate year of 1961, Coleman maintains: “Lennon’s demeanour could be likened to that of a caged tiger. Here, he honed his short-sighted, head-tilted, legs-astride stance into a statement of defiance, much more than mere music.”
The Cavern residency was a testament to the determination of the man who had been a founder-member of The Quarrymen in 1956. Let’s not forget that the world-beating band who evolved from them also played four seasons in the German city of Hamburg between their bass player Stuart Sutcliffe eventually naming them The Beetles in August 1960 [a spelling Lennon later changed to reflect the beat], and securing their first recording contract in June 1962 with EMI, which was to turn them into the most famous pop group in history.
So how many gigs did these musicians from Liverpool have to play in order to clinch a deal with a major London label in an era when the metropolis viewed the provinces as a foreign land? These were the dark ages before the internet, when television was only starting to replace newspapers as the mass medium, and when many singers upped their vocal register as far as falsetto to be heard clearly through the latest piece of technology, the handheld transistor radio.
A chance phone call in 1960 won The Beatles their first stint in Hamburg where they played seven nights a week at £15-a-week, Aug-Oct (46 gigs at the Indra club) straight on through Oct-Nov (57 gigs at the Kaiserkeller). They returned to Liverpool with moptop hairstyles and bespoke cuban-heeled Chelsea boots from London’s theatrical shoemakers Anello & Davide. After their Cavern debut the next year, 1961, The Beatles returned to Hamburg, Mar-July (98 gigs). They were viewed at the Cavern that November by Brian Epstein who agreed to manage them a month later, and played their first southern gig in Aldershot to 18 people. It was back to Hamburg in spring 1962, April-May (49 gigs), to find that Epstein had a deal ready to sign† the week after they returned. So let’s say that those four tours of duty in Germany amounted to almost exactly 250 gigs. Two hundred and fifty!
The Beatles themselves described their far from meteoric progress in their own words in the monumental Anthology published for their company Apple Corps in 2000. It makes you want to weep.
John Lennon says: “In Hamburg every song lasted 20 minutes and had 20 solos in it. We’d be playing eight or ten hours a night. [This is rather more practice than young musicians achieve at a western conservatoire, and rather less than Chinese music students.] That’s what improved the playing. And the Germans like heavy rock… Paul would be doing What’d I say? for an hour and a half.”
Paul McCartney says: “What’d I say? became like trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records — who could make it last the longest… It has the greatest opening riff ever… then the chorus… then it had the killer ‘Oh yeah!’ — audience participation.”
George Harrison says: “We had to learn millions of songs. We had to play so long we just played everything — Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino — everything. Hamburg was really our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”
Ringo Starr, who met the others in Hamburg while playing drums in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, says: “This was the point in our lives when we found pills, uppers. That’s the only way we could continue playing for so long. We’d get really wired and go on for days. So with beer and Preludin, that’s how we survived.”
When they signed with EMI their average age was 20. The band calling itself The Beatles had played 250 gigs in Hamburg, and averaging their Cavern appearances over the year and a half before signing suggests they played 206 gigs there.
So in addition to many other local dates, it took The Beatles at least 456 live gigs to clinch their future as the most commercially successful group in pop. In the UK The Beatles have had more number one albums than any other musical act, and in the US they top Billboard magazine’s list of the all-time top-selling Hot 100 artists.
Four hundred and fifty-six live gigs! And in 1980, when Spandau Ballet signed to Chrysalis just less than a year after assuming their New Romantic identity, they had given — as part of a cunningly formulated plan — exactly 18 live performances (six in the UK plus 12 in St Tropez on-stage nightly). Whatever this says, it’s a measure of how effective mass communications had become during the intervening two decades. And what an exhilarating hurricane they swept before them as the 80s turned into the second great era of British pop.
† LITTLE-KNOWN FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY
❚ THE 1999 PHOTO-BOOK HAMBURG DAYS — a limited edition box-set by Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann — reveals that the early Beatles lineup (with Pete Best as drummer but without Stuart Sutcliffe who had left the band) had signed their first recording contract in 1961 with Bert Kaempfert, the German Polydor agent who also ran a celebrated light orchestra.
He had hired The Beatles to play under the pseudonym The Beat Brothers to back singer Tony Sheridan, with whom they’d often jammed at The Indra club. On June 22 1961 at the Friedrich Ebert Halle — seen in the slideshow (above) of wonderful early Silver Beatles photos — they all recorded the Sheridan single My Bonnie, which effectively became the band’s first commercial recording when it was released in October 1961 and reached No 5 in the hit parade.
It has become part of Beatles folklore that it was a Sheridan fan called Raymond Jones who brought the band to Brian Epstein’s attention that November by asking for My Bonnie in the record-shop Epstein ran in Liverpool. What Kirchherr and Voorman reveal, contrary to most accounts, is that it was not until May 25 1962 while the band was engaged at the Star Club in Hamburg that Epstein finally persuaded Kaempfert to release The Beatles from his contract with them, effective from June 1. (Only after The Beatles auditioned for George Martin at Abbey Road on June 6 was an EMI deal confirmed.) The Kaempfert contract actually had a further year to run until July 1963. Imagine how mad he must have been when 1963 came round and The Beatles notched those four No 1 hits in a row.
VERDICT OF HISTORY
The late Charlie Gillett, in his consummate history of rock, The Sound of the City (1970), passes this judgement on the Fab Four: “Musically, The Beatles were exciting, inventive and competent; lyrically, they were brilliant, able to work in precisely the right kind of simple images and memorable phrases that distinguished rhythm and blues from other kinds of popular music… But there was something else about them, and it was this that transformed the nature of the world’s popular music as decisively as rock’n’roll had done nine years before — their character as people.”