Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
The Beatles In Hamburg
There have been hundreds of books written about The Beatles, but none goes into as much detail about their early years in Hamburg, Germany as Spencer Leigh's The Beatles In Hamburg (Chicago Review Press, distributed by IPG).
The Beatles In Hamburg features interviews with The Beatles' friends and contemporaries, including photographers Astrid Kirchherr and Jurgen Vollmer, Klaus Voorman, Gerry Marsden, Kingsize Taylor, Tony Sheridan and Roy Young. There are some 150 photographs of The Beatles and the Hamburg club scene, some in full color and several never seen before until now.
Spencer Leigh talked with us about his book.
Q - Spencer, this is quite a book you've written!
A - Oh, I'm glad you think so. It was fun to write. I liked going to Hamburg. I liked talking to people.
Q - There are photos in your book I've never seen before.
A - Yeah.
Q - Did your trip to Hamburg lead you to those photos? Where did you find them?
A - Well, they come from all over the place. The picture editor who worked on the book, Chris Stone, got the rights to all the pictures in the book. He did a very good job. I can't think of any picture that I knew existed that I wanted in the book that we haven't actually got. He got permission from everything. There's some delights. Kingsize Taylor, who I know pretty well, had taken a picture looking down the Grosse Freiheit. That's page 7 of the book and that's great. That's terrific to have that. That's from 1963. And we got permission for the Astrid pictures. There's just a whole selection in there. Everyone you can think of who has taken pictures of The Beatles in Hamburg is there. Really good stuff, I think.
Q - How did you know that there would be interest in this part of the Beatles' story?
A - That's a very interesting question. When The Beatles made it in 1963, they were all quite talkative. I never knew why George Harrison was called The Quiet Beatle. They all could be interviewed. And they said very little about their time in Hamburg. It's quite intriguing. It was almost wiped from their minds. It may be because the world was very different then. You didn't have reporters going off to check out this place to try to find girlfriends. That sort of thing didn't happen. And so, they just swept it under the carpet. They were the nice, clean, lovable mop tops. This part of their life as it were, moved to one side. So, it's a very interesting area to look at. If you look at Hunter Davis' book on The Beatles, which is a very good book in many ways, there really isn't very much about what happened in Hamburg in there. So, this was an area that was ripe for trying to find out what happened and speaking to as many participants as I could.
Q - How about Bob Spitz's book on The Beatles, that's pretty detailed, isn't it? Do you know of it?
A - I do, yes. The Albert Goldman book of course is infamous. A lot of research for that book was done by someone in Southport, a crime writer, Ron Ellis. He interviewed a lot of people in Hamburg for that book, and in fact was warned off going to Hamburg. Albert Goldman had all these interviews and got some very good stuff, but then he mis-used them 'cause he wanted to tell his own story. People weren't quoted directly, so the book was a bit of a train wreck from that point of view. Bob Spitz then got hold of Albert Goldman's interviews and used those interviews in writing his book.
Q - Were the people you interviewed for your book willing to talk?
A - Every interview in the book is from an interview I've done. So, I haven't taken the quotes from any other books at all. So, I suppose that makes it a little bit different from all the other Beatle books. For the Beatle conventions here in Liverpool (England), people came here from Hamburg to them. Over the years I've met a lot of people who have been connected to Hamburg such as Horst Fascher, Tony Sheridan, etc, Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchher. I knew them anyway before I went out to Hamburg. I've been out to Hamburg about three times now and have been out on the streets talking to people about The Beatles, trying to get as many stories as I could, following up leads. It was wonderful being in a cafe with the picture editor and talking about Horst Fascher and somebody came up to me and said "I'm Hughie Fascher. I'm Horst's brother." And it turned out he owned eleven strip clubs in Hamburg. In 1960, when The Beatles were sent back home from Germany, George was deported if you remember. They weren't allowed to play at The Kaiser Keller and Hughie Fascher said to them before they were going home, "You can play at Studio X'" and I've not heard of anyone mentioning this anywhere. He had The Beatles at Studio X for a couple of days and that's in the book. I know for certain that isn't anywhere else.
Q - I would guess the people who remember The Beatles in Hamburg are growing fewer by the day.
A - Yes. I think that's one of the problems here in Liverpool at a Beatles convention. Anyone who saw The Beatles at The Cavern has to be 65 by now and therefore every year the guests at The Beatles conventions who saw them, who knew them, for one reason or another, there's going to be less and less of them. So, in the ten years time it's going to be very interesting to see how The Beatles festivals develop here. And the same sort of thing in Hamburg as well. It's the 50th Anniversary of "Love Me Do" this year. When they celebrate the 60th Anniversary of "Love Me Do" for example, how many people are going to be around who are going to want to get involved with it? Some of these people are going to be very old. The fans will be going there and probably not seeing many people who were directly involved with The Beatles.
Q - That's why it's important to get the stories on people who were there, now!
A - Except that later in the year (2012) Mark Lewisohn's biography of The Beatles is going to be published and this is not just a coffee table book, it sounds like a coffee table itself. From what I gather, it's going to be about 1,500 pages and that's just going up to the end of 1962. He's been working about eight years on the first volume and then the other two volumes are going to follow. I would think that's going to change a lot of the stories that we already know about The Beatles. Although there have been an enormous flood of Beatle books at the moment, The Beatles market may change in many ways with that book, I feel. There may be people who say there's no point in doing any more research on this 'cause this guy has got so much.
Q - How do you know this book will be all that good? Have you heard something that impressed you?
A - Well, I compare it to the person who's written a biography of Picasso and he's 85 now and he's just up to the Second World War. It's the same sort of thing with Mark, really. He's got a long way to go, but Mark hasn't told me anything that's specifically going to be in the book. Really, I didn't want him to tell me because I might want to go off and interview someone for my radio program. So, I really don't want that knowledge. I'm certain, from all the people he's been speaking to and the way he analyzes information, that it's going to be a remarkable book. I can't see it not being. The point is whether the general reader wants to read that much about The Beatles when you consider the Peter Guralnick book about Elvis. The first volume sold well and the second volume sold badly. The biography that came out on Bing Crosby some years ago, that stopped at 1940. There hasn't been a second volume because the book was just too detailed and people didn't buy it.
Q - Do Paul and Ringo know about your book? Do they know about you? Do they know about your radio show?
A - Well, Paul McCartney certainly knows about me because he gave me an honorary degree. So, I was speaking to him then, but I was also speaking to him about this book.
Q - You have a radio show called On The Beat. How long have you been on the air? 25 years?
A - I think it's about 1985 actually. I was doing other shows before then. Not that particular show. That particular show has been going since then. I've been interviewing people connected with The Beatles, connected to music in general really, for over thirty years. Whenever I do a book, it's very rare that I'm actually starting from ground zero. I can normally say, "Oh, I've got something that will fit in here" or "I can do something there." Interviews come in useful in all sorts of ways.
Q - How much interest is there in Liverpool, England in The Beatles today? Are people still interested in their story?
A - I think it's an amazing story. Most people growing up will come across The Beatles, and their songs are very approachable. You can easily pick them up. You do meet people of course who don't like The Beatles and don't want to have anything to do with them. But I think you can hardly ignore them. In Liverpool, in the '70s, there were a lot of bands saying "We don't have to have anything to do with The Beatles." And you had less interest in The Beatles then. I think every band now acknowledges The Beatles and are very proud that The Beatles have come from this city. But for a time I think there was a thought that if a band was making it in Liverpool, well, we can't even be the best band in the city because The Beatles come from here. It seemed to be a bit of a millstone. But now people just think that music is remarkable. You have bands that openly acknowledge the influence of the Beatles. You do get people that say "I've had enough of The Beatles." My own father, in the '60s, absolutely loathed The Beatles. He thought that it was appalling. Liverpool was a great port and that's what it should be known for. There were many people like that and I felt in the '60s that once the city elders, once the councilmen and the aldermen of the city, got to be sort of the same age as The Beatles, things would change. And they have changed. And now Liverpool has become almost a Beatle city.
Q - Is there still a strong club presence in Liverpool?
A - Well, yes. The Cavern is on Matthews Street and I was on Matthews Street last night at Eric's, which is opposite The Cavern. That used to be a Punk club in the '70s and now it's reopened. Kevin Montgomery was in there last night. In fact, nearly every American act that plays Liverpool does a song of The Beatles in their act. Most of them think they're being novel in doing this, but we're used to it. We expect a visiting artist to do a Beatles song really. It's terrific. I think people can go to John Lennon's house and Paul McCartney's house now. They're really terrific things to go to. A lot of the things related to The Beatles are actually done with considerable taste. I don't think there's anything tacky about it at the moment, but there is a danger of it becoming Beatle City. You can't preserve everything. I'd like to preserve everything but I realize that you can't. I met someone a couple of years ago in Liverpool and this was at a Beatles Weekend. I asked him what he'd come to see and he said he was going on the site of the graveyards on the Mersey side. He was going to see where all the different people connected with The Beatles were buried. So, you can design your own Beatles trip if you want to.
Q - I don't know how old of a guy you are, but did you ever see The Beatles growing up?
A - Oh, yeah. In '67. I used to get my records at NEMS, Brian Epstein's shop. In fact, I always think it's a bit of a myth that we have. The Beatles got their records from the Cunard Yanks, who were the same ones who went over to New York and came back with the records and gave them to the groups. And this is why the Liverpool bands were much hipper than the bands elsewhere in the country because they got those records. But in fact, if you take all the Merseybeat acts and look at the cover versions they did, every one of those cover versions, the original records came out in this country. A shop like NEMS catered to every record that came out in the country. Brian Epstein said "I will get one copy of everything." And so it was a marvelous record shop.
Q - Did you ever see Brian Epstein in the shop?
A - Oh, yeah. He liked people asking for the record. If you went in and said "Have you got Top Rock JR586?", he would say "Yes." He knew the numbers himself. He was a very astute manager in the shop. My oddest memory of NEMS is being in the queue at NEMS and the person who was in front of me in the queue said "Have you got that album of Hitler's speeches for us?" Epstein said "Yes, I have," and brought out this album and sold it to him. I was 16 at the time and NEMS prided itself on getting any album that was available. I thought, "is this a sort of Neo-Nazi who wants a copy of Hitler's speeches?" It didn't occur to me that somebody could be studying this. A record like that must've been anathema to Brian Epstein. A customer wanted it and so he got it.
Q - Did you ever see The Beatles walking down the street in Liverpool or go to see them in The Cavern?
A - No. I was rather snobbish. My mother thought places like The Cavern weren't the sort of place for a teenager to go to. And so, I didn't go to them. Nowadays that sounds ridiculous. Teenagers today just do what they want. But in those days you listened to your mother I think.
Q - When did you see The Beatles for the very first time?
A - I didn't see The Beatles until 1963. I saw them at the Liverpool Empire when they were on the Roy Orbison show. That in itself was very interesting because Roy Orbison had to come onstage with everybody screaming for The Beatles. He just told the band to play as quiet as possible and the audience stopped screaming and listened. I thought, this guy really knows how to control an audience. He was brilliant and The Beatles were very, very good then. And I saw them in Southport on a show with Gerry And The Pacemakers. That was very good as well. I was taken by them. You couldn't hear all that much because everybody was screaming by then.
Q - I don't suppose you said to yourself, these guys are going places! These are local boys who are going on to bigger and better things.
A - We had local boys who were doing well anyway. Billy Fury was a big star for example. It is a music city. A lot of star names have come from here. I think even the other bands themselves thought in 1963 The Beatles were doing very well, but they're lucky. That could've been us. Kingsize Taylor thought they're lucky. That could've been me. But by 1964, the people that thought that were realizing that The Beatles could actually write brilliant songs and The Beatles were several steps ahead of them. The Beatles just reacted perfectly to every challenge and just got better and better really. And also, they co-ordinated so well as a group. I've just been receiving an album by The Byrds that has come out. I was looking in a book about The Byrds with all the photos of the band in there. I was thinking, you've got an immense amount of talent in The Byrds 'cause they had Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby and Gene Clark, but when they were taking photos together, it's not like they're a group. It's like they've each got their own agenda and so the photos don't look nearly as captivating as The Beatles' photos. The Beatles knew exactly how to react when their photos were taken and how to be co-ordinated together. That I think is quite special. There are very few bad photographs of The Beatles. They were just a perfect subject.
Q - Did you ever see The Beatles as a group or one of the Beatles walking down the street in Liverpool?
A - Well, I must have because I'd been walking 'round The Cavern area 'cause I worked around there. I must've come across them, but I didn't know that I'd come across them. They were walking around the streets as well.
Q - Some once told me in the mid-60s it wasn't all that unusual to see someone like Paul McCartney walking down the streets in London. I'm not sure if Paul McCartney could have done that in the U.S. at that time.
A - But they wanted to be as normal as possible. McCartney's been like that I think. One of the things I've heard him say in interviews is that when one of the Canadian groups, The Crewcuts, came to the Liverpool Empire in 1965, he went to the stage door and after he'd got their autographs, they were walking to the Adelphi Hotel, which was a couple hundred yards away. He walked down the street with them. He was very impressed by the fact that these people were stars and were behaving so normally. And he learned something from that. And similarly when Brian Epstein opened NEMS in 1960. Anthony Newley was number one then. They got Anthony Newley to open the new NEMS store in White Chapel, their flagship store. Brian Epstein found that Newley offstage, just talking to him, he was a perfectly normal bloke. And he learned from that I think that he wanted anyone he was managing to be exactly the same way and so there was never that sort of distance, that this person is sort of on this pedestal like Elvis and you won't get close to him. The Beatles were always much closer than that. Even McCartney, considering he's such a big superstar. I think he's a very normal person.
Q - What would you like people to know about The Beatles In Hamburg?
A - The Beatles were away from home for a considerable amount of time on their own. They really grew up in Hamburg. John was away from Aunt Mimi and could do what he wanted in Hamburg.
Q - And he did.
A - Well indeed. That's part of the fun of it, really. I think people who were a little eccentric anyway like say the Rock 'n' Roll singer Gene Vincent, Hamburg encouraged that. Gene Vincent was pretty well mad in Hamburg. I think that applies to quite a few people in many ways.