Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney - Howard Sounes (2010)
PART ONE. WITH THE BEATLES
Chapter 3. HAMBURG
The 760-mile drive from Liverpool to Hamburg took Paul and his friends more than 24 hours, driving south through England, catching a ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, then travelling east to the border of what was then the Federal Republic of West Germany, where the boys had to pretend to be students, because they didn’t have work permits, before pushing on to their final destination.
Like Liverpool, Hamburg is a northern port on a river, the Elbe, which flows into the North Sea; and, like Liverpool again, Hamburg was bombed heavily during the Second World War, worse hit than Merseyside in fact, one devastating night of British bombing killing 42,000 people. Bearing in mind the history it is surprising how well treated the Beatles were in Hamburg only 15 years after the war. Equally remarkable is the fact that, despite being on the losing side in that recent war, Hamburg had been almost completely rebuilt by 1960, part of the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, that saw a defeated Germany rise again as the richest nation in Europe. Indeed, Hamburg already presented a more prosperous face than Liverpool.
The boys arrived after dark on Wednesday 17 August 1960, leaning out of the windows of Allan Williams’s van to ask directions to the Reeperbahn, a road which everybody could point them towards. This most infamous of Hamburg streets lies a couple of miles east of the Hauptbahnhof, parallel with the docks in St Pauli, a neighbourhood renowned for uninhibited night-time entertainment. Men flocked here then as now to drink, eat and have sex, sex being treated more candidly in Germany than in England. Indeed, much that was and remains illegal in the UK, notably prostitution, was and remains legitimate in the red light district of Hamburg. Regulated and sanctioned by the authorities, whorehouses, sex cinemas, pornographic bookshops and lewd clubs lined the Reeperbahn and its tributary streets, such as Herbertstrasse, where hookers sat in brothel windows touting for trade. Amazing sights though these were for the boys, there was also a familiar vulgarity to St Pauli, putting Paul in mind of the Lancashire resort of Blackpool, ‘but with strip clubs’.
Their van turned off the Reeperbahn into Grosse Freiheit, a side street the name of which translates as the Big Freedom. The street was lit up with lurid signs advertising sex, beer and music. They parked outside the Kaiserkeller, Bruno Koschmider’s underground club: a big old joint fitted out with a nautical theme, like an underwater world. Derry and the Seniors were on stage, blasting out rhythm and blues to an audience of enthusiastic Germans, including Horst Fascher, a former featherweight boxer who’d served time for accidentally killing a man in a fight and now worked as a pimp. Horst spent much of his free time in the Kaiserkeller listening to rock ’n’ roll. Hearing that a new group had just arrived from England, Horst rushed upstairs to greet them, finding ‘five tired guys’ in a van, rubbing the grime from the windows with their elbows as they peered out at this new world. Horst, or Horsti as Paul called him, became firm friends with the boys, a pal and protector in the rough-and-tumble world of St Pauli.
The reality of their engagement came home to the Beatles the next day when Koschmider informed the band that they weren’t playing the Kaiserkeller, but a smaller place he owned up the street, a former strip joint named the Indra which he wanted to turn into a club catering to the new rock ’n’ roll craze. The Indra had the dimensions and charm of a large shoebox, closed in by a low ceiling and fitted out with whore-house-red booths. Further disappointment came when the boys were shown their digs. Further up the same road, on the corner of Paul-Roosen-Strasse, was the Bambi Kino, a fleapit cinema also owned by Koschmider. The Beatles were to be accommodated in the windowless back rooms, without proper toilet facilities or even hooks to hang up their clothes. They might have been forgiven if they had turned around and gone home to Liverpool, but with the tolerance of youth the boys unpacked and made the best of it, beginning their Indra residency almost immediately.
The regime at the Indra was punishing, even slightly mad. The Beatles were contracted to play every night, starting in the early evening, a total of four and a half hours in the week and six on Saturdays and Sundays, which meant they worked into the early hours of the following morning. Even with 15-minute breaks between sets these were musical marathons. Essentially the Beatles were playing to attract customers who would spend money on drink, but the Indra’s patrons seemed disappointed at first that the strippers had been replaced by five amateurish English boys - more or less fresh out of school - dressed in silly, lilac-coloured jackets (made by Paul’s neighbour), performing a limited repertoire of songs with the tentativeness of beginners. ‘When the Beatles came they knew about 15 songs,’ recalls Rosi Haitmann, one of Koschmider’s barmaids. It was hardly enough to fill half an hour, let alone four and a half hours, yet the Beatles somehow managed to play nightly at the Indra for the next seven weeks, during which time they enlarged their set. Then, after 48 nights of this apprenticeship, Koschmider closed the Indra, because of complaints from neighbours about noise, and moved the Beatles down to the Kaiserkeller to replace Derry and the Seniors.
In a bigger room, the Beatles’ lack of experience became more apparent. Koschmider grumbled to Allan Williams, who wrote to the boys advising them to put on more of a show. Koschmider picked up on this advice, barking encouragement in German: ‘Mach Schau! Mach Schau!’
Over-worked, over-tired, and now taunted by their German boss, the Beatles turned Koschmider’s order into a joke, yelling ‘Mach Schau!’ in parody of the impresario as they threw themselves into an increasingly madcap performance at the Kaiserkeller. Paul hollered in uninhibited imitation of Little Richard, while John became a character from the Goons, singing comic songs, using funny voices, saying any outrageous thing that popped into his head, sometimes pretending to fight the others on stage. The crazier John became, the more the crowd liked it. Lennon went further, wearing a toilet seat round his neck, also Nazi insignia he’d bought from an antique shop, even shrieking ‘Sieg Heil!’ at the audience, which was forbidden in post-war Germany. The audiences loved it all, sending up beer and cheap champagne, which the boys guzzled greedily, though their favourite drink was Scotch and Coke, which remains Paul’s tipple.
To stay awake during these seemingly endless gigs, the boys started taking Preludin, an over-the-counter slimming aid which had an effect similar to that of amphetamines. They consumed the pills recklessly, quickly building up a tolerance. ‘I took half of one once,’ says former Kaiserkeller barmaid Ruth Lallemann. ‘I know they put like ten in a bottle, smashed them all up with Coke, and then they share it between them. So they were right away! That’s why John Lennon got sometimes so wild.’ Drunk on beer and speeding on pills, the boys played on hour after hour, taking requests from their audience, telling jokes, Lennon lying down under the piano for a nap when he became too exhausted, the others playing on with bemused smiles, pausing to smoke cigarettes, drink and even eat on stage. Pleased with the Beatles’ shau, Koschmider extended their contract.
In the wee small hours of the morning, after most of the patrons had left, the Beatles slowed into a semi-somnolent blues jam, playing for themselves and their friends, that is musicians from other visiting bands and club workers like Rosi and Ruth, the girls coming round from behind the bar to jive. Despite being engaged to one of the waiters, and even though Paul had Dot waiting for him in Liverpool, Ruth Lallemann says she began to date Paul, and continued to do so throughout his time in Hamburg, though they never actually had sex: ‘I never slept with him. Just kissing.’ There were, however, other German girlfriends.
At first the barmaids struggled to communicate with the boys. Paul spoke a little German, having studied the language at the Liverpool Institute, but it was English they mostly all spoke, the girls’ stilted questions met by the Beatles’ outrageous cheek, which the barmaids gradually began to understand and laugh at, copying their Scouse phrases and swear-words. Soon they were bantering back and forth in cheerful obscenity. ‘We were all fucking this, fucking that,’ laughs Ruth. ‘We asked them to write the song lyrics down, and they wrote really dirty words, and they were singing them on stage.’ After work the friends sometimes shared a cab to the beach, where they spent the last days of summer together, returning to Hamburg for work in the evening. It was a happy time. Then the Beatles found a new set of German friends.
There was a breath of autumn in the air when a fey young graphic artist named Klaus Voormann descended to the Kaiserkeller, taking a seat in one of the quaint half-boats arranged in front of the stage. He looked up to see the Beatles performing ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’. Delighted by this exuberant music, Klaus rushed home to tell his sweetheart, Astrid, with whom he had just had a fight. They patched up their differences and returned the following evening with their friend, Jürgen Vollmer.
Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr, both 22, had known each other since art school in Hamburg, where they also met Jürgen. Klaus made exquisite line drawings in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, whose androgynous figures he and Jürgen resembled. Astrid was striking in her own way, a slim woman in black with cropped blonde hair, a wide mouth and a chilly Teutonic manner. One could imagine her barking ‘Sieg Heil!’ and indeed she had done so at school during the Second World War, thinking it meant something like ‘How do you do?’ As with many Germans who were children during the war, Astrid, Klaus and Jürgen had little understanding of the politics of the recent conflict, though it had affected all their lives profoundly: Jürgen’s father was an army officer killed during the Siege of Stalingrad, for example; Astrid’s brother died of dysentery as the family fled the invading Soviet army in 1945. After the madness of the war, the adult survivors rebuilt a Germany that was subdued and conservative, where everything worked efficiently, and where to say something was in ordnung (in proper order) was to give high praise, but where there was precious little excitement. Germany had had enough excitement. To younger people coming to adulthood, the generation of Astrid, Jürgen and Klaus, this new Germany seemed dull. ‘Like every teenager, we wanted to have fun,’ notes Jürgen. They looked to neighbouring France, especially Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet led the existentialist movement, and styled themselves Exis in honour of these free-living French intellectuals, though they understood little of existentialist philosophy. It was more a shorthand for dressing in black and adopting bohemian ways.
So it was that three young, self-conscious, middle-class Germans sat in a half-boat watching the crazy Englishmen at the Kaiserkeller. As Astrid recalls, Paul was the most animated that first night:
He was jumping up and down, and pulling faces when he was singing, and shook his head … The others were just standing there. Stuart didn’t move at all. John only moved a little bit, when he sang. And George just tapped his foot … The only one who was a professional entertainer was Paul.
During a set break, Klaus introduced himself and his friends shyly in broken English. The musicians admired their clothes. Jürgen said he bought all his clothes at the Paris flea markets. Detecting pomposity, John plucked an imaginary flea off Jürgen’s coat and pretended to flick it at Paul, who flinched.
John noted Jürgen’s floppy haircut, asking if he had it done in Paris. ‘No, I cut it myself.’
‘Funny looking, ain’t it, George?’
‘Would look good on Paul, though,’ said John, putting a comb under Paul’s nose to make a Hitler face.
Despite the bad-taste jokes and sarcasm, which was John’s stock in trade, the Exis and the Beatles liked each other immediately. Astrid, Klaus and Jürgen were bright, arty middle-class young people of the type John and Stu had mixed with at college in Liverpool, while grammar school boys Paul and George could also relate to them. Deep down they also sensed a mutual insecurity here in the red light district of a tough port city, and henceforth took comfort in each others’ company, meeting in the cafés and bars of St Pauli during the day and nightly in the club, where the Beatles’ other, more down-to-earth German friends, Horsti the pimp and bar girls Rosi and Ruth looked askance at the interlopers. ‘We didn’t like them, because they were always very posh,’ says barmaid Rosi Haitmann, though she had to admit Astrid had charisma. When Astrid walked into the Kaiserkeller, it was like ‘the Queen came, with her entourage’. Staff buzzed around the Exis because they had money, but mocked them behind their backs. ‘I thought, “Oh my God, you fucking cunt!”’ recalls Rosi, laughing at their pretentious conversation. Pete Best was also excluded from this new friendship, not being quite as sophisticated as the other Beatles, while Stu stood apart from the boys for his lack of musical ability, having failed to improve as their bassist. This was a source of growing frustration to Paul in particular. ‘Paul and George occasionally gave Stuart an angry look, because he must have played some wrong chord,’ recalls Jürgen. ‘Stuart was always an outsider, that didn’t really fit in. But [we] liked Stuart a lot. He was more like us: he was not a rock ’n’ roll musician, he was a talented artist.’
Klaus was the only real artist among the Germans. Astrid and Jürgen had been to art college, but now worked as assistants to a Hamburg photographer. Astrid took pictures herself and told the Beatles she wanted to conduct a photo session with them. The boys were flattered, Paul discussing with Klaus what he should wear. He chose a dark sports jacket with pinstripes, his hair combed back rocker-style. Astrid posed the five English boys against fairground machinery in the nearby park, the Heiligengeistfeld. Lacking much English, she manipulated the lads with her hands, like mannequins, tilting their heads this way and that. As she touched Stuart’s face, Astrid felt a frisson of excitement. She resolved to learn English as soon as possible so she could communicate properly with this boy.
In emulation of their new Exi friends, the Beatles started to dress differently, acquiring black leather jackets and leather trousers to replace their lilac stage jackets, which they’d already worn to destruction, the leathers giving them a new, macho look. Underneath the leather the Beatles were still nicely-brought-up young men who craved home comforts, so they were all grateful when Astrid took them home to meet Mummy in the suburb of Altona. ‘They loved mashed potatoes and peas and steak and things like that. So Mummy did all that for them, and a nice cup of tea, which they couldn’t hardly get in Hamburg.’ The Beatles were on their best behaviour during these Altona visits, not least Paul, in whom Jim and Mary McCartney had instilled good manners. ‘Paul was very, very polite to my mummy.’ The Beatles were slightly surprised to discover that Astrid lived in a self-contained studio flat at the top of her mother’s house, her penthouse decorated mostly in black, with one wall gold and another covered in silver foil. Here she slept with Klaus, which would have been unusual for an unmarried couple in Liverpool. The Germans were so much more relaxed about sex, with the Kirchherrs sophisticated in other ways, too. They had an extensive collection of classical music albums, which Paul spent time looking through. He picked out and played Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, as Astrid recalls, the first example of Paul’s interest in such music. Meanwhile Astrid was falling in love with Stuart Sutcliffe. Within two weeks of their meeting, she had ended her relationship with Klaus and taken Stu as her new lover, a turn of events Klaus took with laudable maturity. Everybody remained friends.
Paul found that there were many girls in St Pauli eager to sleep with him and his band mates. ‘We were kids let off the leash,’ he later reminisced,
and we were used to these little Liverpool girls, but by the time you got to Hamburg if you got a girlfriend there she’s likely to be a stripper 6 … for someone who’d not really had too much sex in their lives before, which none of us really had, to be suddenly involved in these hardcore striptease artists, who obviously knew a thing or two about sex, was quite an eye-opener.
By all accounts there was a virtual nightly orgy at the Bambi Kino, George losing his virginity in their squalid digs while the others lay in their cots nearby: ‘… after I’d finished they all applauded and cheered. At least they kept quiet whilst I was doing it.’ In his memoirs, Pete Best boasted: ‘The most memorable night of love in our dowdy billet was when eight birds gathered there to do the Beatles a favour. We managed to swap all four of us - twice!’ One of the girls who supposedly slept with Paul McCartney during his first visit to Hamburg was a teenager named Erika Wohlers. ‘I got to know Paul and the four others in 1960,’ claims Erika.
We always sat beside the stage, me and my girlfriends. Back then I was 17 years old, and turned 18 on 22 November 1960. Thus I was still underage. During the breaks, the group would sit at our table. Paul and I got close to each other [and] had sex for the first time at some point in 1960 … We regularly had sex.
Erika later claimed that Paul made her pregnant, a story we shall come to.
The Beatles’ popularity at the Kaiserkeller was making Bruno Koschmider’s cash tills ring, demonstrating to other Hamburg club owners that there was money to be made from rock ’n’ roll. In October a new club, the Top Ten, opened on the Reeperbahn, showcasing a British singer named Tony Sheridan (who dated and later married Rosi Haitmann). The boys went to see Tony’s show and sometimes got up on stage with him, playing together with a passion that was partly due to their belief that rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t last, that this was a moment to be seized and enjoyed before the public lost interest in the music.
Says Sheridan, explaining the passion with which they performed:
In those days it was, There’s going to be one more year of rock ’n’ roll. After that the real music was coming, the real songs. We all believed it. We had about six months to do it in, then forget it. This was the attitude. It was like burning houses. Do it and get out as quickly as possible.
The owner of the Top Ten, Peter Eckhorn, was so impressed by what he saw of the Beatles that he offered to hire the band after they finished at the Kaiserkeller. Koschmider was furious and banned the boys from visiting the Top Ten. They defied Koschmider, going to the Top Ten as often as they liked, which ruined their relationship with Koschmider. As the Beatles played out their contract, the Führer resolved to get his own back. The law stated that anybody under 18 had to leave St Pauli by 10:00 p.m., a rule the Beatles flouted nightly because George was under age. The police now enforced this law, presumably because of a tip-off from the vengeful Koschmider, deporting Harrison on 21 November 1960. The others carried on as best they could at the Kaiserkeller, moving their things over to the Top Ten, where Eckhorn had offered them digs. As they prepared to depart the Bambi Kino, Paul and Pete set a fire in the corridor. In a contemporaneous letter Paul stated that they set fire to ‘a piece of cord nailed to the wall’. Subsequently he and Pete said it was a condom. Either way, it was a tiny fire of no consequence, but Koschmider reported them for arson. The police arrested Paul and Pete at the Top Ten the following morning - the first but not the last time Paul McCartney would have his collar felt. The lads were taken to the neighbourhood police station, the Davidwache, then to jail for a few hours, before being deported from Germany by air.
Paul arrived home at 20 Forthlin Road early on Friday 2 December 1960, full of stories of his German adventures, but Dad soon brought his eldest son down to earth. Having had his fun, Paul was now expected to get a proper job. For once in his life Jim McCartney played the stern father. ‘He virtually chucked me out of the house,’ Paul later remarked with surprise. Paul had had pocket-money jobs in the past: working on a coal lorry, a delivery van, and as Christmas relief at the Post Office. Now the Labour Exchange sent him to his first real job, at the electrical firm of Massey & Coggins Ltd in Edge Hill. Here he was set to work coiling electrical cables, though the personable McCartney soon caught the eye of management, who expressed interest in training him up as a junior executive. Paul was at the Edge Hill works when John Lennon and George Harrison slouched by to ask what he was doing. Paul explained what Dad had said: Get a job or else! John told Paul not to be so soft. He took the view that Paul was too easily cowed by his father, and persuaded him to come back to the band. Paul agreed, but held on to his job as well for the time being.
After a couple of warm-up gigs, the Beatles played a memorable Christmas dance at the Litherland Town Hall on 27 December 1960. Stu was still in Germany, so the boys got Pete Best’s mate Chas Newby to play bass. It was at Litherland that the Beatles showed how much they’d learned in Hamburg. They were much better musicians now, their act honed by hundreds of hours on stage. Billed as ‘Direct from Hamburg’, they were assumed by many of the girls to be German. ‘The girls used to say to Paul McCartney, “You speak very good English for a German,”’ recalls Allan Williams, who was still nominally their manager. ‘And of course Paul is a bit clever, he could speak a bit of German, he used to go along with it.’ Not long after this triumphant hometown show, Stu returned from Germany and the re-formed Beatles gigged virtually daily in January and February 1961, building a Merseyside following. So busy did they become in this short period that Paul’s old schoolmate ‘Nell’ Aspinall gave up an accountancy course to drive the boys around.
The Cavern, where the Beatles first performed in early February 1961, was a warehouse cellar, essentially; three barrel-vaulted store-rooms under the pavement of Mathew Street, a short, cobbled lane off Whitechapel in the middle of Liverpool. The warehouses in the area were used to store fruit and vegetables, the smell of rotting fruit adding to the distinctive aroma of the club (rotten vegetables plus cheap scent, plus sweat and drains). The Cavern had first come into existence as a jazz club in 1957, its stage constructed coincidentally by Paul’s carpenter Uncle Harry. The Cavern proved a popular but claustrophobic venue. Deep underground, without air conditioning or a fire exit, in an era when many people smoked, the club quickly became stuffy, while condensation caused the limewash to flake off the ceiling and fall like snow on the revellers. On the plus side, the cellar had good acoustics, and the narrow quarters engendered a sense of intimacy. One could feel the throb and thrum of the music as the jazzmen plucked, struck and blew their instruments. Bodies pressed close. One felt connected to the music and to the other patrons.
Ray McFall, the owner, started to open the Cavern at lunchtime as a place for office and shop workers to come for a snack, with the attraction of live bands on stage. The boys had already played the venue as the Quarry Men. They performed there as the Beatles first on Thursday 9 February 1961, and almost 300 times over the next two and half years, the Cavern becoming inextricably linked with their rise to fame. Here the band met their manager, finalised their line-up and tasted success; while the intimacy of the venue helped the Beatles bond with their audience. They were performing in what was virtually a tunnel face to face with their public, with whom they had to engage simply to get to the dressing room, or drezzy (‘three coat hangers and a bench,’ recalls ‘Measles’ Bramwell), standing close enough to the patrons when on stage to talk to them without raising their voices. Sometimes they plucked cigarettes from the lips of girls, took a drag, then handed the ciggies back.
The audience was not exclusively female. Boys also liked the Beatles from the start. ‘Their sound was different and they looked different … they were an outrageous lot,’ recalls Cavern regular Ray O’Brien.
Whereas all the other bands, like the Remo Four, were reasonably well dressed, and you knew what they were going to do next, you never knew with the Beatles. It was sort of off-the-cuff stuff they were doing at the time. There was a lot of repartee with the audience - I was attracted to that.
For girls, the Beatles were of course also objects of affection. ‘I used to think Paul was the best-looking,’ muses Frieda Kelly, a fellow Cavern-dweller who founded the Beatles’ fan club, though Frieda changed her favourite Beatle almost as often as her socks; ‘then I’d look at John - he’s got like a strong face … then George was the youngest and he was sort of attractive [too].’ Like most girls, Frieda relished the direct, friendly contact with the boys at the Cavern. Nobody became hysterical. The original female Cavern fans disdained the crazed girls who came later, when the Beatles became a nationwide, then worldwide sensation. ‘I never screamed. Liverpool people didn’t scream in the beginning,’ says Frieda. ‘If you start screaming, you can’t hear what they’re saying … I was a fan. But I wasn’t a maniac.’
BACK TO HAMBURG
Since being deported from Germany, Paul had paid a visit to the German Consulate in Liverpool and written to the German police giving his account of the fire at the Bambi Kino, all to try and get permission for the band to return. The reply now came that the Beatles could return to Germany as long as they obtained work permits. They did so without delay. George had also turned 18, so there was no further difficulty there. Paul quit his job with Massey & Coggins, and returned to Hamburg with the Beatles in March 1961, gambling his future on the success of the band.
This time the Beatles would be playing for Peter Eckhorn at the Top Ten, sleeping in the club attic, which was a slightly better arrangement than before, though the conditions were still basic and the hours very long. Taking the view that they had secured this gig themselves, the boys wrote to Allan Williams informing him that he would not receive a commission. Williams wrote a two-page letter of reply, dated 20 April, that was by turns indignant, threatening and pleading: he claimed he had a deal pending to book Ray Charles, whom he knew the Beatles admired. ‘I had thought of you going on tour with him.’ The Beatles evidently didn’t believe Williams, or didn’t care. They had outgrown Allan, who would have to live with the fact that he had briefly had the biggest band in the world in his hands, but had let them slip away. ‘And if you think I lose sleep over this, you are on the right track,’ he wrote in his book The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away. ‘I often wake in the night and stare at the wall, and I can feel my teeth grinding together …’
Paul and John’s Liverpool girlfriends, Dot and Cynthia, came over to Hamburg for a visit. John was willing to bed down with Cyn in the band’s communal room above the Top Ten, along with Paul and Dot, Tony Sheridan and his girlfriend Rosi, but Paul didn’t want to bring Dot into this overcrowded den. ‘Paul thought it’s not good for Dot,’ recalls Rosi. The boys were friendly with an older woman who looked after the toilets at the club, and she kindly allowed Paul and Dot to sleep together alone on her houseboat on the Elbe, a happy and romantic visit culminating in Paul giving Dot an engagement ring.
It was while Dot was in town that the problem of Stuart Sutcliffe came to a head. Paul’s relationship with Stu was increasingly strained. While being an enviable young man in many ways, Stu was a useless musician who had failed to improve. Paul was now not only proficient on lead guitar, but could turn his hand to playing bass, piano and drums. Stu couldn’t even master the simplest of rock instruments. The Beatles were carrying Stu, who was only in the band because he was John’s mate. ‘Very much later I understood that Paul sometimes was very angry with [Stuart], because he never practised. And when Paul moaned about it, John said, “It doesn’t matter. He looks good.” That was John’s answer,’ notes Stu’s lover Astrid Kirchherr. ‘Paul was a professional, [so] it was hard for him to [put] up with a guy who just looked cool, and his best mate John protected him all the time.’
Paul had recently dropped and broken his cheap Rosetti guitar. Having decided the guitar was a write-off, the boys enjoyed stomping it to pieces, after which Paul had little choice but to play the Top Ten piano during their set. One night when he was at the keyboard, Paul made a rude remark about Astrid. Nobody remembers exactly what he said, but it was bad enough to cause Stu to lose his temper. Slightly built though he was, Stu swung a punch at Paul. ‘Don’t you ever say anything about Astrid again!’ he said, defending his sweetheart.
‘I’ll say what I like!’
This altercation is often presented as the only time Paul and Stu came to blows. In fact, ‘they were always fighting,’ says Ruth Lallemann, who remembers the boys regularly pushing and shoving each other. ‘You didn’t talk about things. You fought.’ George Harrison said he had ‘a lot of fist fights with Stuart’ to establish a pecking order. Tony Sheridan adds: ‘Paul didn’t get on with [Stu]. There was animosity. There was open fighting on stage … Some ugly stuff went on.’ This particular fight over Astrid was bad enough to signal the end of Stuart’s tenure as a Beatle. He quit the band soon afterwards to live with Astrid and study art in Hamburg, remaining friendly with the boys. Indeed, as soon as Stuart left the band Paul seemed better inclined towards him. As a musician, Stu held them back; now he could just be a mate. As neither John nor George wanted to take up Stuart’s bass - the least glamorous instrument in a band - this job fell to Paul, who needed a new instrument. To get him started, Stu generously leant him his expensive Höfner. Later Paul bought the smaller, cheaper Höfner violin bass, which became his signature instrument. It is a mark of Paul’s talent, and strength of personality, that despite being on a backline instrument he remained an equal front man with John.
Soon after Stu’s departure the boys were talent-spotted by a German music publisher, who hired them to back Tony Sheridan on a recording session for Polydor. The result was a single, ‘My Bonnie’, released locally in August 1961. Credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, the track is a lively cover of the traditional song ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’, starting quietly, then breaking into a rave-up, Paul hollering with joy in the background. It made number 32 in the German singles chart that year, and remains a very engaging record.
The band returned to Liverpool before ‘My Bonnie’ was released, finding themselves increasingly in demand on Merseyside where there were now scores if not hundreds of similar ‘beat bands’. The stock in trade of nearly all these groups was American songs, often learned from discs brought into Liverpool by sailors, becoming proprietorial about tunes they considered their own, though bands would swap songs. ‘I remember swapping with George “Roll Over Beethoven”; and I let him do “Jambalaya”,’ recalls Gerry Marsden, leader of Gerry and the Pacemakers. Bands were rivals - for gigs, exposure and the El Dorado of a record contract - but also mates. One memorable night at Litherland Town Hall the Beatles and the Pacemakers joined forces. ‘We said, “Let’s have one band for tonight.” And we called it the Beat-makers: the Pacemakers and the Beats [sic],’ remembers Marsden. The musicians swapped instruments. Paul played the town hall piano, the Pacemakers’ pianist played sax. ‘We had a ball.’
When John turned 21 in October 1961 he received £100 ($153) as a gift from a well-to-do aunt, an act of such munificence Paul never forgot it, often remarking that nobody had ever given him a hundred quid. The gift highlighted a subtle but significant class difference between the friends. ‘To us John was upper class,’ Paul commented for the Beatles’ multi-media documentary project, the Anthology. ‘His relatives were teachers, dentists, even someone up in Edinburgh in the BBC. It’s ironic, he was always very “fuck you!” and he wrote the song “Working Class Hero” - in fact he wasn’t at all working-class.’ Still, John generously used his birthday money to treat him and Paul to a trip to Paris which, despite having money to spend, they decided to see on the cheap, hitch-hiking from Liverpool to the French capital where they arrived dressed in rocker gear, their hair in long, greasy quiffs.
One of the first things John and Paul did when they got into Paris was look up their Exi friend Jürgen Vollmer, who was now working in the city as an assistant to the American photographer William Klein. Jürgen met the boys outside the church of St Germain-des-Prés. Having established that they had no place to stay, he took them to his digs in the nearby Hotel de Beaune. As Jürgen tried to sneak the boys up the stairs of this cheap hotel, he was discovered by his landlady, who threw the Englishmen out. ‘We didn’t like the service here, anyway,’ Lennon told the biddy, with mocking hauteur.
‘Shall we try the Ritz?’ Paul asked his friend, readily falling into a double act.
Jürgen met up with John and Paul the next day, and started showing them around Paris. The English boys were full of fun and good humour, picking Jürgen up and running with him past L’Opéra singing nonsense arias, and generally behaving like a couple of Marx Brothers. Jürgen decided they should meet his girlfriend, Alice, arranging a rendezvous. But Alice was horrified by the English boys, whom Jürgen now saw, through her eyes, as scruffy, even dangerous-looking rockers. ‘She didn’t even sit down.’ John and Paul weren’t going to pull any Parisian birds the way they were dressed. So Jürgen took them to the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, where they bought beatnik-type outfits. Next they wanted their hair cut like Jürgen’s - combed forward over their eyes and cut in a fringe.
‘They asked me, “We like that funny haircut, Jürgen, can you cut ours?” Because they knew that I always cut my hair myself.’ Jürgen took John and Paul back to his hotel, managing to sneak them up to his room this time. He sat Paul down first in front of the mirror, draped a towel over his shoulders, and snipped away at his rocker quiff, changing it into a softer, floppy Left Bank mop-top. For years the Beatle mop-top was credited to Astrid Kirchherr, who said she first styled the boys’ hair this way in Hamburg, a claim that infuriates Vollmer, who asserts he was the true originator of the hairstyle, and indeed Paul has backed him up in this. A trivial enough matter, one might have thought, but for a man to wear his hair like this in 1961 was rebellious. ‘Very difficult for people to imagine that there was a time like that,’ says Jürgen.
John and Paul were soon back in Liverpool where they now met one of the most important characters in the Beatles story. A short stroll from the Cavern, in Whitechapel, was a branch of NEMS, a local chain of family-owned electrical stores that also sold records. NEMS was originally a furniture shop founded in 1901 by a Jewish-Polish immigrant named Isaac Epstein, the business carried on by his son, Harry, who lived with his wife Queenie in a large, detached house in Queens Drive, Childwall. Harry and Queenie Epstein had two sons, the elder of whom, Brian, was ‘one of those out-of-sorts boys who never quite fit in’, as he wrote in his memoirs, a coded acknowledgement that he was homosexual.
Born in 1934, making him only seven years Paul McCartney’s senior, though he always seemed much older, Brian Epstein was expelled from his first secondary school aged 10, then passed through five more schools before 16, when he told his parents he wanted to be a dress designer. Although frank with his parents and friends about his sexuality, Brian was necessarily guarded with strangers, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, and sex caused him problems. He was ‘very mixed up’, as his mother said. ‘He wasn’t at all happy with it; his love affairs were disastrous.’ In appearance, Brian possessed a soft, bashful face, with gappy teeth, a weak chin and a childhood squint that manifested itself when he felt under pressure. He dressed immaculately, his hair carefully styled, and affected an upper-class accent with a penchant for ornate and pompous expressions. Brian liked to think of himself as artistic. He enjoyed classical music and the theatre, giving the impression all in all of being a rather precious young man. ‘I thought he was a popinjay. Narcissistic,’ comments the family lawyer E. Rex Makin, who found himself called upon professionally when Brian’s sex life got him into trouble.
After the ordeal of school, it was Brian’s further misfortune to be called up for National Service, a duty Paul McCartney narrowly avoided when conscription ended in Britain in 1960. Brian was soon ejected from the military, classified ‘emotionally and mentally unfit’. Next he attempted to become an actor, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, but he didn’t do well here either. During his sojourn in the capital, Brian was arrested for importuning a policeman. Having quit RADA, he was blackmailed by another homosexual pick-up in Liverpool. Brian had developed a taste for rough trade. Makin recalls:
Brian came to me one day … in great distress with a black eye and a broken this, that and the other. He’d picked up a lad at the Pier Head and he’d taken him to Sefton Park, where the customer, put it like that, turned rough on him and he handed over his wallet and didn’t know what to do. I said, “The first thing you have to do is to tell your father. If you won’t do it, I’ll do it for you.” And I did it, and we went to the police [who arrested and charged the blackmailer]. He was convicted and got a jail sentence.
Brian stayed in Liverpool after this episode, helping to manage the family businesses. For years there had been an annex to the original furniture store on Walton Road selling sheet music, records and pianos. This was North End Music Stores (NEMS), suppliers of the McCartneys’ piano. During the consumer boom of the late 1950s, the Epsteins opened additional branches of NEMS, selling electrical goods and records. Brian managed these stores, and in doing so employed people who become significant in the Beatles’ story. He hired Peter Brown for one, a former sales assistant at Lewis’s, the biggest department store in Liverpool; also a young man named Alistair Taylor as his personal assistant. Both went on to work for the Beatles.
Mr Brian, as Brian Epstein liked to be known to his staff, invested a great deal of energy in the record division of NEMS, creating elaborate window displays in the Whitechapel shop to promote new releases, adopting a policy of ordering any record any customer requested. He prided himself on being attuned to the tastes of the public, but claims in his autobiography to have been ignorant of the existence of the Beatles until a young man named Raymond Jones walked into his shop asking for ‘My Bonnie’. It has since become clear that Brian almost certainly knew who the Beatles were by this stage, and may well have seen them in NEMS, which they frequented to listen to new releases and chat up the shop girls. The truth may be that Brian had been watching the Beatles from afar, with a glad eye, before he summoned the courage to meet them.
In any event, Epstein placed an order for ‘My Bonnie’ for Jones. When a girl came in asking for the same record, he ordered 200 more, and it was as this point he decided to meet the band. Bill Harry informed him, if he didn’t already know, that the Beatles were to be seen five minutes’ walk away in Mathew Street, playing lunchtime sessions at the Cavern. Fearing he would be out of place in a cellar full of teenagers ‘talking teenage talk’, Brian went over the road with his assistant Alistair Taylor. The Beatles were performing when the two men descended the stairs to the Cavern, on 9 November 1961, the boys acting the goat on stage between bursts of energetic rock ’n’ roll. The Cavern MC, Bob Wooler - ‘Hello, Cavern dwellers, and welcome to the best of cellars’ - promptly announced that Mr Epstein was in the room, as if that was a big deal, and all eyes turned to the gentleman at the entrance. Brian was only 27, but must have appeared middle-aged to the denizens of the Cavern, though many were likewise in their twenties. It was the way Brian dressed, carried himself and spoke. ‘He could speak English, which none of us could,’ comments Tony ‘Measles’ Bramwell with hyperbole. ‘Brian had been elocuted [sic].’
George Harrison asked what brought Mr Brian down to see them. Epstein asked in reply about their song, ‘My Bonnie’, and they proceeded to banter back and forth. ‘They were extremely amusing and in a rough “take it or leave it way” very attractive,’ Epstein later wrote, giving the clear impression of a flirtation. ‘I will never know what made me say to this eccentric group of boys that I thought a further meeting might be helpful to them and me.’ Still, a meeting was scheduled at his office, which was over the NEMS shop, for 3 December. The Beatles approached the date with a mixture of hope and scepticism. After all, what could the manager of an electrical shop do for them in show business? At least they’d been to Germany, played on stage and cut a record. Brian hadn’t done much except get kicked out of the army and RADA. He only had his current job because Daddy owned the store.
When the appointment came, Paul couldn’t even be bothered to be punctual, which was out of character, though it wouldn’t be the last time he would keep Brian waiting. Brian asked George to telephone Forthlin Road and ask what had happened to young McCartney. ‘Paul’s just got up and he is having a bath,’ Harrison reported.
‘This is disgraceful!’ fulminated Epstein, who took himself far too seriously. ‘He’s very late.’
‘And very clean,’ quipped George, who though not academically bright possessed a lively wit.
When Paul finally showed up they adjourned to a milk bar to talk business. Brian asked the boys if they’d considered professional management. They talked about how this might work and agreed to meet again. In the meantime, Epstein asked around town about the group. He consulted Allan Williams, who was so bitter about the way the band had treated him that he’d banned the boys from the Jacaranda. He advised Epstein not to touch the Beatles with a barge pole. ‘Then I clarified it. I said, “Look, they are good musicians. But believe me they’ll walk all over you once they’ve used you.”’ Not put off, Epstein went to see Rex Makin, asking his lawyer to draw up an ‘unbreakable’ contract for himself and the Beatles. ‘I told him there was no such thing,’ said Makin, who thought Brian’s latest brainwave stupid. So Brian went to another lawyer and duly presented the four Beatles - that is John, Paul, George and Pete Best - with a contract that bound them to him for five years, during which time Brian would have a hand in every part of their act, taking up to 25 per cent of their gross earnings in commission. It was a key decision. Paul was hesitant, weighing up the pros and cons. Then he said he hoped the Beatles would make it. ‘But I’ll tell you now, Mr Epstein, I’m going to be a star anyway.’