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How Hamburg's Indra Club shaped The Beatles

On a quiet street in Hamburg’s old red-light district sits a small club painted blood-red. It’s not so large, and if it wasn’t for the emblems of musical instruments welded into the iron gates, you wouldn’t think it a club at all. But if you look closely, you’ll see a small sign reading: “Indra — where the Beatles played first.”

Many people imagine that the Beatles hometown of Liverpool forged the Fab Four, and whilst clubs like the Cavern Club offered them a launchpad, it was nearly impossible for the group to get reliable gigs elsewhere in the city. No, it was the fair port city of Hamburg, Germany, which allowed Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and their then-drummer Pete Best to hone their songs, style, and stagecraft. Back then, they were known as The Silver Beatles, but the group’s residency in The Indra Club was about to change everything.

They didn’t think too much about it. It was an opportunity where there had previously been none. Liverpool was a dead end, so when the owner of The Indra offered the boys a regular spot at his club, they jumped at the chance. But when they arrived in Hamburg, the reality of their situation became very clear. Of their accommodation, McCartney said: “We lived backstage in the Bambi Kino, next to the toilets, and you could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint, and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers—Union Jack flags—we were frozen.”

They were paid 30 Deutschmarks a night for a seven-hour gig which would frequently last until the early hours of the morning. McCartney would later describe the band’s experience in Hamburg as “800 hours in the rehearsal room.” At this time (somewhat unsurprisingly), the Beatles were introduced to Amphetamines and began an exploration of drug culture, which would last until the band dissolved. McCartney would later recount his first experience of “Prellies”: “The waiters always had these pills [Preludin], so when they saw the musicians falling over with tiredness or drink, they’d give you the pill. You could work almost endlessly until the pill wore off, and then you’d have another.” McCartney would also claim that Lennon would sometimes take up to five whilst he would take only one.

Playing every night for seven hours straight also forced the group to write new songs every day, expand their setlist, and finesse their sound. Before their move to Hamburg, The Silver Beatles were relatively unformed. They were, at that time, just a group of lads having a good time. But at The Indra Club, they began to understand that if they wanted to succeed, they needed to treat their music as a job and work at it every night. Of the period, Lennon would later say: “We had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best, and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.”

But the Beatles were warned that there was incoming competition in the form of Rory Storm And The Hurricanes. Prior to the Hurricanes’ arrival, The Beatles were told they ought to “pull your socks up because Rory Storm and the Hurricanes are coming in, and you know how good they are. They’re going to knock you for six.”

Hamburg’s Indra Club

Thankfully, this, too, offered The Beatles an opportunity. Up until that point, they’d been having problems with their drummer. Pete Best would often miss gigs, and so eventually, the group decided to fire him, fed up with constantly needing a replacement at the last minute. Two days later, The Hurricanes arrived in Hamburg with their drummer Ringo Starr in tow. Starr wasn’t a stranger to The Beatles, they’d met before back in 1959, and, needing a replacement drummer sooner rather than later, the young Starr was quickly poached.

But The Indra Club shaped more than The Beatles’ music; It also shaped their style. Stuart Sutcliffe, who played bass with the group in Hamburg until his untimely death, began dating a photography student there called Astrid Kirchherr. It was Kirchherr who gave Sutcliffe the mop haircut, which The Beatles would then all adopt.

“All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of … what you call Beatles haircut,” Kirchherr said. “And Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair and asking me to cut his hair for him.”

The Beatles run at The Indra Club became a wild success. So successful, in fact, that they were consequently hired by various other clubs throughout Hamburg, including The Star Club. But it was The Indra that offered The Beatles a platform to experiment and find their sound. Who would have thought that a little red club in Hamburg would end up having so much to answer for?

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