It was a cassette tape that set the course for Stefanie Hempel’s life.
When she first heard the Beatles belt out She Loves You on a tape her father managed to get his hands on in East Germany, nine-year-old Hempel was hooked.
“I remember everything, every second about this moment,” Hempel, who grew up in Grabow, a small East German town between Hamburg and Berlin, tells The Local.
“I listened to this tape over and over again and I wanted to know everything about them. I started to play the songs on the piano and sing, and I fell in love immediately with the voice of John Lennon.
“Just one year later I started to write my own songs, and they were all love songs for John Lennon.”
Now Hempel's career is dedicated to the Liverpool band that honed their style in Hamburg. The 42-year-old founded a walking and musical tour in the city more than 15 years ago.
And in March Hempel will host a three-day festival to celebrate 60 years since the band performed in the Hanseatic city.
Stefanie Hempel at Beatles-Platz in the St Pauli quarter in Hamburg. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Hempel
‘Come together – the Beatles Experience’ takes place from March 27th to 29th and will feature around 40 bands and artists paying homage to their heroes – some in the original clubs in the famous St Pauli district where the Beatles performed before they were the biggest band in the world.
Along with performances by international tribute acts like Them Beatles from Liverpool and Bambi Kino from New York, historians, authors and musical experts will provide insights into the band’s history and 60s’ Rock’n’Roll St Pauli.
For Hempel, it's not a nostalgic look-back at the Beatles, instead it is “to show how contemporary and influential this great heritage, the band has left to Hamburg, is, for both fans and artists”.
So just how important is Hamburg to who the Beatles became?
It’s summed up by renowned Beatles author Mark Lewisohn, who will be at the Come Together festival, when he simply said: “No Hamburg, no Beatles.”
“In Hamburg they became a professional band,” says Hempel. “Hamburg was their first official rock and roll engagement.
“There’s no place in the world they’ve played more than in Hamburg – 1,200 hours on Hamburg stages.”
READ ALSO: How Hamburg changed the Beatles
Days of freedom
On a rainy but mild Saturday, around 30 people from across the world are gathering round Hempel as she shares stories about how the band from Liverpool came to be.
Carrying a ukulele and a collection of photographs, Hempel leads the group round old haunts where John, Paul, George – and their first drummer Pete Best – as well as John’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe, spent their days and long, long nights.
From the Kaiserkeller, Top Ten and Star-Club to the infamous Bambi Kino where the band desperately tried to a catch a few hours of shuteye during their first stint at the clubs dotted around the debauched Grosse Freiheit, it’s easy to imagine how the boys were swallowed up by the port city.
Hempel enthusiastically tells stories – switching between German and English – about what the band got up to in their first real days of freedom, away from Liverpool and not yet anywhere near the steps of global stardom.
“They were never again as free as they were in Hamburg,” Hempel says. “They were able to have fun and experiment – both musically and personally.”
Hamburg was where the group met Ringo Starr, who was playing with another band.
“The chemistry with Ringo was just right,” says Hempel. “Ringo was the missing link in Hamburg.”
And who could forget how important Hamburg was to their style and image?
The band became friends with Astrid Kircherr, bassist and Sutcliffe’s girlfriend, who was part of the existentialist movement, later nicknamed the “Exis” by Lennon.
Kircherr, who took the famous photos of the lads at the Hamburger Dom, inspired them to get their hair cut and, well, be a bit cooler, bringing them a fresh new look away from their previous 1950's rock 'n' roll style.
But the Exis also influenced their music.
“Those young art students, the group around Astrid, they gave them a feeling they could be artists,” says Hempel.
Is it true that @thebeatles shaved with urinal water and burned condoms while living at the Bambi Kino? Not quite! There are many legends out there about their early Hamburg years. In fact, the men's toilets only had urinals in them, which is why they were forced to use the sinks in the ladies' toilets to shave. Their accommodation was actually two small neighbouring store rooms next to the cinema hall, right next to the men's toilets, with no windows nor heating. They thus called the Bambi Kino “the black hole of Calcutta.” As they were being kicked out, @paulmccartney and Pete Best nailed condoms to the wall out in the corridor and lit them on fire as a way of saying “goodbye” to their “first boss” Bruno Koschmider. Though there was no damage done to the kino, Koschmider still reported them to the police for arson, and the two spent an afternoon in jail before being deported from Germany. What little rascals! ? Snag your tickets to Come Together 2020 now at www.cometogether-experience.com & link in bio
An apprenticeship in Hamburg
Hempel is herself a talented musician and with every story comes a gorgeous slice of pop as she bursts into song, encouraging those on the tour to join in.
As stag and hen parties fill up the Reeperbahn red light district under neon signs of lap dancing clubs, Hempel stands in a doorway belting out My Bonnie, which the Beatles, coerced into calling themselves the Beat Brothers, released in West Germany with Tony Sheridan in 1961.
The band arrived in the city on August 17th 1960, playing their first gig at the Indra, a tiny venue that’s still around today.
Hempel describes how the group, high on preludin (known as prellies) pills, gave all their youthful energy to marathon sets covering an assortment of tunes. It was an apprenticeship like no other, eventually setting the boys up for their path to the top.
The Beatles connection in Hamburg is well-known for fans. There’s even a film – Backbeat – that tells the story and the tragic tale of the band’s first bassist Sutcliffe.
But when Hempel initially arrived in the city, she was surprised to find nothing about the band.
Hempel, who arrived in the city to study classical piano in the 90s, said: “I thought there must be tours in Hamburg but there was nothing at all that commemorated this important part of pop history.
“So as a fan in the 90s you had to find all those places on your own; reading books, finding people who knew where hidden backyards were.”
A few years later she decided to start her own tour.
“It started as a funny idea. Since I’m a musician myself, I wanted it to be a musical tour so this is where the idea of the ukulele, Georg Harrison’s favourite instrument, came.”
At the beginning, her main guests were locals from Hamburg who came to “show their kids where the Star Club was”.
But over the years Hempel’s reputation has grown thanks to word of mouth and media coverage, including from the LA Times and MTV.
“In the last six, seven, eight years it has become very international,” she says, explaining she recently had a group of more than 30 people from eight different countries on a tour, including Brazil, India, Australia, Ireland, US, Spain, UK.
“The fans are still there all over the world and they’re getting younger, I have the feeling,” she adds. “A new generation is finding out about the Beatles.”
Have you ever heard these words from @paulmccartney before? ? This quote originates from The Beatles' early days on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, which shocked the prudish young lads from Liverpool. What are some other @thebeatles quotes you enjoy? Share in the comments below ?? Tickets to Come Together 2020 are now on sale at www.cometogether-experience.com
Germany and the Beatles
Thanks to the band's Hamburg days, the German connection to the Beatles remains strong. The Beatles Musical 'All You Need is Love' is currently touring the country, telling the story of the band on the stage and featuring a selection of hits.
But it was more difficult to get full access to rock music like the Beatles in the communist east.
“We didn’t have the chance to get a real Beatles record… I think this fuelled my passion,' says GDR-born Hempel.
The family lived near the West German border and they were able to tune into western radio stations.
“I would sit at the radio and record songs, and hope that a Beatles song would come along in an oldie show,” she says.
“This made me become a fan even more. When we moved to the west in 1989, I spent all my pocket money on Beatles records and Beatles books.”
All you need is (Beatles) love
The tour ends with Hempel staging a concert at the St Pauli Museum. The audience is treated to classics such as Penny Lane and Norwegian Wood, one of Hempel’s favourite songs although she has several.
Hempel regularly plays in Beatles tribute shows alongside her walking tours and doesn’t have time for her own music anymore.
“But I get to meet so many people from all over the world,” she says. “My greatest privilege is sharing my own love for the Beatles with fans from all over the world.
“It’s so great when fans from India, Argentina, Brazil and Scandinavia all come here and sing on the tour. Sing and enjoy the Beatles’ spirit and music.”
And there probably is no better city to do it in.
“No Hamburg, no Beatles,” says Hempel, repeating Beatles' author Lewisohn's sentiment. “No Hamburg, no great pop music.”