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Tossing Lines: Beatles’ baptism by fire 60 years on

Not that we need it, but here’s proof that we Beatles fans are getting older: Ringo Starr turned 80 years old on July 7 this year!

As a 10-year-old, I watched The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964, but little did I know the hard work that led them there.

The four teenagers had been put through the musical wringer in Hamburg, Germany, an experience one associate called “baptism by fire.”

After lying to their parents for permission, the band could hardly believe their eyes when they arrived on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district, on Aug. 17, 1960.

Prostitution was “hawked as openly as schnitzel,” girls sat provocatively in brothel picture windows, greased palms helped authorities overlook bad behavior, and those who didn’t pay their bills were beaten in dark alleys.

Into this morass of immorality stepped 19-year-old John Lennon, 18-year-old Paul McCartney, 17-year-old George Harrison (still a minor by German standards), and 18-year-old Pete Best, Ringo’s predecessor on drums.

Their filthy accommodations consisted of two old storage rooms at the back of a rundown cinema that showed movies 24 hours a day, with German dialogue booming. Their rooms were behind the screen, damp and cold, with no lights or heat. They had to use the cinema’s filthy public toilets to wash up.

Their new gig was at the Indra, a seedy strip joint where they soon became so popular that wild crowds packed the place, driving the band to play for seven hours or more with no intermissions. A Hamburg contract typically required bands to perform every night for 48 days straight.

German audiences demanded the loudest, hardest-driving music a band could produce, and once The Beatles found their groove, the shows grew crazier. A musical marathon every night, fueled by alcohol and amphetamines.

As exhausting as it was, the band also held practice sessions throughout the afternoons to perfect their performance and write original material. Even as teenagers, they were fully committed to their goal of becoming recording artists.

One perk to offset the low wages was free beer, and they took full advantage while cavorting with willing frauleins far more freewheeling than British girls. The boys never lacked for female “companionship.”

Their suits ruined by sweaty musical marathons, they bought leather jackets for a scruffier image more in line with the neighborhood. It completely changed their look and attitude. They turned up the volume even more.

After too many noise complaints and uncomfortable police attention, their boss, German racketeer Bruno Koschmider, closed the Indra, moving The Beatles to the bigger Kaiserkeller, another club he owned. The wild shows and the crowds grew in intensity, running nonstop from 7 in the evening until 5 in the morning. Every night.

The crowd loved unpredictability. Lennon insulted the audience in English, confident they couldn’t understand him. Paul performed wrapped in a bed sheet, and George came out playing with a toilet seat around his neck. Lennon wore swimming trunks and mooned the audience. Word spread that The Beatles were crazy, and the crowds grew even more.

Patrons would send trays of overflowing steins to the stage and insist the band chug them down. Hamburg was an endless, wild party. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.

The Beatles’ contract was extended, but after living in squalor for four months and working constantly, they demanded better treatment.

Koschmider refused, so they accepted a job with another club in violation of their contract.

Furious, Koschmider reported George’s age violation, and the guitarist was deported immediately. He then filed false charges of arson against McCartney and Best. They were arrested and deported.

Without their bandmates, John and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe returned home, where the band re-grouped and performed constantly, including regular shows at The Cavern, the famous Liverpool basement club considered the birthplace of The Beatles, now a tourist attraction.

But the craziness of Hamburg was just beginning. Between 1961 and the end of 1962, with George no longer a minor and a new Hamburg club owner clearing up old immigration issues, the band made four more trips into decadence.

Ringo joined The Beatles in 1962, and made at least two trips to Hamburg.

They recorded their first UK hit, “Love Me Do” in 1962, but it wasn’t until 1964 that their song “I Want To Hold Your Hand” finally got the attention of America, their longtime goal.

Interesting that those seemingly innocent boys on “The Ed Sullivan Show” were forged in the hedonism of Hamburg, Germany, a place some called the “hellhole of the world.”

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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