Magical History Tour: BACKBEAT - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Magical History Tour: BACKBEAT

Chris Morley takes up a residence in Hamburg

Before they wished upon a Starr & found Ringo, the Beatles had Pete Best taking care of the drum kit and John Lennon's art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe as a somewhat reluctant bass player scratching around Hamburg's club circuit. Iain Softley's 1994 film Backbeat essentially dramatises the events that led to Sutcliffe leaving the group.

Sutcliffe's love for photographer Astrid Kircherr proved stronger than the pull of band life, though a brain haemorrhage at the age of just 21 in 1962 would rob him of the chance to pursue even that at length, after having exited the pre-Fab Four and enrolled as a student at the Hamburg College of Art. The visual arts came more naturally to this youngster who was often so painfully aware of his musical shortcomings that he'd play with his back to the audience.

Stephen Dorff's performance as the man credited by some as introducing his mates to their signature look of the period was one of the few high points of the film itself for Paul McCartney, who'd set off with John, Stuart & Pete for Bruno Koschmider's Hamburg club, the Indra, in the August of 1960 despite his dad Jim's misgivings thanks to its location in St Pauli - then a well known red light district. After assurances from then-manager Allan Williams that everything would be fine McCartney senior relented and so the four set out for Liverpool's nearest German equivalent & fellow port city on the promise of £15 a week each.

John, as played by Ian Hart for a second time following a similar such appearance in The Hours & Times, which looked at what could have happened between Lennon & later Beatles manager Brian Epstein during a joint holiday in 1963, would placate his aunt Mimi Smith,who wanted her nephew to carry on studying-by simply exaggerating the amount he'd earn from the venture!

Best was offered a position as permanent drummer after George Harrison saw him playing at the Casbah Coffee Club - owned by Pete's mother Mona - with another local group, the Black Jacks. Their breaking up and a chat with McCartney convinced him that another spell behind the kit would be a better option than teacher training college and so the original three became four in time for a first set of tour dates on foreign soil, arriving on August 17, 1960 and subsequently needing a bit of a kip in the seats of the Indra itself before playing their first show there that same night & finding alternative accommodation in the back room of the Bambi-Kino, a local cinema.

As you might expect it was far from glamorous, McCartney later remembering that,
"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.”
Lennon was similarly unimpressed in retrospect.
"We were put in this pigsty. We were living in a toilet, like right next to the ladies' toilet. We'd go to bed late and be woken up next day by the sound of the cinema show and old German fraus pissing next door. “
Against which backdrop they were paid £2.50 a day for playing seven days a week across four evening sets stretching from 8.30 to two in the morning, an experience Harrison charitably recalled as “ like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”

By October 4 of the same year they were on the move to another Koschmider-owned club, the Kaiserkeller. While the living situation was better, the schedule was no less punishing. Lennon later put it quite simply.
"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."
And as long as they actually moved about a bit on stage, Koschmider frequently barging his way to the front & demanding that they “ mach schau”- make a show- for his paying punters!

To recreate that show, and the early musical sets of the Beatles, a core Backbeat band of singer Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs also lending his vocal cords with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore & Don Fleming from Gumball on guitars, REM man Mike Mills on bass & Nirvana's Dave Grohl on drum duty was put together to perform versions of the various rock & roll and early Motown hits that made up a typical Hamburg set-list for the Beatles.

The soundtrack whittles it down to twelve, starting with Barrett Strong's Money (which the Beatles would later record a version of for the With The Beatles album), then Little Richard's Long Tall Sally (a frequent live favourite of the man who pinched his “whoo!”) alongside another of the man born Richard Wayne Penniman's hits, Lucille (given the McCartney treatment & later appearing on the On Air compilation of early BBC live performances with Ringo having taken Pete's place on the drum stool). Just to make it a hat-trick for Richard, Good Golly Miss Molly rounds things out.

Following his death, Paul McCartney, perhaps Little Richard's most famous disciple would pay tribute in saying
“From ‘Tutti Frutti’ to ‘Long Tall Sally’ to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ to ‘Lucille’, Little Richard came screaming into my life when I was a teenager. I owe a lot of what I do to Little Richard and his style; and he knew it. “
As for Backbeat itself, though, McCartney was less impressed.
"One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they've actually taken my rock 'n' rollness off me. They give John the song "Long Tall Sally" to sing and he never sang it in his life. But now it's set in cement. It's like the Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly Story does not even mention Norman Petty, and The Glenn Miller Story is a sugarcoated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of the Beatles."

McCartney wasn't the only one who took issue with Bacbeat, movie critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars; feeling that "it's never able to convince us there's a story there". But the music was almost universally praised, and with a sountrack that also included Larry Williams' Bad Boy (a Lennon-led version later cropping up on the Past Masters set), Slow Down, the Isley Brothers' Twist & Shout (as also later covered on Please Please Me), Please Mr Postman (originally by the Marvelettes which would be recorded for With The Beatles albeit with slightly gender-flipped lyrics) augmented by an Eddie Cochran double header of C'mon Everybody & Twenty Flight Rock, Bo Diddley's Road Runner and the Chuck Berry pairing of Carol & Rock & Roll Music (which also found its way onto Beatles For Sale).

Quite a way to mach schau, you'll surely agree?

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