It was 50 years ago tomorrow – in a time now known by anthropologists as the ‘Pringo’ period (or pre-Ringo for the unenlightened)… The ‘greatest band’ the world was yet to see was about to become ‘the most available backing group in Hamburg’.
The real upcoming star in Hamburg in June 1961 was Tony Sheridan. And the fab three (Lennon, McCartney and Harrison) plus their ill-fated drummer, Pete Best, were summoned to a small studio in Hamburg to lay down a few backing tracks for the ever-ambitious Sheridan.
Stuart Sutcliffe, their James Dean-esque bass player, had taken the day off to go to the beach with the love of his life, Astrid Kirchherr. He would officially leave the group within the next month.
Sheridan knew the boys and often joined them on stage at the Kaiserkellar and Indra Clubs during their gruelling, eight-hour sets.
With McCartney fresh on bass, seven tracks came out of that first session: the Sheridan-fronted ‘My Bonnie’ and ‘The Saints’; ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, sung by Lennon; and a Harrison/Lennon-penned instrumental parody (homage) to Cliff Richard’s backing band, ‘Cry For A Shadow’.
Three other non-Sheridan ‘Beatles’ tracks, recorded on the day, disappeared without trace.
The surviving tracks were released in Germany under the guise of Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys (‘Beatles’ was dropped because it sounded like the German word for penis).
Sheridan also had moderate success with ‘My Bonnie’ in the UK. But it wasn’t until the Beatles hit the big-time that everyone and his dog decided to release these early disks with titles as varied as ‘The Savage Young Beatles’, ‘Meet the Beat’ and of course ‘Tony Sheridan (tiny typeface) with The Beatles (huge typeface).
Even at such a young age (Harrison was only 18) the Beatles were at the top of their game. And these early recordings give an insight into how tight the band had already become as performers. Yet despite the sharp learning curve in this post-war Sin City, the young Liverpudlians remained somewhat wide-eyed and innocent.
A lot of romantic tosh has been written about the Beatles embracing the moody highbrow French-inspired, Existentialist movement that Astrid Kirschherr and Klaus Voorman dabbled in. I plead guilty to some of this, having exaggerated it in the script for the movie Backbeat.
I spent a few enlightened days with Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg back in 1992 when I was writing Backbeat. Astrid always seemed to have a knack for making her early days with the Fabs seem a lot more down-to-earth than history likes to remember.
“We were young kids who wore black clothes and thought Jean Cocteau movies were cool. Nothing much deeper than that.”
And the Beatles?
“They were lovely, young, ordinary guys who just wanted to play rock’n’roll, get drunk and have a laugh.”
Which, 50 years on, is still music to a lot of young ears.