The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


At The End Of The Grosse Freiheit: The Beatles In Hamburg
Taylor Parkes , September 21st, 2010 05:52

Fifty years ago last month The Beatles first arrived in Hamburg, hungry, sleepless and unprepared (for what they found there, and what it led to), says Taylor Parkes

Fresh from damp-brown 50s Liverpool, packed into a camper van with one bumper hanging off, these were truly innocents abroad. They'd played rock & roll for years, at the Lathom Hall or the Childwall Labour Club - they'd seen brawls and batterings, and known the feel of girdled girls, and swaggered through foul-smelling crowds, and thrown up pints of English ale. All that pain and glory, though, had been contained, parochial, and nothing more than a minor disturbance. What was just about to happen was a somewhat bigger deal, both for these five neophytes and for the rest of us in time, whether we bloody well liked it or not.

The image of The Beatles in Hamburg is familiar and fixed, a challenging but oddly cosy bit of modern folklore. Champing and gurning from handfuls of Preludin - that is, phenmetrazine, a German slimming pill that worked much like amphetamine, except that it didn't kill your sex drive – eyes rolling back into their skulls from gallons of golden German beer, the stomping, cursing, whoring young Beatles. And in fact it was like that, and that amoral surge of energy, those late nights and unwashed adventures, did preface a whole new era, whether for better or for worse. Without this, there may well have been no free love on the estates, no reefers in the quad; no Prime Ministers in jeans or 61-year-old charity donors with a raging sense of entitlement. Perhaps we would have been denied the union between advertising and the word "revolution". Unprepared, they were; innocent.

Driving into Hamburg, you're immediately struck by how pretty it is. In Heiligengeistfeld, the fair is in town. This is the Dom, the travelling funfair where, in 1961, a girl called Astrid Kirchherr took those sharp, immortal photos of The Beatles slouching on the heavy machinery, radiating youth and pride and the trembling beauty of boys with promise – before they were all chased away by fist-shaking carnies. That's the place, isn't it?

The cab driver nods, and sucks his teeth.

"There you can spend a lot of money".

The Reeperbahn, a broad main road near the right bank of the River Elbe, is known as the naughtiest street in the world, the bulging vein down the middle of Hamburg's priapic St. Pauli district. The centre of the city's rope trade ("Reeper" is low German for rope-maker), it became a meeting point for sailors docked in Hamburg harbour, dropping by to fix their riggings. The presence of these salty horndogs helped establish the Reeperbahn as Hamburg's red light district, and the unsalubrious nightspots began popping up like scabs.

Times Square has been wiped clean as a newborn baby's face; Soho retains some of its grime, but is now essentially a rich kids' playground. This sort of purge has never been an option for the city of Hamburg, which relies at least in part on its seedy image for the tourist trade (the Reeperbahn is said to pull in 30 million visitors a year). So, like central Amsterdam, the Reeperbahn has been tidied slightly. Giggling tourists wander freely, but much authentic sleaze remains. In the morning sunshine, it looks like any of these places in natural light: tatty and ratty and wholly unpleasant. There are one or two odd characters about, standing next to litter bins, swigging on cans at 11am. There's a bike shop called Suicycle, and a grim parade of fast-food joints: a giant sign reads I LOVE HOT DOGS, which is fair enough I suppose.

People still come here to pay for sex. On Herbertstrasse, a gated street a few minutes' walk from the main drag, prostitutes sit in snug shop windows, working pimp-free in relative comfort (signs at the entrance to Herbertstrasse forbid the presence of minors and women – the story is that female visitors are seen as undercutting the workers, and have had buckets of piss and shit tipped onto their heads from the high windows). On the Reeperbahn proper, whey-faced streetwalkers, many Eastern European, work the rough end of the trade. But hookers aren't such a big draw these days. Modern container shipping means the sailors spend less time on shore, and since the 1960s men have found it slightly easier to satisfy their bestial urges without having to hire a professional. St. Pauli's celebrated nightlife keeps the area afloat, but lately it's begun to turn to its adopted moptopped sons to bring in visitors and cash; the next best thing to prostitution.

Walking down the Reeperbahn, a Beatles fan can't help but feel a kind of keening thrill. This here is the Davidwache, the chocolate-box police station where Pete Best and Paul McCartney were held overnight for setting fire to a condom in a corridor, after being turfed out of their grimy digs. A gentleman from their place of work turned up at the front desk before sunrise, greasing the palms of the Polizei with a couple of bottles of questionable Scotch; it didn't stop them being deported.

Here's what used to be the Top Ten Club, where The Beatles played 98 consecutive nights, where Paul and Stuart Sutcliffe had their onstage punch-up in front of a monstrous crowd. The Top Ten lasted until 1988, at which point it became the Moondoo, a more conventional nightspot aimed at more obviously conventional people. Beatles walking tours stop here. Guides stand outside the locked Moondoo door, and hold up photos of The Beatles performing a few feet away in space and a million miles away in time: John Lennon out of his mind in filthy bleached jeans, pulling awful spastic faces, ringed with smoke and drained brown bottles. Even in these happy snaps, you can feel the brutality and joy and desperation – what the hell happened here?

If you turn off the Reeperbahn and cross a few quiet streets, you find what was until quite recently Hamburg's only Beatles memorial. Outside the former Bambi-Kino at 33 Paul-Roosen-Strasse, a sign reads


and next to it, there's a photo taken some nerve-shredded morning, in which tired young men are clowning around, saluting the camera with tubes of Preludin. When they first arrived here, happy to be anywhere, the back room of this building was their home from home: a windowless space, unheated and unventilated, lit by a single bare lightbulb. They slept, when they slept, on mildewed camp beds left over from the war, under filthy Union Jacks unhooked from the masts of passing ships. Nowhere to wash but the public toilets, nowhere to go when they weren't on stage but deeper into the jangling darkness, The Beatles had the undisputed time of their lives.

Life in Hamburg for these young Beatles was grim in a way which seems acceptable to lads in their teens and early twenties, and utterly degenerate in a way which must have seemed fantastic. Their first booking was at the Indra, a strip joint run by Bruno Koschmider, car-coated entrepreneur and veteran of a Panzer Division. Koschmider, a humourless man of porcine appearance and dubious connections, first had The Beatles sharing a bill with "dancers" whose gender was sometimes indeterminate, often up on the tiny stage for seven hours a night. The Indra's kindly toilet attendant, a middle-aged lady by the name of Rosa, provided handfuls of Preludin from a sweet jar stashed beneath a table, as well as condoms which - one assumes - they rarely bothered with, considering the rate at which they contracted various different forms of the pox. Beer was donated by grateful patrons, charmed by their brusquely passionate rejig of 1950s rock and roll; the sex was (usually) free as well. The Beatles' filthy hiding place became the scene of nightly bacchanalia, back when this was naughty but nice, and no one had to think too much about who was being used or exploited, and who was really happy.

On the bootlegs recorded at the Star-Club (the best of which is the two-CD set put together by Purple Chick), there's a version of Chuck Berry's song 'I'm Talking About You'. It's sloppy and drunken, less than two minutes, and taped on a primitive reel-to-reel that leaves it sounding foggy and muffled, but in its way it's as great as anything else The Beatles ever did. Less than cute, more than cool, this is something else. That brassy sexuality which seems measured on The Beatles' records is here almost absurdly blatant. Unreasonable and animalistic, this is dirty rock and roll which doesn't have to struggle with the weight of history or expectation - it's adult and infantile and absolutely free. Whatever happens from here on in, this exists, and is untameable, something impossible to measure or count.

Surely, this is a part of history no one can censor or contain? Today the Bambi-Kino building lies half-hidden by climbing ivy, and has been converted into nice-looking flats. Across the road, it looks as though half the street has been rebuilt, a couple of older houses trapped between new brickwork, behind saloon cars. What happened here?

Back in the 17th century, this part of Hamburg wasn't Hamburg at all – it lay behind a city wall, officially a part of Denmark. The good Hamburgers, with moral rectitude, placed whatever they considered "dirty" on the far side of the wall: prostitutes, drinking dens, artists, Catholics, Jews. In semi-exile, these outsiders managed to tolerate each other pretty well, and whatever else it may have lacked, their mini-society was at least comparatively open. Hence the name of this dingy sidestreet, Grosse Freiheit – The Great Freedom.

The area was taken back into the city of Hamburg in the 30s, though pretty soon the new German government, less keen on freedoms great or small, would start to make their presence felt. The Chinese who'd made their home here were relocated to concentration camps; everyone else either scattered or shut up. Apart, that is, from the Swingjugend, a kind of informal anti-Hitler Youth, rebellious kids whose love of jazz inspired their non-violent resistance to the Nazi orthodoxy. Proto-beatniks with uncropped hair and Union Jacks pinned to their coats, the Swingjugend would dominate St. Pauli's nightlife in the 30s, until the authorities put a end to them, much as they would put a end to many other things. It's said that the children of the Swingjugend were the Exis, boho art-student types who sprang up in Hamburg in the late 50s, fake-French existentialists in long black scarves and leather jackets, straight hair combed across their foreheads. These were the post-Nazi babies – the same generation, more or less, whose horror of the recent past inspired the radical art and politics of the German underground. By late 1960 the Exis were beginning to show up at Beatles shows, and if in the end the world would only notice their influence on The Beatles' image, that's because the world was not looking closely enough.

By the late 50s, Grosse Freiheit was re-established as a place where almost anything went, that is, the kind of place that many people would choose to avoid. The Beatles – John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete – lost no time in sniffing out its various pleasures, which are hard to visualise, it seems, at lunchtime on an August day in quite another time, with a breeze rustling branches and a film crew loading gear out of the back of a TV truck, concerned with anniversaries and things it's not worth knowing.

The old lady living upstairs from the Indra complained so fiercely about the noise that eventually the local police - little happier than in the 30s about the weirdos of St. Pauli - intervened and shut down the club. Koschmider moved the band to the Kaiserkeller, a bigger place a few doors down the street. The Kaiserkeller was a tougher joint, patronised by biker gangs and drunken seamen from the harbour, welcomed in with nautical décor and marshalled by waiters hired on the strength of past success in the boxing ring. When fists proved insufficient for the task of quelling trouble, or were simply not quite enough fun, they'd reach for their Kaiserkeller-issue spring-loaded leather coshes.

The place has been done up since then, the nautical theme long since ditched, and one suspects that nowadays the staff are somewhat milder. Until recently the Kaiserkeller remained one of Hamburg's best rock venues, but its new owners have almost given up on the live music scene, and turned instead to the ready money of Hamburg's student population. Near the entrance, a print of a poster from the early 60s sits behind glass, promising the fresh delights of "The Beatles – England – Liverpool". Opposite, a newer poster advertises forthcoming club nights. "Return To The 80s!", it says.

Across the street is the famous Star-Club - or rather it would be, had it not been burnt to the ground back in the 80s, along with many other things. In its place is a poky courtyard full of bars and non-gourmet restaurants; on the site of the club's front entrance, a black marble monument which looks like a tombstone. Where you'd have found the Star-Club stage, with its painted backdrop of a stylised cityscape, packed with alluring points of light, there now stands something called The Rock Cafe. With pricey burgers and guitar-shaped sign, this is presumably rather like the Hard Rock Cafe, but softer.

So you have to close your eyes and imagine the first Star-Club poster, its throbbing shade of orange and its never-bettered spiel:


Having walked from the Bambi-Kino past all this historic tat, you find yourself emerging into something far, far worse. Beatles-Platz, one can only suppose, is someone's idea of a fitting memorial to what they imagine The Beatles to have been. A 90-foot disc in the middle of the street, paved black like a seven-inch single, forms a base for pastry-cutter outlines of the four musicians, caught in slanting poses with their their guts replaced by space. First mooted by a local oldies station, Beatles-Platz sits where the Reeperbahn meets Grosse Freiheit like a giant circular turd; drivers trying to manoeuvre around it almost flatten the tourists' feet. At night the silvery silhouettes light up, and sparkle like spinning coins - a fitting waste of energy.

Along from here is Beatlemania, a new five-storey Beatles exhibition. On first impression, it makes the Trocadero look quite classy, but then once you're past the entrance hall it's not so bad as these things go, at least in the extensive section covering the Hamburg years. There's a recreation of an old German passport office, with blow-ups of The Beatles' visas (George Harrison somehow neglecting to fill in his year of birth) and reproductions of old club fronts, with fantastic cheesecake paintings by the legendary Erwin Ross. Sitting solemnly in glass cases are a pair of Paul's old leather trousers, and a copy of Lennon's In His Own Write sent on to old mate Astrid Kirchherr, signed "Love and cripples from good John".

It's tough, though, to sit drinking coffee in this well-intentioned tourist trap - surrounded by prints of Astrid's photographs, still so clear and visionary - and think that this is how we're doomed to remember certain kinds of freedom.

Somewhere in the exhibition (before you get to the photo booth, where visitors can see themselves with superimposed Beatle haircuts, or the walk-in model of a yellow submarine) are the young Beatles' handwritten CVs. "John Lennon (Leader)" lists his ambition as "to be RICH" - the last word is underlined twice. Exit through gift shop with its branded pretzels ("Twist And Shout!") and into Hamburg, where some people are living John Lennon (Leader)'s dream.

The Empire Riverside Hotel, 20 storeys of metal and glass, is a pretty unmissable symbol of change. Before its completion in 2007, few visitors stayed in St. Pauli, still a fairly shabby place. The brainchild of Willi Bartels (who sounds like a game in the school toilets, but was in fact "The King Of St. Pauli", brothel-owner turned buyer of real estate), the hotel now provides a base for businessmen and well-off tourists keen to cop that Reeperbahn cool in modern five-star comfort. Seen from the other side of the Elbe, it towers over the rest of St. Pauli, smirking down on this cheap, low-rise, outdated world; protestors were out on Bernhard-Nocht-Strasse at every stage of its construction, doing what they could to stop it. They too were dwarfed by the scale of the building, and the force it represents.

The gentrification of St. Pauli began over a decade ago. Then, the place was scuzzy and disreputable, somewhere to visit on a stag night perhaps, but not somewhere respectable people chose to spend much time. It was dirty, and it was cheap. Aside from the sex workers, barmen and hoods, the only people who wanted to live here were Hamburg's artists and musicians, who not only liked the atmosphere but found they could afford the rents – even if they couldn't, there were squats on every street. In a city as expensive as Hamburg, this was an essential lifeline.

These kind of people – painters, rock bands, writers, layabouts – tend not to generate very much money, but they do create a kind of ambience which can itself be sold. What's happening in St. Pauli is the same thing that happened in Notting Hill and Camden Town and anywhere else perceived as "cool": rents went up, long-timers were squeezed out. Investors swooped on this promising real estate, buying it cheap and converting it into something considerably more expensive. Young professionals, willing to pay for that coffee-ad vision of bohemia, started to arrive in numbers. Crime rates fell, revenue increased and everybody won, unless you count the losers.

Gentrification has been met with strong organised resistance from St. Pauli's "real" residents: old-school lefties, anarchists, Greens. Earlier this year the old Erotic Art Museum was occupied by squatters protesting against the purchase of yet more crumbling houses, earmarked for redevelopment into yet more luxury flats. Next to the Empire Riverside Hotel, an old bar is under threat from people keener on something fitting their vision for the new St. Pauli, something smooth and profitable. The locals have hung a bedsheet from a window, and covered it with painted slogans pledging their defiance; what happens next is anyone's guess, but it's hard to feel too optimistic.

It was here in St. Pauli that Hamburg's first-ever social housing was built about a century ago, providing affordable living space for the city's countless dockers. It's here, at Jaegerpassage 1, that John Lennon was photographed by an Exi pal called Jurgen Vollmer, leaning in a doorway with practised insouciance, an image Lennon loved so much he used it for the cover of Rock'n'Roll - an album of old Hamburg favourites recorded in 1974, just before his early retirement into breadmaking, drugs and real estate. The vaulted doorway is still in place, but the cheap electric light above has long since come down, leaving a faint impression on the brickwork.

There's little social housing left, and one by one the squats are being cleared. Aware that its artists are migrating to Berlin in search of affordable spaces to work (and worried that St. Pauli might entirely lose its lucrative "cool"), Hamburg's local government subsidises what they perceive as useful or potentially profitable creative industries: indie labels, privately-run shops, computer games development, and so on. Anyone who can prove their credentials can be an officially-sanctioned weirdo, and help themselves to cheap office hire, or a rent-controlled flat. Many have, quite understandably, taken advantage of the offer. Deeper into old St. Pauli, you find artists' studios and agitprop posters next to high-priced tattoo parlours and "alternative" tailors where suits begin at something like a thousand Euro; a street sign reads "Strasse des Kreativen Kapitets", and underneath, in tiny print, there's a bit of branding: "The City Of Cool".

Others feel patronised, or have been excluded, or see this as too little too late, or are less than keen to play a part in what they see as collaboration. The artist Daniel Richter issued his own florid manifesto for "Jamming The Gentrification Machine": "Dear location politicians: we refuse to talk about this city in marketing categories. We don't want to 'position' local neighbourhoods as 'colourful, brash, eclectic' parts of town, nor will we think of Hamburg in terms of 'water, cosmopolitanism, internationality,' or any other 'success modules of the brand Hamburg' that you choose to concoct. We are thinking about other things."

Just across from the Golden Pudel, a riverside electro club built into a fisherman's hut, there's a sticker on a lamppost, in English:


"Cool", it seems, is irresistible. Who doesn't want to be cool? The concept was crucial to The Beatles' success, and to the changes which would follow in its massive, glittering wake. Cool began as a kind of armour for poor, black Americans in hostile new cities, and was soon adopted by bolshy white kids who felt they too had become pariahs - oppositional by nature, it proved a little too alluring. Cool was sufficiently mute and abstract to mean almost anything you wanted it to mean. Cool, with its taunting exclusivity, proved ideal for selling things. Cool, with its blithe disregard for sacrifice or fear of death, became an ideal tool with which to funnel emotions into commerce. Anything that wasn't cool – which, if it means anything now, means photogenic, superficial – ceased to be appropriate. The classics and the great philosophers, they weren't cool at all, so the elite cast off their old top hats and got decked out in denim, striking rock-star poses with Strats and saxophones; in the ginnels and the estate pubs, no one now can hear the phrase "the dignity of labour" without sniggering, or wondering what it was supposed to mean. We are all cool now. Isn't it fantastic?

It's not just St. Pauli that's been gentrified, of course. The mini-revolution of the 60s has been codified, and new rules drawn up: in the free world there are still acceptable and unacceptable forms of freedom. Thanks to The Beatles and what happened around them, old-fashioned morality has crumbled into dust, at least in the ornate, exhausted cities of the West. Sex is not a dirty secret, long hair is no big deal, deference and pious self-denial seem hilarious. But other, more transgressive ideas, less well-suited to a culture of consumerism, have been neutralised, or at the very least contained. Almost anything is permitted, so long as it doesn't frighten the horses, and won't interfere with the unrestricted generation of wealth.

Who doesn't want to be rich - in block capitals, underlined twice?

The morning after those seven-hour shifts, The Beatles would breakfast at Cafe Moller, near the end of Grosse Freiheit. It's been preserved in early-Sixties style (including the toilets, it seems) but rebranded as a kind of theme bar: these days its official name is "Cafe Moller am Beatles-Platz." A jukebox is loaded with the band's back catalogue, and plays the hits on endless rotation. You can buy a T-shirt with your schnitzel.

Sitting here at a table by the window is Horst Fascher, local legend and a well-known name to any serious Beatle fan. Originally a bouncer at the Kaiserkeller, then managing director of the Top Ten Club, Horst was hired by Manfred Weissleder, local businessman of dubious repute, to help set up the Star-Club at Grosse Freiheit 39 - planned as Hamburg's biggest and most spectacular rock'n'roll club. Horst was The Beatles' official protector (though such was Weissleder's reputation, wearing the special Star-Club pin badge put off most would-be assailants), but he became a close friend, too. You can hear him on the Hamburg tapes, taking his turn as guest vocalist, belting out a fairly reasonable "Halleujah, I Love Her So." Paul McCartney, always the most maddeningly two-faced Beatle and yet in some ways the most decent and human, still sort-of keeps in touch. At least, when Horst occasionally calls, the message gets through Paul's "people" and reaches the man himself. Sometimes, he calls back.

Horst Fascher is a small man, with a white beard and a fishing cap which covers his bald head. He has the flat, caved-in nose of a featherweight boxer and inveterate street fighter – other than that, he could almost pass as the local department store Santa. Now in his Seventies, Horst writes books about the greatest time of his life, which happens to be more interesting than the greatest times of most people's lives. With tiny, delicate hands which must have thumped more than a few, he hands round a business card which features his face – cut out, like on a pantomime poster - plonked in the middle of a big yellow star, like the one that used to sit over the entrance to the Star-Club, when there was a Star-Club. "Horst Fascher Entertainment", it says: Horst is still in business. Having been around this block more often than anyone can count, he's still keen to make a career of it, and in all honesty you can't really blame him.

Horst tells the old stories beautifully, with pauses for memory and a sense of loss which doesn't quite dim the still-bright excitement, and they could all be true or fishy as the Fischmarkt; it hardly matters any more. How he caught Lennon in a transsexual club, or getting blowjobs behind the bar from Star-Club barmaid "Big" Bettina Derlien; how he had to drag Little Richard out of a room at the Hotel Pacific because he was trying to rape Ringo Starr ("he said he liked his big nose").

At the Star-Club, Horst was in charge of the bar staff and also booked the bands, and his first job was to make damn sure The Beatles were hired as soon as possible. Horst went over to Liverpool to arrange the booking in person; the band's new manager Brian Epstein tried to explain that they still had a contract with Peter Eckhorn's Top Ten Club, now what might be delicately termed a rival establishment.

"'Mr Epstein', I said. 'If The Beatles go back to Top Ten Club... THERE WILL BE NO TOP TEN CLUB!'" There's a moment of slightly awkward silence, then Horst starts giggling like a little boy. "I was a dangerous guy back then," he smiles with obvious delight. His female companion reaches over and hands him his indigestion tablets.

On the last day of 1962, The Beatles' last night at the Star-Club – the night you hear on those live recordings - Horst Fascher and John Lennon were sat at a table in a quiet corner, sharing a noisy drink. Back in England, The Beatles' first single had already been and gone, having lightly grazed the Top 20; their second, 'Please Please Me', was recorded and due for release in the cold new year. Horst raised a glass and toasted his old mate - see you again soon, eh? Lennon laughed and slapped the table. "Horst, we'll never come back," he said. "I'm telling you now – this is it. If we ever come back here, you'll have to roll out a fucking red carpet."

"I couldn't believe what he was saying to me," Horst whispers, shaking his head. "But he was right. I never saw him again in my life." He turns his head to look out of the window, into the cooling Reeperbahn air, and blinks away some tough-guy tears.

Time to step out into the crowds, as the sun sets on Cafe Moller, near the end of the Great Freedom.

TO-NITE! the Indra, fully refurbished and very much back in business, hosts a performance by Bambi Kino. This is a supergroup of sorts, formed by members of Guided By Voices, Cat Power, Maplewood and Nada Surf to play the pre-fame Beatles' songs, just as they sounded 50 years ago. A tribute band then, more or less, though they don't look much like the Hamburg Beatles, being fortyish and gracefully greying.

The Indra, as you might expect, is conscious of its past. The first thing that The Beatles saw in 1960 was the sign that hung over the door, with its picture of an Indian elephant – the new sign is smaller but keeps the motif, except that the elephant now shares its space with the name of the local beer. Some things never change, of course: since the Indra reopened its doors, it's been plagued by residents complaining about the noise.

The club fills up with the kind of people you'd expect to come out for something like this, and Bambi Kino play 'Besame Mucho' and 'Kansas City' and 'Red Sails In The Sunset', and they're good, and they're loud, and they can really do it. They've even got the balls to sing 'Long Tall Sally' in its proper, caterwauling key of G (by the time he was about their age, Paul McCartney had dropped it to E, lest his vocal cords fly out of his mouth).

And, as Bambi Kino know, none of this bears any resemblance to what it's meant to be. For all their obvious love and care, they're a little too smooth to sound totally authentic, conscious of what's been and gone, and what will never be. They don't mach shau, as Bruno Koschmider once used to demand – there's no tomfoolery, or Preludin craziness, no grotesque and lurching mimickry of Gene Vincent's crippled leg. At no point do they greet their audience with stiff-armed salutes and cross-eyed cries of "Sieg heil, you fuckin' Nazi bastards!" But then, they're not performing for a crowd of drunken sailors, chucking wooden tables at each others' faces until someone like Horst charges out of a back room with a cosh held high above his head. Horst, in fact, is sat in the beer garden under a giant golf umbrella, listening through the open doors as the late summer weather breaks. "They're good," he smiles. "They do it very well. But if anyone tells me they're as good as The Beatles, I say 'don't talk to me any more!'"

A means to an end; the beginning of nothing. And yet this music can still stir something, when you crank it loud enough. Commercial music, written with love, aimed at an unpredictable market; songs by people trying to get rich quick, people who wanted out of this and wanted into that. Songs that pound their 12-bar enclosures in frantic circles, like zoo animals, demanding more space, more time. And for a while there was more space, though there was never enough time.

It's a point in their favour that they're doing this for love. You sense that for Bambi Kino, this is a very personal thing – like many full-time Beatles fans, theirs is not just a love of old music, a fondness for some long-defunct close-harmony rock and roll band. This preposterous Beatles obsession, stupid as it may well seem, is really about chasing something buried deep inside oneself – something glimpsed as a kid, perhaps, inbetween the sound and light, some hint of freedom and endless possibility, some kind of strange unmanageable beauty, something that never lets you rest. Plenty of us have wasted our lives in search of this indefinable freedom, something to make it all alright, some kind of promise sure to be kept. Sooner or later, in The Beatles' faded footsteps, we find to our horror that one thing is certain: whatever we're looking for, it lives in the past. Somebody else's past, perhaps, or even worse - our own.

Horst is holding court outside, the centre of a little crowd who've come to pay their respects to a legend, or just to say hi to that guy with the fishing cap. Pointing into the steaming Indra, he says their playing is pretty good but they still don't sing like The Beatles – not with that desperate passion he can still recall, from what is now a very long time ago.

That's a sloppy and a savage passion which was, I suppose, at the heart of what we now think of as the 1960s – grasping, demanding, rude and ungrateful, but still somehow inherently good, at least for a little while. A kind of desire which can't be satisfied by sentimentality or trying to pretend: this is what prised the world open, briefly, and shortly afterwards slammed it shut. It lives in the past, in history, because it was wrong and it really meant nothing. It lives in the past, our personal past, because it's hopelessly out of tune with what freedom really means in a small, expensively-rented life.

Can we go back? We can't afford to.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, rain is falling on the Grosse Freiheit. I clamber into a paid-for taxi to keep my leather jacket dry, and head back to my paid-for room at the Empire Riverside Hotel, with its air conditioning and scowling receptionists, and its complimentary chocolate on the nightstand. Thinking of nothing in particular, I spend a moment at the tall glass wall with a view of the lit-up Landungsbrücken, where the big ships sail into Hamburg, unload, and sail away.

It's getting late but I can't sleep, so I strap on my headphones and listen hard to the uncontrollable young Beatles, capturing in blaze and crackle things which cannot be explained, things which mean a great deal more than if they were experienced, or ever really real.

"Give me money," screams John Lennon, king of a changing world.

"Give me money. A whole lotta money. That's what I want."