In 1945, amongst a large collection of papyri dug up near Nag Hammadi (Egypt, obviously) was found a tatty, tea stained piece of papyrus; full of holes and seemingly indecipherable ancient text.
It tells the story, so it goes, of a young boy with questionable parentage who, bestowed with gifts that he had yet to gain a full understanding or control of, was creating ripples of havoc in his local community. A burden to local elders, he payed little deference at their attempts at guidance, wildlife and was a terrible influence on other children who spent their time both in awe and more than a little terrified of him.
That little boy, if you can imagine, grew up to be more popular than the Beatles. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, gives an impossibly rare and highly disputed insight into what a juvenile Christ was all about - which was, by this account, a very naughty boy.
Every now and again, something crops up out of an old ladies attic or a dune covered trove that provides a mouth watering glimpse into a past fallen (or quickly falling) out of living memory.
Enter the Time Machine rhetoric of fantasy: Visiting the Nativity. Being at the Battle of Waterloo. Clocking Cleopatra. Peeping at the Pilgrims setting foot on Plymouth Rock. Arsenal at Anfield, May 1989. Killing baby Hitler. Seeing yourself being born…just me?
There are many claims to the folks, things and places people would visit with a time portal should they have access to one. Some highly personal, some world changing and some very niche. Seeing the Beatles perform in Hamburg, some time in 1961, is a curious mix of all three, and ‘Ain’t She Sweet?’ is about as close as we’re ever going to get as long as baby Hitler remains not having been thrown out of an Austrian maternity ward’s window.
Having arrived after a nine year van journey from medieval Liverpool, the fatigued five arrived in Große Freiheit, Hamburg in the early morning of the 17th October 1960. They would play their inaugural show of 48, nearly in a row, a few hours later. They arrived at the club and crashed out on the leather chairs (according to McCartney) or found their digs (everyone else) and set about unwittingly changing the course of history.
There are many famous tales of miraculous transformation from one thing to another: Teenage Jesus turned clay birds into living breathing ones and turned living neighbours into dead ones. Transformative moments in more modern climes, usually involve a metaphorical or literal crossroads, and one was found at the very beginning of what can be described as the modern age of popular music.
Robert Johnson met Jesus’s mad uncle, the devil, at one and signed his soul away - taking him from hopeless blues guitar hanger-on, to 18 finger picking master. The few, doubtless sped up, Johnson recordings that we have do hint at something mysterious and spectacular, but alas, we have no before and after, thus rendering the tale into myth. The Delta of the 1920’s & ’30s retains its own mystery and magic, it being the dusty soiled air that surrounds it and the sepia toned pictures that survived it.
One other demonstrably miraculous transformation that occurred is the apparently instantaneous mutation of the proto-Beatles from Silver Beetle amateurish ragamuffins to hard rocking, synergetic jet engines. There are two interesting sides to this story...
Mark Lewisohn, in his incomparable All These Years, points out that by the end of their hard living and harder playing initial Hamburg stints, they were already the most experienced rock and roll band in the world having racked up a, by any standard, astonishing 1,100 hours of stage time. Most bands today (with a great back catalogue of recorded work and years of onstage experience) will play for anything up to two hours a time. If The Beatles did that, it would equate to five hundred and fifty shows. They didn’t, of course - they would play seven or eight hours at a time, stopping only for a blow job or a swig of German pilsner and a Preludin or three to keep them from passing out…from the pilsner or exhaustion; whoever came first.
This hothouse environment grew The Beatles’ repertoire and their playing chops at an astonishing rate, so much so that the Liverpool scene that didn’t miss them when they’d gone, didn’t even recognise them when they returned. They were billed as a German band when espousing their new life as a ‘kind of professional ‘cos I don’t have another job’ band, causing a stampede at their first homecoming gig at Litherland Town Hall.
Here’s another time machine moment: Paul bellows “Well, I told Aunt Mary ‘bout Uncle John…”, the curtains creep open and the crowd bin off their dates and their jives and in an instant, Beatlemania’s born. It was that sudden and it never went away. At least, it hasn't yet.
So, practice made perfect, then? Not quite. Malcolm Gladwell claims that anything can be mastered from 10,000 hours of study or practice. (This is why God invented masturbation.) So, in that case, why were’t Gerry & the Pacemakers the second Beatles? Why weren’t The Beatles the first Gerry & the Pacemakers? They both had very similar experiences in regard to playing to near death in Germany. The answer is both simple and unfathomably mysterious: Magic.
Magic exists in many forms. Illusionary. Practical. Faith. Love. A suspension of disbelief. In the retelling of an upheld consensus. What they all have in common is for it to exist there has to exist alongside it the willingness for it to be there. But why? Isn’t there a need for pragmatism? Belief is the foundation of hope. And in 2020 we can all do with some of that.
Where’re we goin’ fellas?
The transformation of the early pre-Beatles Beatles, there in evidence from the array of scratchy private and near unlistenable rehearsal tapes from 1960 that pre-dates Hamburg, but not by much, to the blistering Star Club tapes from late 1962 is in nothing short of magic. You don’t even have to believe it for it to be real.
So, here we are at the midpoint between the two. 1961. ‘Ain’t She Sweet’. Recorded as a quid pro-quo from the agreement to back Hamburg based southern bar-fight agitator Tony Sheridan for his German Polydor release, the rollicking ‘My Bonny’(which will eventually bring the band to the attention of a local record store manager), the Beatles in their infinite wisdom, and influenced by the contemporary German taste for old standards being rehashed, opted for a song first recorded by Gene Austin in 1927. Here we get to hear a segway from their acoustic backed skiffle phase into cleanly recorded but throatily played pure rock and roll. It doesn’t sound like anything the Beatles would ever do again, but it’s not meant to.
John’s voice is shot, but he lustily sings after the pretty thing he’s following down the street (#metoo), George is tentative. He’s finding his playing chops, but often falls into awkward moment territory as he stutters under the one-take pressure. Pete splashes the kit that’s had it’s bass drum cut off to help him keep in time, lightly and repetitively (it’s the beginning of a death of a thousand cuts) and then there’s Paul.
Paul. Up to now, Paul had been an auxiliary guitar player. An unnecessary third wheel in a band shedding passengers like washboard players. For the most naturally gifted of all the Beatle’s instrumentalists (sorry George fans, it’s Paul) he’d had his chance at his first Quarry Men show and promptly blown a solo, so meekly relegated himself to a supporting role. As Stuart Sutcliffe, the coolest, most handsome, most enigmatic of any of the bands past and present members, began to experience failing health and diminishing interest in music, the four stringed ‘fat persons’ guitar got placed in his hands, and immediately he was practically a virtuoso. Here he shows his natural affiliation with the instrument, and the beginnings of a very interesting period of growth, both as an instrumentalist and band member.
Here's a perfect demonstration on the current stage of the three core member's development:
One can imagine dipping into a Hamburg red light district bar in the hope of seeing some tits, but instead being greeted with this. Now that’s value for money (and that's what we want).
What did you think about 'Ain't She Sweet?' I'd love to hear your thoughts. See you in the comments!