Jun 4, 2020

'A Good Stomping Band'

The cast of Backbeat. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Cross-posted on Train My Ear.
Some years ago I was hired to write the program notes for the Center Theatre Group's production of Backbeat, a stage musical Iain Softley adapted from his pretty-good Beatles biopic. I never got a chance to see the show, as it didn't make it beyond its L.A. run in early 2013. But it did give me the excuse to geek out about the Fab Four's early days, and to re-litigate a debate that raged through my high school years: Were the Beatles really rock 'n' roll? Here's the full text of it.

For a certain generation or two of music fans, it is the fundamental disagreement, the Coke-or-Pepsi, Yankees-or-Mets, blond-or-brunette divide of rock ’n’ roll: Beatles or Stones? Though the lads from Liverpool clearly dominate in terms of sales figures and cross-generational appeal, the rude boys from Dartford inevitably have the edge in any argument where the standard is rock credibility. The Rolling Stones, the reasoning goes, were scruffy white bluesmen who sang frankly about sex and violence, and were more likely to spend offstage hours shagging and shooting up than showering—in other words, the rock ethos personified—while the Beatles, with their sunny major-key harmonies and singalong choruses, were essentially English music-hall tunesmiths with pretensions to seriousness. The Stones sang “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

If this back-and-forth continues, as it tends to, it will be another point against the Beatles that they retreated early, like hothouse flowers, from the pressures of live performing and became hermetic pop artistes with the studio as their canvas, while the Stones have ever and always been indefatigable strut-and-sweat showmen, a working band unafraid to face down any crowd, and indeed are still rolling well into retirement age.

There is, of course, no winning such an argument, which is why it blissfully rages on. Still, the Beatles partisan looking to shore up the band's rock credentials might cite the rowdy, punishing Hamburg apprenticeship that is the chief backdrop of the new stage musical Backbeat, based on the 1994 film of the same title. The long hours they logged on the stages of seedy clubs in that rough-and-tumble city's Reeperbahn was the Beatles' conservatory, trade school, and frat house—the crucible that transformed them from half-cocked dabblers to what one observer called "a good stomping band."

It was no ordinary touring gig the Beatles undertook to Hamburg, first in 1960, then four more times through 1962. These were days when rock bands were still something of a novelty, and club owners and booking agents were accordingly trying novel approaches in programming them. Was this loud new music meant for giddy underage teenyboppers, or for heavy-drinking adult crowds who'd as soon throw chairs as sit on them? Was it music to dance to, or music to watch strippers dance to? Bruno Koschmider, a former fairground showman and WWII veteran, took a maximalist approach when booking music at his Reeperbahn nightclubs, most of them former strip clubs frequented by prostitutes and their johns: require bands to play relentlessly all night, for as long as six to eight hours, in return for as much beer as they could down and some pocket change.

The Beatles, eager teens that they were, were up for the endurance challenge (and later, when energy flagged, got through it with the help of pep pills called Preludin). John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe formed the core quartet; they hastily recruited a drummer, Pete Best, and headed in a van to Germany posing as vacationing students, since they didn't have the requisite work permits (most of the group had only just acquired passports, this being their first trip abroad). There they encountered a port city quite a bit larger, rougher, and more decadent than the port city of Liverpool they knew. Given filthy lodgings behind the screen of a movie theater called Bambi Kino, the Beatles settled in for a 14-week initiation that would include a basic rock 'n' roll curriculum of sex, booze, brawling, destruction of property, and, most importantly, the fine art of entertaining indifferent, even hostile foreigners.

The legendary stage marathons at Koschmider's clubs—and later, the stage of a rival club owner, in a breach of contract that led an angry Koschmider to get them deported—were so integral to forming the band that would later conquer the world that they served as a case study in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers. Gladwell counted their roughly 1,200 working nights in Germany as an example of his "10,000-hour rule"—the notion that a certain intensive amount of time spent practicing and preparing is as crucial to "genius" as talent. Gladwell quotes John Lennon:
We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.
In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.
Indeed, the Beatles' strongest claim to rock 'n' roll cred is not that they put in the hours and became a cracking live band but that they learned to work it. Faced with an unresponsive audience, and famously admonished by Koschmider to "mak show," Lennon—soon followed by McCartney and his bandmates—started to act like a wild man onstage. As Beatles biographer Philip Norman put it in Shout!, Lennon "began to go berserk onstage, prancing and groveling in imitation of any rock 'n' roller or movie monster his dazzled mind could summon up."

Those long hours required not just new ways of playing but a whole new repertoire: to their usual trove of Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent covers, the Beatles added more American rhythm and blues, along with novelty songs like "Peppermint Twist," even a bit of jazz. One observer recalls the Beatles gamely trying to play through a standard off sheet music—something a feat, given that they didn't read music. These cover tunes, which fill out the playlist of Backbeat (including "Long Tall Sally," "Twist and Shout," "Money," "Rock & Roll Music," "Kansas City"), were among the raw musical material that John and Paul (and later, George) would mine for their original songs. And much as the vast number of hours they spent playing in Hamburg gave them that much more practice as musicians, the breadth of material they had to learn, absorb, and interpret in those years served as a crash course in rock music theory, composition, and arrangement.

The Hamburg days also famously marked the birth of another Beatles signature: their style. Though Stu Sutcliffe's girlfriend, the artist Astrid Kirchherr, denies any special credit, the haircuts she gave the lads, which her set called "exi" (for "existentialist"), became the template for the Beatles' moptops. Though by the time we Americans met them, they were dressed in identical Edwardian, collarless suits, the Beatles who first returned from Germany favored leather jackets and cowboy boots. It was a sleek teen-rebel look that, combined with their newfound musical confidence and raucous stage show, immediately bowled over English crowds. Most Beatles historians, in fact, mark the beginning of Beatlemania to their first Liverpool show after Hamburg, in December 1960, when, as biographer Bob Spitz put it, they "squeezed every nerve of the local rock 'n' roll scene" by throwing up a "wall of grinding sound and [a] veil of black leather."

Does this settle the case for the Beatles as authentic rockers? Maybe not. But if their experience seems typical now, it is partly because the Beatles set the type: a troupe of promisingly creative teens who don't quite finish art school or learn a trade but instead run off and join the rock circus. Besides, what other art school dropout became a rock god? Why, bluesman Keith Richards.