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Pilzköpfe, Preludin and St. Pauli: The Beatles in Germany

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

There is no doubt that The Beatles were a global phenomenon, and their popularity in Germany is no exception. In fact, the band originally found fame in Hamburg, playing their first gig at the city's Indra Club, and later even releasing some of their hit songs in German. So how did the lads from Liverpool come to find their sound in the German port city?

How it began

In August 1960, Pete Best, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe left their home city of Liverpool, where lucrative opportunities for their band, the Silver Beatles, had proved hard to come by. They had been snapped up by promoter Alan Williams, who personally drove them to Hamburg in an Austin J4 minibus. On the 17th of August, they began a season of performances at the Indra Club in the St. Pauli district, joining a stream of English imports entertaining West Germany’s largest port.

A sign for Beatles-Platz, Hamburg ("named after the world-famous pop group from Liverpool, whose career began in the Hamburg Star Club in 1962"). Photo: Heide-Daniel via Wikimedia Commons, CC-SA-3.0

The five young Liverpudlians soon became well-acquainted with the port city’s entertainment and red-light district, which revolved around the Reeperbahn and the Große Freiheit and played host to some of the city’s most-frequented nightclubs. They played marathon seven-hour sets, drawing from a broad catalogue of hits from across the preceding decade. Only through the use of Preludin, a powerful prescription stimulant with similar effects to amphetamines, could the group keep up the pace. This was a band who were truly rough around the edges, learning on the job. Not only did they expand their rock-and-roll repertoire at a blistering pace, but they also began to place greater emphasis on their own compositions.

George Harrison recalled their performances in the city as an “apprenticeship”, and an invaluable opportunity to hone their live performance skills: “At the time, we weren't famous and people came to see us simply because of our music and the atmosphere we created.” However, the band’s time in Hamburg was by no means a purely musical adventure. It was in this period that The Beatles cultivated the image that would soon power them to global fame. Local photographer Jürgen Vollmer is credited with the creation of the famous ‘mop-top’ hairstyle, known in German as the ‘Pilzkopf’ (mushroom-head).

Difficult setbacks

George Harrison’s eventual deportation on the 30th November 1960 marked the beginning of the end for the band’s first stint in Hamburg. At just 17 years of age, he was too young to perform in nightclubs, and had lied about his age to the authorities to secure a visa in the first place. Despite the setbacks, The Beatles soon returned to the harbour city, and by the end of 1962, they had played more than 250 sets, largely in the nightclubs of St. Pauli. They were not the first Brits to make a name for themselves in the Hamburg scene: indeed, fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers gave them a run for their money in the early days, at home and in Germany.

Even after they had moved on from Hamburg, the band maintained strong ties with the nation. They faced pressure from EMI’s German division pushed for the “Fab Four” to sing in translation, in a bid to build their reputation in the country even further. Just nine days after they released their first studio album in the United States, Introducing… The Beatles, they were hard at work at the Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris to record “Sie liebt dich” (“She Loves You”) and “Komm gib mir deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”). The latter peaked at number one in the West German charts, and has recently returned to the attention of non-German audiences with its feature on the Jojo Rabbit (2019) soundtrack. By the time of their 1966 return to West German soil for the ‘Bravo-Beatles-Blitztournee’, the ‘Pilzköpfe’ enjoyed nationwide fame and went on to score 12 number-one singles.

Clashes with conservative society

The Beatles’ success tells us as much about the young Federal Republic of Germany in the 1960s as it does about the band. Despite the rapid economic development that would come to be known as the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, the 1950s and early 1960s did not see such radical progress in the social sphere. The Christian Democratic Union and conservative Catholic Chancellor Konrad Adenauer sought to reassert the role of the family and maintained a social and religious conservatism that was inevitably incompatible with rock-and-roll counterculture.

Though Adenauer had been Chancellor since West Germany had gained its independence, and his CDU remained the dominant political force, Historian Detlef Siegfried saw this as an era of ‘de-traditionalization, de-industrialization, mediatization, and cultural pluralization.’ A band which came to symbolise the dissolution of the boundaries between classes and genders proved a menacing threat to conservatives the world over, and this was no different in the Federal Republic. Though many boundaries were dissolved through The Beatles’ music, others were intensified, with the generation that had lived through the war becoming increasingly at odds with their children.

Even in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger, a newspaper known for its liberal orientation, reporters repeatedly sensationalised the “Beatlemania” sweeping the UK, comparing it to a “medieval plague”. Repeatedly, it was linked to lawlessness, and it was suggested that it caused an “irrepressible urge to break through police barricades” in 1963. Their coverage continued to associate the band with disease, and became tinged with a distinct anti-feminism with the assertion that the “fever” of Beatlemania “primarily affected young women”, and that “demure daughters become wild hyenas”.

Popularity in the GDR

What’s more, despite the concerted efforts of the Ministry of Culture and the Stasi, the GDR was by no means untouched by Beatlemania and the rise of rock and roll. Walter Ulbricht, the nation’s de facto dictator, denounced the ‘monotony’ of the Beatles’ music, making a derisory reference to the chorus of the track “She Loves You” and the repetition of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” in a speech at the 11th Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the SED.

In accordance with the repressive policies of the Soviet Union, Ulbricht continued to shelter the young Socialist nation from Western influences, with a campaign of censorship and state-devised alternatives. Nonetheless, their music, and later that of The Rolling Stones, could never be silenced. Young people continued to tune in to Western radio stations, and youth culture proved impressively resistant to state control.

A palpable legacy

Though they came to strike a chord with young people on both sides of the inner German border, it is in Hamburg, the city where they found their sound, that The Beatles’ legacy is most palpable. In less than two months’ time, it will have been 50 years since the band’s breakup, and yet the recognition of their importance to the city has scarcely diminished. In 2008, Beatles-Platz officially opened to the public, with a circular, record-like design, complete with cookie-cutter-like statues of the band’s original members.

Beatles-Platz, Hamburg. Photo: Carmelo Bayarcal via Wikimedia Commons

Though Hamburg will arguably never quite match the monuments in their home city of Liverpool, the square is a sound testament to the lasting impact of Beatlemania in Hamburg and across Germany.

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