"I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg." John Lennon supposedly said it, in reference to the Beatles' storied visits to the bustling German port city. When they were first starting out, the young band regularly mounted stages around town and played marathon shows, fueled by Holsten lager and a walloping, now-banned stimulant called Preludin, in an effort to feed Hamburg's growing appetite for rock and roll. It all began on August 17, 1960, when Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, doomed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and original drummer Pete Best, all dressed in lilac jackets and pointy winklepicker shoes, mounted the stage of the Indra, a club better known for striptease acts. Over the next two years, the band played hundreds of cover songs—rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and even old dancehall numbers—to unforgiving German audiences. When they weren't performing or sleeping in shabby quarters behind the screen of the Bambi Kino, a seedy local cinema, they talked about Sartre with local existentialists, occasionally pranced about with toilet seats around their necks, and enjoyed all that Hamburg's Reeperbahn, one of the biggest red-light districts in Europe, had to offer. It was the apprenticeship that made the Beatles the Beatles.
Fifty years to the day after that first performance, a group of American indie rockers that included drummer Ira Elliot (Nada Surf), bassist Erik Paparazzi (Cat Power), and guitarists Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices) and myself performed as Bambi Kino at the Indra, which still survives in its original location. For a week, we played nearly four hours a night, precisely re-creating the Beatles' expansive 1960-62 set lists, in an attempt to channel the energy and excitement of the group's Hamburg heyday—arguably the most potent creation story in all of rock music. The whole town got in on the celebration, with posters proclaiming 50 YEARS AGO TODAY, TV cameras everywhere, and survivors from the glory days partying like it was 1960. In the middle of the maelstrom were the four of us Americans: sweating, destroying our vocal chords, and having the time of our lives.