It was where the biggest band of all time cut its teeth.
The Star Club in Hamburg, one of the key venues where a little-known four-piece from Liverpool transformed themselves into the Fab Four, is afforded a special status among Beatles fans. Before an audience often more interested in the fleshy delights of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red light district, the Beatles performed not only their own songs but those of other groups and singers whom they admired.
Now, for a six-figure sum, a collector will be able to own the historically important recordings made at the venue in December 1962. Ted Owen and Co auctioneers are selling a package of tapes, edited and unedited, that features 33 tracks recorded at the club, which has long since disappeared.
The recordings capture a crucial moment in the Beatles’ evolution. Ringo Starr had only recently replaced Pete Best on drums and the band were starting to make a name for themselves in Britain, having hit the charts two months earlier with Love Me Do.
Many of the songs are performed at pace because of the drugs the band were experimenting with at the time – Preludin, a form of speed. “All the waiters in Hamburg were using it. So their songs were performed at breakneck speed,” Owen said.
Among the songs on the tapes are Twist and Shout, written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven and Phil Spector’s To Know Her Is to Love Her. Only two of the recorded tracks, I Saw Her Standing There and Ask Me Why, were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Recorded on a single reel-to-reel Grundig tape machine using one microphone, the tapes were made by the Star’s stage manager, Adrian Barber, during the Beatles’ third and final residency at the venue. They were apparently made at the request of Ted “Kingsize” Taylor, of another Liverpool band, the Dominoes. Taylor said Lennon agreed to the recordings if he paid for the band’s beers, a disputed arrangement that became the basis for multiple lawsuits down the years that have absorbed Beatles’ aficionados and music historians – and the band members. During one court case, George Harrison said that “one drunken person recording another bunch of drunks does not constitute a business deal”.
At one stage the recordings were offered to the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, for £100,000. But Epstein offered £20, claiming the tapes were of poor quality. Eventually they ended up with Larry Grossberg, the business manager of Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali, who spent £100,000 on remixing them and releasing 26 of the finished tracks on an album released in 1977.
Now Grossberg has decided to sell the two original safety master tapes from which the album was produced along with various remixes and the seven-inch reel safety master of the original unedited Beatles mono tape that ran during the performances, often when the band were not playing. “I’m 74 and it’s time to sell,” he said. “I don’t want my family to have the burden of going through my things and liquidating everything.”
Grossberg has correspondence from the Beatles’ record label, Apple, that he says confirms it will not contest the sale of the tapes, which are being sold as memorabilia. “There are no rights coming with it,” he said. “What people do with it is up to them. But we’ve got no control of that.”
Owen is putting a reserve price of between £100,000 and £150,000 on the tapes but suggested that they could go for considerably more. Beatles memorabilia continues to attract top prices and the tapes capture a unique moment in time. “When they were playing the gigs in Hamburg they were basically a comedy act,” Owen said. “You had John Lennon coming out with a toilet seat around his head and imitating Hitler on stage. They had to keep people entertained because it was basically a strip club.”
For Grossberg, the appeal of the tapes lies in what they reveal about the Beatles’ inspirations and their inability to take themselves too seriously. “This is one of the few times where you have them playing cover tunes of artists that they love. There are peculiar ones that you would never expect them to do, such as Your Feet’s Too Big [Fats Waller].
“It’s kind of whimsical. At that time they had the liberty to choose the type of songs they wanted to do. Frank Sinatra would never go out and sing Your Feet’s Too Big.”
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