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Don’t Fear the Reeperbahn: Down and Dirty at Hamburg’s Biggest Music Festival
The next day, a black man in a sailor hat and a well-tailored suit hit up our gaggle of visiting journalists for money. “I need to get higher,” he explained. “Like to the Arctic, to the North Pole.”
Guido was not particularly amused. As a representative of Hamburg Marketing GmbH, Guido’s job was to present a more modern, evolved Hamburg. He hurried us into the lobby of the Busiest Bank in Germany, where Estuar—a local band—were playing. They made demure indie folk, all politely dramatic acoustic strums and breathy English lyrics. The tellers stood by their cubicles, arms crossed, bemused. An old woman nodded at me. “Haspa is mighty bank,” she said.
“They are the wonderment of the festival,” Guido assured us, smiling at Estuar. To the extent that anybody is responsible for the benevolence that allowed a gaggle of journalists to be harassed by a genuine Reeperbahn freak, it is Guido. After the city lost its bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, they turned to new strategies for growth, spurred by the work of Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida. One group they are trying to court are fresh, young entrepreneurs — video game designers, graphic artists, and the like. Hence an old-fashioned press junket to a music festival, including representatives of several noted American hippie publications and a pleasantly goon-like squad of drunk Brits, to communicate the fresh, young hipness of the 1,200-year old city. Market research, Guido told me, indicated that people often associate Hamburg with music. And they, in turn, associated that with the Reeperbahn. This more than probably has a lot to do with the Beatles.
It was in August 1960 that the then-quintet loaded their van onto a Liverpool ship and, the next day, began a stretch of several hundred performances over three residencies that would refine and define their sound. They gobbled speed while playing six sets a night seven nights a week, slept in bunk beds in the back of second-run movie theaters, got deported, came back, got their moptops, posed for iconic photographs by Astrid Kirchherr, and played their last shows there, in December 1962, just 11 days before the release of “Please Please Me,” their first #1 single. The existence of Beatlemania!, a museum dedicated to the Fabs, is natural. And, to the extent that it displays a small, rare collection of paintings and love notes by Stuart Sutcliffe—the first Fifth Beatle, who died in Hamburg in 1962 of a still unexplained brain trauma—it’s a pretty heavy place. But with precious few other original artifacts besides a quartet of Yellow Submarine film cels, the museum merely feels like a good-natured shrine. More effective is Stefanie Hampel’s charming tour of Beatle-sites throughout the neighborhood.
It is wise to remember, though, why the Beatles were in Hamburg to begin with: sex. Not precisely that, but not particularly anything else, either. The Reeperbahn, just up the hill from the port, developed as it did because sailors needed a place to get loaded while their cargo did the opposite, and—through the ’50s and ’60s—bar owners needed live music to entertain visiting American and British servicemen. And so, after usurping a job meant for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (who needed to finish out a summer gig at a British holiday camp), the Beatles were invited to Germany.
The Reeperbahn, in that way, has not changed an iota since the halcyon Beatle-days. “Peace and Love Tour” read a massive bus that drove by one night, trumpeting DIE FLATRATE EROTIK IM INTERNET. (Ah, yes. I see.) As such, even besides the Reeperbahn Festival, music veritably bursts from the Reeperbahn. In Hamborger Veermaster, a sprawling bar next door to the Nevada Rodeo Bar (Bullriding For All! Nicest Girls in Town! Junggesell(inn)enabschied!), genuine Germans sang genuine German drinking songs, swaying arm in arm. In an alcove next to a gas station, a DJ spun technofied accordion music while, in a corner lot across the street, a semi-permanent hip-hop/trance party rolled onwards with no outward sign of a particular organizer. (Like dance parties everywhere: too many schwanz on the dancefloor.) In one sex shop, the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” burbled while customers perused dildos and DVDs, walking on slotted floorboards that looked like they’d been there since Beatle-times. Karaoke bars abound. In one, a large man in leather pants sat in a wheelchair at the back of the room, reading lyrics from a distant monitor and mouthing along with Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” In another—a Thai joint in one of the four buildings on the site of the Star-Club, the Beatles’ main Hamburg home—a posse of smashed Germans crooned along to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
It is, in other words, unmitigated sonic chaos, stinking with sex and awe-inspiring stupidity, but also a potentially seething cauldron for something. Just like Southern hip-hop producers sometimes put strippers’ poles in their studios to test the booty-factor of their beats, the clubs of the Reeperbahn seem ripe to plop forth some global dance sensation (maybe one that M.I.A. could jam on her next album). And though Guido downplays the seedier elements of the Reeperbahn, one gets the sense that if a sleazy-ass music scene or progressive sex-work industry took hold there, or some new trend that was equally valid and fascinating, Guido and the city would probably embrace it, figure out how to make it work for them. Which is perhaps even more encouraging.
After being denied entrance to the Deichkind gig, I wandered around the side of the venue, where a group of kids hung excitedly by the stage doors, listening through the bass bombs for the music beyond. Occasionally, the door would open and a blast of hot air would roll from the venue. An ambulance with an open door parked on the street, treating a girl who’d cut herself in the melee. Around the corner, though, and I was back on Schmuckstraße, a group of trannies hanging on the corner, perhaps bitching cattily in German. In the distance, I could see a crowd on the main drag, the festival subsumed into the mass.
I flipped through the festival guide, looking for a destination, half-wondering if there were unpolished superstars tucked in some tiny Reeperbahn venue, obscured behind the unappealingly translated descriptions. (“Heart-felt Pop and poignant Power-ballads”? Pass.) It occurred to me that I was looking for the same thing that nearly everybody is looking for at a music festival filled with unfamiliar bands: I was looking for the next Beatles, some heretofore unknown band that would make me feel like I was hearing music for the first time. I didn’t find them, but I didn’t really expect to.
It occurred to me, too, that Guido was also looking for the next Beatles, albeit with a very different definition of what that means, what it might ultimately entail, and the possibility that it could actually occur. After all, who knows what form They’ll take, and how they might arrive in Hamburg? It probably won’t be by ship, and it might not be because of the sex. But, like club owner Bruno Koschmider sending a telegram calling for a Liverpool quintet, Guido’s just putting those vibrations out there. Maybe somebody’ll turn up. Maybe with a guitar, but probably not.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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