After our meeting with sound artist Andi Otto and David-Maria Gramse of the Ensemble Resonanz, we made our way from St. Pauli’s imposing WW2 Bunker towards the infamous Reeperbahn. This strip of strip clubs, bars and sex shops is many things to many people. Stray dogs prowl the streets while German tourists drift in and out of small theatres. Perhaps the most interesting part of this lively area, though, is the huge role it played in The Beatles’ early career as a rock and roll cover band in the sixties.
This history is so tucked away, and oftentimes entirely lost, that you really need to know where to look in order to find it. And really, there is only one person you should trust to show you around the mean streets of the Reeperbahn: Steffi Hempel (who GIGsoup interviewed last year, you can read about it here). Steffi is widely regarded as one of the most-knowledgeable Beatles experts, and has been running her comprehensive musical tour of the area for over 15 years.
MTV UK called Hempel’s Beatles Tour “the greatest Beatles tour of all time,” and is incredibly popular with both native and international guests. This musical journey is completely unique, with fans travelling from all over the world to see Steffi do her thing. Ukulele in hand, Steffi gleefully covers a huge range of classic Beatles tracks including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘In My Life (There Are Places I Remember)’, placing these famous tracks geographically amongst St. Pauli’s snaking streets and alleys.
“When the Beatles came to the city, they were all so young,”Steffi says, showing us the smooth black and white faces of Paul and John; the lesser-known and handsome Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe posing alongside for a dower photoshoot in Hamburg’s DOM theme park. “Can you imagine being so young and coming to somewhere like St. Pauli?” It is in this simple question that Steffi provides an insight into Hamburg and this little-known part of the Beatles’ career. A time where they were exposed to the sleaze of local gangsters, and, as legend has it, were accompanied on-stage by a stripper because they didn’t have enough songs to fill out their (often) six-hour sets at the Indra Club.
Steffi’s unabashed love of the Beatles comes across as so pure and wonderful, that she immediately sweeps you up in the stories that she’s gathered over her many years of research. Even if you’re not a Beatles fanatic, the tour provides a snapshot of the St. Pauli club scene of the early sixties and helps elevate the city via this corner of its musical past.
Steffi’s tour concludes next to the John Lennon Rock ‘n’ Roll Doorway, which is now part of one of St. Pauli’s many squats. The location is famously featured on Lennon’s 1975 album ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but it looks very different now. Steffi has, of course, charmed the residents, greeting them with smiles and open arms. She makes sure to remind us to be respectful when taking photos—another insight into Steffi’s love and respect for St. Pauli and its people. Outside, the street is humming with life as Wohlwillstraßenfest, a yearly street party that takes over the area, continues on despite the drizzle. Shop owners chat with friends and passers-by, and the air is alive with music.