It was the city that made the Beatles. Not Liverpool, but Hamburg, the north German seaport where, between August 1960 and October 1962, the group played more than they ever did at the Cavern in their home city.
Sixty years on, previously unseen letters, work permits and photos have been unearthed about the band’s time in Germany and their relationship with Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer best known for her stark black-and-white portraits of the Beatles taken in Hamburg before they were famous.
Letters to Kirchherr – who is credited with influencing the group’s style and signature “mop-top” haircuts – include one from George Harrison inviting her to London “to make him tea and give him cornflakes” and one from John Lennon, who mentions their just-released first single, Love Me Do, writing modestly: “It’s quite good but not good enough.”
Kirchherr had been engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the group’s original members, who died, aged 21, in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage, a year after leaving the Beatles to study art in Hamburg. The story of the Beatles in Hamburg and her relationship with Sutcliffe was told in the 1994 movie, Backbeat.
“All the Beatles were in love with her – partly, a sort of mother or elder sister love, and partly sexual,” says Stefanie Hempel, a close friend of Kirchherr for a quarter of a century until her death last year. “Astrid was so beautiful. But she also took care of them, looked after them in a spiritual and intellectual kind of way, as well as giving them a new awareness of themselves. It was much, much more than giving them their mop haircuts. In fact, she hated being known as the Beatles’ hairdresser.”
The unseen letters to Kirchherr have been owned for many years by an unidentified German man, who is now selling them at auction. Lennon’s letter, written to her from his home in Liverpool in October 1962, six months after Sutcliffe’s death, starts in his inimitable larky style. “Yes, it’s me – John Winston.” (Winston really was Lennon’s middle name). But its tone then changes. “I’m really sorry you are so sad and uncertain about yourself. You must know that Cyn, I and the other Beatles will always feel the same about you. You will always be Stuart’s Astrid to us.”
“Stuart was really the one person to whom Lennon looked up,” says Hempel, who for the past two decades has given tours and talks about the Beatles in Hamburg. “Both Astrid and John were grieving at the same time.”
Lennon’s letter adds that Cynthia is pregnant with “this little John inside her”. The baby was to be Julian, who too became a singer-songwriter.
Harrison wrote that autumn to Kirchherr about how he had recently been back in Liverpool. “Three weeks ago some boy biffed me in the Cavern and gave me a black eye. I went to hospital and had a patch put over it. Then Johnny Kidd and I walked across the road, but into the path of a bus, which knocked me down.” Kidd was the singer in Johnny Kidd and the Pirates who, ironically, wore eye-patches when performing.
Harrison then relates that he and Lennon had “just got new amplifiers and guitars – Gibson Jumbo Country and Western style”, adding that “Paul [McCartney] has a new car – a Ford Classic, which is bigger than mine”, before a comment about Ringo Starr, who had just replaced the sacked Pete Best. “He is already drumming very nice.”
A 1964 missive from Harrison has him reminiscing about Hamburg. “I’ve found some old letters from Stu,” he writes to Kirchherr. “It seems funny reading again about the Beatles in the Top Ten club.” This was one of the city’s raucous music venues, in which they performed 92 times in 1961 alone. He then asks Kirchherr to come to London to see him and the other Beatles. “You could stay in our new London flat,” which he shared with Starr in Mayfair. Harrison suggests, “you could make us tea and give us cornflakes”.
“That’s just what Astrid and her mother did for the Beatles in Hamburg,” says Hempel. “Also, some local restaurants put cornflakes on their menus for … other British groups performing in Hamburg.”
Harrison, however, warns Kirchherr not to use his name on the envelope in any reply. “Put on Dave Lloyd instead at our Green Street address. Don’t put George Harrison or everyone will find out from the postman.”
“George and Astrid remained very close until George’s death in 2001,” says Hempel. “Astrid would go to see George when he was living in Surrey.”
Also included in the sale at Bonhams in London on 5 May is an early 1963 letter from McCartney about the release of their first LP, Please Please Me, plus drawings and poems she received from Lennon. At the same auction, though never owned by Kirchherr, are Lennon’s German work permits plus previously unseen photos, taken by a fan, of the group leaving Hamburg airport in June 1962.
“The Beatles’ time in Hamburg was absolutely crucial to them,” says Katherine Schofield, Bonhams’s head of entertainment memorabilia. “It’s fair to say that they came to Germany as boys and left as men.”