In June 1961, during their second tour of duty in Hamburg, The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Pete Best (recently departed bassist Stu Sutcliffe was apparently also there to offer moral support) – entered a proper recording studio for the first time. Well, it was actually a civic hall, but they were being professionally recorded by famed German band leader and producer Bert Kaempfert. He had signed them up to back fellow Brit Tony Sheridan on a handful of songs designed to bring a slice of the British rock ‘n’ roll fever sweeping Hamburg’s seedy nightclubs to the German masses. Singer-guitarist Sheridan was already a veteran of the city’s St Pauli “entertainment” scene, had enjoyed a fleeting brush with fame in the UK, and was viewed by Kaempfert (and record label Polydor) as having star potential. He had played with the Fabs many times in venues like the Kaiserkeller and Top Ten Club, and the band was well established by this point as the most popular music act in the Reeperbahn red light area; so I guess it seemed like the perfect fit.
Make no mistake, though, the group was definitely the support act. On the resulting record they were even re-named The Beat Brothers, as ‘Beatles’ sounded too close to ‘peedles’, the German slang for male genitalia. As it transpired, of course, the record did little to boost Sheridan’s flaccid recording career but ultimately (if indirectly) acted like Viagra on The Beatles’ fortunes. They were still a way off becoming the band which would take the world by storm over the next couple of years, though – before moptops, before suits, before Brian Epstein, before Ringo. A sort of pre-Fab Four, if you will. However, it was around this time that their raucous, proto-punk stage act had comprehensively conquered the clubs and dance halls of Liverpool and Hamburg, a period later dubbed as that of the ‘savage young Beatles’. But, listening almost 60 years on, how well did this translate to record?
The Beatles recorded five songs backing Sheridan, and two on their own (another couple of tracks were taped in similar circumstances the following year, though only one – ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ – survives). There are a couple of important things to note. First, the venue was a very different setting from the sweaty, rammed clubs where the group usually plied their trade, and there was no beered-up audience to feed off. Not only that, but – according to Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In biography – Kaempfert quickly realised that Pete Best’s drumming style and erratic timekeeping were not up to scratch, and opted to remove his bass drum and tom toms. By all accounts, the booming bass drum was an integral part of the band’s live sound at this point, and now it was gone from their armoury. Second, the choice of material was very different from their usual setlists, with Kaempfert obviously feeling that hoary old pre-rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ would have more of a chance of landing with German record buyers than the contemporary American stompers which wowed the punters on the Reeperbahn. But even when the band was allowed to record two songs of their own – for what they thought could have been their debut single, remember – the picks are real head-scratchers. Instead of a favourite number from Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry, they opted for ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ – which had been recorded by Gene Vincent, true, but the tune dated back to the 1920s. A song their parents might have danced to. And rather than tackling one of the Lennon-McCartney originals they already had in the bag, their other choice was ‘Cry For a Shadow’, an instrumental throwaway John and George had put together as a piss-take of The Shadows.
Nonetheless, both tracks are fine. ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ rattles along at a fair lick, a tight band performance topped off with a playful, slightly lusty Lennon vocal. And ‘Cry For a Shadow’ (originally dubbed ‘Beatle Bop’) is good fun, led by some deft lead guitar from George and some rangy rhythm strumming by John. John and Paul also inject some screams and yells into the fiery middle sections, to good effect. But it has to be said both songs are a world away from the powerhouse, crunching rock which fills the Live at the Star Club album, recorded in Hamburg 18 months later. It’s all a little bit too clean, too clinical, compared to their stage act.
Their numbers backing Sheridan generally suffer from the same problem, but they are not without hints of future Fabness. Uptempo tracks like ‘The Saints’ and (especially) ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ really swing, while on Sheridan’s own lovelorn ballad composition ‘Why?’ George’s delicate guitar fills and the wordless Lennon-McCartney backing vocals provide a small signpost to the miraculous beauty of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ five years later. Overall, the band’s sound is starting to come together. Even though he had switched to the instrument only a few months earlier, Paul’s bass playing is remarkably fluid and assured. George’s distinctive, concise lead guitar work is beginning to emerge, and John’s urgent rhythm playing drives the band forward. Even Pete Best, denuded of some of his kit, acquits himself passably well on the drums – though comparison to any of Ringo’s playing shows up his limitations.
A couple of the slower numbers do not work so well. ‘Take Out Some Insurance On Me’ is a threadbare effort, with Sheridan’s attempt at a sultry, smoky vocal teetering on the comical. And while George had obviously thought out a decent solo, it sounds like he is twanging away on a rubber band. ‘Nobody’s Child’ is a real howler, in more ways than one. A dreary song to start with, the arrangement just plods along and Sheridan’s anguished yelps on the chorus are just embarrassing. Curiously, George would return to the song almost 30 years later for a charity single with The Traveling Wilburys; in truth, their version is little better.
Sheridan was a fair enough rock ‘n’ roll singer, though, and he leads the band through the undoubted highlight of the sessions, ‘My Bonnie’. Although The Beatles would soon, like a ten-pin bowling ball, shatter expectations of what a British rock record could be, this would surely have passed muster in 1961. After a slow, slightly cheesy, intro, it soon kicks into gear. With John and Paul providing handclaps and enthusiastic backing vocals, and Sheridan (rather than George) delivering a storming guitar solo, it fizzes with energy, carrying at least some of the charge they would’ve been giving off in the Top Ten Club at this time. Understandably, it was chosen as the single, and proved to be a minor hit in the German market. But the record’s real impact came as copies were exported back to Liverpool and snapped up by local fans who were delirious to finally hear The Beatles on vinyl. The demand for the single brought the band to the attention of local record store owner Brian Epstein and the rest, as they say, really is history.
Once the band made it big, Polydor was inevitably eager to exploit the handful of Beatles recordings they had, and so began a long history of repackaged re-releases. Never, in the field of human recordings, has so much effort been given to selling so few songs. In the throes of Beatlemania anything with their name on it sold well, and a single of ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ hit the US Top 20 and the UK Top 30 in 1964 – much to the chagrin of the band members, who were by this time faintly embarrassed by such embryonic efforts. Thereafter, the eight songs would periodically reappear every few years on a new-look, newly-titled album, usually padded out with tracks from acts who had no connection to The Beatles at all. I picked up my copy in the autumn of 1986. It was hardly a revelation, but – I guess like fans 20 or so years before – I was just thrilled to get my hands on recordings by the group I hadn’t heard before.
In 1995, the three key songs – ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, ‘Cry for a Shadow’ and ‘My Bonnie’ – finally made it out onto an official Beatles album, in the form of Anthology 1, Apple acknowledging the important role they played in the group’s early story. But they and the other five songs continue to be available through various Polydor channels, and are worth getting for any serious fan of the band. Though probably the least essential, musically, of the early, non-EMI recordings (the others being the Quarrymen tapes, the Decca audition session and the Star Club live album), they provide the only aural snapshot we have of The Beatles in 1961. And, as long as you’re not expecting ‘Ticket To Ride’ or ‘Back in the USSR’, they remain a fun – if rather quaint – listen.