Joel Goldenberg: The Beatles at the Star Club

The Beatles in Hamburg.

My music buying history started in around 1980, when I got Abba Greatest Hits Vol. 2 at The Bay downtown, and a while later, I got Bruce Springsteen's The River on eight-track tape at the Bay in Place Vertu in St. Laurent.

To this day, despite the critical plaudits it has received, I have never listened to The River in its entirety. I always thought it sounded kind of harsh.

Nineteen eighty-one was a pivotal year. The year before, I obtained from a relative an eight-track tape of The Beatles' Rubber Soul (U.S. version with 12 songs as opposed to the 14-song British version).

Then, when I was looking at other eight-tracks at that Place Vertu Bay store, I heard the sublime Nowhere Man and became extremely hooked on The Beatles.

Step 2 in my Beatles indoctrination was obtaining, via cassette from a friend, copies of the 1962-1966 (Red) and 1967-70 (Blue) compilations of Beatle hits and standout album tracks. I was further hooked.

Step 3 was recording, off the radio, a multi-day show on the history of the band, in which every song of theirs that had been officially released was played. There were even unreleased tidbits like How Do You Do It from 1962, which Gerry and the Pacemakers later recorded and took to #1. I enthusiastically played the deep tracks to my Red and Blue album friend, but he didn't share my enthusiasm.

The result of this process was, for pretty much all of 1981, I did musically nothing else than listen to the Beatles. I may have further been prompted by the then-recent murder of John Lennon.

By the end of the year, I was shifting my interests to, thanks to The Rolling Stone Record Guide, The Who, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and others, but I still had an interest in anything I hadn't heard from The Beatles.

Then I discovered a very cheap looking release called The Beatles at the Star Club. According to the liner notes, during the time the Beatles played in Hamburg in 1961-62 before they took off into stardom, one of their gigs was recorded by a member of another band that had an engagement at the club.

The liners said the concert in question was recorded in April 1962. That turned out to be false, it was really December 1962. The inaccuracy was significant— some writers say the April date was put forward because that was before the band signed with EMI Records. If the true date was revealed, there was a danger EMI would take legal action as the band was signed in the summer of 1962.

Also, if the April date was correct, that would have meant Pete Best was on the drums. It was actually Ringo Starr.

More significantly, the liner notes said that while the original recordings were rough, the tracks were put through an expensive, ultra-sophisticated process in which they were transferred to multi-track and cleaned up.

Thus, when I bought the album and prepared to listen, I was bracing for a revelation. After all, Lennon himself said the band was never better live than when they were playing in Hamburg and other 1961-62 venues.

What did I hear? Very rough sound with a slight "stereo" spread (the album was in fake stereo) and from what I could hear, the concert was just okay. I later heard that by December 1962, the Beatles had lost some of that old Hamburg spark and were there to just finish off their obligations. The album was a mix of rockers and sappy ballads.

Most disappointingly, I had trouble making out what John, Paul and George were singing for songs I did not yet know. One of those was Arthur Alexander's excellent Where Have You Been All My Life.

Even more disappointingly, the album I got (on the Pickwick label that also reissued Elvis Presley's budget Camden albums), as I later found out, lacked some crucial songs. The album came out in different versions, with different track listings, in different countries. My version lacked a couple of crucial songs — I Saw Her Standing There, Ask Me Why (the only Lennon-McCartney originals performed) and Twist and Shout (not written by them, but the Beatles' version is considered to be definitive.

The original German album, on the Lingasong label, had these songs, but lacked some of the songs on the Pickwick album. Apparently, a Japanese version came out that contained all the songs and was apparently left in its original rough state, and apparently sounded the best of all the versions put out.

What a screw-up!

As it turns out, the album was a waste of my money, except for one thing. It made me seek out the original versions of the songs I couldn't hear well.

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