The Stars in St. Pauli Hamburg's Heady Days of Rock & Roll

From Fats Domino's unquenchable thirst to John Lennon's nude performance with a toilet seat: an amusing book by the founder of Hamburg's Star Club recalls how the world's rock stars converged on the northern German port city in the '60s.

By in Hamburg

With the Beatles: Fascher (center) recalls the heyday of Hamburg's famous Star Club.

With the Beatles: Fascher (center) recalls the heyday of Hamburg's famous Star Club.

It was 1963. Horst Fascher, founder and co-manager of Hamburg's famous Star Club, had booked Fats Domino -- quite a coup. But he was worried because the Rock & Roll legend and his 10-strong band were spending the afternoon drinking vast quantities of beer, whisky and champagne ahead of the gig.

Would they be able to perform well? Boozing at this rate, probably not. Fascher had to do something. Preludin, a laxative sold over the counter, had the side effect of being a powerful stimulant when taken with alcohol. So he grabbed five packets of the pills, "enough to bring a whole family of bears out of hibernation," ground them to powder in an old coffee grinder, and sprinkled them into four bottles of whisky.

As expected, the band started downing the whisky as soon as they arrived for the concert that evening and had guzzled all four bottles by the time they were due to go on stage.

The Preludin worked. Fats delivered the best performance the Star Club had ever seen. In fact he wouldn't stop, and kept on rocking as if in a trance despite Fascher's increasingly desperate neck-cut gestures long after the gig was due to end. "The boys from New Orleans rocked around the stage like Duracell Bunnies gone mad," recalls Fascher, now 70, in his autobiography "Let The Good Times Roll," replete with anecdotes from a youth enviably filled with sex, Preludin and rock & roll.

For Fascher, the 1959 German featherweight boxing champion, the Star Club days were Hamburg's heyday. Cash and the city's reputation for sex attracted top acts to the club in the heart of Hamburg's St. Pauli red light district, just off the famous Reeperbahn, its main street. The Beatles performed there in 1962. Chuck Berry also came, as did Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Cream, the Small Faces and many others.

John Lennon would greet the audience with a cheerful "Heil Hitler," accompanied by a Nazi salute. "He'd pull out a black comb and pretend it was a moustache," Fascher told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. "People laughed."

Even at 70, Hamburg legend Fascher, a former German boxing champion, is best not messed with. He was interviewed in his favorite restaurant, Hamburg's Old Commercial Room. 
David Crossland

Even at 70, Hamburg legend Fascher, a former German boxing champion, is best not messed with. He was interviewed in his favorite restaurant, Hamburg's Old Commercial Room. 

The Beatles and many other British and US bands who came to Hamburg learned from each other, said Fascher. "The bands would sit together in the mornings, exchange tips, show each other different chords. It was a melting pot and everyone got something out of it. In the whole world, there wasn't anything like it before and there hasn't been anything like it since."

The Beatles were the hardest-working band he hired. "They were constantly telling me they needed the stage to rehearse," said Fascher, who befriended the band in Hamburg in 1960 before Stuart Sutcliffe left. But they played hard as well. In fact his book provides further evidence that they didn't deserve the clean-cut image they nurtured.

Bad boy Lennon

John Lennon especially gave Fascher some major headaches. It wasn't just his tendency to occasionally urinate out of his window onto the street. "John's big mouth, bigger than any musician I ever met, got me into trouble a few times," Fascher remembers. Lennon would get into arguments with members of the audience and become so abusive that they jumped on stage, which was when Fascher, self-appointed head bouncer, had to join the fray.

One night, there were only three Beatles on stage. Lennon was missing. Fascher found him backstage in a lavatory amorously engaged with a woman, so he broke up the tête-à-tête with a shower of cold water and ordered him to get back on stage. A furious Lennon pointed out he was dripping wet. Fascher retorted: "I don't give a shit, you're going onstage and I don't care if you do it naked."

Which Lennon took literally. Minutes later, screeches and laughter erupted from the audience and Fascher ran to see Lennon strumming his guitar wearing nothing but tight underpants and a toilet seat round his neck.

When he first heard the Beatles perform at another Hamburg Club, the "Indra," a couple of years earlier, Fascher had no inkling that they would become one of the most successful pop groups of all time. "I was a bit disappointed. But they looked good, despite their ridiculous purple jackets, that was their advantage."

Not that he was necessarily the best judge. At the Star Club in 1962, when the Beatles were still mainly performing cover songs such as Chuck Berry's "Roll over Beethoven," Paul McCartney asked Fascher to listen to a song he'd just composed with Lennon. He played "Love Me Do." "What do you think? Great, isn't it?" Fascher's verdict was damning: "Paul, forget it. That organ grinder music just isn't it. Stick to good old Rock n' Roll."  

Fascher freely admits that might have been a rash judgment. "I was wrong. Everyone makes mistakes," Fascher said with a grin. "Love Me Do" became their first Top Twenty hit in the British singles charts.

The Lure of the Reeperbahn

The Star Club was Fascher's brainchild. He won the backing of a local investor to transform a cinema into a music concert venue and equipped it with a large stage, state-of-the-art sound system, bar, tables and chairs.

Fascher arranged the acts, entertained and protected them when they were off stage, and kept order in the club. When trouble began, Fascher's fists finished it quickly. At 70, he still looks as if he packs a punch. In his thick Hamburg brogue, he clear enjoys telling anecdotes -- some X-rated -- about the nights when he introduced rock stars to the attractions of Hamburg's St. Pauli district, a more sexually liberated place than most of them had ever experienced.

A pet joke of his was to recommend they try the Monika Bar next to the Star Club, saying it was famous for beautiful women who only offered oral gratification. Some returned satisfied, only to be told it was staffed exclusively by highly skilled transvestites.

The Star Club's days ended with the 1960s. It fell into financial trouble, closed in 1969 and the building later burned down. Fascher had left a few years earlier to serve a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm after some Star Club guests sued him for beating them up. He went on to manage bands for the US Army in Vietnam during the war there, and later became a music manager in Germany.

These days, Fascher doesn't go back to St. Pauli much, even though the place is full of memories. Or maybe because of that. As far as he is concerned, the whole area has been in decline since the club's demise.

"When the Star Club opened the Reeperbahn started to boom. The stars came and they were close enough to touch, not like these days where they're so far away they're just tiny figures on the stage," said Fascher. "When it closed it down in 1969 a light went out in St. Pauli."


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