How a Stint in Hamburg Helped Catapult the Beatles to Superstardom

A trove of letters and photographs associated with the band’s time in Germany is set to go up for auction next month

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison perform at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, in May 1962
L to R: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison perform at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, in May 1962. Photo by K & K Ulf Kruger OHG / Redferns

On August 17, 1960, the Beatles kicked off one of their earliest professional gigs—a months-long residency at the Indra Club in Hamburg, Germany. Over the next two years, the budding British rock stars, who’d struggled to book venues in their hometown of Liverpool, continued to perform regularly in the German city.

“We had to learn millions of songs because we’d be on for hours,” guitarist George Harrison later recalled, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times’ Dean R. Owen. “Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”

Now, reports Richard Brooks for the Observer, a trove of largely unseen letters, photographs and work permits from this pivotal period is set to go up for auction. The mementos—including a 1963 missive in which Paul McCartney discusses the release of the band’s first LP, Please Please Me, as well as sketches and poems by John Lennon—will go under the hammer at the London-based auction house Bonhams on May 5.

Many of the items featured in the sale detail the band members’ bond with Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer who captured images of the Beatles at the beginning of their career. Kirchherr, who died last May at age 81, was engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bass player, until his untimely death at age 21. Sutcliffe, who’d left the Beatles the previous year to pursue a career as a painter, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 10, 1962.

A four-page letter from George Harrison to Astrid Kirrcher, postmarked October 21, 1964 Courtesy of Bonhams
A two-page letter from John Lennon to Astrid Kirrcher, postmarked October 1962 Courtesy of Bonhams
A 1963 letter from Paul McCartney to Astrid Kirrcher Courtesy of Bonhams
John Lennon's Hamburg work permit Courtesy of Bonhams

Among the auction’s highlights is a letter from Harrison asking Kirchher to visit him and Ringo Starr, the drummer who replaced original Beatle Pete Best in September 1962, in their new apartment. Per Rhian Daly of music magazine NME, Harrison asked the photographer not to put his name on the return envelope, as doing so could reveal his address to avid fans.

Another note from Lennon to Kirchherr describes the band’s first single, “Love Me Do,” as “quite good but not good enough.”

Stefanie Hempel, a close friend of Kirchherr, tells the Observer that “[a]ll the Beatles were in love with her—partly, a sort of mother or elder sister love, and partly sexual.”

Hempel adds, “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.”

Born in Hamburg in 1938, Kirchherr studied at a local art school before honing her talents under the tutelage of photographer Reinhart Wolf, as Allan Kozinn wrote for the New York Times in 2020. She met the Beatles at the Kaiserkeller, a club frequented mainly by sailors and sex workers, in October 1960.

At the time, the relatively unknown band made 30 Deutsche Marks (around $50 when adjusted for inflation) a night and subsisted largely on meatballs, alcohol and drugs, per Deutsche Welle’s Michael Marek. As they continued to perform, however, the Beatles developed a solid fanbase and signature style, which included their distinctive mop-top haircuts—a look crafted with Kirchherr’s help, as the photographer told the BBC in 1995.

How a Stint in Hamburg Helped Catapult the Beatles to Superstardom
L to R: Ringo Starr, Astrid Kirchherr and John Lennon sitting on train during the filming of A Hard Day's Night Photo by Max Scheler / K & K / Redferns

Sutcliffe and Kirchherr embarked on an intense romantic relationship shortly after meeting. The couple got engaged in November 1960 and were living together at the time of his death, per the Times.

One of the letters included in the upcoming sale directly addresses Sutcliffe’s death. Written in October 1962, six months after his passing, the heartfelt missive finds Lennon expressing how important Kirchherr is to the Beatles.

“I’m really sorry you are so sad and uncertain about yourself,” Lennon says, as quoted by the Observer. “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.”

In addition to charting the band’s relationship with Kirchherr, the artifacts up for auction track the Fab Four’s evolution into pop culture icons.

“The two years the band spent in the city continually playing live on stage were crucial to their development,” says Katherine Schofield, Bonhams’ head of entertainment memorabilia, in an emailed staement. “[I]t’s fair to say that they arrived in Germany as boys and left as men.”