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Hamburg: The City that Can Make Something Out of You

It may well be that this country is governed from Berlin. But history shows that Hamburg leads the way as a centre of pop music.

For a few years, Hamburg was the world capital of pop music.

Bernd Begemann

Okay, people, let’s start with a true humdinger of a statement: today’s pop music wouldn’t exist at all without Hamburg! Simply unthinkable. You can’t overestimate what this city means for global music history in the last 50 or 60 years. »For a few years, Hamburg was the world capital of pop music«, Bernd Begemann declares, »and it’s high time people started to grasp that.«

Begemann is sitting outside a restaurant in Osterstrasse and gesticulating away in a mixture of anger and rapture. He was born and bred in Westphalia, but Hamburg is his city. World pop is unimaginable without Hamburg in his opinion, and by the same token it’s impossible to imagine the city’s music scene without him – a widespread view among locals in the know for some 30 years now. Bernd Begemann, 55, is a musician, factotum, a source of inspiration and a Hamburg institution. And the fact that he’s not a national superstar is one of the nasty little injustices of the pop universe.

Bernd Begemann at the Elbphilharmonie

Bernd Begemann

On the Reeperbahn

But let’s get back to his theory about Hamburg as the capital city of music. Between 1959 and 1963, Begemann gives us the benefit of his wisdom, there were more world-class-to-be musicians maturing around the Reeperbahn than anywhere else on the planet. »The undernourished, spotty Britboys were confronted and infected with mainland culture in Hamburg«, he says. »And the musicians from overseas discovered a kind of cultural underground here as well that gave depth to their sound.«

Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and at the top of the list, it goes without saying: the Beatles – whoever made it in the pop business in the sixties found a colourful, big training camp in Hamburg, with its Star Club and the Indra, the Kaiserkeller and the Hotel Pacific.

Star-Club Hamburg
Star-Club Hamburg

Hamburg made men out of us.

John Lennon


Everything started when a resourceful businessman was looking for, well…the right soundtrack to accompany bare breasts: Bruno Koschmider had been running several strip joints on St. Pauli since the fifties. The rock ‘n’ roll that the juke boxes played was a big hit with the punters, which prompted him to call up his friend Allan Williams in Liverpool and ask him whether he had a couple of bands to play in his clubs, in between the strip shows. Williams was able to help.

Thus the Beatles started playing in Hamburg in 1960: four-and-a-half hours a night, six at weekends, for a daily fee of 30 Deutschmarks. »Hamburg«, John Lennon once said, »made men out of us.«

But on New Year’s Eve 1969, the legendary Star Club on Grosse Freiheit closed its doors forever. And while the floors were being mopped one last time, another institution opened up the very next day, just a few miles to the north, that was to gain a reputation well beyond the confines of Hamburg.

However, Bernd Cordua and Peter Marxen weren’t thinking of pop music when they opened Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall on Lehmweg: the new place was intended to be a jazz club. It’s easy to forget that Udo Lindenberg, the first big name in the Onkel Pö circle, started off as a jazz drummer.

But it wasn’t long before Lindenberg turned into a »panic rocker«, and suddenly there was a Hamburg scene growing up around the two centres of Onkel Pö’s and a shared house on the Aussenalster lake. Up to 14 artists lived for a while in the villa at 29 Rondeel: in addition to Lindenberg, their number included Marius Müller-Westernhagen, Otto Waalkes and Lonzo Westphal, who was known with good reason as »the devil’s violinist of Eppendorf«.

Suddenly there was a Hamburg scene growing up around the two centres of Onkel Pö’s and a shared house on the Aussenalster lake

Die Sterne
Die Sterne © Staatsakt

Hamburg School

»This was the first time that German artists really made a mark«, says Bernd Begemann, »and it was already over by the time I got to Hamburg. But the seventies sent out another signal to anyone able to read it: Hamburg is where it’s at.« Begemann hails from the small town of Bad Salzuflen, and there was no way he was going to stay there.

Thus in 1982 he stuck his youth hostelling card in his pocket, bought a one-month ticket for unlimited travel on German Railways and set out in search of a place to live. He travelled all over Germany, and ended up in Hamburg. »It’s best of all here«, he says. »I knew the history of the music and its musicians, and I knew that this was the city that could make something out of me.«



Graue Wolken

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We have invented our own audience.

Jochen Distelmeyer


What he discovered was a scene that was at the frayed end of the Neue Deutsche Welle, and had had enough of German-language music for the time being. It took a while until songwriters started to gain attention again.

Begemann enjoyed a small-scale succès d’estime with his band Die Antwort in 1987, and this prompted other artists from his native Westphalia, all of whose music was released on the label »Fast Weltweit«, to follow him to Hamburg. Jochen Distelmeyer, who founded Blumfeld in 1990, was one of them. Frank Spilker with Die Sterne, Bernadette La Hengst.

It was this handful of people, now relocated to Hamburg from the hills around Herford and Bielefeld, which was responsible for changing the world of German music forever in the early 1990s. They triggered a new movement, a colourful collection of bands and artists, among whom were Die Goldenen Zitronen, then later Huah! and Tocotronic. A creative journalist from the daily paper »taz« came up with the term »Hamburg School« to describe the new phenomenon. »The idea of singing about things that touch you on a personal level was unheard-of before the Hamburg School«, says Begemann. »And we really didn’t know who we were doing it for: Jochen Distelmeyer once said we had invented our own audience.«

Video: Bernadette La Hengst / »Wem gehört die Parkbank«

Bernadette La Hengst

Hamburg rappers lightened up the German language, making it more laid-back and easy to consume.

Bernd Begemann


Then there is another discipline that wasn’t exactly invented in nineties Hamburg, but was certainly given a good dose of sophistication there. So much so, that Hamburg hip-hop gained a reputation as a quality product.

The movement’s epicentre was located in Eimsbüttel, where Jan Eißfeldt and Dennis Lisk founded Absolute Beginners in 1991. They later deleted the first word in the name and gave themselves new names: after a twelve-year break, Jan Delay und Denyo are now Beginners once more – and immensely successful into the bargain.

At roughly the same time, a quarter-century ago, three lads from the Hamburg suburbs of Pinneberg, Halstenbek and Schenefeld got together to form a band that went down in the annals of rap history as Fettes Brot. While the Eimsbüttel scene, to which Samy Deluxe and Fünf Sterne deluxe also belonged, had a certain socio-critical ambition attached to it, Fettes Brot was essentially out to have fun.

»Hamburg rappers lightened up the German language, making it more laid-back and easy to consume«, says Bernd Begemann, who is also well thought-of in the hip-hop scene. And one thing that all Hamburg rappers have in common is that they are better behaved and much smarter than the run-of-the-mill gangsta rappers from the rest of the country.

There are rumours that the members of Fettes Brot sat in a polling station in Ottensen and handed out ballot papers. Hard to imagine Bushido doing that!


Absolute Beginner

Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann

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Numerous musicians have relocated from Hamburg to Berlin over the years: Tomte singer Thees Uhlmann for example, Olli Schulz and Gisbert zu Knyphausen. »Pah«, Bernd Begemann exclaims, »they all regret it in the meantime. People in Berlin are known for their rudeness, and they find that just as hard to take as I do. In Berlin you feel you have to apologise when you want to order in a restaurant.«

Hamburg, he says, is a city of interconnecting parts, while Berlin is much more segregated: »a collection of small towns, each separate from the next«. That’s something you can live with, but Begemann finds a lot of musicians in the capital have an attitude problem.

»In Hamburg the debate goes like this: What’s the best thing that could happen now?« he says. »In Berlin, it’s all about: What can I do to improve my image?« Things change, and so do places. »But Hamburg is the city of music, in spiritual terms too, and that’s not going to change«, thus Bernd Begemann. »Maybe it’s just a myth. But myths create reality.«

Text: Stephan Bartels

Elbphilharmonie Magazin »Auf Reisen«

Read more in the latest Elbphilharmonie Magazine »Auf Reisen« (German only).

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