“The Star Club Tapes”: this very phrase inspires spirited debate among Beatles fans. Are they garbage, or do they serve as an important historical document? Should they be officially released, or has Apple been correct in prohibiting a Beatles-sanctioned Star Club album?
Love it or hate it, The Beatles Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany 1962 provides a murky-sounding snapshot of a crucial crossroads in Beatles history. Ringo Starr had recently joined the group, and they had just scored their first UK hit, “Love Me Do.” They were unknown in America and just gaining popularity in Britain, and their set list still reflected their earlier Hamburg shows — heavily favoring covers over original songs. In a few months, Beatlemania would detonate, ending their small club shows for good.
For the next few columns, Deep Beatles will explore highlights from the Star Club recordings, examining how their sound was shaped by these early performances. In a slight departure, this edition will focus not on one song, but the history of the entire album. An understanding of the Live! At the Star-Club’s long and winding journey provides crucial context for appreciation of these primitive-sounding recordings. As our Something Else! editor Nick DeRiso said: “It doesn’t get any deeper than this.”
The story begins on December 17, 1962, when the Beatles returned — this time, reluctantly — to Hamburg for the fifth and final time. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Live!, they had previously committed to the gig, which also included Liverpool acts Johnny and the Hurricanes, the Strangers, King-Size Taylor and the Dominoes, Tony Sheridan Roy Young, and Carol Elvin.
Their club residency lasted from December 18-31, and during this time at least three sets were recorded, thanks to King-Size Taylor and the Dominoes leader Ted Taylor. He had recently purchased a reel-to-reel recorder, and Star Club manager Adrian Barber borrowed it to record the various musicians’ sets. Placing a microphone on a table in front of the stage, Barber operated the equipment, recording at a tape speed of 3¾-inches per second. After recording at least three sets, Barber then presented the tapes to Taylor. Questions of ownership have dogged the tapes ever since.
Taylor claimed that one of the Beatles allowed him to record the show in exchange for buying rounds of beer for the band. When the Beatles soared in popularity, Taylor offered to sell manager Brian Epstein the Star Club tapes, but was apparently unsuccessful. However, the tapes would resurface in 1972, when the Beatles’ early booking agent Allan Williams somehow gained possession of the recordings.
According to Williams, Taylor had left the tapes with a recording engineer, but the recordings were eventually abandoned. In 1972, Williams said he, Taylor, and the engineer retrieved the tapes to find a buyer. A year later, they met Starr and George Harrison at Apple headquarters, offering to sell them the Star Club tapes for £5,000. When the duo declined, Williams sold the tapes to Paul Murphy, then head of BUK Records. Murphy established a new company, Lingasong, to press the recordings; he then sold distribution rights to Double H Licensing. Both parties spent over $100,000 to remix and remaster the poor sound quality in preparation for release.
Four years passed before The Beatles Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany 1962 was set for release. The footage was edited to a 26-track double album, but work soon halted when an Apple lawyer contacted Murphy in January 1977. According to The 910’s article “The Beatles vs. Lingasong: The Star Club Litigation,” Apple did not want the Star Club album to conflict with an official release: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, a live collection due out that May. After Murphy initially agreed to slightly delay the release, he then sent apples to reporters, inviting them to a press conference at Apple headquarters to announce the Star Club release. The event was actually not held at that location; a Lingasong representative directed people from Apple to the actual venue.
Furious over being explicitly linked to the project, Apple decided to begin proceedings to block Live! At the Star-Club’s release. After attempting to reach Murphy to settle the matter out of court, Apple and the Beatles filed an injunction on April 1, 1977.
The intricacies of the filing are too complex to describe here, but in sum, the plaintiffs (Apple and the Beatles) argued that releasing the double album would cause them irreparable commercial and creative harm. They also claimed Murphy’s actions violated the Dramatic and Musical Performers’ Protection Act of 1958, and interfered with their trade or business.
The judge largely rejected Apple’s assertions, and Murphy resumed preparations for the Star Club’s German release just a week later. The UK received copies in May, while the U.S. saw a June 1977 release by Lingasong in association with Atlantic Records. Interestingly, the American version differed in that four songs — “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Twist And Shout,” “Reminiscing,” and “Ask Me Why” — were replaced by four others from the same tapes: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You),” “Where Have You Been All My Life,” “Till There Was You,” and “Sheila.”
Why did the Beatles want the Star Club performances suppressed? As Lewisohn writes in Tune In, these performances reflect the rawer, less-polished days, when they played songs at “breakneck speed — Prellies pace,” a reference to their days popping speed to keep up with their grueling performance schedule. In a letter to the court, John Lennon said “the sleeve note, apart from being inaccurate, seems to have been written with a court case in mind … THIS IS A FUCKING FAKE!”
George Harrison used equally harsh words during his 1998 testimony in yet another Apple/Beatles suit attempting to block Sony’s re-release of the tapes: “One drunken person recording another bunch of drunks does not constitute a business deal,” he said. He added it was one of the “crumbiest” recordings ever made of the Beatles, dismissing it as “a lot of teen-agers … getting drunk and playing rock ‘n’ roll.”
This time, Apple and the band successfully argued that they were under contract to EMI at the time of the performance, thus only they should own the tapes. Since the 1998 Copyright Act had recently been passed, the judge granted full ownership to Apple.
After that ruling, Apple has held on to the recordings and apparently has no plans to release them, other than a few brief clips in the Anthology documentary. However, all those years in litigation allowed numerous bootleggers to issue their own versions, thus Star Club albums can be had fairly easily. Technology has allowed labels such as Purple Chick and, most recently, Ox Tango, to remove some of the tape hiss and background noise that plagued the Lingasong and other earlier versions.
Today, fans still debate the merit of the Star Club tapes. While the sound quality is rough, it provides a crucial glimpse into the Beatles’ development. In a very short time, they would play to massive audiences, and would rely much less on the early rock and R&B covers that dominated their earlier set lists. Lennon and Harrison would later assert that their best days as a live band were in their Liverpool and Hamburg days, and these recordings document that time period, flaws and all.