GIGsoup sat down with Hamburg legend Stefanie Hempel, the founder of Hamburg’s one and only Beatles tour. Header photo by Martina Drignat.
How are you enjoying your time in London so far?
It’s great, the weather is amazing! We’ve had the summer of the century in Hamburg as you have. And I especially love Shoreditch, it’s fantastic. I love to come here and do Beatles work.
Where did your love for the Beatles and their music start?
I had a pivotal moment when my father gave me a cassette when I was 9 years old and this really changed my life. The cassette started with ‘She Loves You’ and, in hindsight, this was the moment that changed my life.
When the music started and they started singing! Oh, the harmonies and the drum beats and everything! There was so much excitement in the music. I fell in love with John (Lennon) especially. I had played the piano since I was six and so I learned all of the piano songs and next it had to be all the guitar songs and then I started to write all my own songs at age 10. All love songs for John Lennon of course! Which was sad because of course, he was already dead by that point.
This is where it all started, I started to read about them and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.
How did you come to the idea of having the tour? Did you see a gap in the cities acknowledgment for the Beatles and their role within the city?
I came to Hamburg to study classical piano and one of the first things I wanted to do create a Beatles tour. I knew that there were tours in London and Liverpool, but in Hamburg there was nothing. I knew as a fan the city was a large part of pop music history. I had all this knowledge but had no friends interested in sharing this knowledge with me. It started as a funny idea, and since I’m a musician myself I wanted it to be a musical tour.
And they’re incredibly popular!
I’ve been doing the tours for over fourteen years now and it’s kind of my job now! This funny idea! And it’s still fun because I’m such a huge fan. I see it as a great privilege to share my love with people all over the world. When I started it was quite a new thing, a musical tour. In the beginning, you could see all the older fans, who had been to places like the Star Club and those sorts of venues were interested in finding out about those places again. And then bringing their children. It was very much a Hamburg tour for Hamburg’s residence. Now it’s become so international that I do more tours in English than I do in German!
I do a tour every Saturday, last week I had a group of thirty people from ten different countries. And the groups are getting younger and younger!
Have you had to cut certain locations out of your tour because there is simply too many important places in the city to show in the time you have?
Yes! Definitely! Of course, the facts never change. But it really depends on the group as to what I show. Over the years I’ve met so many people who have worked with the Beatles or friends that have told me their stories and that have helped shape the tour. If I have people there who are really big fans I don’t have to tell them things like the original bass player was Stuart Sutcliffe because they’ll already know that. They really want to go into the deep details.
How do you figure out what kind of group you have?
Many people write to me in advance over email, so I’ll know what kind of group I’m going to have.If they’re a big, big fan though, I can also see it in their faces, intuitively.
Have you ever had one of the Beatles go on one of your tours?
Not yet. I have had some great people. The greatest story I have of someone turning up to one of my tours was when Bob Dylan joined my group. He didn’t buy a ticket! He was on his own tour, walking around St Pauli, trying to find the old spots. He was, of course, a very good friend with George Harrison. The funny thing was that my group didn’t recognize him. I had to obviously stay professional, but I let an “Oh my God” slip out when I figured out who it was. I was able to show him the Kaiserkeller was and left my group for a moment to show him. It was really funny because my group thought he was a hobo and that he’d just wandered into the tour! I’ve had John Lennon’s sister on my tour, I had his lover May Pang. They told me lots of wonderful personal satires.
You said the age range of the tour is younger now?
It’s definitely very mixed. In a group of thirty, for the regular tour, half would probably be in their late 50s or 60s and then I have a lot of people in their twenties or children who know all the songs.
Do you think the Beatles music has that quality of passing between generations?
Of course! Because it’s the greatest melodies ever written. Last week would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday and he was a great Beatles fan. And he said, even in the sixties that Lennon and McCartney will be the Schubert and Schumann’s of the 20th century. The melodies are so amazing; you can sing along but if you’re a student of music you can go deeper and deeper into them.
In terms of your own original work, what have you been making alongside the Beatles tour?
I have a new tribute album out ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’. It had to be called that because we’re on the dirty old streets of St Pauli and we’re telling all of these old dirty rock and roll stories. I’m in the middle of recording a second original album with my own songs but it’s really tough to find the time because the tour is so labor consuming. It’s become so big and I do a lot of Beatles shows as well. This little idea has kind of become a business, a business from the heart! But, we’ll see! My work is very much inspired by American singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell (she’s my goddess).