When trying to find the secret to musical success, you might as well start by looking at the career of the most successful band in history: The Beatles.
Even if you don’t like their music, they nonetheless wrote the textbook on how a band can overcome odds, succeed in the music biz and sustain a career; there is still much to be learnt, even in today’s internet driven music industry, from their story, and in this post, I’m going to zoom in on their early ‘Hamburg days’ in a bid to help you improve the quality of your live performances.
But before I do that, let’s take a look at what’s currently wrong with your live performances. Based on my own past failings as a musician, I can suggest a few issues that you might want to address:
You don’t look like a ‘natural’ performer
You look uninteresting on stage
Your playing skills aren’t that great
All that sounds rather harsh doesn’t it? Now, of course, I’m not saying that all the above strictly applies to you, dear reader, but my hunch is that if you are reading an article about improving your live performances…well, some of it probably does. So what you can learn by looking at the Beatles’ Hamburg period?
Let’s start with a bit of history: the Beatles went to Hamburg in August 1960, booked to play a string of gigs in the notorious St Pauli area of the city.
Upon arriving there, band essentially lived in a toilet and played gigs seven days a week in seedy nightclubs. And when they started this stint, all the flaws discussed above – by the band’s own admission – were present in their performances.
The Beatles didn’t play like naturals; they didn’t have a ‘look’; and their music was very rough around the edges. But by the end of their Hamburg experience, The Beatles had been transformed into a live powerhouse with interesting haircuts that quickly went on to secure a record deal and…yes, you know the rest; you’ve watched The Rutles movie.
And here’s why Hamburg transformed The Beatles: first, the band got loads of practice at live performance. Playing seven days a week for hours on end honed their performances to the point where they started to look like the real deal.
Second, they were under huge pressure to entertain: the clubs they played in initially were run by a rather forceful German entrepreneur called Bruno Koschmider, who, whilst the band were playing, would come to the front of the stage and scream ‘Mach schau! Mach schau!’ (‘Make show! Make show’) loudly at them. This led to Lennon to ‘dance around like a gorilla’ and the band ‘knock their heads together’ on stage: a far cry from just standing still and playing songs, which they’d previously done in Liverpool.
Third, the intense schedule of live performances meant that the band effectively spent a vast amount of time on band practice – albeit live on stage in front of an audience. (Additionally, because they had to play for so long each evening, they had to pad out their songs with long guitar solos – thus improving their improvisation, composition and general playing skills).
One other thing worth considering about The Beatles’ Hamburg experience was that they were playing out of their ‘natural habitat’, Liverpool – they were in a strange city, playing to strange folk, meaning that there was 1) more room for them to make and learn from mistakes in front of a potentially less ‘local’ (read judgmental) crowd and 2) they were more likely to come into people who did things differently.
For example, that moptop haircut – which went on to be one of the things that made the band stand out in Britain – was, curiously enough, a very common sight on the head of young German men in 1960. And the band encountered the likes of artists Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, who helped define the band’s style not just in their early years (via Kirchherr’s iconic photo shoots and her insistence on the group wearing leather outfits instead of sports jackets) but later in their career too, with Voormann designing the artwork for Revolver in 1966.
Anyway, let us move from the sixties back to the present, where you are no doubt waiting for me to stop waffling on about some band your dad likes and cut to the quick with those handy hints on how to be a pop star. Here they are:
1. Play as many gigs as you can, in as many venues as possible
Playing live frequently – even in awful venues – will help you to feel comfortable on stage and more able to deal with a variety of different (and even hostile) audiences. It will also do wonders for your playing, and – almost as importantly – your stage patter.
2. Try to differentiate your band from other acts
Don’t just stand there and play songs like every other indie band: employ some theatricality. Whether that’s by dressing interestingly, getting your frontperson to do a gorilla dance, putting on a light show or using some arty video backdrops, follow Bruno Koschmider’s advice and ‘mach schau’.
Remember of course that there is a fine line between making your schau look ‘interesting’ or making it look daft – but generally speaking, even a daft show is infinitely better than a bland one.
3. Invite feedback
In Germany, the Beatles didn’t so much invite feedback as receive it somewhat unwillingly via a venue owner yelling at them as they played; but either way it worked – the instruction to entertain led to them starting to do precisely that.
Particularly if you are relatively new to gigging, ask (ideally impartial) members of your audience to give you an honest post-mortem after the gig. Don’t be offended if the feedback ain’t so hot: try to learn from it.
Another thing you can do is video your performances and, much like a football team sitting round the TV watching a game they’ve just played, try to establish what worked and what didn’t, with a view to including the good stuff more in gigs and omitting the bad.
4. Get out of your comfort zone
Don’t just play in your local venue. Try to find gigs in places where you wouldn’t normally look for them. Whether that means busking on the tube or playing in a fan’s house, the more you can er, expose yourself to different situations and audiences, the more likely you are to come into contact with people who you may be able to learn from – whether that’s simply a hard crowd or a bohemian photographer who goes onto play a big part in your sexy new look.
If none of the above work, I would suggest a brief stint in Germany and some leather pants: after all, there’s nothing like the real thing.
Chris Singleton wrote this post. He has never been seen in leather trousers, which perhaps explains his relative obscurity.
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