To many, Paul McCartney is one of the deities of popular music. This summer he re-created his 1969 walk across Abbey Road, and appeared on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” both of which were met with delight by his many fans.
However, Paul McCartney did once feel like nothing was going his way — so much so that on November 29, 1960, he set a fire in the dingy room where he’d been staying in Hamburg. McCartney and his then fellow Beatle Pete Best were arrested for arson, held overnight, and then deported to England.
The band was upset over losing George Harrison to an earlier deportation. Authorities discovered Harrison was 17 and too young to be playing in bars after curfew. McCartney was also tangling with Bruno Koschmider, the owner of the Kaiserkeller, the club where the Beatles had been playing.
Koschmider canceled the band’s contract and they had to move their belongings out of the building where they had been staying. Koschmider also owned that building.
Their living conditions had not been good. The lodging consisted of gloomy, unheated, and windowless rooms, located next to the toilet. One wash-basin was available to them. At the time they were playing in the Indra and the Kaiserkeller, which along with the Bambi cinema belonged to Koschmider.
As McCartney said in a later interview, “We lived backstage in the Bambi Kino, next to the toilets, and you could always smell them. The room had been an old storeroom, and there were just concrete walls and nothing else. No heat, no wallpaper, not a lick of paint; and two sets of bunk beds, with not very much covers. We were frozen.”
Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe had already moved to their next lodgings, which was a room in the attic above the Top Ten Club.
“Unfortunately for McCartney and Best, they decided to make the move after hours, and when they lit a fire to shed some light on the situation, they ended up burning one of the walls,” according to Ultimate Classic Rock.
There was no damage “apart from a burn mark on the wall, and the fire eventually extinguished itself on the damp wall,” said Beatles Bible. When he saw the damage, though, Koschmider was so furious he went to the police.
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“He’d told them that we’d tried to burn his place down and they said, ‘Leave, please. Thank you very much but we don’t want you to burn our German houses,’ ” McCartney relayed in the biography Many Years From Now. “Funny, really, because we couldn’t have burned the place even if we had gallons of petrol — it was made of stone.”
When McCartney and Best were let out of jail, they went to their new lodgings in the attic and collapsed, exhausted. However, a banging on the door awoke them a few hours later. Two plain-clothes policemen were doing the banging. The police told the two men they had to leave the country by midnight.
“The Beatles were not entirely sure why they were being deported, as their limited command of German made it difficult to understand the police procedures,” according to Beatles Bible. “Their request to telephone the British Consul was refused.”
John Lennon, stuck behind in Hamburg, found his way back to the U.K. later. And yet, after Harrison turned 18, the band went back to Germany.
Their standing among the many groups playing in Hamburg rose, and they were booked at the Star-Club in November 1962. For the first time, the band members could actually stay in proper hotel rooms. The tapes of the performance were released as Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.