There are six things you will be aware of within minutes of hitting the Reeperbahn. Four of them are The Beatles and the other two are tits. It’s a strange cultural legacy which offers Hamburg the cheap and effortless option of pitching this area somewhere between the ‘Pools of Liver and Black.
This mile-long street in the centre of affluent Hamburg is another world entirely from the boho shopping areas and impressive office and apartment blocks by the port. A dirty neon gutter to the rest of the city’s shining spotless streets.
The Fab Four, having spent quite some time here in pop star training, are as fiercely claimed by the Reeperbahn as Elvis would be by Ilkley if it turned out that he had learned his hip swivel while climbing over stiles on the moors and got his first quiff from a barber on Cowpasture Road.
As a result, their faces are everywhere at key hotspots, confusingly depicting them at various stages of their career and drug use - in no particular order - from one poster to the next. It’s even possible to follow a ukulele tour around them all, just for the UK tourists to cement their bewilderment.
Those who don’t come here for the rock n roll come for the sex. Only it’s not quite the sinful mile it used to be; back when the signs went up at the end of the gated street to tell women they weren’t allowed, nobody had heard of Peter Stringfellow or Ann Summers. It was both a richer and a poorer time. Now that we all know what a naked lady looks like - can’t get away from them, in fact - the seediness of the Reeperbahn looks tacky, quaint and done.
their faces are everywhere at key hotspots, confusingly depicting them at various stages of their career and drug use - in no particular order - from one poster to the next.
Today, the erotic paraphernalia in shop windows varies from minimalistic arrangements of white cubes interrupted by the odd bra, to sparkly curtains almost obscured by piles of penis-shaped cushions and mannequins wearing bodystockings usually seen down Leeds market.
It’s entertaining alright. But when you’ve got Berlin to contend with, it’s not enough to simply hold your nose and rely on the profits of nostalgia and filth. So whilst the Reeperbahn’s offering might at first appear to be restricted now to thrilling visiting stag parties, there’s actually a lot more to this place.
Between the boob bars and sex shops are venues so stylish and well kept that they make enduring UK toilet venues seem like the hardship and squalor it is. From Cafe Keese, somehow seeming worth its inflated drinks prices despite a light-up dancefloor, to the Gruenspan, with its lush velvet curtains and wrought iron railings surrounding an audience who are sat on upturned crates
Molotow is the only venue to have a perpetual queue after 2am, its red-lit bare-brick basement bar and venue providing the perfect shelter from the bright lights of the strip. It’s also the perfect backdrop to indulge in illicit activities like (shh) smoking indoors. Rumour has it that this bar might not see many more months on the Reeperbahn, which will leave a lot of very drunk people with far better taste giving up and resorting to karaoke bars between the hours of 3 and 6am, as well as being a damn shame.
With all of the overly eager ladies on display (including, I kid you not, a couple of strippers dancing on top of McDonalds in broad daylight) it’s hard not to notice that this year’s annual Reeperbahn Festival featured a number of female-fronted acts who managed to dwarf the sex appeal of McStrippers whilst keeping their clothes on. Any doubt over whether talent and mystique are more attractive that tits and ass has been firmly put to bed this year.
Between the boob bars and sex shops are venues so stylish and well kept that they make enduring UK toilet venues seem like the hardship and squalor it is.
Brigitte, for example, with their two beautiful hypersultry frontwomen writhing in slinky sequined dresses (one with a bit of a Daria thing going on) brought unashamedly sensual, feminine French folk music. Low-fi surf popsters La Femme, with their joyous wall of synths, are fronted by a girl so chic and beautiful that an entire punk club forgot themselves and fell in love at once. Charlie XCX was trashy sexy as the British contingent, channeling Scary Spice via Cheryl Cole but looking positively demure in these surroundings. Skip & Die’s Catarina Pirata is a young Jerry Hall showing Nicki Minaj how to be avant garde, putting in a Dutch/South African tribal dub performance at a pop-up gig in one of the great independent record stores in the Reeperbahn’s surrounding streets.
Within easy reach of the Reeperbahn are some examples of the kind of creative thinking and risk-taking that make Hamburg by no means the poor cousin to Berlin in the cultural stakes. For example, a huge monstrous wartime bunker looming over the city has been converted to house music shops, bars and venues, completely at odds with its intimidating facade and history.
The city’s music entrepreneurs are invited to move into start-up offices at knockdown rates for an 18-month stay while they either find their feet and can move on to permanent premises, or cut their minimal losses. Their immediate neighbours are a treasure-heavy fleamarket, an open gallery, bars and cafes.
Overhearing a friendly but lively argument between one of Hamburg’s marketing team and the owner of an established local galley, it becomes clear that the dawning awareness of the city’s cultural merits (those of the less infamous kind) are both a blessing and a curse. “It’s great that people are learning that there’s so much more to Hamburg”, says the enthusiastic marketing rep. “Yes,” replies the gallery owner, “but when I moved in my street was empty, and now it’s so busy that I can’t even unload the van outside my gallery anymore”.
With the word on the strasse being that Berlin is now so heavy with hipsters that it’s just reached an unsustainable level of irony, overpriced housing and clubbing taxes, Hamburg is ready to position itself as a bold contender for anyone who wishes they’d made it to Berlin before it was cool.
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