50 years on: 'Hamburg' still spells magic

The Beatles' first gig in Germany in 1960 has gone down in history. Paul Bignell looks back on the landmark gigs where you really had to be there

It was 50 years ago today...well, almost. Sgt Pepper's was merely a germ of an idea.

Yet the sweaty club in Hamburg where the Beatles launched themselves on an unsuspecting world half a century ago remains a shrine, a place of pilgrimage for the faithful of several generations. The Indra Club, thanks to the Beatles, is still a venue and a landmark in world music, for ever linked in the collective conscious with the birth of the many-limbed monster called rock'n'roll.

Last week it celebrated the group by hosting a tribute to the Fab Four, with bands playing many of the songs they played at the club.

Like Liverpool's Cavern Club, it attracts scores of pilgrims every year, curious to learn how the band honed their craft. In this small, scruffy venue in a once-notorious area of the German city, their dressing room was the gents' toilets and their sleeping quarters were in a local cinema around the corner. Yet, despite the difficult circumstances they faced, three years later they would be the world's most famous band, thanks in part to this small, innocuous setting near the river Elbe.

How great a part did the venue play in shaping the greatest act in popular music? John Lennon recalled their time at the club and the effect it had on them as a band: "We had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing. We played very loud, bang, bang all the time ... We got better and got more confidence. It was handy, them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over."

There have been many other memorable moments since, in venues that couldn't be more different from the Indra Club: the Rolling Stones waving goodbye to the 1960s in Hyde Park or Brian Wilson's emotional live return at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002.

Paul Gambaccini, the DJ and TV presenter, said: "A magical gig happens when everything comes together. When the band are on form, when the venue is suitable for their music – whether that be CBGB or Wembley Stadium – and when there's something in the air. With the Bob Marley and the Wailers gig at the Lyceum that everyone talks about, which I was at, there really was something in the air."

Here The Independent on Sunday and the music writer Charles Shaar Murray offer this definitive guide to some of the greatest gigs of all time.

Pink Floyd 1966

Roundhouse, London

This was Pink Floyd's first official gig and, along with Soft Machine, they appeared at the launch of the underground newspaper International Times. More importantly, it was the first all-night rave. About 2,000 people passed through the doors of Camden's Roundhouse, including Paul McCartney, Jane Asher and Marianne Faithfull. Sugar cubes were handled out and were rumoured to be coated in LSD. They weren't, but many managed to "trip out" regardless.

Queen 1985

Wembley Stadium

The group, fronted by enigmatic, buck-toothed singer Freddie Mercury, opened to massive cheers with "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the Live Aid concert. Mercury got 75,000 people clapping in unison to "Radio Ga Ga" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". Such was the impact of their performance that day that it led to their slot being voted "Greatest Live Gig Ever" in a 2005 poll of artists, industry executives and music journalists, screened on Channel 4.

Bob Marley 1975

Lyceum Theatre, London

What has been described as a "cross-over moment" when reggae met rock, Marley's gig has been cited as his best and most famous. Critics said the showcase captured the musician's raw energy, which his studio albums had failed to convey. His version of "No Woman, No Cry" at the Lyceum was chosen for his Legend compilation album and left the studio version to fade into obscurity. Six years later, Marley was dead from cancer.

Sex Pistols 1976

Lesser Free Trade Hall

If you counted the number of people who claimed to be at this Manchester gig, you could probably fill Wembley Arena twice. In actual fact, only about 40 people attended. Some of those who were (or weren't) there include Morrissey, Joy Division, Mick Hucknall, Tony Wilson and Paul Morley. The gig was seen as a catalyst for the British punk rock movement. They returned a month later when the Buzzcocks made their debut.

New Order 1982

The Hacienda, Manchester

There were many legendary gigs at this most famous of Manchester venues – the Smiths and Simple Minds to name a couple. But in its early years the club was able to stay open largely thanks to New Order's record sales on the Factory label co-founded by Tony Wilson. The group's first gig at the venue in 1982 would see a lineage at the club stretch from minimalist electronica to the "Madchester" years of the late 1980s. The club closed in 1997 and New Order split a decade later – but the legacies of both live on.

The Who 1964

Marquee Club

The Marquee Club was London's premier rock club in the early 1960s. As the legend goes, it was a rainy November evening in 1964 when The Who performed their first gig there, to an audience of 40. The night marked the beginning of a Thursday residency that ran for seven weeks, and they went on to break attendance records during all their gigs at the venue.

Television 1974

CBGB, New York

Punk band Television made their debut at CBGB in March 1974, playing over the next four months and then returning in January 1975, when they began playing there regularly. Many of those present said they were the first band to bring punk rock to the venue. Of course, in 1974, the term "punk" hadn't been invented, so their furious sound was known simply as "street music". After their legendary appearances, they gained a significant cult following.