The Fab Four come home

Hamburg has finally decided to exploit its claim to fame as the city that nurtured the world's most famous pop group. Tony Paterson reports

The site of Hamburg's legendary Star Club where The Beatles shot to fame is today occupied by a Chinese takeaway that reeks of fried noodles, but around midnight the place can still rock to the sound of "Twist and Shout" – even if it is played on a ukulele.

The twangy music and German-accented lyrics and are down to the Hamburg busker Stefanie Hempel, a self-confessed Fab Four fanatic who has begun taking tourists on a warts-and-all Beatles tour of the city's red light district.

On her late night excursions of the Reeperbahn, she explains that when the lads from Liverpool briefly lived here in the early Sixties, they used to urinate from balconies and pump themselves full of an amphetamine-based slimming pill to cope with their punishing routine of all-night gigs.

Visitors are taken to the site of the former Bambi cinema off the Reeperbahn's main street, where The Beatles slept behind the screen in bunk beds and had to wash in sinks in the ladies' toilets. A black and white photograph alongside the front door shows them laughing as they hold up empty Preludine pill containers.

"One night Paul and John nailed a condom to the wall of the cinema where they had been given accommodation. Then they set fire to it," Hempel explains. "They got deported after that," she recounts with glee.

The 32-year-old's offbeat and irreverent look at the group's lesser-known days in Hamburg – when they dressed as leather-jacketed rockers with greased back hair and "ducktails" rather than as mop-haired Mods in collarless "Beatle Suits" – is part of Hamburg's drive to re-invent itself as a Beatles city. Almost half a century after the band began playing their mixture of skiffle and rock'n'roll as a minor accompanying group at the Reeperbahn's Kaiser Keller, with Pete Best on drums and Stu Sutcliffe on bass, the city has finally discovered its Beatles past.

Fire destroyed the original Star Club in the 1980s and all that remains nowadays is a black, gravestone-like monument with the names of all the rock legends who played there engraved upon it in gold lettering, including those of Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles.

Ulf Kruger, a 63-year-old musician and friend of The Beatles, has been trying to get the city to promote its associations with the group for decades.

"We have been very late on the uptake. But better late than never," he admits. In an attempt to make amends for 50 years of Beatles amnesia, a €2.5m (£2.15m) permanent "Beatlemania" exhibition has opened on the Reeperbahn. It aims to attract at least 250,000 visitors a year. The project, which follows the construction of a special "Beatles Square" on the Reeperbahn, has been privately funded by the German music industry but has the full backing of the city government.

It is not hard to understand why: The famous Reeperbahn has been in decline for decades. Sex is no longer earning cash and there are 2,000 fewer prostitutes in Hamburg than there were a decade ago. The industry blames the rise of internet porn and sex chat forums for the decline. Sex clubs now offer cut-price deals to attract new customers.

"The Reeperbahn is having to change the emphasis of what it offers to visitors," said Guido Neumann, from Hamburg Marketing. "The place no longer attracts sailors from the port because container shipping means that they spend hardly any time in harbour."

Hamburg's "Beatlemania" tells the story of how the band decided to come to the city because the pubs and clubs in their native Liverpool closed so early. "I was born in Liverpool but grew up in Hamburg," was how John Lennon put it.

At the Indra club and Kaiser Keller, they worked up to 48 nights in a row, drank, took amphetamines and had sex with girls who, as Paul McCartney said, "didn't all wear girdles" like they did back home. The band had to improvise on stage. They met up with "Exis", a Hamburg offshoot of the French existentialists.

Sutcliffe fell in love with the photographer and art student Astrid Kirchherr, whose famous black and white photographs of the early Beatles are a feature of the exhibition. He died of a brain haemorrhage three days before the band was to debut at the Star Club. And after Brain Epstein took over as manager, Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best.

Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, another Beatles photographer and Hamburg "Exi", are credited with persuading the band to adopt the floppy Beatle haircut, a style borrowed from the French existentialists.

The exhibition dwells on all these themes. It features bedrooms of Sixties teenagers, decked out with Beatle dresses, badges and posters of the Fab Four grinning benevolently. Visitors can even record themselves singing a Beatles song.

One of the most striking exhibits is contained in a room where colour footage of The Beatles' abortive concert at New York's Shea Stadium in 1965 is projected on to all four walls. The deafening roar of thousands of teenage girls, many hysterical, fenced in and weeping, exposes the full and still rather disturbing force of genuine Beatlemania. The Beatles are seen just mouthing their songs. It was the last concert they ever gave.

The exhibition covers the rest of Beatle history from Yellow Submarine right up to the band's last fractious album, Let in Be. Visitors are encouraged to relax afterwards in the "Yeah Yeah café on the first floor of what was formerly an erotic arts museum.

Bernd Zerbin, one of the principal organisers, said it was important to reflect the whole of Beatles history and not just concentrate on Hamburg. Paul and Ringo had been invited to visit but he had not even had a reply from them. "I don't think their managers even allowed them to see the invitation," he said. "But it would be great if they showed up one day."