Hamburg's Reeperbahn, found in the quarter of St Pauli, is the continent's largest red-light district, and one of the most beguiling places on the planet. Die Sündige Meile ('the sinful mile'), as locals call it, is awash with brothels, strip clubs and bars, and was where sailors docking in Europe's second-biggest port, located on the southern point of the Jutland Peninsula, would spend their wages and purge months of frustration.
The perfect setting for a debauched party then? Maybe on paper, but the Reeperbahn - literally 'ropewalk', a place where ropes are made; again a nautical reference - is trying to clean up its act, and the annual Reeperbahn Festival is helping. This September, for the seventh edition, a sell-out 25,000 revellers listened to some 290 musicians from 23 different nations in 60 different venues over three days.
Additionally, this year there were 40 artistic events (poetry, visual and digital arts, films etc, rather than any which involved poles or lube) - a 100 per cent increase from 2011's total. It's little wonder that this festival is becoming one of the most talked about in Europe.
Famously the Reeperbahn was where The Beatles hung out in the early 1960s, before they struck it big (and there are plenty of tacky 'official tours' which are advisable to avoid). Here they could enjoy total anonymity, gigging along the strip while flushed on various narcotics. Legend has it that John Lennon played one set with a toilet seat around his neck and he would later say: “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”
And while there were a handful of recognisable world-famous musicians in action - including Royal Republic, King Charles, Jupiter Jones and ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon - the yet-to-be-discovered acts were the ones creating the exciting buzz. Which ones will ascend to stardom?
From nearly 300 acts to chose from it was always going to be a lottery discerning who to plump for, and with the festival's organisers' watchword being 'eclectic' it was indeed a lottery. But that made for much fun - and a way of sorting the John Lennons from the Aaron Lennons.
Information - timetables and descriptions of those playing - was readily available, however, and the daily brochures liberally dished out were invaluable. Even more data was on offer thanks to a brilliant iPhone and Android app. No need to feel overwhelmed, even when the tattooed transvestites wink at you.
Wristband on, the first band I stumbled across was a Norwegian quintet, gigging in front of the N-JOY Reeperbus (an old American school coach) situated on the main drag, Spielnudenplatz. The lead singer was a narced-up Macaulay Culkin doppelgänger - not an appealing look or sound.
Later, in a bar which usually had semi-naked girls on the podiums, German hip-hop group Neon Schwartz looked the part with rad t-shirts, chains and straight-brimmed baseball caps ... and then they began. Their first track “I wanna get high” appeared a favourite for the young crowd, but when the next track began with a blatant rip of Dr Dre's Next Episode, and I ventured on.
However, after those wayward misses there were many subsequent hits, including the beer-swilling British folk band Skinny Lister and the simply wonderful Kyteman Orchestra. Dutchman Colin Benders (Kyteman) is not yet 26 but shuffled his 50-strong band on to stage at Fliegenden Bauten.
The orchestra live, eat and play music together, in a commune in Utrecht, and their tightness was shown in One Day, one of the most magical live performances this journalist has witnessed. Kyteman was worth the €65 festival fee alone, though there were many other notable ones-to-watch, such as Danish groups Spleen United and The Rumour Said Fire.
Next year the festival will be held from 26-28 September, and for a cheap EasyJet flight it's very much worth the visit - even as an excuse to explore this seedy area before it is sanitised. Away from the quarter Hamburg is affluent, industrious and captivating. At the festival you will witness, among other eyesores, the next big things; but be careful, the Reeperbahn Festival could rope you in.
Words: Oliver Pickup
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