Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, John Bonham, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, even Sam Cooke - Just many of the musical legends who died young and became instant cultural icons. We have a perverted fascination with those who create a special body of work, then pop their clogs before they get a chance to tarnish their reputation.
Many died as a result of depression and/or substance abuse, others simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist with The Beatles, joined this tragic and iconic club in April 1962.
Sutcliffe’s iconic status was assured almost instantly after his death from a cerebral haemorrhage on April 10th 1962. His legend is perpetuated not only by his membership of the most famous group in the history of popular music, particularly during their most uninhibited and formative period, but also by his own independent talent and good looks. His close friendship with one half of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers, as well as his battles with the other half, have guaranteed that his name is forever inextricably linked to those of Lennon-McCartney and The Beatles. Indeed Sutcliffe receives credit for conceiving the group’s name. In addition, the details of his tragic love affair with a beautiful German fiancée who helped to shape the groups early image, and his premature death at the age of 22 make for a fascinating story that writes itself perfectly for a film script...and it has.
No fewer than three movies have documented Sutcliffe’s life, most famously the 1994 film BackBeat. However, as early as 1979, the film Birth Of The Beatles placed more emphasis on Sutcliffe’s character than that of McCartney or Harrison. In addition to these movies, Sutcliffe has been the subject of some four documentaries and at least five books.
Despite this however, his contribution to The Beatles has often been conveniently played down. Sutcliffe was the musically-bereft, James Dean wannabe who was relieved of £65, and selfishly press-ganged into Lennon’s group to provide a back-beat on an instrument he couldn’t play anyway, right? Well, perhaps on the 50th anniversary of his tragic death, this young man’s legacy deserves a second look.
Stuart Victor Ferguson Sutcliffe was born June 22nd 1940 in Edinburgh, Scotland to middle class parents. His father, like John Lennon’s, spent the greater part of the war away at sea. The small, effeminate and sensitive Sutcliffe left Grammar school, and with a burgeoning talent for drawing and painting was enrolled at the Liverpool College of Art in 1956 at 16...two years earlier than the average age of enrolment. Moving in Liverpool 8 art school circles, he was introduced to John Lennon sometime in 1957/58 by fellow student Bill Harry, who later founded the paper- Merseybeat.
On the surface Lennon and Sutcliffe appeared to be polar opposites. Lennon was already highly skilled at hiding his emotions behind a firewall of aggressive and abusive cruelty towards anyone on his radar. This behaviour moved up a gear at Art College as a defence mechanism to deflect from the fact that he believed himself to be a phony who was in over his head and surrounded by real talent. When it came to applying himself to his studies he was lazy, bored and easily distracted...the worst pupil in his class. Sutcliffe on the other hand was gifted with a natural talent for drawing, painting and even sculpture. He was a determined, studious, and meticulous artist who possessed an intensity and dedication which alarmed his tutors. Well aware of the young man’s artistic promise, his tutors allowed him to work from his flat although they asked him to slow down and take life easier even then.
Sutcliffe was the most promising student at the college. Cynthia Powell, John Lennon’s future wife and art school student remembers Sutcliffe’s nature as being opposite to Lennon’s completely. “Stuart was a sensitive artist and he was not a rebel, as John was. He wasn’t rowdy or rough”. (Mojo, 10 Years That Shook The World p.26)
Despite their differences however, they possessed a mutual admiration for each other, and for rock n roll. Unlike his jazz influenced art school contemporaries Sutcliffe was influenced by Elvis, which intrigued Lennon, and it was rock n roll's imagery that drew him to Lennon’s group.
Lennon was intimidated by Sutcliffe's talent and particularly by his image. Sutcliffe however also admired Lennon's cartoons, particularly their honest and satirical subject matter.
Sutcliffe’s praise of his work had the effect of making Lennon feel he actually belonged at the art college. He also fulfilled Lennon's desire to be taken seriously by a serious artist whom he looked up to. Sutcliffe flattered Lennon and fulfilled an early role as a muse, a role later occupied by Yoko Ono. Indeed Sutcliffe introduced Lennon to Dadaism, a movement Lennon would later embrace wholeheartedly during his peace campaigns with Ono.
Arthur Ballard, a former tutor at the Art College commented that "without Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon wouldn't have known Dada from a donkey" (Philip Norman, Lennon – The Life p.136)
The general myth has always held that Sutcliffe was led astray by Lennon and the others, and duped into spending his money on the band. Quite the contrary however, it seems that Sutcliffe was a willing and enthusiastic addition to the group. Bill Harry claimed that the image of being in a rock n roll band appealed to Sutcliffe more than the music itself, (Norman, Philip, Lennon, The Life p.168) and it became an extension of his own moody image. Lennon certainly approved, dismissing Sutcliffe’s early struggles with his new oversized instrument by setting his priorities straight and declaring; "never mind, he looks good" (Norman, Philip, Lennon, The Life p.237). George Harrison recalled that it was better to have a bass player who couldn’t play, than not have one at all (Anthology).
Not everyone approved though. Paul McCartney smarted at his demotion in the ranks as a result of Lennon and Sutcliffe’s friendship and he admitted years later that 'the others' were jealous of the relationship, feeling they were forced to take a back seat (Anthology). In fairness, his dislike of the situation was also due to his frustrations with Sutcliffe’s musical ability. Even at this early stage, the idealistic differences between Lennon, whose ethos was ‘let’s play’, and McCartney who leaned towards ‘let’s play it right’, were plain to see. Yet, it was the subtle marriage of these contrasting ideologies which would make their partnership so devastating throughout the decade.
So enthusiastic was Sutcliffe for his new life as a rock n roller, that he began writing to booking agents on behalf of the band, and signed himself as – manager. Does that sound like the actions of a talented artist with a bright future, who was cajoled into parting with his money and joining a musical group with little prospects?
Sutcliffe’s next contribution to the group was to prove to be his most enduring. Still uncertain of their artistic moniker, (The Quarrymen had Become Johnny and The Moondog’s), Sutcliffe suggested The Beetles in homage to Buddy Holly’s Cricket’s. This name evolved several times through Beetles, The Beatals, The Silver Beetles, The Beetles and finally, The Beatles.
In May 1960, the group famously auditioned to become a backing band for Billy Fury, but instead ended being assigned a drummer and embarking upon a budget tour of Scotland with Liverpool singer, Johnny Gentle. The tour was an eye-opener and a disaster for many reasons. For Sutcliffe however it revealed that the life of a musician was not necessarily glamorous, and that his friendship with Lennon was far from perfect.
Unable to compete with Sutcliffe's artistic abilities at college, Lennon seemed to enjoy becoming his friend’s artistic superior once he strapped on a bass and stepped on-stage.
Lennon admitted that he was particularly cruel to Sutcliffe during the tour, refusing to allow him to eat or even sit with the others. He belittled his friend’s height and zoned in on his struggles with the Höfner bass he wore.
By the time the group acquired permanent drummer Pete Best in August 1960, Sutcliffe found himself bound for Hamburg to play rock n roll in the sleaziest of Europe’s red light districts. He had horrified his family and tutor’s by abandoning his teacher training diploma and turned his back on his art completely. However he was held in such high regard by the Liverpool College of Art that they agreed to keep his place open for his return, if and when he saw fit. For the others, no such friendly offers lay open...Hamburg was make or break.
Soon after his arrival on the Grosse Freiheit Sutcliffe had met, fallen in love with and become engaged to a beautiful German existentialist by the name of Astrid Kircherr. Unlike the typical female fan, Kircherr was not only beautiful and stylish, but confident, cultured and a talented photographer.
The group were far from irritated by Sutcliffe’s new found love, in fact they encouraged it. Kircherr’s family acted somewhat like the Asher’s later did for Paul McCartney. Mrs. Kircherr, appalled by the group’s living conditions in St Pauli, allowed Stuart to lodge in the loft while often tending to the rest of the group; washing their clothes and providing hot meals. Astrid’s affections and admiration for Sutcliffe’s talent woke him from his rock n roll coma and ignited his interest in art again. She and her friends also appealed to the existentialist in him, and it wasn’t long before he was dressing just like his new German friend’s. In another vital building block to the group’s image and direction, Sutcliffe became influenced by Hamburg’s existentialists clothing and hairstyles, and through him, so too did The Beatles.
Kircherr also took some iconic shots of the group, and her style was copied verbatim for the cover of their second LP; With The Beatles, which was considered an artistic watershed in terms of album covers.
Following the deportation of Harrison, McCartney and Best in late 1960, Lennon also headed for home leaving Sutcliffe behind with his fiancée. He had by now lost interest in his rock n roll career and intended on taking up his studies again. Back in Liverpool the Beatles career began to take off following their first apprenticeship in Hamburg, and for a time they adapted a new bass player; Chas Newby, who later left of his own accord. In December of 1960, Harrison also apparently asked John Gustafson, bassist with The Big Three to join The Beatles...Gustafson declined, understandably a decision he lived to regret.
When Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool in February 1961 he headed straight for the Art College, committed to picking up where he left off. To his dismay he found the door firmly shut to him, regardless of his golden promise. The reason for his banishing was later discerned to be his suspected role in the misappropriation of a student’s union amplifier; a Selmer Truvoice amp which was almost certainly ‘borrowed’ by The Silver Beetles. Disgusted and desponded, Sutcliffe returned to Hamburg in March 1961 to be with his fiancée and to test the possibilities of studying there. On application to the HFBK, or Hamburg College of Art, Sutcliffe made such an impression on Scottish-Italian artist and tutor Eduardo Paolozzi that he was immediately enrolled and given a generous grant. Sutcliffe soon picked up where he had left off in Liverpool by painting in the loft of the Kircherr house in Hamburg and, here his and the Beatles paths began to diverge. He still occasionally played and sang with the group during their second Hamburg residency, but McCartney had by now largely taken over on bass.
By October 1961 Sutcliffe was suffering from blinding headaches and dark mood swings, often coupled with aggressive bouts of unprovoked jealousy towards his fiancée. He was eventually persuaded to see a doctor who diagnosed nothing but a troublesome appendix and advised Sutcliffe to slow down, rest and quit cigarettes and alcohol.
During this visit he met Brian Epstein, the new Beatles manager, and discussed a future role as an artistic director and designer for the band. Predictably, Epstein was drawn to Sutcliffe's looks and later wrote to him in Hamburg that he “[...] didn't know anyone as lovely as you existed in Liverpool". (Norman, Lennon - The Life p.262)
Upon his return to Hamburg, Sutcliffe’s seizures and mood swings escalated. He wrote home that “[his] head was compressed, and filled with such unbelievable pain". (Norman, Lennon - The Life p.262) On April 10th 1962 he suffered an hour long seizure at his home and fell into a coma. Despite being rushed to hospital by ambulance Sutcliffe died during the journey, rested in his fiancées arms.
The next day, unaware of his death, the Beatles minus George Harrison, flew out to Hamburg from Manchester to begin yet another engagement. They were greeted by a distraught Kircherr in the arrivals hall, and her news sent Lennon into aggressive hysterics.
Lennon was later criticised by the Sutcliffe family however for his lack of emotion over his friend’s death.
The show of emotion in Hamburg airport had evaporated - or been carefully withdrawn - by the time his friend's mother arrived (on the same flight as Harrison and Epstein) the following day. Lennon in his defence was 21 years old, hardly a matured man, and those young years had already seen their fair share of trauma. Already aware that his father and mother had abandoned him, death had been a frequent caller to his door what with losing his surrogate father (Uncle George) at 15, his mother at 17, and now his best friend at 21. It's little wonder that he developed an aggressive defence mechanism for bottling and hiding his emotions. There are enough clues throughout his life however to suggest that he was always haunted by the death of his best friend and perhaps his frequent cruel treatment of him in public. Kircherr felt his behaviour towards Sutcliffe was another of his defence mechanisms; “I’m thinking when he treated him badly, it was because he was afraid anyone might see how much he loved him” (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p.214).
Sutcliffe may have been the subject of the confessional, self-healing and melancholy Beatles song 'There's A Place', composed the same year as Sutcliffe's death. He was also certainly one of the central subjects in Lennon's 1965 autobiographical 'In My Life', and his friend also ensured that Sutcliffe finally made it onto a Beatles album; standing among the greats of the 20th century on the cover of the group's magnum opus - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Yoko Ono has also maintained that Lennon spoke of Sutcliffe every day throughout his life, so much so that she felt she had known him herself.
Controversy has surrounded Sutcliffe in death just as it has his deceased best friend. His death was deemed the result of a cerebral haemorrhage, but post mortem results pointed to a previous skull trauma, possibly the result of a blow...or a kick. Beatles myths often have a tendency to grow into monsters and Sutcliffe’s death is no exception. Not surprisingly, views on how Sutcliffe may have been injured differ enormously.
The famous story is that Sutcliffe was ambushed and violently kicked in the head by a group of youths following a gig at Lathom Hall. This is the story put forth by Philip Norman, author of Shout!, and Lennon – The Life. Norman states the incident occurred in early 1961, probably Feb 25th. He also states that Sutcliffe’s mother found him that night, bleeding heavily from a head wound.
However, Bill Harry, Pete Best and Neil Aspinall maintained that the incident had occurred on May 14th 1960, and that it involved a few punches and nothing at all as sinister as a kick to the head. Best recalled; “When people talk of Stu being beaten up, I think it stems from this incident. But I don’t remember Stu getting to the stage where he had his head kicked in, as some legends say, alleging that this caused his fatal brain haemorrhage” (Mersey Beat Archives).
The trouble is, neither Pete Best nor Neil Aspinall worked with the group in May 1960. They were both with The Beatles by February 1961 however, the time the incident occurred according to Philip Norman, although their recollections seem to refute the viciousness of Norman’s description of events. Time has muddied the actual details it seems, but what probably occurred is that a minor fracas took place in February 1961, which involved no serious head injuries. Incidentally Sutcliffe only returned from Hamburg in late February 1961. So if he was with the group at this performance, it must have been one of his first engagements upon his return.
The Sutcliffe family have thrown further fuel on the fire in the debate. In her book The Beatles' Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club, Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline claims that on his final return to Liverpool her brother told his mother how John Lennon had attacked him in a drunken rage, knocking him to the ground and kicking him repeatedly in the head. The incident was supposedly fueled by his jealousy of Stu, and his ever increasing frustrations with his musical abilities. Paul McCartney was cited as the sole witness, and it was allegedly he who carried a bleeding Sutcliffe back to his digs. The incident was kept in the Sutcliffe family until 1984, thus denying Lennon a chance to comment on the allegation of any involvement in his friend’s death.McCartney, who supposedly witnessed the incident, has no recollection of it, although he admitted that John and Stuart could have had a drunken fight (Anthology). As always, analysis of recollections should be subjected to a degree of scepticism, owing to the sheer amount of time that has elapsed, not to mention the tricky issue of disentangling personal agenda.
Lennon was known to have a violent streak, sure, and he was a famously mean drinker. However the alleged attack is largely out of character with his documented relationship with Sutcliffe, and indeed the rest of his band mates. There are well known stories of John Lennon going on-stage wearing a toilet seat, urinating from balconies, mugging sailors, and walking the streets in his underwear. So, surely a story of him administering a vicious beating to his best friend in public would be supported by someone who was there.
Horst Fascher, the group’s unofficial bodyguard in Hamburg and a man for whom violence was a working tool, claims he never heard of such an incident. Sutcliffe himself, a man who wrote letters home frequently, never wrote of the incident, and neither Harrison nor Best has ever mentioned it. Astrid Kircherr, his fiancée claims that Lennon never raised his hands to Sutcliffe, dismissing the allegation as “rubbish”. (The Lost Beatle, BBC 4 Documentary)
McCartney has always come-off as a villain in Sutcliffe's story. The one well documented on-stage punch-up involving Sutcliffe was with McCartney, supposedly the result of an unkind comment aimed at Astrid Kircherr. He made no bones of his opinion on Sutcliffe’s, and even Best’s musical abilities, once shouting at them both during a performance; “You may look like James Dean and you may look like Jeff Chandler, but you’re both crap.” (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p.237)
In the Beatles Anthology, McCartney admits that his relationship with Sutcliffe grew particularly fraught, but Kircherr suggests it was more than that; "[...} when Paul and Stu had a row, you could tell that Paul hated him". (Norman, Shout!, p.90)
McCartney has always maintained that he never wanted the job as bass player, that he somehow got lumped with the job by the refusal of the others to take up the role. Harrison contradicted this, recalling that “He [McCartney] went for it [the bass role]” (Anthology)
Regardless, it seems that McCartney viewed Sutcliffe's departure as the best possible outcome for his and the band's collective gain...he was probably correct in his assessment. In any case, they did have options. Upon Sutcliffe's official departure from the group, Klaus Voorman, their Hamburg acquaintance who would design the cover of Revolver and play bass on numerous John Lennon solo albums, asked Lennon if he could take up the role as The Beatles bassist. Lennon turned him down telling him "sorry mate, Paul has already bought a bass [...]" (Mojo, 10 Years, p.35).
It seems the allegations of Lennon’s attack (as well as the predictable and highly irrelevant claims that Lennon and Sutcliffe had a homosexual relationship) are little but hearsay. But, they do sell books.
We will never know the true cause of Sutcliffe’s haemorrhage, although no doubt the legend surrounding it will continue and grow. Kircherr was convinced that Stuart had an underlying condition that was lying in wait. That condition was possibly exacerbated by Sutcliffe’s 24 hour lifestyle which has been documented by all those who knew him, tutors, musicians, lovers and friends. He simply worked too hard, too long, too intensely, smoked too much and ate and slept too little. In his last letters home he confessed how doctors had labelled him a nervous wreck.
Certainly, starting out in early 1960 he was very limited and struggled his way through the Scottish tour of May ’60. However it’s been well documented how the group went to Hamburg a ‘banger’ (jalopy) and came home a Rolls Royce...the relentless hours on stage turning them into a rock n roll powerhouse. If Lennon, Best, Harrison & McCartney progressed as musicians, shouldn’t it also follow that Sutcliffe did too? In 1960 Sutcliffe himself wrote home that the group had improved a thousand fold since their arrival in Hamburg. (Lost Beatle, BBC 4)
The surviving tapes that capture Sutcliffe on bass (Anthology 1) are too poor in quality to allow any real appreciation of his ability. So, we need to examine the recollections of those who were there.
McCartney’s opinion has been well documented, but there were others and, contrary to the myth, many remember him as being highly competent on the instrument.
Klaus Voorman remembers Sutcliffe as being "[...] a heavy rock n roller. Rock n roll is an art form, and Stuart had the feel and taste. They weren't playing anything very complicated, and taken as a whole - feeling it and playing those few notes - Stuart was a really, really, good bass player." (Mojo, 10 Years, p.35).
Pete Best recalled how Sutcliffe was a decent musician with a good reputation among his Hamburg contemporaries, and Bill Harry (Merseybeat founder) recalls that he was quite good. Furthermore, Sutcliffe sometimes played bass in a combo with Howie Casey (of the Seniors) in the Kaiserkeller, and they seemed to have no issue with his competency. (Uncut March 2012).
Sutcliffe and Best may have failed to make the grade when it came to the Beatles EMI career, in fact Best fell at the first hurdle. However in the case of both, it’s been convenient to excuse their treatment by the group by highlighting their musical ineptitudes...but personal dislikes can’t be ruled out of the equation either. The group closed rank on Best once George Martin flagged him, Sutcliffe was a different story however; he drifted out rather than having to be pushed. He had bigger fish to fry.
Some have argued that he wasn’t talented enough to be in The Beatles, but his artistic pedigree meant that he was far too talented to be in The Beatles.
John Lennon always claimed that the best work of The Beatles was never captured, referring to their wild, pre-EMI days. If that’s true, then he’s referring to a period when it was more important to play, than what you played and who heard you. The rock n roll played during this period was uncomplicated, and if Lennon’s opinion counted for anything, and it should – it was his band after all – then the proto-punk stage material of 1960-1962 suited the talents of Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe more than adequately.
Judging by the professional critique of his surviving work, Sutcliffe would have emerged as a major talent in the art world. In fact, had he never met John Lennon, nor joined The Beatles, Sutcliffe would possibly have become a renowned artist. The same is difficult to say for The Beatles, without ever having met and become subjected to the influence of Stuart Sutcliffe.
His association with The Beatles would probably have catapulted him to the top of the artistic movements of the ‘60s, as he lived a celebrity life with his beautiful German wife which would have mirrored that of the Beckham’s. Under his direction many of the group’s album covers may have looked very different. In fact, he may even have played on a few of them.