Perhaps the dreamiest Beatle of all died before the band was even first made known to England. Stuart Sutcliffe is among the handful of people often referred to as ‘the fifth Beatle’. Before The Beatles got their name, Sutcliffe was their bassist.
Sutcliffe wasn’t a musician at all. He befriended John Lennon during their time at art school. Sutcliffe was already developing a reputation as a talented painter and the school’s most promising student– unlike Lennon, whose antics made him infamously the school’s least promising. John was known to be the wittiest, meanest, most acerbic at the art college, yet Stu was the most quiet, gentle, pensive, and discerning. They formed an unlikely bond, were known as inseparable best friends, eventually becoming roommates. Its said that Lennon's close bond to Stu was because he so admired Stu's wise-beyond-his-years perspective and his artistic energy made him a presence that Lennon was glued to. They were so close, and Lennon was such a charismatic friend, he succeeded in persuading Sutcliffe to spend all the money he earned selling his first painting on a bass guitar (which he had no idea nor desire to play) in order to fill the empty slot in Lennon’s nascent band, which at this time hadn't settled on a definite name, whose line-up included a kid named George and a kid Paul that also attended the Art College.
Sutcliffe (left) with Lennon (right).
Paul McCartney with Stu in the background.
Above, Stu stands wearing wayfarers while Paul, George, and drummer Pete Best sit.
The band, as 15, 16, and 17 year olds, lived a grimy life in Hamburg, Germany, sleeping in movie theaters hopped up on amphetamines performing in spotty dive bars at night. Sutcliffe and McCartney brewed tensions, as Sutcliffe dashing looks quickly earned him a male and female fanbase in Hamburg who couldn’t care less how he played. And, despite his close relationship with Lennon, they both had to face the fact that Stu had no idea how to play the bass. Sutcliffe had no interest in learning bass, and wanted to pursue art again. Eventually, pressure from both the band and Stu to quit ended Stu’s involvement.
One of Kirchherr’s iconic photos of the pre-Beatles band, circa 1960.
Sutcliffe had a reason to stay in Hamburg though. He met striking German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who had heard about the band’s unique Rock n’ Roll act through painter-friend Klaus (the man who was later asked to join John and Yoko in the Plastic Ono band and much later to paint the designs for The Beatles Anthology albums, where Sutcliffe is also pictured in the first anthology album art). She befriended the group, seeing them as young and in need of nurturing. She was the silent figure behind what soon became The Beatles: She lent them money, cooked, cut their famous mod haircuts, gave them style tips, and took some of their earliest publicity photos. She took a special shine to Stu, though.
They were a striking couple with nearly identical pixie haircuts, clinging black turtlenecks, and black boots. When Sutcliffe quit the band he quickly married Kirchherr and moved in. What’s also so amazing about them is how relevant their style is today. Their singular mod look pre-dated the actual mod fashion movement by almost 10 years. In an interview with NPR, Kirchherr says she wore the distinct “exies” style of the German art crowd of the 50s– nicknamed for their existentialist philosophy.
While Astrid and Stu settled happily together, their marriage didn’t last long. Stu’s severe headaches became more frequent and intense until one came suddenly and killed him while he lay in the back of an ambulance next to Kirchherr in 1962.
Kirchherr took amazing black and white photography during the time she was with Stu, and her comparatively relaxed, mod style was a huge influence on Stu and the band– transforming them from leathered greasers with ducktaled bofffant hair, to slick mods in black drainpipes and italian boots. Sutcliffe inspired Astrid to make art. Her photography never panned out after his death. She gave up photography in the 70s and 80s and shelved her classic photos until more recently doing gallery openings around the world and publishing her book.
The keeper of much of the Stu Sutcliffe Estate is his sister Pauline, who had published her memoir in 2001. Pauline suggests that many of Stu’s letters to her and evidence of his death (which doctor’s say may have been partially caused by an indentation in his skull from a past trauma to the head) point to a romantic relationship between Lennon and Sutcliffe. She claims they were in love and Lennon responded violently to Sutcliffe’s relationship with Kirchherr by beating him violently. This rumor has circulated before (along with many others relating to Lennon’s sexuality), and was hinted by the 1994 movie Backbeat and echoed by several Lennon biographies that suggest either Lennon or McCartney personally beat Stuart in a drunken brawl. The more accepted story, backed by the band’s former manager, is that a fight outside a venue (which was a very common involvement for the band while in Hamburg) left Sutcliffe with a fractured skull for he never received medical attention.
Whatever the nature of the relationship, Lennon was devestated by Sutcliffe’s death and referenced him often in songs and interviews as a primary presence: Two of Sutcliffe’s paintings hung in Lennon’s Weybridge home Kenwood, Sutcliffe is referred to in the verse “some are dead and some are living” in Rubber Soul’s “In My Life”, and Stu is standing next to Illustrator Audrey Beardsley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.
Many above images via This Stu Sutcliffe Gallery