Home / Music / A Portrait of the Bassist: An Examination of Stuart Sutcliffe’s Legacy with The Beatles 50 Years After His Death, Part 1

A Portrait of the Bassist: An Examination of Stuart Sutcliffe’s Legacy with The Beatles 50 Years After His Death, Part 1

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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, and Sam Cooke are 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.

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 hemorrhage on April 10, 1962. His legend is perpetuated not only by his membership of the most famous group in the history of popular music, but also by his own independent talent and good looks.  His close friendship with one half of the 20th century’s most celebrated pair of 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 group’s 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 those 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 backbeat 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 22, 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. 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 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, who advised 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 that “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 and he fulfilled a desire in Lennon to be taken seriously by an artist whom he looked up to. Sutcliffe 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)

Late in 1959, Lennon’s group sought to broaden their prospects for bookings with the addition of a drummer/bass player. Lennon tendered either role to Sutcliffe and fellow flatmate and art student Rod Murray, who set about building a bass made from college materials. He was beaten to the role ,however, by Sutcliffe who purchased a bass guitar sometime in early 1960 with £65 he made from the recent sale of a painting which had hung at an exhibition in the prestigious Walker Art Gallery.

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; “[N]ever 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 other”‘ 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, and signed himself as – manager. Hardly the actions of a man cajoled into parting with his money and dragged along for the ride. 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 Moondogs – Sutcliffe suggested The Beetles in homage to Buddy Holly’s Cricket’s. This name evolved several times before settling as The Beatles.

In May 1960, the group 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 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 tutors 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. For the others, no such friendly offers lay open – Hamburg was make or break.

Soon after his arrival in Hamburg, Sutcliffe had 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, and in fact they encouraged it. 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 in another important step towards the group’s image and direction, Sutcliffe became influenced by Hamburg’s existentialists clothing and hairstyles, and through him, so 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 temporary bass player. 

When Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool in February 1961, he headed straight for the Art College. 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 despondent, Sutcliffe returned to Hamburg in March 1961 to be with his fiancée and to test the possibilities of studying there. On application to the Hamburg College of Art, Sutcliffe made such an impression on Scottish 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.

Continued in Part 2: Sutcliffe falls ill and begins suffering seizures, he visits Liverpool to discuss becoming an artistic director of The Beatles, but dies before he can take up the role.

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  • Liz

    Like everything else associated with the Beatles, Stuart’s role and importance have been vastly exaggerated — usually for profit. Someone uses a dead guy who didn’t actually achieve much to sell a story, or sell some art. Stuart’s family and his girlfriend have a financial interest in exaggerating his role.

    I guess it’s just too boring to admit Stuart was just an OK bass player who stole a lot of his persona from James Dean, produced some good but not groundbreaking art, and liked posing as a rocker more than he actually like being a rocker.

    And his girlfriend Astrid took some cool pictures of the Beatles, though, interestingly, none of her other photography was any great success — again, an example of the Beatles connection exaggerating someone’s importance and skill.

    Stuart’s influence on them seems fairly brief and minimal. He didn’t influence their music much at all, and it was Brian Epstein who shaped their style.

  • Jim Cushman

    Stu was very important to The Beatles in their early years…1960-1961…50 years…wow.

  • Kenneth Lockerbie

    Very nice article. Stuart influenced The Beatles throughout their career. He also appears on the Sgt. Pepper album cover. There is no other band but The Beatles with that many geniuses in it. R.I.P. Stuart!