Stuart Sutcliffe died 50 years ago today. JO HARVIE looks back at the short life of the original Beatles' bass player who invented the band's visual style.
Stuart Sutcliffe, the ‘fifth Beatle’, who died 50 years ago on 10 April 1962, was described by George Harrison as “more than just the bass player – he was like our art director.”
Sutcliffe left The Beatles in 1961 to resume his art studies, and his death less than a year later, aged just 22, cut short what could have been an outstanding contribution to painting.
His teacher at the Hamburg School of Art, the celebrated Scottish artist and one of the originators of pop art, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, described Sutcliffe at the time as “very gifted and very intelligent… he has become one of my best students.”
Johnny and the Moondogs
But in such a short life, it’s clear he was one of those planet-sized talents who draw other bodies into their orbit – and when one of those bodies is John Lennon, it gives you a clue as to the scale of Sutcliffe’s flair.
Born in Edinburgh in 1940, Sutcliffe’s family moved south in 1943 when war work transferred his civil servant father to Liverpool. Sutcliffe won a place at Liverpool College of Art aged just 15, where he met and shared a flat with Lennon.
Though a quiet student, Sutcliffe was one of the college’s star painters, and an artistic inspiration to the older Lennon. In return, it was John who persuaded Stuart to buy a bass guitar with the proceeds of his first painting sale – bought for £65 by Littlewoods tycoon Sir John Moores – and join his band, then known as Johnny and the Moondogs.
From church choir to rock ‘n’ roll
It’s often claimed that it was Sutcliffe’s style and not his musical substance that Lennon wanted to bring into the band, and indeed he was new to the bass when he joined, but Sutcliffe had played piano since childhood, was a schoolboy singer in his church choir and played bugle in the army cadets.
While that background does not segue seamlessly into moody art school rocker, the teenage Sutcliffe was also devoted to all things Elvis.
His James Dean look drew attention as the band toured, changing name several times before ending up at The Beatles, an idea credited to Sutcliffe. In 1960, they set off for Hamburg to take up a contract as the house band in a bier keller.
One night, while a trio of art students in the audience marvelled at a raw musical style completely new to them, Sutcliffe was likewise mesmerised by their dramatic hair and clothes, setting them apart from the usual teddy boy crowd.
Sutcliffe tracked them down, and immediately fell in love with photographer Astrid Kirchherr.
He started wearing her clothes – not a problem for this short, slight and obviously secure young man – and she cut his hair, brushing his quiff back down to flop over hisforehead.
That’s the origin of the epitome of Beatles’ style, the collarless suits with the oh-so-slightly too tight trousers and the ‘mop-top’ hair do – the relationship between young lovers so wrapped up in each other, they express that outwards in their look. The rest of the band fell into line, and Kirchherr took their first official band photos.
Leaving the Beatles
The Beatles moved back and forward between Liverpool and Hamburg.
Their first stint ended ingloriously - Harrison was sent home by the authorities for being an underage migrant, while McCartney and original drummer Pete Best were deported for attempting to set fire to a porn cinema owned by a businessman who’d sacked the band.
But when the band returned home for a second time, Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg with Kirchherr. He told the band he was leaving in July 1961.
In 1962, he collapsed in art school after a suffering a series of blinding headaches. Doctors couldn’t determine the cause, and in April he died of a brain haemorrhage – Kirchherr was with him when he died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
The Beatles arrived in Hamburg the next day to start their third contract in Hamburg – Kirchherr met them at the airport to tell them of their friend’s death.
The man who made the Beatles cool?
Though Sutcliffe doubtlessly had much more to offer the world of art than he was allowed, he was a driving presence in establishing one of the most influential bands in musical history.
He may not have been the best bass player, but he was a crucial ingredient in The Beatles’ musical and artistic style.
Without him The Beatles still would have great, but it’s arguable they may not have been cool.