It would be odd to admit to not know the Beatles, maybe the most famous band ever in the history of music. The Liverpool group, which started playing at the end of the 50’s, had a massive success in the 60’s while there was an important period of growth in the postwar.
The members of the group were the founder John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. However what remains in the shadow is the process of development of the band and the fact that a fifth member was part of the group: Stuart Sutcliffe.
Stuart, known as Stu by everyone, was born in Edinburgh on the 23rd of June 1940 and since the beginning he demonstrated a certain sensitivity for the arts. During his childhood not particularly happy, with an absent father due to his job with the merchant navy and violent towards his wife, young Stu is constantly next to his mother to comfort her.
He did not have difficulties at school and after high school he applied to the Liverpool College of Art where his artistic talent everged straight away both in simple works and in the reproduction of classical artworks such as the one of Michelangelo. His natural talent was defined by his teacher Arthur Bellard as “revolutionary”. Admired even by his classmates for his intelligence, he had the charm of the cultured man interested in many topics, one of which the cinema.
Stuart was aiming at expanding his knowledge and he had the opportunity to do so at the pub Ye Cracke, along with his teacher Arthur and a handful of other classmates. Around the pub a group of intellectuals called “Dissenders” was formed, following the footsteps of the Beat Generation in the US. Stu joined the group and on that occasion he met Bill Harry, later on journalist and writer, as well as the painter Rod Murray and John Lennon, musician who had recently set up his music group.
Like many others, Lennon was immediately caught up by the originality of Stuart and slowly the two bonded with each other in a deep yet stormy friendship. Through Stu there is chance to learn something new and thanks to him Lennon find out about many aspects of Van Gogh’s art and French Impressionism.
Shortly after, in 1959, Stu, Murray and Lennon decided to move in a flat in Gambier Terrace, place which became headquarters of many artistic activities. The house became center of cultural debates and where the rehearsals of Lennon’s band occurred too, while one room remained reserved to Stu painting production. In those days one of his paintings was exhibited at the biennial festival at the Walker Art Gallery of Liverpool. In the meantime Stu started hanging up in the music scene of the city and the owner of the shop Jacaranda commissioned him a series of graffitis for his club; Stu realised them in collaboration with Murray.
In the meantime Stuart met Paul McCartney as well, who along with John, convinced him to buy an electric bass and join the band and the guy accepted. Drawn by enthusiasm, Stu abandoned the study of figurative art and moved to Hamburg as a bassist. There he met 3 German guys interested in Existentialism, one of whom being Astrid Kirchher, German stylist and photographer. The girl started working with the band from Liverpool, taking artistic pictures up until she was hit by the charm of Stu herself. The two started a sentimental relationship while her snaps obtained a decent success; Astrid suggested to the members a change in terms of style, assigning to them the shape with which they went down in history. The very first change was in Stu’s hairstyle, who got a fringe covering his forehead, and then started wearing leather jackets and pointy boots. The trend was later on adopted by all the other members too.
Below: picture of Stuart and Astrid
Despite the willingness of Stuart to learn the instrument, he did not equal his painting talent. When he played the bass he did not have full control of it so the other members suggested to turn his back while playing in order to hide the uneasiness. Stu was not in love with music, and George Harrison said on that matter:
“Stu had never chosen to dedicate himself to music; he would appear alright but he had never been sure to become a musician”.
Below: cover of Love me Tender sung by Stuart Sutcliffe
Sadly the lack of musical talent caused an increasing tension between the members, first of all with John. The two were in a club in London, the Top Ten, when they start arguing heavily and Stu lost that time. The episode was described by the same Stu in his diary.
One month after that argument, in June 1961, Stu quit with the Beatles and, while the band came back to Liverpool, he remained in Hamburg to stay close to Astrid and there he started again with his artistic studies. The following year the health condition of Stu got bad, reporting heavy headaches, faints and temporarily blindness. His situation became increasingly worse but none of the doctors who checked him out, both in Germany and England, made a correct diagnosis. On the 10th of April 1962, while on the ambulance to the hospital, Stuart Sutcliffe died at the age of 21. The cause of death was
cerebral paralysis, due to severe bleeding into the right ventricle of the brain
The autopsic exam revealed that, at the time of death, in the brain of Stuart a tumor was forming caused by a previous skull fracture.
According to the version of the manager of the band Alan Williams, Stu had been victim of an attack after a performance in 1961 outside Latham Hall in Liverpool. Stu was beaten with such a violence that it was necessary the intervention of Lennon and Pete Best, drummer before Ringo Starr, to free him from his attackers.
After the death of Stuart, his sister Pauline Sutcliffe wrote down a book titled “Beatles’ Shadow”, where she revealed a series of unknown facts. In her book Pauline talked about the alleged homosexual relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon. Besides supporting the idea that Lennon was homosexual and that he had several relationships (even though later on the homosexuality of Lennon was denied by his wife Yoko Ono), she considered him responsible for the death of Stu. According to the sister’s opinion, it was John himself who kicked him in the head during a fight. The book also talks about the rivalry between Stuart and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison being the peacemaker amongst the two.
The musical career of Stuart Sutcliffe has been brief yet significant and even though his name is not mentioned very much along with the one of Pete Best, when it is he is referred to as the 5th Beatle, as if they want to underline his key role in the history of the development of the band.
The name of the band was supposedly suggested by Stuart. According to the journalist Bill Murray, who had the chance to work with the band in his first years of career, the name was given by Stuart. He had drawn inspiration by the band of Buddy Holly named “The Crickets” to which he had added a twist: instead of calling themselves simply beetles, he had swapped the e with an a, playing with the words beat and beatles. Also the “beat” was the genre of music that was trendy at the time. Even the experimentation with the change of letters was documented in the diary of Stuart.
His sad destiny had ceased to exist way too early, a star burnt way too quickly in the music scene.
Below: trailer of Backbeat, film based on Stuart’s biography