Although there were often fights and arguments within The Beatles during their Hamburg period, Paul McCartney later played down the problems.
There’s something I’d like to get straight because it is kind of historical – someone a few years ago said how it was my relentless ambition that pushed Stu out of the group. We did have some arguments, me and Stu, but actually I just wanted us to be a really cracking band, and Stu – being a cracking artist – held us back a little bit, not too much. If ever it came to the push, when there was someone in there watching us I’d feel, ‘Oh, I hope Stu doesn’t blow it.’ I could trust the rest of us; that was it. Stuart would tend to turn away a little so as not to be too obvious about what key he was in, in case it wasn’t our key.
When it became clear that Stu was leaving because of Astrid, I asked him in the transition period to lend me his bass, which, for me, was upside down.
In November 1960, just two months after they met, Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr became engaged, and exchanged rings following the German tradition. The following month he chose to enrol at the Hamburg College of Art to study painting.
Stuart was engaged to Astrid and after that trip decided that he was going to leave the band and live in Germany because Eduardo Paolozzi was coming to be the lecturer at Hamburg Art College. Stu had never really been that single-minded about music. We liked him in the band: he looked great and he’d learnt enough to get by, but he was never totally convinced that he was going to be a musician.
He said, ‘I’m out of the band, lads, I’m going to stay in Hamburg with Astrid.’
Paolozzi later wrote a report describing Sutcliffe as one of his “best students”. Although a small number of his works still survive, Sutcliffe’s art was influenced by British and European abstract artists. His earlier work had been figurative, but later on his paintings became more lyrical and abstract, influenced by artists such as John Hoyland and Nicolas de Staël.
The Beatles’ spell at the Kaiserkeller came to an end in November 1960 when the group was deported from Germany. Wanted by the police, Sutcliffe went into hiding with Kirchherr, but eventually flew back to Liverpool in February 1961.
We finished at the Kaiserkeller last week. The police intervened because we had no work permits. Paul and Peter [Best] the drummer were deported yesterday and sent in handcuffs to the airport. I was innocent this time, accused of arson – that is, setting fire to the Kino where we sleep. I arrive at the club and am informed that the whole of the Hamburg police are looking for me. The rest of the band are already locked up, so smiling and on the arm of Astrid, I proceed to give myself up. At this time, I’m, not aware of the charges. All of my belongings, including spectacles, are taken away and I’m led to a cell, where, without food or drink I sat for six hours on a very wooden bench, and the door shut very tight. I signed a confession in Deutsch that I knew nothing about a fire, and they let me go. The next day Paul and Pete were deported and sent home by plane, John and I were without money and job. The police had forbidden us to work as already we were liable to deportation for working three months in the country illegally. The next day John went home. I stay till January at Astrid’s house. At the moment she’s washing all my muck and filth collected over the last few months. God I love her so much.
In December 1960 The Beatles had secured a regular booking at Hamburg’s Top Ten club; the performances began in April the following year. Although by then he had left the group, The Beatles persuaded Sutcliffe to write to Allan Williams, their manager, saying they were withholding his 10% commission as they had negotiated the contract themselves.
In April 1961, when The Beatles returned to Hamburg, Sutcliffe with them, Astrid Kirchherr met them at the train station. She wore a leather trouser suit; Sutcliffe loved it and persuaded her to make one for him. The rest of the group liked the look enough to have cheap copies made by a Hamburg tailor. It helped define their pre-Brian Epstein image, which was captured in a series of iconic photographs taken by Kirchherr in Hamburg.
One of Kirchherr’s other notable influences came with the introduction of what later became known as a ‘Beatle cut’.
All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of… what you call Beatles haircut. And my boyfriend then, Klaus Voormann, had this hairstyle, and Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair, and asking me to cut his hair for him.
John Lennon is said to have “collapsed laughing” when Stuart arrived for the first gig after his haircut. Soon after, however, George Harrison also let Astrid cut his hair in a similar style. The rest of the group, apart from Pete Best, followed shortly afterwards.
Although Sutcliffe had essentially left The Beatles at the end of 1960, they remained close. He occasionally jammed with them, and he and Kirchherr continued to watch their performances.
When The Beatles returned to England, Sutcliffe and Lennon wrote frequently and at length to each other, exchanging jokes, poems and stories, and news on each other’s fortunes. Sutcliffe wrote a number of letters in a tone suggesting he thought he were Jesus. Thinking it was a joke, Lennon replied pretending to be John the Baptist.
But for Sutcliffe it wasn’t an act; he was suffering a series of increasingly debilitating headaches. Towards the end of 1961 he collapsed in a class at Hamburg College of Art and was taken home. Although it was thought he was working too hard at college, he returned the next day.
Kirchherr’s mother arranged for doctors to carry out a series of tests, but no cause for the headaches could be found. While living at the Kirchherr family house in Hamburg his condition grew worse, suffering extreme pains and an aversion to light.
Not long before he died, he showed up in Liverpool and he went around and hung out with us – almost as if he’d had a premonition that he wasn’t going to see us again. He came to visit me at my house quite apart from when I saw him with the others and it was a very good feeling I got from him.
I didn’t know Stuart was ill, but he was trying to give up smoking. He’d cut his cigarettes up into little bits and every time he fancied a cigarette he’d smoke a little piece, like a dog-end. All the stories make out that somebody kicked him in the head and he died of a haemorrhage, and I do remember him getting beaten up after a gig once in Liverpool – just because he was in a band – but that was a couple of years before.
There was something really warm about his return, and in retrospect I believe he was finishing something.