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The Ballad of John, Yoko, Stuart and Astrid

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An in-depth exploration of how John Lennon’s love for Yoko
filled the void left by Astrid and Stu

by Josh Kennedy

It split the Beatles, this affair of the heart. She was an artist from an upper class family. She came from a foreign country that the previous generation in Britain had fought an all-out war to defeat. One Beatle was besotted with her, ready and willing to forsake the band for his new romance. She was always at his side; the intense couple even began dressing and wearing their hair alike. Paul McCartney was jealous, venting his frustration in petty ways that boiled over into the group’s professional work. The name of this lady was… Astrid Kirchherr.

It would happen again, and eerily so, when Yoko Ono appeared on the scene six years later. The personalities involved were different, but a similar stew of forces was present in both situations. When the Beatles story is examined as a whole, Yoko can be seen as an amalgam, combining the earlier roles of Astrid – the influential, foreign artistic woman – and of Stuart Sutcliffe – the brilliant but musically limited force who occupied much of John’s attention at the group’s expense. These striking parallels are worth exploring for any light they may shed on the eventual breakup of the Beatles.

When the Beatles met Astrid in Hamburg, there is no doubt they were impressed. As Cynthia Lennon wrote in her 1978 memoir, “John’s letters were full of Astrid… particularly her way of dress, her avant-garde way of life, and her marvelous photography.” John even went so far as to call her the “German Brigitte Bardot.” This comparison is illuminating. Bardot was the icon of John’s adolescent fantasies, to the point where he encouraged Cynthia to dye her own hair blonde in emulation. Very shortly before taking up with Yoko in 1968, Lennon would meet the real Bardot in person. He showed up stoned for the appointment, and had what he later described as a “fucking terrible evening – even worse than meeting Elvis.” Any illusions he still harbored about Bardot as the ideal woman were then shattered, and with them, perhaps, some regard for his own wife’s dyed-blonde image.

Yet Bardot was not John’s only ideal. As he recalled in a posthumously published reminiscence, “I’d always had a fantasy about a woman who would be a beautiful, intelligent, high-cheek-boned, free-spirited artist a la Juliette Greco.”  He went on to say that this ideal morphed slightly during a Beatles visit to Asia, becoming an artistic oriental woman. But back in Hamburg, “oriental” was not yet part of the idea. Astrid was not only a “beautiful, intelligent, high-cheek-boned, free-spirited artist” but was also, like Greco, a continental European.

As Kirchherr later told BBC radio:

“We got inspired by all the French artists and writers, because that was the closest we could get. England was so far away, and America was out of the question. So France was the nearest. So we got all the information from France, and we tried to dress like the French existentialists. … We wanted to be free, we wanted to be different, and tried to be cool, as we call it now.”

Small wonder that Cynthia felt intimidated about meeting her.

Of course, Astrid fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe, the most bohemian Beatle, with his dark sunglasses and brooding James Dean image. “I fell in love with Stuart that very first night,” Astrid told author Philip Norman. “So pale, but very, very beautiful. He was like a character from a story by Edgar Allan Poe.” ‘They were the big love,” Paul McCartney says of this period, and Pete Best remembers the couple as being “like one of those fairy stories.”

Before long, according to Norman, Astrid was employing her own artistic talents “to model him (Stuart) into an appearance echoing and complementing her own.” Much has been made of Astrid’s visual influence on the Beatles’ haircut and fashion, and as an early band photographer. More overlooked is the impact all of this had on John’s ideal of a relationship. John may have joined his band mates in ridiculing Stuart at times, but as he later admitted to biographer Hunter Davies, “I used to explain afterwards to him that we didn’t dislike him.” Privately John admired his friend, and the intense partnership of Stu and Astrid might be seen as something of a model for John’s later, all-encompassing infatuation with Yoko.

Certainly the two situations produced some similar outcomes, for in both cases, Paul McCartney reacted badly. Lennon noted the cause of an onstage fistfight between McCartney and Sutcliffe:  “Paul was saying something about Stu’s girl, and he was jealous because she was a great girl, and Stu hit him on stage.” Later, when John found his own soul mate in Yoko, Paul tried to accept it, even inviting the couple to live in his house during the summer of 1968. This was a time when Paul was in a fragile state, having recently broken with his fiancée Jane Asher. As reported by Paul’s summer girlfriend Francie Schwartz, Paul’s true feelings of envy slipped out in a cruel jest. A note left on the mantle warned John: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot shit.” Paul admitted leaving the note as a joke, but the dark underpinnings of this incident were crystal clear.

Indeed, jealousy was at the heart of the other Beatles’ relationships with both Stuart and Yoko. Stuart was a formidable presence in his own right.

Cynthia Lennon recalled:

“It was a very beautiful friendship John had with Stu. John, even though he’d gone into the music end of the art world and left his art behind, he still desperately wanted to be a painter, and Stuart was a fantastic and dedicated artist. They totally understood each other and gave to each other what they knew, what they had to offer.”

Stuart was hardly a musician, but joined the group because John liked having him around. “When he came into the band… we were a little jealous of him; it was something I didn’t deal with very well,” Paul admitted years later in The Beatles Anthology. “We were always slightly jealous of John’s other friendships… when Stuart came in it felt as if he was taking the position away from George and me. We had to take a bit of a back seat.”

George agreed, saying “..with all the stress we were under, a little bitching went on and Paul and he (Stu) used to punch each other out a bit.”

“We’d had a few ding-dongs, partly out of jealousy for John’s friendship, and Stuart, being his mate from art school, had a lot of his time and we were jealous of that,” Paul continued. “Also, I was keen to see the group be as good as it could be, so I would make the odd remark. Oh, you don’t play that right.” Here was evidence of the strict perfectionism which Paul would later direct towards George and Ringo in the studio.

Curiously, John would never lose his taste for inviting musically limited friends to join his band simply because he liked them. This trend had begun with John’s boyhood friend Pete Shotton scraping a washboard in the Quarrymen.

Of Stuart joining the Beatles, Shotton wrote:

“Thus continued the pattern that had begun with me in 1956, and would once again manifest itself with Yoko Ono in the late sixties. Since music came so naturally to John, it simply never occurred to him that anyone to whom he felt especially close could not also participate.”

Philip Norman’s 2008 biography Lennon shrewdly probes John’s decision to bring Yoko to Beatles recording sessions in 1968:

“Whatever John’s inner thoughts, he remained a fully paid-up Beatle, subject to the remorseless manufacturing cycle, which, in late May, had summoned them back to Abbey Road Studios… at the back-to-school session on May 30, his initial intention became clear: not to break up the old gang, but to augment it. ‘He wanted me to be part of the group,’ Yoko says. ‘He created the group, so he thought the others should accept that. I didn’t particularly want to be part of them… I couldn’t see how I would fit in, but John was certain I would. He kept saying, ‘They’re very sensitive … Paul is into Stockhausen… They can do your thing…’ He thought the other Beatles would go for it; he was trying to persuade me.’”

Lennon confirmed this remarkable notion himself, in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview:

“Yoko played me tapes I understood. I know it was very strange and avant-garde music is very tough to assimilate… but I’ve heard the Beatles playing avant-garde music when nobody was looking for years. But they’re artists, and all artists have fuckin’ big egos… and when a new artist came into the group, they were never allowed. Sometimes George and I would like to bring somebody in like Billy Preston, that was exciting, we might have had him in the group. We were fed up with the same old shit… and I would have expanded the Beatles… she came in and she would expect to perform with them like you would with any group…”

In his 2006 memoir, recording engineer Geoff Emerick noted a shift in Yoko’s role as the White Album sessions dragged on:  “I could see that she (Yoko) was gaining confidence. She seemed to feel she was part of the group now. In her mind, and in John’s mind, she had become the fifth Beatle.” Lennon later expressed indignation when scenes of Yoko vocalizing to a Beatles jam were cut from the Let it Be movie. Clearly, he took Yoko’s presence as a quasi-band member seriously.

Furthermore, John sought to enforce these wishes at a time when he was trying to reassert himself as leader of the Beatles. It was a role John had occupied during the early days, when Stuart had joined the group. By contrast, many Beatles ideas in 1967 had originated with Paul. Privately, Lennon simmered, as he told Rolling Stone: “When Paul felt like it, he would come in with about twenty good songs… and I suddenly had to write a fucking stack of songs. Pepper was like that. And Magical Mystery Tour was another.”  Perhaps, following the critical panning which greeted the Magical Mystery Tour film, John felt it was time for a change. Or perhaps, being with Yoko simply gave him renewed confidence.

John further told Rolling Stone:

“Bit by bit over a two-year period, I had destroyed me ego. I didn’t believe I could do anything. I just was nothing. I was shit… and she (Yoko) made me realize that I was me and that it’s all right. That was it; I started fighting again, being a loudmouth again and saying, “I can do this. Fuck it. This is what I want,” you know. “I want it, and don’t put me down.”

With Yoko, John felt he had reawakened his own crucial sense of personal authenticity. Years later, he gave this assessment of the Beatles’ split:

“…That’s how the Beatles ended. Not because Yoko split the Beatles, but because she showed me what it was to be Elvis Beatle and to be surrounded by sycophants and slaves who were only interested in keeping the situation as it was. She said to me, you’ve got no clothes on. Nobody had dared tell me that before.”

Nobody, perhaps, except for Stuart Sutcliffe.  In the early sixties, John wrote long, honest letters to Sutcliffe, sharing John’s inner thoughts, as he would later do with Yoko. Tellingly, in 1967, John remembered Stu with these words: “I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth.”

Feeling he was once more being true to himself, John was furious when Paul got the credit for announcing the Beatles’ split to the press in 1970. Lennon would continue to try to set the record straight for the rest of his life. It seems ironic that John’s wife has been lambasted for years for supposedly splitting the group up, an act for which John himself publicly sought credit. Those who blame Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles may have a hard time facing the truth: that John Lennon broke up the Beatles. As he confidently wrote in the late seventies, “I started the band. I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that.”

John elaborated on his decision to leave in a 1980 interview with Playboy: “What I did… in my own cowardly way was use Yoko… it was like now I have the strength to leave because I know there is another side to life.” This other side to life included a host of different artistic projects, many of them employing John’s latent art school talents. He collaborated with Yoko on a whirlwind of films, lithographs, and art shows, just as Stu had resumed his dedication to painting once the distraction of the rock band was removed. Yoko, then, became the escape from the Beatles that John had already been looking for. The template for this particular kind of escape had been established years before. We must remember that John was barely 29 years old when he told the other Beatles he was quitting the group in September 1969. For John, the best example of an appealing alternate life had been seen a mere eight years before, in the bohemian path of art and love chosen by his close friend Stu.

Pete Shotton remembers John describing his new romance with Yoko: “It’s just like how we used to fall in love when we were kids.”

John certainly remembered “when we were kids.”

He remembered Stu and Astrid.

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15 thoughts on “The Ballad of John, Yoko, Stuart and Astrid

  1. The “Stuart was brilliant” thing is so much overblown nonsense. He was a good not great artist, whose reputation got inflated solely due to his association with the Beatles. His art is valued today purely because of the Beatles connection, and because he died. Otherwise his art would be forgotten as the work of a good but average talent. Same goes with Astrid.

    And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the lazy attempt to once again to paint Paul as the bad guy. John — by all accounts — was relentlessly nasty to Stuart. John was, not Paul. Yet you dwell on Paul’s sensible irritation with Stuart’s musical limitations rather than John’s well-known cruelty at a person who was supposed to be his close friend. I get why Paul was irritated. It would have irritated me too if someone had foisted a bass player on the band who couldn’t play well — or even sing — just because they were friends. John’s cruel jibes were probably motivated by jealousy over Stuart’s relationship with Astrid, too. But you don’t mention that.

    Also, you give this quote: “John remembered Stu with these words: “I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth.”’ But you conveniently omit the rest of the quote. Why? In the rest of the quote, John says he now DEPENDS ON PAUL to tell him the truth. Why inflate John’s relationship with Stuart and minimize John’s much more complex relationship with Paul? From the beginning of the band’s real success, John and Paul made all the decisions together. John never made a move without consulting Paul, and vice versa. It was Paul who replaced Stuart as John’s inspiration and partner and close friend. John didn’t go right from Stuart, then flounder for a decade until Yoko came along. You completely neglected the only important relationship of John’s that produced the Beatles great music — the John-Paul relationship. Why did you do this? Probably because it didn’t suit your Stuart myth.

    • The article on the Stu-Astrid-John-Yoko love relationships was insightful and well-thought through. Unfortunately, many responses reflected an emotional agenda that missed the point.

      Nobody is overlooking the musical partnership of Lennon-McCartney, the most powerful pop music legacy of our generation. But that isn’t what this article was about. The idea that the Stuart-John relationship was a “myth” is always vociferously upheld by Paul fans who just aren’t paying attention to the genuine comments of those who were witnesses to it. I truly don’t understand why Paul’s fans are so threatened by Stuart…it’s ironic, really, and telling, that these fans are exhibiting the very same jealousy by proxy. Paul was ADMITTEDLY jealous of Stuart. He shouldn’t have been; Stu’s relationship with John was on a fundamentally different level than Paul’s. It’s comparing apples and oranges.
      It’s also very telling that there has never surfaced any story that indicated that Stuart was jealous of anyone. Stu was mature beyond his years; examples: his early admission to the Liverpool Art School and his ability to toss off Lennon’s cruel jibes. Stuart was a very confident individual who couldn’t be derailed by the nasty wisecracks of his mates…except when they went over the line and attacked someone he loved, and I admire him for that.

      As for John being cruel to Stu…well, John was cruel and intimidating to lots of people, from kindergarten on up. Neither John nor Paul are glowing examples of friendship…indeed, their own relationship was one of tight partnership and competitive rivalry, and it ended with deep enmity.

      John and Paul went to Paris together when Stuart was in Hamburg with Astrid. It wasn’t a matter of choosing Paul over Stu or vice versa…just a simple matter of circumstances.

      Bill Harry is a writer whose comprehensive details regarding times and places is hard to beat. But his opinions on emotional issues is not as keen; for example, he is staunch in upholding his hometown Liverpool as the place where the Beatles “came of age” as a tight rock and roll band—and not Hamburg. I think an objective look at this will always give the nod to Hamburg.

      Paul himself said that fifty percent or more of the Beatles’ story was made up or sanitized for the record. Those who feel new information is an attempt to “rewrite history” might consider if the history they insist upon has been scrubbed up a bit, and why.

      Lastly, the comment about Stuart’s brilliance: anyone bothering to research the situation honestly will find that all Stu’s teachers and companions agree without equivocation that Stuart was brilliant. To those who feel his art is only good, I suggest you read the reviews of established art critics who have judged Stuart’s work and standing as an important artist. Or, if you have any personal art sense, you might look at Stuart’s work yourself; it is amazing work, rich and emotionally-charged. The fact that much of it was done when Stu was suffering both physically and mentally makes it even more outstanding.

      The Paul-John partnership has long been explored and acknowledged. It would be foolish to ignore or demean that relationship. But it’s simply immature and limiting to refuse to accept a perspective that has documented merit and which can only add further depth to the individuals who are John, Stuart and Paul.

      • “I felt I knew Stuart because hardly a day went by that John did not speak about him.” –Yoko Ono

  2. Nice insights here, tying Stu and Astrid with John and Yoko.

  3. Hohum. Another revision to the history of the beatles and of course Paul once again is put to the villain role. In all accounts the reason why Paul was ticked with Stuart was the latter’s lack of musical skills not because Paul was jealous of Stuart’s relationship with Astrid. Never read before that Paul had a “thing” with her and I don’t think he had. And I agree with Lou, John was nasty to Stuart even as far as not letting him eat with the group. This whole John-Stuart friendship has been mythified for so long. If he was the most important person in John’s life then why was not he the one that John invited to hitchhike on his 21st birthday to Spain and eventually spending it in Paris because Spain was too far; and blew there the one hundred pound birthday present from a relative? It was Paul right? John didn’t ask Stuart, nor George or even his girlfriend Cynthia but instead he asked Paul.

    • Um, that would probably be because Stu was with Astrid. And don’t undermine the nastiness Paul had towards Stu. John was Stu’s bff. He had his moments and they had their quarrels, but John stayed loyal to Stu and wanted him in the band despite knowing he couldn’t play and wasn’t musically inclined. Astrid was actually THERE, unlike you, and she has said how deep and connected their friendship was- as did Cynthia Lennon who was also very present during this time. John and Paul had something completely different and no I don’t think it was as deep on that level as John and Stu.

      • Good comments, Anna. Anyway, the point of this article is not to denigrate Paul McCartney (Beatles fans do take everything very personally, don’t we), but to talk about how Stuart’s infatuation with Astrid became a sort of template for John’s later relationship with Yoko – a fascinating idea that I personally have never seen brought up in print before. The article also explicitly states that John himself broke up the Beatles – another insight which for some reason is seldom stated, except by John himself!

  4. I’m not sure I’d say that Paul “replaced” Stuart in important ways. Remember, John and Paul were writing songs together long before Stu came on the scene. Paul said he took a sort of ‘back seat’ position to Stuart (in John’s eyes), so it’s likely he became more important to John, or more accurately, returned to being of prime value to John after Stuart died.

    • My previous comment neglected to congratulate Josh Kennedy on this article…good research and great insights. One thing that struck me was the fact that it was only six years between Stu’s death and Yoko’s arrival. Back then, it seemed like the Beatles had been around forever…and would be too. It didn’t feel like a short period from Hamburg to the Indica Gallery. That makes John’s choices all the more pertinent.

      And one last thing: I’ve just about had it with all this “Stu was a bad bass player” urban legend crap. That brainless repetition has been spouted long enough. I’ve got witness (people who were actually there) commentary—including McCartney’s, research and rational observation…I’ll take on any comers.

  5. Agree with you, wanda. “Another revision to the history of the beatles and of course Paul once again is put to the villain role”

  6. Actually, EdSullivan, Paul returned to being of prime value to John BEFORE Stuart died. As another commenter said, John invited Paul to go to Paris with him. Stuart was still alive at the time.

    It really is tiresome how writers cut John all kinds of slack for his bad behavior yet never fail to attribute nefarious motives to Paul. It’s just like people who blame Paul for Pete Best’s ouster. Pete Best himself said he was closest to John, so if anyone betrayed Pete, it was his close friend John who never even bothered to explain to Pete’s face why he’d been fired. Yet who got blamed? Paul of course. It’s ridiculous.

    And if, in fact, Paul was so adept at influencing John’s opinion (if it was Paul who somehow “forced” John to be cruel to Stuart and somehow “forced” John to fire Pete), then aren’t you thus acknowledging that it was Paul who was most influential in John’s life?

    Enough with the silly Stuart baloney. The relationship that really merits attention is the John-Paul relationship. Yet it never get it because NO ONE understands it. But it was John himself who said he only had 2 partners in this life — Paul and then Yoko. It was John himself who said he replaced Paul (not Stuart, but Paul) with Yoko.

  7. Many people had influence in John’s life. Stuart was certainly one of them–but not the most important.

    As Bill Harry pointed out many times, John and Stu were not as close as historians would like to make out. John and Paul were the tight ones. John and Paul shared their passion for music, their professional ambitions, and the love of the zany. Stu was on a different path altogether.

    I would also make note of the oversight of the poster (which was recognized earlier), that John “looked upon Stu to tell him the truth–the way he did with Paul, today.”

  8. Thank goodness the commenters are able to be more accurate than the blogger.

    As people present at the time have already explained, John was jealous of Stu’s relationship with Astrid, Paul was jealous of John’s relationship
    with Stu. It was a rhombus.

  9. The last line is especially funny because John himself admitted to falling in love with Paul a little and I don’t mean anything sexual by that, but let’s be honest – John and Paul were a little obsessed with each other and remained that way throughout the rest of their lives to varying degrees. They were a couple of “kids” who changed each other’s lives(and yes Paul for John as much as John for Paul, another thing people forget). It’s because of Paul that John started to see the possibility of his little fun hangin’ with his gang band as being able to be something more. As John himself said “that was the day, the day I met Paul, that it started moving.”

    Just remember that part of Stu’s initial interest in John was that he was in a rock n roll band, it’s unlikely John’s rock n roll band would have lasted into his art school days if not for Paul, so one could even say “No Paul, no Stu”.

  10. It’s true that the poster conveniently ignores the second half of the Hunter Davies quote about telling the truth, but nevertheless I believe the point being made there is a valid one – John clearly got things from both Stuart and Yoko that he never got from the other Beatles. This is not meant to diminish Paul or the Beatles, whose importance is as plain as the noses on our faces, but to shed some light on John and his other relationships. I think sometimes fans tend to forget about or diminish Stuart because he was not around when the Beatles made it big; he was never known, nor probably would have been known, by the public the way the others became. However, I believe his personal importance to John (if not to the Beatles as a musical entity) was immense. Celebrities are not the only important people in other celebrities’ lives. Furthermore, people tend to attribute the exclusive nature of John’s relationship to Yoko almost entirely to Yoko. True, she is indeed a powerful personality, but so was John, and he made his own very deliberate choice to live and work with Yoko and NOT with the Beatles, and we have to face this fact squarely, and also to think about why this was the case. This article offers some interesting ideas about that.