Shy and withdrawn, hardly able to play a chord, so unsure of his ability he hid behind dark glasses and turned his back to the audience—if this is your portrait of Stuart Sutcliffe, you’ve got the wrong rock bass guitarist.
But could he play the guitar?
The contention that Stu was “a bad bass player” is a piece of historical hokum that has no substantiation– meaning no factual evidence backs it up. Stuart had basically only two detractors: the statements of one have been shown to be blatantly false—the remarks of the other are inconsistent and less than impartial. Yet years of media repetition from these two sources have been accepted as truth.
Let’s start at the end of 1959 when teenaged Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were actively searching for a bass guitarist. As is well known, they persuaded 19-year-old art student Sutcliffe to purchase a Hofner electric bass. George Harrison said it was “better to have a bass player that couldn’t play than to not have a bass player at all.” (1) Stuart straightaway recruited Dave May of the local Silhouettes to teach him Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody”.
Finding gigs in Liverpool was tough and everybody was still going to school; not having played much together “for months”, on May 10 the group found themselves before London musical scout Larry Parnes, who was looking for a group to back one of his stars, Billy Fury. Photos of this audition do show Stuart playing with his back turned, perhaps attempting to hide his fledgling ability. Paul McCartney said, “If anyone had been taking notice, they would have seen that when we were all in A, Stu would be in another key. But he soon caught up and we passed that audition to go on tour.” (2)
These photos are the only ones of Stuart playing turned around—and this is where one of the sources of the “bad bass playing” got its start.
The idea sprang from the lips of one Allan Williams, a colorful man of dubious veracity who called himself the Beatles manager when he was, in fact, a booking agent for various bands in Liverpool.
Bill Harry, art school classmate of Sutcliffe and Lennon and creator of Mersey Beat magazine, sets the record absolutely straight: “Allan Williams always comes out with the story that Stuart Sutcliffe played with his back to Larry Parnes at the Wyvern Club audition because he couldn’t play the bass, and that Parnes said he would take the group as Billy Fury’s backing group if they got rid of Stuart. This story first appeared in Williams’ book, ‘The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away’. Williams’ allegation is untrue. Parnes himself was to say that he had no problem with Stuart, that his objection was to drummer Tommy Moore, who turned up late for the audition, was dressed differently than the other members and was a lot older than them. When we used to book the group for the art school dances there seemed to be no problem with Stuart’s performance. In fact I never heard any criticism of Stuart as a musician until the publication of Williams’ book (which came out in 1977).” (3)
Arriving in Hamburg, the Beatles (whose current playlist of songs could barely fill an hour) were shocked to learn they were expected to play close to eight hours nearly every night. They had to expand their repertoire, and fast.
George: “We had to learn millions of songs. We’d be on for hours…Saturday would start at three or four in the afternoon and go on until five or six in the morning.”
John: “We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it, with all the experience, playing all night long.”
Paul: “We got better and better and other groups started coming to watch us.”
Is it credible to think that all this learning, experience, confidence and improvement affected every Beatle except Sutcliffe—the others were roaring along, but Stu was still just plunking? Stuart himself wrote home: “We have improved a thousand-fold since our arrival.”
These “savage young Beatles” were now playing loud, thrashing, primeval and pumping proto-punk rock—a throbbing nightly musical orgy. Lennon would say these Hamburg performances were the Beatles at their rock and roll best.
“Backbeat” director Ian Softley, after researching extensively and talking to bands and others who attended the German clubs, told the Los Angeles Times: “he (Stu) was very punk, very insistent. He would turn up his bass really loud… it was dominant and driving.”
Howie Casey said in the same Times piece that Stu “had a great live style”. He would know…while the recently-arrived Beatles were still playing the Indra, Bruno Koschmider (owner of both clubs) wanted continual music at the Kaiserkeller. So he split up the Seniors and the Beatles–in effect, creating a third band. Says Casey, “I was given Stuart Sutcliffe along with Derry and Stan Foster and we had a German drummer.” If Stuart couldn’t play, a professional like Casey certainly wouldn’t have tolerated him very long. Casey never complained about Stu’s ability. And this temporary split actually made Sutcliffe the first Beatle to play the sought-after Kaiserkeller gig.
In ‘The Beatles History’, Rick Hardy of the Jets confirmed: “Stu never turned his back on stage. He certainly played to the audience and he certainly played bass. If you have someone who can’t play the instrument properly, you have no bass sound. There were two rhythm guitarists with the Beatles and if one of them couldn’t play, you wouldn’t have noticed it—but it’s different with a bass guitar. I was there and I can say quite definitely Stuart never did a show in which he wasn’t facing the audience.”
Renowned artist and bassist Klaus Voorman says, “Stu was a really good rock and roll bass player, a very basic bass player, completely different. He was, at the time, my favorite bass player…and he had that cool look.” In a 2006 documentary, Voorman’s opinion was, “The Beatles were best when Stuart was still in the band. To me it had more balls, it was even more rock and roll when Stuart was playing the bass and Paul was playing piano or another guitar. The band was, somehow, as a rock and roll band, more complete.”
Interviewed on radio, Beatles drummer Pete Best revealed “what a good bass player Stuart was.” Pete has said, “I’ve read so many people putting him down for his bass playing. I’d like to set that one straight. His bass playing was a lot better than people give him credit for. He knew what his limits were…what he did was accept that and he gave 200%. He was the smallest Beatle with the biggest heart.”
Stu, who had stayed in Hamburg after the others had gone back to Liverpool, received a letter from George that read in part: “Come home sooner, as if we get a new bass player for the time being, it will be crumby as he will have to learn everything. It’s no good with Paul playing bass, we’d decided, that is, if he had some kind of bass to play on!”
And not long before his death, after he’d left the Beatles, Stuart was asked to play with a German group, the Bats. He borrowed back his bass from Voorman (to whom he’d sold it), and played the Hamburg Art School Carnival and the Kaiserkeller. The “James Dean of Hamburg” was obviously respected for his bass work.
There is no record of anyone commenting negatively about Stuart’s playing the entire time the Beatles were actually performing in Liverpool or in Hamburg…except for one. At last we come to Stuart’s other detractor: Paul McCartney.
Paul has knocked Stu’s bass playing– remarks he made while working with Stu were perhaps spawned by their “dead rivalry” (at least that’s how Paul saw it), and are therefore open to question. But many of Paul’s negative comments have been in retrospect. In 1964, much closer to when he’d actually been playing with Sutcliffe, Paul said in a Beat Instrumental interview: “Not that I’m suggesting that every bass player should learn on an ordinary guitar. Stuart Sutcliffe certainly didn’t, and he was a great bass man.”
Stuart was clear-eyed and candid about his musicianship. He put it all out there and made no apologies. He had the nerve to audition when he’d barely begun to play—that took guts. He worked hard and grew in expertise along with the rest of the band in Liverpool. Having to quickly master new material in Germany, Stu could rely, if not on deep innate talent, then on his very high IQ to memorize the “millions” of new songs. Voorman gets the last word on the result: “It sounded amazing, fantastic. I loved it from the first moment. The other bands that played in the clubs were good, but none were as good as them.”
By all reliable accounts, Sutcliffe’s bass put down a hard-driving, rock and roll sound. It wasn’t fancy…his attack was pretty basic. But when it came to playing raw, exciting, sex-drenched rock and roll that hit you in the chest, electrified your limbs, made you want to dance all night and kept you coming back to the Top Ten Club for more, the band to see was Stuart Sutcliffe and The Beatles.
Note: Additional references for this article include: The Life of John Lennon and Shout by Philip Norman; quotes by Astrid Kirchherr for Boston 90.9 WBUR and How Stuff Works; Liddypool: Birthplace of the Beatles by David Bedford; The Beatles in Hamburg by Hillman; Art by Lennon, McCartney, Sutcliffe and Starr; interviews by Garry James; British Youth Culture-Shapers of the 80’s; The Quarrymen Through Rubber Soul by Everett; Pete Best interview/terrascope; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand by Knublauch, Korinth and Muller; Stuart Sutcliffe letters; Voorman/tripod.com Quotes; and John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stu-Los Angeles Times/Movies