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The Case for Authenticity: ‘Love Me Tender’ by Stuart Sutcliffe

by Liscio

What Stuart Sutcliffe fan hasn’t wished to learn as much as possible about the fascinating young artist and Beatle?  His time with us was short yet incredibly creative; every surfacing artwork, picture, letter or anecdote is pored over with relish by admirers. But some things Sutcliffe-lovers were sadly certain they would never get to know: for instance—his voice.

That’s why the digital release of “Love Me Tender“, sung by Stuart himself, is an astonishing event generating stunned excitement and questions about the song’s origin and authenticity.

“Love Me Tender” was Stuart’s signature song; a ballad he performed so well in Hamburg it received the best applause during the Beatles’ sets at the Kaiserkeller and Star Club. Sutcliffe also performed Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart”.  But “Love Me Tender” is the song most associated with his name.

His newly-released song, now available to the public for the first time in 50 years,  is compelling listening: Stu’s voice strains just slightly ending the first refrain, and he gives us a very sexy exhale at the end of another. In between, the notes are confident, strong, on pitch and melodic. Sutcliffe has made this version of Presley’s tune unabashedly his own.

In fact the track is so good, some listeners maintain they don’t even care if it is Stuart (though they hope it is) and skeptics are accusing the Sutcliffe family of overdubbing the voice of a professional singer. (One might point out that as a paid member of a hard-working rock band, Stuart was a professional singer).

Another quick discrediting attempt claimed the song originated from a 1979 American movie—that version has none of the soft nasality indicative of Liverpool accents, clearly evident in Stuart’s singing.  Noting this, listeners say Stuart sounds like John or George.  David Bedford, author of “Liddypool: Birthplace of the Beatles”—and a life-long Liverpudlian—confirms, “Yes, nasal talking is a scouse thing for sure.  As Stuart’s parents were Scottish, his accent was different to John’s and would sound different too – it differs on where in Liverpool you are from.”

So—where has such a sensational piece of musical history been hiding for the past 50 years?

Stuart’s sister Pauline says, “I never expected to receive this recording of Stuart singing ‘Love Me Tender’ because I was told the only recording which existed was locked away forever by a private collector.”

But quite unexpectedly in 2009, Stuart’s Estate became aware that a copy was available through another source. Once they’d obtained it, a substantial effort of time and money was spent trying to trace its provenance. “As far as we know for certain, Stuart’s ‘Love Me Tender’ track was recorded in Hamburg, probably 1961—after Stuart officially left the Beatles to pursue his art, ” says Pauline. “On one occasion we were told that it was a one-sided German Polydor acetate. Another source tells us that we have a copy from a reel-to-reel recording. We’ve also been advised that new instrumentation has been overdubbed.”

Though gaps in the history remain, one thing is unequivocally certain: it is Stuart. Says Pauline, “The family do know Stuart’s voice when they hear it – and this is Stuart’s voice.”

Those who are surprised that Sutcliffe could sing suffer from the same myopic misconception that had them believing he couldn’t play bass guitar. David Bedford  reminds us that as a young lad in Liverpool, Stuart was head chorister for St. Gabriel’s church in Huyton, leading the singing for Sunday services and weddings. The former choirboy still sounds youthful and earnest—some say his voice on “Love Me Tender” is “angelic”—some say “haunting”—while others are reminded of Phil and Don Everly’s sweet harmonies.

In a recent phone conversation, Pauline revealed that once the Estate possessed the recording, they were just “trying to get comfortable with it”.  One can only wonder what it was like for a sister to hold in her hands an object containing a special voice from so very long ago . A missing piece had at last come home.

In time, those responsible for overseeing Stuart’s Estate were curious to know whether the tape could be cleaned up. Help came in the form of Dan Whitelock-Wainwright, Pauline’s techno-expert great-nephew, currently at University and a member of the rock band Groan. Dan’s cousin Alex Whitelock-Wainwright (at University in Liverpool) also possessed a copy of the original tape and he wrote in his blog: “The original I have has a constant hiss throughout; that’s all that has been modified with the released version and the sound levels are higher. Talking to my cousin, who first tried to clean the track up, (he) believes that the noise frequencies have been totally cleaned out which has removed some instruments and they have been overdubbed back onto the track.”

It was the 24/7 division of IODA that finished the mastering, leaving Stuart’s voice unmanipulated, only louder. [Correction (11/3/2011): “24 Hour Service Station Distribution” and not “24/7 division of IODA” handled the cleaning up of the track. Marshall Dickson contacted us and explained: “I personally coordinated the sonic recovery, and also have strong reason to believe the original recording comes from an acetate, since the source file we possess has the sound of a needle sliding across a record after the music ends.”]

There was never any doubt that the voice was Stuart’s. But the Estate has another reason to know the tape is genuine: they know Stuart.

The young bohemian led an accelerated life, traveling incredibly far in a very short time.  And his time in Hamburg was likely his most innovative.  Eduardo Paolozzi, Stuart’s art instructor at the School of Fine Arts in Germany, wrote: “He (Stuart) had so much energy and was so very inventive.”(1)  Musician and  artist Klaus Voorman said, “Every second of Stuart’s short time he was doing something.  His imagination was fantastic.”(2)  Everybody was aware of and amazed by Stu’s energy and the ease with which he was able to work in a variety of artistic areas.  It was completely in character for Stuart to have made this recording.

And the family’s got it in Stuart’s own writing that he planned to do just that.

Copyright: Stuart Sutcliffe Estate

Copyright: Stuart Sutcliffe Estate

Some of his Hamburg letters, reproduced here, reveal Sutcliffe’s interest in a new art project: his desire to make a movie with an accompanying soundtrack. The text reads:

“Yes! Tomorrow comes Paolozzi and Tuesday we go once

more to that ship-breaking yard which we visited last semester. I

will have with me a film camera I borrowed of Theo, Astrid’s

cousin. I’m very quickly trying to learn the technique as I’m

enthralled by the possibilities but it’s so expensive. He has many

films including some of Astrid from a few years ago, very sweet

as you can imagine. I’ll have to take advantage of the few days

I’ll have it; I’ll probably tire of it all the more quickly because of

the complete inaccessibility of all the equipment required.”

‘I made a film last week when I was at the ship-breaking yard

and I have really caught a feeling for filming, the desire that is.

I made another today and wish to make a long film accompanied

by a tape-recording.

“Thank you for your letter and the catalogues. I should have

written before but have been busy with various odds and ends.

We started the week very tired after working all weekend making

photos, or rather Astrid worked while I grew tired looking on. She

was working on a commission for Polydor making photos of this

singer Sheridan and made some marvelous ones in black and

white and color.”

Stuart was well acquainted with Tony Sheridan.  While performing in Hamburg between 1960 and 1963, Sheridan employed various backup bands, most of which were really “pickup bands”, or simply an amalgam of various musicians, rather than a group proper.(3)   It was Polydor’s A&R (Artists and Repertoire) man, Bert Kaempfert, who arranged in 1961 for the Beatles to back Sheridan for an LP called “My Bonnie”. The standard (and decidedly incomplete) story is that Stuart was present during this session, but did not participate. But both John Lennon and Tony Sheridan swore that there were several other Beatle tracks that were recorded during the two-day session, and that either they were not preserved OR something else happened to them.(3)

Tony Sheridan (left) and Stuart Sutcliffe
Copyright Astrid Kirchherr; Pauline Sutcliffe private collection

Another group recording for Polydor was a German band called The Bats. “They (the Bats) went through the usual Star Club routine…(they) recorded mainly for Polydor. Drummer Toni Cavanaugh came from the circle of musicians connected with Tony Sheridan (and) also played drums for Sheridan’s Beat Brothers/Star combo. The band’s crew changed…once in a while ex-Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe joined in.”(4)

Hamburg’s music scene in ’61 was open and inclusive, with musicians intermingling on stage and in the studio. Astrid was there with her camera, recording visual tracks while the bands made musical ones. Stuart was right in the midst of it. He’d been to the studio, played with the bands, knew Kaempfert, had all the right connections.  It’s not implausible to think that at some time during that year his voice was captured on “a German Polydor acetate”.

Or perhaps Stu recorded his own voice, and instruments were tracked in later. The fact is that Sutcliffe intended to make a recording. Since “Love Me Tender” was the cool bassist’s spotlight song, one he’d sung a hundred times or more and was the ballad he’d dedicated to his darling Astrid, it was the natural choice.

Those free Hamburg days were unparalleled—a pivitol time for art and music.  Timing can be so deadly crucial—why did Stuart’s Estate choose to release “Love Me Tender” now?

It wasn’t a decision made lightly. Pauline has balanced two missions for nearly 50 years: working determinedly to ensure her talented brother’s legacy, and striving to protect his image from harm.  In the documentary “The Lost Beatle” she reminisces that Stuart “used to be my elder brother. But now he’s my kid brother…I want to take care of him…to protect him.” Regarding “Love Me Tender”, she was wisely aware of those who would cry foul even if the Sutcliffes presented a recording contract with Stuart’s signature at the bottom.

But recent events: a partnership with promotional agency CMG Worldwide; the successful stage production of Backbeat, now showing in London’s West End; the launch of Stuart’s Official Fan Club (www.stuartsutcliffefanclub.com); and next year’s world tour art exhibition “Conversation With Stuart Stucliffe”, convinced the Estate there was no better time to release Stuart’s song than now.

There has been a shift in perspective regarding the Beatle who left the band because he loved art and Astrid Kirchherr. The media is now far less likely to depict Sutcliffe shoved aside in his shades to an obscure corner…the reluctant, incapable bassist. Commentaries adhering to that badly-sketched-in picture show their inaccuracy and age. With every unexpected and exciting new event, the remarkably talented Sutcliffe is now receiving the worldwide accolade he deserves.

Some things are worth waiting for—even if it takes 50 years.  “Love Me Tender” was definitely worth the wait. Thanks, Stu, for making certain we’d hear your voice.

[Editor’s Note: Those in Beatles history who knew Stuart at the time this song was believed to be recorded, (i.e., Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr) have not yet commented on their personal knowledge of the existence of this recording. ]

© 2011 Daytrippin’ – This article including photos/images may not be reproduced without permission from the author and Daytrippin.com. A brief excerpt may be reprinted with a link to the article and proper credit.

Update: More in-depth analysis on this recording has been done by David Bedford, author of Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles. You can read his article here:
http://www.stuartsutcliffefanclub.com/lovemetenderdb.html

Update (Nov. 4, 2011): The Beatles Examiner has obtained quotes from Klaus Voormann, Tony Sheridan and Bill Harry concerning their opinions on the recording.

References:

(1) John Willett 1967 “Art In The City”

(2) The Beatles In Hamburg/Bill Hillman Tracks (hillmanweb.com)

(3) Tony Sheridan Wikipedia

(4)  Discogs/The Bats (discogs.com)


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Review: New book, “Lennon’s Liverpool” by Bill Harry

Following the recent focus on John Lennon’s teenage years inspired by the film, Nowhere Boy, a new book on the specific Liverpool locations in Lennon’s life has just been published. ‘Lennon’s Liverpool‘ by Bill Harry is a comprehensive look at the places which hold a significant connection to John Lennon’s early/pre-Beatle years. And who better to tell this story than a friend and fellow student at the Liverpool College of Art which John attended.

Bill Harry was a writer attending the Liverpool College of Art in the late 1950s at the same time that John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe were students. Along with artist Rod Murray, the four classmates became friends and would hang out at a local pub called Ye Cracke. These four young men, influenced by Jack Kerouac and The Beat Generation in America, would sit around and talk about poetry and music. They vowed that they would put Liverpool on the map to show how the city could inspire creativity. Each man in their own way, left their mark on the world, especially John Lennon. Over 40 years later, a plaque was put on display at Ye Cracke remembering ‘The Dissenters’ — John Lennon’s ‘other band’ which never played a note.
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This is just one of the insider stories that Bill Harry shares in ‘Lennon’s Liverpool’ which is filled with full color photos of the famous schools and homes that played a role in John Lennon’s life. Beatle fans who have visited Liverpool most likely would not have been shown all of these locations on a typical two-hour guided tour. This book is a great resource for those who want the full Lennon experience in Liverpool.
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There are a few factual mistakes which have been noted by a reviewer on Amazon.com citing that the years were incorrectly listed for the date of John and Cynthia’s marriage (should have said ‘1962’ not ‘1963’ on page 84), and the date for an award presented to The Beatles for ‘No 1 Group On Mersyside’ (should say ‘1962’, not ‘1961’ on page 107). These seem to be typos and, knowing Bill Harry’s history with The Beatles as publisher of Mersey Beat newspaper, would not reflect a lack of knowledge, but rather an unfortunate error.
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While the book is not intended as a travel guide, it contains addresses of many of the locations. Along with many rare photos, you’ll discover locations not as well known like 93 Garmoyle Road where John’s future wife, Cynthia Powell, and Paul’s girlfriend at the time, Dot Rhone, shared a house or 3 Gambier Terrace where John Lennon and his roommates shared a flat.
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This 8.25-inch square paperback at just over 100 pages would be something to take with you on your next trip to Liverpool, but you’ll still need a map to guide you around the city. ‘Lennon’s Liverpool’ gives you a lot more in-depth history and details than a travel guidebook while still being portable enough to take on the road.
— Trina Yannicos
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‘Lennon’s Liverpool’ by Bill Harry is available through Amazon.com.
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Note: ‘Lennon’s Liverpool’ is published by Trinity Mirror Media, who have also published a similar book on Paul McCartney’s young life in Liverpool called ‘The McCartney’s: In the Town Where They Were Born.’
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Stuart Sutcliffe’s bass playing: “I’d like to set that one straight”

by Liscio

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.

Stu has been described as gentle, delicate, a boy of beautiful heart.  But he was funny enough to be on par with Lennon.  He was an original thinker, highly intelligent, responsible and mature beyond his young years, “vulnerable on the surface but extremely strong underneath”.  He was innovative (painting in Hamburg with metallic car paint and charcoal) and daring—art master Arthur Ballard remembered in the Beatles biography, Shout, that against college rules, Stuart painted on massive canvasses and was a sartorial trendsetter even before Hamburg.  Klaus Voorman said Stu could “see 10 times more than other people”—he was “miles ahead of everybody”, especially regarding the intensity of his life, his art, and his cutting-edge perception of style and imagery.  An amazing profile for a kid barely out of his teens.

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”.

The Forthlin Road rehearsals at Paul’s house, some of which were taped on Rod Murray’s (Stu’s flatmate) tape recorder, took place that March.  In a 2007 article, Murray said, “Stu would borrow the recorder and go to Paul’s house to record…but he had to buy his own tapes as they were so expensive.”  The audio quality is poor, but listening to these tapes makes clear that the entire band at this point was very rudimentary.  (Note: Of the 16 songs known to have been recorded at the Forthlin Road rehearsals, three were released on 1995’s Anthology 1: “Cayenne”, “Hallelujah” and “I Love Her So”.  You can hear these on Youtube).

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)

After returning home from their tour, the band played some twenty-odd venues around Liverpool before August 1960.  At this time, one of Liverpool’s best, established groups was Derry and the Seniors.  Seniors’ Howie Casey remarked for the ‘Beatles Anthology’, “they were a nothing little band.”  When he heard the Beatles were soon to play in Germany, Casey complained, “They might destroy the [emerging German rock] scene.  I said send a band like Rory Storm or the Big Three.  When they did turn up, they were vastly improved…the improvement was like night and day.”

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.

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Sources:

(1) ‘A Brief History of the Beatles’ online
(2) ‘The Beatles Bible’ online
(3) ‘The Beatles History’ online

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 WorksLiddypool: 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

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The Ballad of John, Yoko, Stuart and Astrid

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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