Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of Stu Sutcliffe's Death

It was on this day fifty years ago that Stu Sutcliffe died from a brain haemorrhage at the young age of 22. For those of you who have never heard of Stu Sutcliffe, he was the legendary fifth Beatle. For a brief eighteen months Mr. Sutcliffe was the band's bassist. While he may be best known for his tenure as one of The Beatles, he was also a talented painter. His art was displayed at an exhibition in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and he sold at least one painting before he joined what would become the most famous rock band of all time.

Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Liverpool on 23 June 1940. He was attending the Liverpool College of Art when mutual friend Bill Harry (later the founder of Mersey Beat) introduced him to John Lennon. Messrs. Lennon and Sutcliffe soon became best friends. It was perhaps an eventuality, then, that he would join John Lennon's band. John Lennon and Paul McCartney talked Mr. Sutcliffe into buying a Höfner President 500/5 bass guitar so that the could play bass in the band. It was then in January 1960 that Stu Sutcliffe became a member of The Beatles.

As their bassist Stu Sutcliffe would join his fellow Beatles when they went to Hamburg. It was while in Hamburg that Mr. Sutcliffe met Astrid Kirchherr and the two became involved in a relationship. In November 1960 the two became engaged. Stu Sutcliffe would remain with The Beatles until June 1961, when he left the band to continue his studies in art and so he could remain with Miss Kirchherr. He enrolled at the Hamburg College of Art. He studied under pop artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Unfortunately, Stu Sutcliffe had started having headaches and developed a sensitivity to light. Doctors were unable to make a diagnosis and even suggested to Mr. Sutcliffe that he return to England where he could check into a hospital with better facilities. Instead of returning to England, Stu Sutcliffe remained in Germany where his condition worsened. On 10 April 1962 he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He died on the way there. The cause of death was later revealed to be an aneurysm in the right ventricle of his brain.

While others have been members of The Beatles (the most notable besides Stu Sutcliffe perhaps being former drummer Pete Best), it is quite possible than Stu Sutcliffe had more impact on the band than any member besides John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It was during an afternoon in Renshaw Hall bar that John Lennon, John's future wife Cynthia, and Stu Sutcliffe thought of names for Mr. Lennnon's band similar to Buddy Holly's "The Crickets," leading to the creation of the name "The Beatles." It would also be through Stu Sutcliffe that the other Beatles would meet Astrid Kirschherr. Miss Kirschherr would take some of the earliest photographs of The Beatles. She has also been credited with creating The Beatles' mop top. She disagrees, pointing out that many German boys had the haircut and that Stu Sutcliffe adopted it. The others then followed his lead. When Mr. Sutcliffe left The Beatles, he lent his bass to Paul McCartney with the agreement that Mr. McCartney did not change the strings on the bass around (Mr. McCartney is left handed, so he simply played the bass upside down).

It has often been common for the media to characterise Stu Sutcliffe as a bad bassist. This may well be due to the book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away in which Allan Williams claimed that when The Beatles auditioned for Larry Parnes at The Wyvern Club in Liverpool, Mr. Parnes would have employed the band if only they got rid of Stu Sutcliffe.  Larry Parnes himself has denied this, stating that the reason he did not hire The Beatles was their lack of a regular drummer. Bill Harry, friend to both John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe and founder of Mersey Beat, thought Mr. Sutcliffe was a competent bassist. Another friend of Stu Sutcliffe, Klaus Voormann (bassist for Manfred Mann and a session musician for many musical artists) thought that Mr. Sutcliffe was a great rock 'n' roll bass player. British saxophonist Howie Casey, who played with The Seniors in Hamburg, has said that Mr. Sutcliffe was a great live bassist. Even former drummer Pete Best has said that Stu Sutcliffe was a good bass player. It would seem that while Allan Williams characterised Stu Sutcliffe as a bad bassist, most musicians and others who heard him play thought he was at least a competent, if not a good bass player.

It is perhaps a moot point whether Stu Sutcliffe was a good bassist. The evidence of his talent for art really cannot be questioned. As stated above, even before he joined The Beatles, Stu Sutcliffe had a painting displayed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. He sold that painting for the then unheard of sum of £65. Eduardo Paolozzi regarded Mr. Sutcliffe as one of his best students and very gifted. Stu Sutcliffe's earliest artwork was in the realm of kitchen sink realism. It was not long before he would turn to abstract painting. Indeed, many of his later works resemble that of American abstract expressionists. His painting, "Hamburg Painting No. 2," would later be purchased by the Walker Art Gallery. His artwork would also later be displayed at the Victoria Gallery and Museum. While some might claim that interest in Stu Sutcliffe's art is largely due to his status as the Fifth Beatle, the fact that he had actually had artwork displayed and a painting sold before The Beatles even became famous would seem to prove otherwise.

Had John Lennon never met Stu Sutcliffe, the history of The Beatles would have been very different. In fact, for all we know they might not have even been named "The Beatles" and they might never have worn their famous mop top hairstyles. While it is difficult to say what would have happened had he lived, it also seems very likely that Stu Sutcliffe could have become a very famous artist. In fact, it seems quite possible that had he lived, Stu Sutcliffe would have been famous even if he had not joined The Beatles. He may have only been a good bassist and that may have all he ever would have been, but the was already a great painter.

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