Stuart Sutcliffe: The Beatles' Shadow

He helped found the Beatles, defined their style, died young, and has been remembered as a sad footnote to pop history. Until now. A controversial new book about Stuart Sutcliffe casts a shocking shadow over the fab four's wholesome image
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The Independent Culture

The Beatles are not short of biographies. Every few years they come, posing ever more outlandish questions. Did Paul McCartney die in the Sixties to be replaced by a lookalike? (Unlikely.) Did John Lennon have an affair with Brian Epstein? (Probably not.) Did Yoko Ono bring a bed into the recording studio? (Yes, actually.)

Since the first and, in many ways, definitive biography, written in 1968 by Hunter Davies, with which the group co-operated, they have not involved themselves in any other projects. Nor have they passed comment on these bizarre allegations. Instead, the surviving members have left their work, a Nineties television series and last year's autobiography to do the talking.

Next week, though, a book will be published that could contain the most devastating charges yet, charges that will provoke even in lifelong Beatles fans a sharp intake of breath. For this is no hack's cuttings job. It's a lot closer to home than that.

The Beatles' Shadow is by Pauline Sutcliffe, sister of the late Stuart Sutcliffe. Stuart has a curiously elusive place in pop history. He was, for a time, a Beatle. He played with the band in their formative days in Hamburg, pre-Beatlemania. Stuart was on bass when Pete Best was on drums. Best was later replaced by Ringo Starr; but, before that, Sutcliffe left the band of his own accord to concentrate on painting and live with his German girlfriend Astrid, a sombrely attractive girl renowned to Beatles' students as the photographer who took the moody cover shots used on the 1963 With the Beatles album. Tragically, Sutcliffe, who was particularly close to Lennon, died soon afterwards, in April 1962, of a brain haemorrhage. He was just 21.

So much is well known to those interested in Beatles history, though some might not be aware that Lennon broke down in tears when he heard the news of his best friend's death.

But Pauline Sutcliffe takes the story of those early days much further. She claims: "The intense friendship between Stuart and John, with its many secrets – some shocking, some painful – is a crucial untold story behind the birth of the Beatles."

And it soon becomes evident what these "secrets" actually are. Pauline Sutcliffe's book alleges that her brother had a homosexual relationship with Lennon. She says that the relationship ended with a furious argument between the two men during which Lennon kicked Stuart in the head. This, she claims, may have led eventually to the brain haemorrhage.

Lest her chilling assertion still be unclear, she spells it out: "I believe that the cerebral haemorrhage that cost Stuart his life was caused by an injury inflicted by John in a jealous rage.

"A postmortem revealed Stuart had a dent in his skull, as though from a blow or kick. And a few months earlier, John had viciously kicked my brother in the head in a sustained, unprovoked attack. John was often gripped by uncontrollable rages and could erupt like a volcano into instantaneous violence, even against those he loved.

"When this attack happened, he was bitterly resentful of my brother's affair with Astrid. Now that Stuart had turned away from the Beatles to concentrate on art, John must have feared the end of their relationship."

Nor is this the end of Pauline's bitter revelations. Her brother had a clear influence on the group's image, she says, but they wrote him out of the script. Even though, at John's insistence, Stuart's face was included in the Pop Art cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Stuart was portrayed in the 1994 film Backbeat, the band never acknowledged her brother's influence on the world's most celebrated pop group.

This rings a little true. The Beatles were never quick to acknowledge the figures from the early days. There is no record that any of the surviving members has even met Pete Best, the drummer they sacked in 1962, since the day he left the band. McCartney, Harrison and Starr like to be in control of their own history.

The case of Sutcliffe is, if anything, even more sensitive. After all, Sutcliffe was a big influence on the band. Lennon had brought him in, and was entranced by his friend's arty charisma. From 1958, when Lennon was 17 and the two teenagers become friends, he was, says Pauline, mesmerised by her brother. "Small and slim, Stuart smoked Gauloises and wore dark glasses that gave an air of mystery."

Lennon liked that, and he also liked Sutcliffe's ideas. John invited him into his group the Quarrymen, but Sutcliffe hated the name and suggested the Beetles, after a group of girl bikers in his favourite film, The Wild One. "John accepted the idea," says Pauline, "just as he would later adopt Stuart's 'mop top' haircut, though the band's name was to go through several permutations, including the Beatals and the Silver Beetles, before assuming its familiar form."

Stuart was also the first to wear the collarless "Beatles jacket", which became part of the band's uniform. It had been designed by Astrid, a former fashion student. Thus the group's name, its haircut and even its clothing could all be said to have originated with Sutcliffe. All of which makes Pauline's allegations more disturbing still.

And though she offers no hard evidence, Pauline is convinced that in the chaos of Hamburg, where the fledgling band played to sailors and prostitutes in cinemas and strip clubs, her brother and Lennon had a relationship that strayed beyond the platonic.

"I have known in my heart for many years that they had a sexual relationship," she writes, "but to protect my mother while she was alive, and out of an old-fashioned sense of propriety, I kept my counsel. With hindsight, it was a lovely happening: two lost boys who found each other in a world where everything was new and foreign."

Pauline stresses that though she believes they had a sexual relationship, neither was homosexual at heart. Still, when her brother proposed to Astrid, she recalls Lennon became moody, constantly putting her down.

Pauline's infinitely more damning claim concerns an incident in Hamburg in Easter, 1961. Lennon, she says, "frustrated over the threat of losing Stuart and the tensions in the band" punched his best friend, who fell on to the pavement. "He had no time to protect himself. John was taken over by one of his uncontrollable rages: he lashed out at Stuart again and again, and kicked him in the head. Stuart was covered in blood by the time Lennon finally came to his senses. He looked down at Stuart and fled, disgusted and terrified by what he had done."

Pauline claims her brother told her about the incident and though it was another 11 months before he died of cerebral haemorrhage, doctors said there was an indent at the front of the skull as the result of a "trauma". Despite the attack, she says the two remained close friends and exchanged letters until Stuart's death.

For Pauline, it has clearly been hard to come to terms with her brother's exclusion from a portion of the credit in the Beatles' story. Why, she wonders, do John and Paul have art exhibited in the Tate and the Royal Academy when Stuart, the most talented artist of the three, does not? The answer, of course, is that they are John and Paul. But that is hard to explain to a sister who has felt resentful for four decades.

And the story has no happy ending. Out of the blue, in the mid-1990s, Pauline said she had a phone call from a lawyer acting for the Beatles. The Anthology album of early demo tracks features Sutcliffe on three songs. "We owe you a little fee," he said to her. "Hang on," she replied, "if Stuart is on those tracks, his estate should get royalties, not just a fee." The lawyer then insisted there was no evidence that Stuart was playing on the tracks. So why then, asks Pauline, was he offering a fee? She did receive £70,000, part of which went to John Moores University to establish a fellowship for young artists in her brother's name.

All of this adds to the wider sense that despite the caring image, the Beatles may have been more callous than they would like to admit. And perhaps significantly, McCartney and Sutcliffe were not that close: Pauline suggests competition for Lennon's friendship may have been the reason. Indeed, the two even fought on stage in Hamburg.

Pauline's attempt to gain belated recognition for her brother is unlikely to wrest a response from McCartney, Harrison or Starr, however. She told The Independent yesterday: "The Beatles will either ignore it or disavow it. With this book, as with Stuart's estate [paintings, letters and memorabilia], which I am now selling, I want to achieve closure. My mother told me when she died not to get entangled with the Beatles, not to show letters or memorabilia but to promote Stuart as a painter. She thought the Beatles were destructive and dangerous, and I've found her words to be true."

Now, nearly 40 years after her brother's death, a devoted sister is wreaking a severe revenge.

 

'The Beatles' Shadow' is published by Macmillan, price £16.99

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