Forgotten Beatle who will live again: Marianne Macdonald reports on the background to Backbeat, a film about the late guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe

Click to follow
HE WAS the young man who thought up the Beatles - or at least gave them the name. His girlfriend gave them their hairstyle. He was an essential part of their beginnings in the red-light district of Hamburg. But among Britons under 30 he is probably unknown.

However, that should start to change on 1 April, when Backbeat, a film about the life of Stuart Sutcliffe, the talented painter who was the Beatles' first bass guitarist, is released in cinemas nationwide.

Stephen Dorff plays Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon's from art college, who spent 18 months in the group before dying of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 21. To tie in with the film, a biography of Sutcliffe, also entitled Backbeat, and co- written by his sister Pauline, will be published in April.

Fans claim 1994 will be 'the year of the Beatles'. As well as the film and book, it will see the making of 10 television documentaries on the history of the group by Apple Corps, provisionally entitled The Long and Winding Road. To record music for the documentaries, the surviving Beatles have agreed to play together for the first time since they split up in 1970. EMI is also to issue a previously unreleased collection of Beatles songs on CD.

A key component of the revival will be the Scala Productions film, directed by Iain Softley, which deals with the poverty-stricken days between 1960 and 1962 when the Beatles played in Hamburg's sleazy Reeperbahn. Sutcliffe, credited with thinking up the Beatles' name, had been brought into the group by Lennon.

In the Hamburg period, he and his German photographer girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr - played in the film by Sheryl Lee - created the group's distinctive early look of 'moptop' haircuts and lapel-less jackets. She took a now-famous series of black-and-white photographs of the group.

The Beatles arrived in Hamburg in August 1960 to play at the Kaiserkeller club. Sutcliffe's decision to go with them caused consternation at his art college in Liverpool. Arthur Ballard, his tutor, moaned that he was 'a brilliant potential artist lured away from what he was most serious about and really wanted to do - for pounds 20 a week'. In those days Sutcliffe played bass guitar, Pete Best was the drummer, and Paul McCartney would pose with an unplugged guitar.

Forced to live in damp and dark digs beside a cinema urinal, the Beatles threw themselves into a life of orgies, booze and rock'n'roll. The exception was Sutcliffe, then 20, who had fallen in love with the beautiful 22-year-old Astrid.

'In time, at our quarters behind the Bambi Kino, the orgy became a nightly ritual for Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Best - for Stu Sutcliffe was no longer in residence,' Best recalled in his 1985 autobiography, Beatle]. 'Within a few weeks of our arrival in Hamburg he had met and fallen in love with a German beauty named Astrid.' Two months later they got engaged.

Not only was Sutcliffe in love, he was also the only one in the band not deeply committed to music. He had never mastered the art of playing bass guitar, which infuriated McCartney who could play better than he could. He devoted his nights to Astrid while the others slept with two or three girls each.

The difference in lifestyle meant that Sutcliffe came in for much baiting. Not only was he shy and sensitive behind the dark glasses and cool image he cultivated, but also the smallest of the five. On stage endured nightly teasing about his height and about Astrid.

Taunts went through the roof when he turned up one night sporting the hairstyle that would later be adopted by the group and copied worldwide. And tension came to a peak when Stuart stopped joining in rehearsals and it became clear that his playing was not progressing beyond the most basic riffs. Backbeat depicts the band running out of patience.

'We can't go on like this] The joke's over,' protests Gary Bakewell, playing McCartney. 'Half the time he doesn't show up. When he does, he's in the Fifth Dimension]'

But Lennon was fiercely loyal to his friend. 'If he goes, I go,' he would repeatedly threaten, and the status quo would continue.

Pauline Sutcliffe, 50, now a psychotherapist, says: 'Paul was clearly very ambitious: the band was his focus. I can see now, in a way I couldn't then, that Stuart piddled in and out of the group and didn't rehearse all the time.'

Events were forced to a conclusion by Stuart himself. He was becoming increasingly plagued by nausea, dizzy spells, insomnia, headaches, depression and chronic indigestion. Just as it became clear to the others that he was not a good enough musician to continue, he decided to opt out of the band to concentrate on Astrid and his art. He sang with the Beatles for the last time in June 1961: Love Me Tender, which excited a barrage of applause. Then Sutcliffe handed McCartney his bass guitar and left.

Ten months later he was dead of a brain haemorrhage, which struck him down in Hamburg while the Beatles had returned briefly to Liverpool, and six months before EMI released Love Me Do in October 1962.

None of the Beatles attended his funeral. McCartney explained later: 'We were caught up in a kind of hurricane. I don't think we were able to spend much time thinking about him - probably a good thing too.'

Sutcliffe's death devastated his family, who at the time felt that Astrid was not affected by it. Others would later accuse McCartney of forcing Sutcliffe out of the group in order to take over his role.

But as the Beatles attained fame, there was some consolation. In 1964 Sutcliffe was given a retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and exhibitions worldwide followed. His family are still seeking to have him recognised as 'more than just a tiny and disreputable footnote in the history of English art'.

The question whether Sutcliffe was a budding genius, a minor talent orbiting the Beatles, or simply an artistic 21-year-old in the right place at the right time, remains unanswered. Like the other Beatles, he has become more myth than man. To quote his biography: 'Stuart Sutcliffe satisfies every requirement of a doomed pop hero . . . the slouch, the supercool, the brooding intensity and to round it off, the 'beautiful sadness' of an early grave.'

(Photograph omitted)