Stuart Sutcliffe

Commonly referred to as “the fifth Beatle”, Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh, raised in Liverpool, and evinced a keen artistic talent from a young age.

While working as a garbageman, Stuart attended the Liverpool College of Art, where he soon became the best painters in his class. It was at college that he met fellow student John Lennon, who became his flatmate in a student bedsit area of town, Gambier Terrace, overlooking the Anglican Cathedral. Mendips Road was too restricted for rebel John, who sought freedom, especially with Cynthia Powell, his new girlfriend, and found in Stuart the best choice for a flatmate.

“John wanted this new-found freedom and space, both for himself and, of course, for trysts with Cynthia. John and Stuart both admired and influenced each other. Stuart was an incredibly talented artist who encouraged John to maintain and widen his interest in the art world, while John introduced Stuart to the world of rock and roll, teaching him to play the bass guitar.”

  • Julia Baird “Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon.”

Moreover, John could live the life he wanted, without restrictions imposed by his aunt-mother Mimi, like experimenting with the first drugs. In fact, while staying with John and Stuart at their flat in Gambier Terrace, poet Royston Ellis introduced them to the high produced by sniffing a broken-down benzedrine inhaler1Lennon vs. McCartney: The Beatles, inter-band relationships and the hidden messages to each other in their song lyrics by Adam Thomas.

John had always had many hobbies and interests in his life, and art was one of these. Drawing and sketching were the very first arts he had discovered since he was a little child. He felt like he could be an artist and he needed to share his interest and passion for art with somebody, and Stuart was the right person he could show his art to and talk about his favourite artists. Paul McCartney also loved art, he was a sketcher like John but considered music his first and most important passion. He developed a stronger interest in art much later in his life, mostly during the 90s.

That’s when Stuart came in, filling the hole of discussion and expression of art in John’s life.

Stuart and John.

At the time when Stuart joined the college, James Dean had been dead for five years, yet the two had very much in common: both beautiful and with keen interests in arts and music. James Dean was very talented when it came to painting and sculpture, and he also had a passion for music. He played the banjo. They both had a rather troubled personality. Stuart surely had some of Dean’s brooding, poetic air.

Aside from his visual gift, Stuart was also an omnivorous reader: it was from Stu that John learned about the French Impressionists, and the American ‘beat’ writers who had infused the spirit of rock into poetry and prose before music existed.

Suddenly, the band that for John counted most in the world became a ‘back seat’, as Paul admitted resentfully2The Beatles Anthology. John preferred spending time discussing artists like Picasso and Van Gogh with an enthusiasm he had never shown before unless for music.

Surely Stuart was creative and charming and had a bohemian vision of life John was attracted to. But when he made a profit from an art sale, John convinced him to spend his earnings on a bass guitar, even though Sutcliffe wasn’t actually a bassist. That’s how, on January 1960, John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe joined the group on bass guitar. Stuart may not have made a monumental impression on the band’s musical identity, but he did contribute to their aesthetic and, most importantly, their name. In fact, they start to be known variously as the Silver Beetles and the Silver Beats.

“They were now sharing a large part of their lives together and John saw no reason why, with a little private coaching from him, Stuart could not be included in the group work. From scratch. It wasn’t long before Stuart could join in with the few chords that he had mastered. He was set to become a Beatle. He joined them on stage, demonstrating his newly acquired skills as a bass guitarist. But he was never a natural musician and his inclusion in the group upset Paul, who was a musician and a perfectionist. He thought that Stuart’s lack of musical ability in music in general and on the bass guitar, in particular, was going to have an adverse effect on the group and his ambitions for its future.”

  • Julia Baird “Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon.”

There are varying opinions as to his musical ability, but the group dynamic was no doubt changed by his arrival: although John’s friendship with Stuart grew quickly and it was very intense, it was very different from his relationship with Paul McCartney and his arrival in John’s life changed the dynamic between John and Paul. Another factor played in the new dynamic between John and Paul’s relationship: when John moved out from Mendips Road, he also temporarily put end to the songwriting sessions with Paul at 20 Forthlin Road.

The new entry wasn’t very welcomed by Paul, who in the Anthology confessed:

“When he [Sutcliffe] came into the band, around Christmas 1959, we were a little jealous of him; it was something I didn’t deal with very well. We were always slightly jealous of John’s other friendships. He was the older fellow; it was just the way it was. 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.”

  •  “The Beatles Anthology”

But this little war was only on Paul’s side. Stuart wasn’t jealous of Paul. As Pete Best recounted, it was Paul who took Stuart to the extreme to provoke a reaction3The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club By Pauline Sutcliffe.

1960. An early version of the Beatles, photographed by John Lennon: manager Allan Williams, his wife Beryl, business partner Lord Woodbine, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best.
IMAGE: JOHN LENNON/KEYSTONE FEATURES/GETTY IMAGES

Paul’s jealousy comes from the fact that he formed an inseparable bond with John since Paul had lost his mother: he literally gave up everything for John, his old friends and his father’s desire for Paul to have a stable job. Paul was John’s world and vice-versa. That’s why, when Stuart came in, the crash was inevitable.

In the Anthology, Paul admits that he was jealous and bitter towards Stuart. Without any doubt, there was no friendship between them. Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart’s girlfriend, explained that what upset most Paul about Stuart was his carelessness about the band:

“That was what made Paul upset with Stuart. He wasn’t serious enough about the band and he wouldn’t practice.”

  • Astrid Kirchherr, “Paul McCartney: The Biography” By Philip Norman.

It seems that, perhaps, Stuart’s skills would become much more an excuse for Paul to attack him. Pauline Sutcliffe, Stuart’s sister, always believed that part of the problem was that Paul saw Stuart as an interloper in his relationship with John. In her book about Stuart she confessed:

“As Paul said to me: “Looking back on it now, I think it was little tinges of jealousy because Stu was John’s friend. There was always a little jealousy because Stuart was John’s friend. There was always a little jealousy among the group as to who would be John’s friend. He was like the guy you aspired to.”

  • “The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club” By Pauline Sutcliffe

Paul omits that no one in the band was jealous of Stuart, it was only him who had this feeling of rivalry towards his place in John’s life. George, for example, whom Paul mentions when discussing the rivalry for John’s attention, never expressed any kind of jealousy towards Stuart. George did confess that he sometimes argued with Stuart because of his incompetence as a musician since he was in the band to play bass and referred to him as their ‘Art Director’4The Beatles Anthology. So in this case, Paul used the plural when he’s really talking about himself, and in contrast with George, he didn’t appreciate Stuart for his inability to play the bass, more likely he used this as an excuse to hide his jealousy, as an excuse to attack him and eventually kick him out the band.

In Pauline Sutcliffe’s book about his brother, Paul revealed they once had a fight on stage:

“[..] Stuart and I would have our set-tos, but not many. The major one – and I don’t remember what triggered it – was a fight on stage. It wasn’t actually a fight because neither of us were good fighters, it was more of a grapple. I remember thinking ‘Well, he’s littler than me, I’ll easily floor him. But this guy had the strength of ten men. So there we were, me and Stu, grunted and locked together in this sort of death embrace, and all the gangsters [in the audience] laughing at us and shouting ‘C’mon hit him!’ ‘’

  •  Paul, “The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club By Pauline Sutcliffe”

But Pete Best’s version contradicts Paul, and it seems that he taunted Stuart:

“Breaking point came one night when we were backing Tony Sheridan at the Top Ten. Paul was at the piano, as usual, for Tony’s act when he said something [to Stuart] about Astrid that must have really hurt. Stu had been used to harmless ribbing, which frayed his temper occasionally; it usually stopped when he protested but whatever Paul said that night really struck home. Although normally something of a pacifist, this time Stu dropped the bass guitar, stormed across the stage to the piano and landed Paul such a wallop that it knocked him off his stool. Paul and Stu began struggling on the floor of the stand, rolling round locked in the most ferocious battle. Tony began to dry up, but then he recovered and began to shout his lyrics. Stu and Paul fought on for around five minutes – until the number ended and we prised them apart to applause from the audience. [..] When the battle had ceased, Stu raged at Paul: “Don’t you ever say anything about Astrid again or I’ll beat the brains out of you.’’ ‘’I’ll say what I like!’’ Paul yelled back. They argued on and off for the rest of the night; it was the beginning of an end for Stu as a Beatle: the crunch had arrived.’’

  •  “The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club” By Pauline Sutcliffe

The Beatles with Tony Sheridan.

The crash was inevitable: John’s relationship with Stuart was on a different level than his relationship with Paul. John’s relationship with Paul was music, something that didn’t connect much Stuart with John. He admired and loved Paul. On the contrary, Stuart cared about John as an art lover and connected with the passion he had about literature. Despite the fact that he wasn’t as much in love with music as John was, John encouraged him to improve and do better:

“I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth. Stu would tell me if something was good and I’d believe him. We were awful to him sometimes. Especially Paul, always picking on him. I used to explain afterwards that we didn’t dislike him, really.

  • John Lennon, “The Beatles” by Hunter Davies.

In his book about Paul, Philip Norman asserts that:

“If he (Paul) and Stu hadn’t vying for John’s attention, they might well have been best friends; as it was, an uneasy reserve always existed between them.”

  • “Paul McCartney, The Biography” by Philip Norman.

John’s passion for music and songwriting played a key role for Paul because Stuart didn’t love music as much as John did. Music was the most important thing in John’s life, but not in Stuart’s. For Stuart art was the thing that mattered most in the world, he made it his job and was literally forced by the other Beatles to buy a bass and be in the band, because they needed a bassist, not because they wanted Stuart, specifically.

But this important fact developed a different relationship between John/Stuart and John/Paul. With Stuart, John shared his love for art and literature, but with Paul, John shared his love for music. But Paul was too jealous and young to acknowledge it, that’s why he couldn’t stand Stuart, because John spent countless hours with him.

1960
Sutcliffe performs with the Beatles at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg.
IMAGE: ELLEN PIEL/K&K/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES1313

For John, Stuart, the artist, coming into his life and pushing Paul away, is the early, younger version of Yoko Ono, the art lover, avant-gardist, that from 1966 slowly replaced Paul in John’s life. From this point of view, Stuart and Yoko share the same passion for art and have the same views that appealed to John. But it wasn’t up to Stuart or Yoko to push Paul away, it was always John’s attitude, to fully immerse himself in someone and put aside the rest of his relationships, that created frictions and jealousy. It happened with young Paul, devoted to John as a teenager, counting on him to write songs together, hoping for a music partnership and a band. And it did happen again, with much more intensity and impact in their life, when, in late 1966, John met Yoko, and he fully immersed himself in their new life together, creating the John&Yoko team, while Paul suddenly felt pushed away, eroding their relationship forever.

When the Beatles gigs in Hamburg ended and they came back to Liverpool, gigs were now getting easier to come by – including some 300 at the Cavern. However, Stuart Sutcliffe decided to leave the group and stay in Hamburg so he could be with his fiancée Astrid Kirchherr. And with Sutcliffe now absent, Lennon and McCartney once again became closer, starting writing songs again at Forthlin Road.

Meanwhile, Stuart’s artistic career was cut short when, after a series of increasingly severe headaches, he died of a sudden cerebral haemorrhage on April 10, 1962, at the age of 21.

His fiancée and former bandmates were devastated.

John, who credited Stuart with helping him develop as an artist, was particularly anguished by the death of his art school mate. Kirchherr later recounted that John frequently wept in the aftermath of Sutcliffe’s death. Yoko Ono also confessed that John grieved over his dead friend for many years.

Stuart was important for John’s mental and intellectual growth, injecting him with doses of art and literature that played an important role in John’s life, also for his music composition. Despite that, the final target for John always remained music. The hobbies he had filled his imagination and helped him grow and mature in songwriting because his only and most important desire was always to write songs and become a successful musician. Art and literature were aspects of John’s life he loved and cultivated for his culture’s hunger. Yet they always pointed back at songwriting, the most important and final aim of his life, because the music was the only and most important vehicle for John to express himself. With Stuart, John shared his love for art and literature, but with Paul John shared his entire world and life.

Sutcliffe’s face can still be seen on the far left side of the album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If you liked this article, please consider buying me a coffee, thank you 🖤 Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee