By Alan L. Chrisman
BACKBEAT is a film that tells the story of The Beatles first playing in Hamburg Germany, in the early 60’s, before they were well-known. But until the film came out in 1993, the general public didn’t know that much about this crucial period in their development. George Harrison said Hamburg was where they learned to become a band.
The Beatles were first sent there by Allan Williams, owner of what was basically a strip club, where the early Beatles first played in Liverpool, before they became regulars at the Cavern and met manager, Brian Epstein. The Beatles, at that time, consisted of besides John, Paul, and George, drummer Pete Best (whose mother, Mona, also owned one of the first places they played, The Casbah in the basement of her house), and John’s close friend, Stu Sutcliffe, on bass.
While in Hamburg The Beatles performed in seedy bars in the “sin” part of Hamburg, with prostitutes and drugs all around them. They lived in squalid conditions, once even in a tiny room behind a movie screen. They played for hours and hours a night, with few breaks, speeded-up on pep pills, to keep up the grueling schedule.
Thus, this is a far cry from the later image of The Beatles as the clean-cut pop group in tailored suits which Brian Epstein would present to the world and Beatlemania.
And this is the story that BACKBEAT, the film, reveals. But it is also a love story. Because The Beatles were to meet in one of those sleazy bars one night, some German arts students, especially Astrid Kirchherr. Astrid and her friends were in a group of art students who called themselves “Exi’s” (existentialists). They dressed in black and copied the then unusual French swept-forward hair style. These German arts students were to have a profound effect on the still quite-young and impressionable Beatles. Astrid took the first artistic, black and white photos of the Beatles. And it was her that first convinced Stu and then the others to try out this new hairstyle, which would later be called the distinctive Beatles haircut.
Stu, a talented, promising painter and big artistic influence on John, fell in love with Astrid, and decided to leave the band. He wasn’t very good on bass anyway and would often attempt to play, with his back to the audience; his main asset to the band being his cool James Dean look, with his dark sunglasses.
The film, BackBeat, tells these two stories then, the creative beginnings of The Beatles and the poignant love story between Stu and Astrid. Poignant even more because their romance was tragically short-lived because Stu was to die shortly after, of a brain hemorrhage, at the age of only 21 in 1960. When Stu left the band it also necessitated McCartney moving over to bass, which would have a deep effect on The Beatles’ music with his melodic bass lines. The Beatles would soon after be discovered by Brian Epstein at the Cavern and the rest is history
But I’ve always thought this is the real story of The Beatles and BACKBEAT does a pretty good job of telling it. It’s a bit stereotyped with John as the angry, sarcastic one and Paul the more people-pleasing pop singer (McCartney disputed that he wasn’t shown much as an also-rocker). But Paul said he was astonished by the portrayal of Stu by actor Stephen Dorff. The actress, Sheryl Lee, who portrays Astrid, looks like and captures the artistic photographer perfectly. The director, Ian Softley, spent ten years interviewing Astrid and several others (Astrid was a consultant on the film), before he finally got it made. Interestingly, real Beatles’ recordings weren’t used on the soundtrack, but instead several well-respected musicians, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, etc., from alternative bands were used to re-create Beatle songs and it works. The movie captures the hyped-up energy and stamina required the forming Beatles learned in those trying circumstances, which would come in handy later for their screaming Beatlemania touring days.
As I said, I’ve always been most fascinated especially, with this early period of The Beatles. And I was to fortunately later meet several who were there at their beginnings. For example I was with George Harrison’s sister, Louise, when she actually saw BACKBEAT film, for the first time. She was a guest at the 2nd Ottawa, Canada Beatles’ Convention I organized in ‘96. I remember her saying as she sat next to me at the screening, “George would never have cussed like that”. But of course,The Beatles did a lot more than cuss in Hamburg. They were even “adopted” by some of the prostitutes and protected by some of the tough bouncers in the bars, where often thugs in the drunken audiences carried weapons. As I say, a far cry from the cuddy Beatles-image later created.
I mentioned before in my recent blog (“Little-known Last Lennon and McCartney Recording Session in ’74) which May Pang, Lennon’s girlfriend in L.A., recently revealed, that I met May and Cynthia Lennon as well as Paul McCartney’s step-mom at the Conn. Beatles Convention in ’94.
Well shortly after I returned from there, I received a call from Pauline Sutcliffe, sister of Stuart Sutcliffe, original Hamburg Beatle and painter and John’s friend, described in the Backbeat film. I’m not sure how she got my number, but suspect that it was given to her by Cynthia Lennon, whom I had just met at the Convention in ’94. For there, I had presented Cynthia with what was then only a school fantasy-project for a proposal to put on a possibly more-artistic Beatles Convention. Cynthia, an artist herself, evidently liked the idea and perhaps mentioned it to her friend, Pauline. Anyway, I had hoped to bring some of Stu’s paintings over to Canada as part of our now hoped for 1st Ottawa Beatles Convention but alas, wasn’t able to because of insurance reasons. But a few months later I found out, there would be an exhibition of Stu’s paintings at a gallery in Toronto. I arrived at the exhibit early and no one was there yet, when a woman came over and offered me a tea. This turned out to be Pauline Sutcliffe, the English woman I had talked to on the phone a few months earlier. She was kind and showed me some of Stu’s magnificent mainly-abstract paintings. I also discovered some rare Beatles’ photos tucked away around the corner.
We did do our first Ottawa Beatles Convention in 1995, although I had hoped to have Cynthia as a guest, she couldn’t come, and we got original Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best. He had been with them for two years in Hamburg and Liverpool, before being replaced by Ringo, who was also playing in Hamburg as part of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. In fact, in keeping with Pete Best and his Liverpool band, as guests, we called our first Beatles’ Convention, “Cavern Days”. Our poster for it featured a collage of images from photographer, Astrid Kirchherr of the original Hamburg Beatles, with Pete, and Stu Sutcliffe and even of Astrid. I later wrote to Astrid in Germany and received a special signed postcard from her agent.
And in 1996, I was to meet some more from this period and the Beatles’ beginnings. I attended a Beatles’ dealer’s get-together in southern Ontario. The guests there included Allan Williams, the Beatles first “manager”, who had first booked them into Hamburg. Williams had written one of the best books on the early Beatles books in 1975, “The Man Who Gave Away the Beatles”, called that because The Beatles, once in Germany, stiffed Williams of his booking fees and he dropped them. Williams had advised future manager, Brian Epstein, “not to touch them with a F’in 10 foot barge pole!”
Williams was a real character, full of raunchy stories of the Beatles. In fact, he held up Paul McCartney’s actual leather pants (he said he had gotten from one of the other Liverpool groups supposedly Paul had just left them at the Cavern) which Epstein had gotten them to change out of into the suits. He said he wanted to sell to McCartney for $10,000! That’s the kind of character he was: I liked him and he signed my copy of his book. With Williams was Beryl Wooler, Epstein’s assistant at his Liverpool record store, Nems, and later married to Bob Wooler, the Cavern D.J. who was one of their early supporters. At that same get-together was a member of Lennon’s early Liverpool teenaged band, The Quarrymen, Len Garry. He was very friendly and told of the story of the fated day John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a Liverpool church, July 6, 1957. Garry knows because he was there.
He also described both Lennon and McCartney’s characters, when he said, Lennon didn’t want to share band leadership with Paul, but knew he needed him because Paul knew more chords and songs, but Lennon didn’t want to admit it. Later, he had his childhood friend, Pete Shotten, approach McCartney. And the way, Garry told it, the next time Shotten ran into Paul, he asked him to join the fledgling band, and Paul just nonchalantly replied, “OK”. Also a part of the early Lennon McCartney connection was that they had both lost their mothers as teen-agers. Lennon wrote about it for years after in several of his songs, but McCartney rarely did, except she’s the “ Mother Mary” in “Let It Be”, again revealing of their different characters. Shotten, by the way, also wrote one of the best Beatles’ books, The Beatles, John Lennon and Me in ’84. Pauline Sutcliffe with Alan Clayson, wrote Backbeat, Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle in ’94.
Pauline and Astrid both approved of the Backbeat film and I also recommend you seeing it and read the above books, from people who actually were there at the Beatles’ beginnings and I was privileged to meet several of them and hear their personal stories first hand.
See below HAMBURG BEATLES AND “STU MEETS ASTRID”, BACKBEAT FILM, 1993: