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BACKBEAT FILM & INSIDE STORIES: BEATLES IN HAMBURG

By Alan L. Chrisman
BACKBEAT is a film that tells the story of The Beatles first playing in Hamburg
Germany, in the early 60s, before they were well-known. But until the film came
out in 1993, the general public didnt 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 Johns 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 Exis (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 quiteyoung 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 wasnt 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 Ive always thought this is the real story of The Beatles and BACKBEAT does
a pretty good job of telling it. Its a bit stereotyped with John as the angry,
sarcastic one and Paul the more people-pleasing pop singer (McCartney disputed

that he wasnt 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 werent used on the soundtrack, but instead several wellrespected 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, Ive 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 Harrisons 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, Lennons girlfriend in L.A., recently
revealed, that I met May and Cynthia Lennon as well as Paul McCartneys stepmom 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 Johns friend,
described in the Backbeat film. Im 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 Stus
paintings over to Canada as part of our now hoped for 1st Ottawa Beatles
Convention but alas, wasnt able to because of insurance reasons. But a few
months later I found out, there would be an exhibition of Stus 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 Stus 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 couldnt 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 dealers 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 Fin 10 foot barge pole!
Williams was a real character, full of raunchy stories of the Beatles. In fact, he
held up Paul McCartneys 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! Thats the kind of character he was: I liked him
and he signed my copy of his book. With Williams was Beryl Wooler, Epsteins
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 Lennons 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 McCartneys characters, when he said,
Lennon didnt want to share band leadership with Paul, but knew he needed him
because Paul knew more chords and songs, but Lennon didnt 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 teenagers. Lennon wrote about it for years after in several of his songs, but
McCartney rarely did, except shes 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 and I was able to meet some of them first
hand, and listen to their personal stories about The Beatles.

Above: Pauline Sutcliffes signed card from


Stus painting exhibit & Astrids postcard: Astrid & Stu-self-photo; Ottawa Beatles
Convention collage of Astrids images

See below HAMBURG BEATLES AND STU MEETS ASTRID, BACKBEAT FILM,
1993:

http://youtu.be/JhJBk9YNhwo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhJBk9YNhwo