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The tragic death of The Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe

The death of former Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe is one of the most tragic in music history, and the tale is a famous one. When the band arrived in Hamburg, Germany, for their third stint in the city in April 1962, they were greeted with the worst possible news from their friend and stylist Astrid Kirchherr, her fiancée, Sutcliffe, had passed away.

Reportedly, John Lennon was in such shock that he broke out in a fit of hysterical laughter at the prospect of his college friend not being around anymore. Although Sutcliffe’s musical aptitude has been criticised over the years, his role in the development of The Beatles is critical. 

It was he and Lennon who thought of the name ‘The Beetles’ as a tribute to rocker Buddy Holly and his band The Crickets, and he was also instrumental in the band establishing their iconic early aesthetic, as it was he who first had the “mop-top” haircut, courtesy of the stylistic genius that was Kirchherr. 

“All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of … what you call Beatles haircut,” Kirchherr later recalled. “And Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair, and asking me to cut his hair for him.”

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After The Beatles’ second run in Hamburg in 1961, Sutcliffe elected to stay to leave the group to stay in Hamburg with Kirchherr and focus on his visual artwork. This led to McCartney assuming the role of bassist, a momentous move that needs no real explanation. This in itself would change the face of music over the rest of the decade.

However, Sutcliffe became unwell whilst in Hamburg. He developed agonising headaches and a sensitivity to light whilst living with Kirchherr and her mother. In the winter of 1961, things got so bad that Sutcliffe collapsed during an art class, and Kirchherr took him to the local doctor’s surgery for aid, but the professionals couldn’t find anything causing his illness. It is claimed that he was told to return to England for more tests, but he ignored it. 

Sutcliffe did stop attending art classes though, but this was because his condition continued to deteriorate in the months following his collapse. According to his sister Pauline, his sketchbooks from the time are filled with words such as “torment” and “explode”, along with erratic drawings. His frustration is understandable, as at the time he was experiencing bouts of temporary blindness, and was forced to spend most of his time in bed, and not out in the world creating art. 

On April 10th, 1962, Kirchherr was working at her photography studio when her mother called her with some more distressing news, Sutcliffe had collapsed again. She got home just in time to accompany him in the ambulance, but he did not make it to the hospital. He was only 21. 

Nobody knew what has caused this seemingly Biblical illness until the corner’s report suggested that it was a cerebral haemorrhage, a bleeding in his brain, that had caused his death. Although there are conflicting reports that exist about his death, most agree on what caused it. 

However, there is still much debate on what caused the haemorrhage in the first place. 

One of the most prominent theories is that the injury might have been sustained during a fall down the stairs at the Kirchherr home not long before his death, yet, this has been discredited as his health issues had been going on for a long time before his death.

Duly, there is another theory that seems more likely. It has long been claimed by a variety of parties that during a fight in the early stages of 1961 Sutcliffe’s head was kicked or smashed into a brick wall. It is said that Lennon and the band’s original drummer, Pete Best, came to his aid but he still suffered great trauma, and strangely never went for an X-ray.

It’s one of music’s greatest mysteries and tragedies, but Stuart Sutcliffe will never be forgotten. His contributions to the most important band of all time were consequential, and even though he didn’t live long enough to see it, his actions changed the face of culture forever. 

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