In My Life – Astrid Kirchherr – interviewed by Colin Hall – Get Rhythm August 2001

The first time Astrid Kirchherr saw and heard The Beatles, she knew her life would never be the same.  It was a moment that was to have a profound effect on her future on theirs; they had the music, she have them their style.  She also fell in love.

When Astrid and Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe started dating, it was the stuff of teenage dreams.  Immensely talented, and with the brightest of futures: she was the beautiful, intellectual and charismatic blonde, he the quiet, handsome, doomed hero.  Their story, set against the backdrop of The Beatles’ adventures in Germany, is both tragic, and inspiring. Astrid has rarely spoken of those days, but as she prepared to withdraw from Beatle-related appearances, she agreed to break her silence.

It was a long, long time ago, but the excitement of her first encounter with The Beatles echoes down the years as Astrid recalls that night in October, 1960: “That one night!  Yes - it was life changing”.  The place was the Kaiserkeller on the Grosse Freiheit, just off the neon glare of Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn. The area’s gaudy conglomeration of strip clubs, sex shops, roughhouse bars and brothels was notorious.  It was a wild and dangerous place, certainly not somewhere you would expect the stunningly attractive, well-bred 22 year old to frequent.  A leading graduate from Hamburg’s School of Fashion and Design, Astrid was assistant to world-renowned photographer, Reinhart Wolf – visits to an area as violent and sleazy as the Reeperbahn by someone so obviously out of place were not to be undertaken lightly.

That she was there at all was down to the persuasiveness of her boyfriend, Klaus Voormann.  He had visited the Kaiserkeller on the previous evening, and experienced a musical awakening that completely turned his world around.  Naturally he desperately wanted to share his discovery with Astrid.  “He was so excited, which was really weird, because Klaus rarely showed excitement.  The night before we had fallen out.  He’d walked off, ending up on the Reeperbahn, where he heard this music coming from an underground club called the Kaiserkeller.  He was so intrigued he went into the club, to find the most amazing five boys playing rock ‘n’roll.  Klaus just went on and on and on about The Beatles until I was convinced – I just had to go with him to see them.”

The very next night, Astrid found herself in the Kaiserkeller’s murky depths. “It is difficult to explain what it was like on that first night.  It was like an explosion!  You must not forget our fear of going there – of going dow2n, not into a light, beautiful room, but into somewhere that was filthy, dirty and dark.  Then we looked at the stage and saw these wonderful creatures.  Once I saw The Beatles, my fear just went as I just gazed transfixed at the five people on stage.  They looked so different and sang so beautifully.  It was absolutely absorbing.  I was no longer aware of the surroundings.  In that instant my life had change completely”.  So compelling were The Beatles and their wild, raw rock music, they became the focus of Astrid and her friends’ world.  We went back every night.  It became our obsession”.

Exis and Rockers:  The Way it Was

In 1960, Hamburg and Liverpool were in recovering.  In both ports, memories of the war were everywhere in the bombed-out buildings and rubble strewn bombsites. Each city existed in a black and white world that was hard and tough, riven by class distinctions and conservatism.  Older generations struggled against mounting odds to resist change, as their children sought to put distance between themselves and the grim realities of the recent past.  They wanted not just to be different, but to be seen to be different. 

The Reeperbahn was unlike any area in Liverpool.  Lawless and straight out of the Wild West, it was policed by an underground network of gangsters and gangs who sold sex any way you wanted it, and then some.  At night it wrapped itself up in a tacky over-kill of brightly coloured flashing neon, to become the frequent of sailors, criminals and other suspicious transients.  Its numerous bars and clubs were like saloons in a western movie fist and bottle fights a nightly occurrence.  The regular clientele of the bars were the “Rockers”, certainly not art students – the only artists here were piss-artists.  The men wore jeans, motorbike boots, t-shirts and leather jackets, the women trotted on stilettos squeezed themselves into flare skirts with wide, waist pinching belts, tight sweaters, bright red lipstick, and the ubiquitous “beehive” hair-do.

Astrid and her friends were Exis (existentialists).  Their appearance was so at odds with the Rockers, they simply could not slip into the Kaiserkeller and mingle unnoticed:  “Of course they all looked at me.  The fashion then was beehives and petticoats, and I admit I looked pretty strange.  I wore black leather kecks, with a zip on the back, and very, very short hair, and make-up up to the ears.  I always wore black, so I looked quite weird, and so did Klaus.  We all wore black and Klaus wore his hair long, combed to the side like The Beatles were to later wear their hair”.  That the risk of trouble was one worth taking went without comment; the adventure had begun.

Picture This

From the moment they set eyes on each other, it had to happen.  Astrid and Stuart were destined to become lovers.  Hip and totally cool, when they entered a room, heads turned, conversations stopped.  Stuart was John’s best friend, played bass in the band, and – most significantly – was an artist of formidable potential.

Astrid was working as a Photographic assistant to Reinhart Wolf, after graduating with the highest marks in her year.  “When I met The Beatles, my ambition was to be a portrait photographer”.  Equally, it was also inevitable Astrid would photograph The Beatles.  Innovative, beautiful and timeless, her pictures are true works of art:  Iconic images what wrote the books of rock’n’roll photography.  Astrid was to capture The Beatles in a way no other photographer was able to do again.  To look at her huge prints of George, John, Paul and Stuart is to gain a sense of The Beatles behind the mask.  Their grainy textures catch the raw power of the young Beatles, and convey a vulnerability and innocence seen nowhere else: these are The Beatles caught in the calm before the storm.

A major exhibition of Astrid’s Hamburg pictures run from mid-July to September 30 at Liverpool’s Mathew Street Gallery, and, in late August, she makes her final Beatle related appearance anywhere at the Annual Liverpool Beatles Convention.  Her exhibition is stunning and – with the inclusion of portraits of John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and Rory Storm – it is a moving collection that highlights her importance as an artist in her own right, one whose relevance and influence extends beyond The Beatles pictures.  The exhibition debuts two new images of John taken in Hamburg that are bound to enthral fans around the world.  It also includes rarely seen pictures taken during her visit to Liverpool in 1964.  After this came nothing:  such was the impact of the overwhelming interest in her Beatles photos above all else, she recoiled, put away her camera, and gave up taking pictures for good.

Growing Up

Born in 1938, Astrid was a war-child, and her wealthy family lived in the well-heeled area of Altona, Hamburg. Evacuated to the Baltic, she missed the word of the hostilities, but life was not easy on her return to Hamburg.  “|Luckily, my family’s house was not destroyed, although all the windows were blown out and we did not have any heating.  Thankfully, we were all alive.  The main focus was “How do we get food”  My mother was especially successful in this. She sold or exchanged everything we had, the furniture and all her jewellery, to get money to buy food.

“Although it was the war, I had a happy childhood.  Altona is close to the harbour, and many houses – including the whole road next to ours – were destroyed, but we had a lot of fun playing on the bomb sites.  Our parents warned us not to play there, but we always did – because it was so interesting!

Astrid’s artistic flair- especially for textiles – was soon recognised, and encouraged by her mother Neilsa.  “At home, we lived in the kitchen because that was the only place my mother could heat.  It was also the only room that still had windows.  We did not have any radio, so at night my mother used to draw things such as the dresses she used to wear before the war.  She would sit in the kitchen on dark winter nights sewing little dresses for my dolls, and would show me how to do it.  Here family had been very rich, and she taught me about texture and things that are fine.  That influenced me a lot. She taught me to draw when I was 6 or 7.  Later I was keen to become a fashion designer.

When it was time for me to go to college I attended Hamburg School of Fashion and Design.  Here I met Reinhart Wolf, who taught me about photography.  Gradually, I changed my mind and decided to become a photographer.  Reinhart taught me about faces – that it was what was behind a face that a photographer should try to reach when they tool a portrait.  When I graduated, I became Reinhardt's assistant, which was a great honour.  My mother bought me a good camera – a Rollercord – and Reinhart encouraged me to take pictures in my spare time.  He let me use hi dark room and was always prepared to discuss my photos, and the art of composition.  That was what I was doing when I met The Beatles.”

Making Contact: That Art School Rock ‘n’Roll Thing.

Astrid and Klaus Voorman’s art school background was crucial in establishing contact with The Beatles.  Indeed Klaus used a record cover he had designed as way of introducing himself to John Lennon.  John immediately passed it, and him, on to Stuart – the artist in the group.   At the time, Sutcliffe and Lennon were on leave from Liverpool’s regional college of Art. The College’s foremost lecturer, the nationally renowned artist, Arthur Ballard, had already noted Stuart’s burgeoning talent.  In 1959 Stuart’s summer Painting had been selected for the John Moore’s Exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, and bought by Moore himself.  Firmly under the spell of rock ‘n’roll and John Lennon, Stuart had blown his prize money on a brand new Hofner President bass guitar, which won him the place in Lennon’s Johnny and the Moondogs, and began his dalliance with rock music.

The Beatles were Astrid’s first visual realisation of the new phenomenon of Rock n Roll.  Prior to this, all she knew was reportage.  Once seen, she became desperate to know2 more, to get to know the group and to photograph them.  “Of course, when you are a photographer, you think of pictures when you see certain movements.  I was just so nervous looking at them and so confused because, when I heard rock n roll music, I had imagined what its players would look like and all I had imaged suddenly I was there!  My mind was just going crazy.  It took a couple of days to get to know them because my English was very bad.  Klaus’s was better, so Klaus translated for me.  I was just looking at The Beatles all the time, but – because I was so anxious to talk to them – my English, developed.  Paul could speak some German, so we made contact quickly, but it took another two weeks until I asked them if I could take some photographs.”

Whilst The Beatles impressed Astrid, there was no doubt that they were equally impressed by her.  Besides her striking good looks, and appearance, this intelligent and independent girl was clearly from a wealthy background and – possibly most impressive to young Scousers at that time – she had her own brand new convertible VW:  “They couldn’t believe it: her I was a girl who was a photographer AND she’s got a car!  That was something very strange!”

The Beatles and the other UK bands that were being shipped over to meet Hamburg’s growing demand for live music preferred to associate with the exotic Exi student types rather than the indigenous Rockers because, unlike the latter, the Exis poke good English.  Once the language barrier had been broken, others could fall.  Most importantly, any lingering suspicions inherited fro9m their patents generation’s war-ingrained stereotypes could be overcome.  “I hadn’t met any British people, not one, and they hadn’t met any Germans they could talk to.  We both had this “They were our enemy” thing until we met, and found that we could be great friends.  We were all young and searching for something different.  We wanted a better future.  I wanted to be different from what I knew, to be different from those Nazi Germans and their attitudes. What I had seen, and knew had happened before, and during the war, was wrong and terrible. We wished to distance ourselves from that.

“Existentialism was our way of expressing our difference from the old Germany.  Our major influence was France: America was too far away, and it couldn’t be England for they were our enemies.  We couldn’t buy any English books or records or anything.  We took all our information and inspiration from France – music, writing, art, the looks.  I loved Juliette Greco.  My hero, and the biggest influence, was Jacques Cocteau; his movies, the strict black and white, the way he composed every shot:  It wasn’t just a film; it was a sequence of pictures.  The Beatles introduced the American influence, because most of the music they –played was American. As interpreted by The Beatles, it was the first time I had heard songs by Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, The Miracles, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.  The Beatles know how much I liked the music, and wanted me to hear the originals, so they wrote home and asked their parents to send the records over.”

Taking The Beatles Home

Astrid and The Beatles became even closer when she invited them to her home in Altona.  For the first time since arriving in Hamburg, the five boys were able to enjoy some home comforts and escape the desperate privations of their hovel like accommodation at The Bambi Kino.  They also enjoyed some sorely missed English food: “They loved visiting my house.  For their first visit, my mother asked me what they liked to eat, and so she cooked them mashed potatoes, steak and peas – the first proper English meal they’d had since arriving in Germany.  She even got them some strawberries, and made tea with milk and sugar.  John and my mother got on like house on fire – even though they did not understand a word each other was saying.  It was lovely to see.   The boys had a good time – they had a bath and enjoyed looking through our records and books.  It was to be the first of many such visits.

Through such occasions, Astrid was able to get to know The Beatles as individuals.  “Paul is still like he was then, very lovely, deeply modest, and very well mannered.  He nearly broke his tongue talking German to my mother.  He had his phrase book wi9th him.  He always tried to be the translator, because he had these three or give words of German that he knew. George was the sweet one.  He was just 17, and he would sit and look at things, politely asking “Can I please look at that book, that magazine?”  He is one of my closest friends.  I am so pleased to know that he is in England watching over me.  He had had tough times recently, and so I am pleased he has his family and his religion to help him. He lost John, his parents, he was almost killed during that terrifying attack, and he had that bad cancer, but through all these tragedies he is still the George he has always been; kid, helpful and full of love for his friends.  He is very caring toward me.

“I am still friendly with Pete Best, and keep in contact with him. He is a lovely guy, whom I’m grateful to have met.  He is very happy now, it was very difficult for him to be the one the band left behind, but he has got over that now, and found peace within himself.  He does not regret that he was a Beatle.  He still plays; he and his brother are both drummers and play in a band together, and they make good, strong music.  John was the strong one, always asking questions.  All that anger that people associate with him and that was showing the film “Backbeat” in several scenes, where he should “It’s all dick!” at everyone and everyone - including me – was not the John I knew.  That’s fiction, I never heard him say that.  We got on every well – he was never hostile towards me.

“And Stuart!!! Well, by the time they visited my home we really had a crush on each other, so we just sat gazing into one another’s eyes, as the rest carried on. Neither of us actually made the first move, it was both of us - like magnets.  At that time, Klaus was my boyfriend, but he sensed what was happening.  He saw it and, in a way, forced it, which is strange to understand now, but Klaus always wanted me to be happy.  He knew I wasn’t happy in our relationship.  He and I were great friends, we shared the same tastes, the same sense of humour, but we just could not live together as lovers, that was impossible.  So he encouraged Stuart and me a little bit.”

Astrid and Stuart

Astrid’s memories of Stuart are precious, and she is keen to preserve the vitality of what they shared.  She has resolutely declined invitations to “tell all”; preferring to distance herself, and Stuart, from the avarice of public curiosity that devours all things Beatles, leaving little that is private or special for those who lived it.  For “Get Rhythm” however, Astrid was happy to share her feeling and memories, and – for once – to let their part of the story be told as it really was.

The attraction between Astrid and Stuart grew quickly into deep and abiding love.  He moved out of the atrocious Bambi Kino to live with her, and they became engaged. For Astrid, no-one has ever taken Stuart’s place.  It is his picture she keeps in her wallet:  “I have never got over his death.  He is still the love of my life, event though I have been married twice since.  I still wear Stuart’s ring.  I never found a love comparable to Stuart’s.  John used to say “Either you live or you die”, and I have always remembered that and so I decided to live and be happy with my memories.  When I am in trouble, I talk to Stuart, so my life is not unhappy because he’s not with me in flesh and blood; he’s with me in spirit.  Now I am 63, I can tell you, he is very special, one of the few special people I have ever known.  He was only 21 when he died, but even at that young age, he was not afraid of giving himself to another.   He didn’t hide or keep his thoughts to himself; he just gave it all so fully.  I have never met a person like that, one who was willing to give himself away to a person to whom he said “I love you”; that is very rare.”

1994s “Backbeat” tells the story of Astrid and Stuart’s romance alongside the youthful Beatle adventures in Hamburg.  It depicts John Lennon’s reaction to their falling in love as volatile. Astrid refutes this interpretation.  “John was very pleased.  John was like Stuart’s guardian angel.  Stuart was very tiny, only as big as I am. He was very delicate, and John always protected him. He was like a mum, always worried that something bad might happen to Stuart.  “Don’t go there, don’t do that, it might be dangerous.”  But he was more than pleased when Stuart and I got together.  Of course, there was sadness in it too.  Before Stuart met me, John and he was like that (knots her fingers), the best of friends – nobody was between them.  So, of course it was sad.
“After Stuart’s death, I talked to John about that time and he said it had been hard for him, but because he loved Stuart so much, he did the same as Klaus had with me.  He was happy for Stuart and encouraged him, but it was not easy.  You must not forget the losses John had been through by then. His mother, to whom he had grown very close, had been killed, his dad has just disappeared one day when he was very young, never to be seen again until John became famous.  So John knew about sadness, he knew about losing people, and that was another factor that was very important.  He was protecting Stuart.  He didn’t protect George or Paul.”

Leaving The Beatles

Astrid and Stuart’s relationship coincided with the most productive days of his artistic life.  His enrolment in Art School (albeit in Hamburg) fuelled his decision to leave The Beatles.  Accepted mythology downplays Stuart’s artistic calling by playing up Paul McCartney’s role in Stuart’s decision to quit, by emphasising Paul’s antipathy towards Stuart’s lack of prowess on the bass. Reality, Astrid maintains, was somewhat different; “In 1961, The Beatles made their second trip to Hamburg and played the prestigious Top Ten Club.  It was during this trip that they made some records with Tony Sheridan. Stuart had made his own decision not to participate, and he actually said Paul would be better playing bass on the sessions.  By then, 50% of the customers at The Top Ten were art students, and Stuart became very friendly with them.  One night they brought their teacher with them, Eduardo Paolozzi.  He and Stuart got on well and Stuart explained his passion for art to him. He told him that he had been a student at Liverpool Art School, and how he’d almost achieved graduation when John, who was the King of talking Stuart into doing things, persuaded him to buy the bass.  Mr. Paolozzi asked to see some of Stuart’s paintings, and, if he felt they were good, promised to arrange a scholarship for Stuart.  Stuart did so, and within four weeks had his scholarship!  The Beatles always knew he was just a visitor, because his main passion was art. When they learned of his scholarship, they were happy for him.

“Of course Paul hadn’t been happy with Stuart’s bass-playing.  Even when he was eighteen, Paul was a perfectionist.  His career was music, and there’s a boy who looks good – and John was always saying “It doesn’t matter if he can’t play – he looks good!! – but who plays the wrong notes and doesn’t bother to practice.  No wonder Paul was angry sometimes!  I perfectly agree with him, and Stuart wasn’t stupid,  he could have sat down for an hour or so each day and practice, but he didn’t bother, he’d rather draw, so Paul was perfectly right”

Painting Pictures

Stuart and Astrid were soul mates: his happiness was reflected in hi art.  Secure in the embrace of Astrid’s love, he produced his most assured and creative work.  That it coincided with the onset of debilitating and excruciating headaches, anufestions of the illness that was to take his life, is hard to reconcile with the large number of paintings he was able to complete.

Despite the illness that so cruelly drained and exhausted him, Stuart was driven to create.  “He went to Art School in the daytime whilst I went to work for Reinhardt. When he got home, my mother made him a meal, and the he would go up in to the attic and paint until I came home.  I was often late, arriving at eight o’clock.  He would rush down, and even though I was tired, we would talk and talk, but by eleven he would be painting again.  There were times when he was painting that he could be so intense. When he had an idea, it didn’t matter whether it was night, day, morning – he had to do it, all in one go. He read all the time too.  He could read, and write a letter at the same time, he was an absolute maniac in a way!

“When he was drawing with a pencil he was very quiet, very focussed, but when he was working on big abstracts, he would be covered in paint – the whole room would be covered in paint!  It was great to see!  Most of the time, I left him on his own when he pained.  If he saw me, he’d say come in, come in!  He’d want to share it, but I left I had to give some privacy, some space to be himself and create!

Taking Photographs

The bond of trust established between The Beatles and Astrid during those first encounters at the Kaiserkeller, and strengthened by their visits to her home, gave her the confidence to ask to take their pictures.  It was a simple request that led to the most celebrated photo sessions in Beatle history.  For Astrid, it was ultimate a bitter-sweet career-defining moment:  “I asked the, and they went out of their minds – when, where, what time, what should we wear, how should we look?  And then we just went to the Dom (fairground), and they acted absolutely professionally”.  A brilliant document of those heady days, Astrid’s gritty and beautiful photographs are a wonderful realisation of her mentor Reinhardt Wolf’s guidance to use her lens to find the person within.  Her portraits of John, especially, capture a serenity that confounds that wild man reputation ascribed to him from those Hamburg days:  “That is what I wanted to show; the sweetness of John, and the caring and love he could hide so perfectly.”  Each photograph was carefully composed.  Her Rollercord mounted on a tripod, Astrid stood behind, and used a hand held control to take each shot.  “The Beatles were very co-operative.  Sometimes I would move from behind the camera, take their head and move it the way I wanted it to be.  They did not move or back away from me, especially John!  They trusted me not to harm them”.

The Beatles were blown away with the results.  “They were absolutely knocked out.  First of all they had never seen prints that were so big, and second, they all thought they looked absolutely gorgeous!  George could not handle the size of the pictures; John just said “Well, I look great”.  I was very happy with the pictures, and very pleased that Reinhardt liked them, especially the ones on the truck.  For me, his approval was the biggest compliment”.

Standing in the Shadows

John, Paul, George, Pete, Stuart and Astrid could not have predicted the earth-shattering future that lay ahead of them all.  For Astrid, at the time, the success of her photo-shoots with the boys was a spur to her desire to become a portrait photographer.  No-one could have predicted the cruel and imminent twist of fate that was to steal her dream away.  Not only was she to lose Stuart, but her career as well.  “I was so very proud, and still am, of what The Beatles achieved.  I always believed they deserved every bit of their success.  They are my close friends and I will always love them. When they became very famous, everybody wanted my pictures, even if they weren’t in focus!  As long as there was a Beatle in the frame, it was ok.  But the rest of my work didn’t interest anybody.  I became The Beatles’ photographer, not a photographer in my own right.  That was very hard.  So that’s why I gave up photography.  I couldn’t handle it anymore.  The feeling began to grow that I wasn’t good enough as a photographer.  I would have liked people who looked at my pictures to also be astonished when they saw a portrait of somebody they didn’t know, because it was a good portrait of a person, and sowed something about his/her character.  But people didn’t bother unless it was a Beatle, so that made me very, very sad.  I just said to myself, you’re not good enough, give it up, and do something else”,

In a world where people fall over themselves to exploit the most tenuous of Beatle connections, Astrid’s resolve not to do so is unique.  That she could turn away from her calling as a photographer and the rewards it and her Beatle memories could bring her, is astounding.  Her wish to preserve the friendship she has with The Beatles over-rides any get-rich-quick offer that comes her way.  She passed on every opportunity to tell her story, and for many, many years never collected a penny in payment for the use of Beatle pictures from the 200+ publications that used them.  Only during the nineties did she feel able to accept the accolades and rewards those pictures have accrued.

“It (Beatlemania) had a terrible professional effect on me, but do not misunderstand me, I am not sitting her moaning, I am happy that I gave it up.  I don’t regret it. At the time, I didn’t miss it much, I continued to work as a photographer’s assistant, and it helped, they were setting up the pictures and taking them, so I was not there thinking “I’m not good enough".  I did have offers to take pictures, but I didn’t take them.  I have never seen it as The Beatles’ fault; they didn’t take away my calling or ambition.  They have been my greatest supporters.  Indeed, George asked me to take his picture for the inner cover of his “Wonderwall” album, and in the seventies, he offered to build me a studio in London.  But through the sixties and early seventies, with people wanting just my Beatles pictures, I was so unsure of my ambition I couldn’t cope anymore with being a photographer, so I said no to George.  He was very, very sad about that.  If I had been stronger – but I’m very weak when I’m not sure about what I’m doing, so I could not accept”.

Nowadays, Astrid has a different perspective on her work.  “Now I act different – older and wiser!  I don’t regret it all, because I have so much joy and pleasure throughout my life so far as The Beatles and my friends are concerned.  I have met so many people who have helped me, especially Ulf Kruger, my manager.  Without him I don’t know how I would have existed.  He was the first person to really take care of my pictures, and show me how ridiculous I* was being as far as money was concerned, I had simply given my pictures away, often, complete with negatives, to those whose pictures I had taken.   When I met Ulf, it was the first time I earned a penny from my pictures.  He was amazed I was not rich!”

“It was George who helped us – again!  Ulf retrieved my negatives from George.  He had them because I’d sent them to Neil Aspinall at Apple years ago when George was working on a book, and had not bothered to ask for them back.  They had been kept safe in the Apple achieves; it was not George’s fault they had ended up there.  He sent them by courier the very next day.  Ulf began to show me how I could make a living from pictures, without compromising my relationship with The Beatles.  That was so important – our friendship was paramount.  Slowly I began to agree to exhibitions, and to understand that I could talk about the pictures without disturbing that friendship.  Now I am not so happy with all those people over the years that have used my photographs without either asking or paying for the privilege of doing so”.

Stuart – In His Own Right

Naturally, Stuart’s fame is linked to his Beatle association, and because of this, Astrid believes his paintings have suffered in the same way as her photographs; it is impossible for his work to gain the respect it deserves. Despite the passage of time, that “fifth Beatle” tag stands in the way of real objectivity.  “I see it in a connection to my work.  If he hadn’t been a Beatle people would see his painting as what they are.  They are good; they are the work of a twenty year old man, not a fifty year old, who was still in the process of developing his own style.  One must not forget that.  There are few people who buy his work as Stuart, the artist, not Stuart, the ex-Beatle.  But his paintings will never be accepted for what they are.  They will always be connected with The Beatles, like my photographs.  I kept Stuart’s paintings for a long time, but they didn’t belong to me, because I wasn’t married to Stuart, so I had to give them back to his sister, Pauline, when Stuart’s mother, Millie died.  Pauline is the owner.  The Hamburg period is just one period’ he did those pictures over two years, but there are paintings missing because it’s being sold already.  I feel Pauline is selling his art too fast, but that is her decision, if she needs the money, I can understand”.

Putting On The Style – The Birth of Unisex

The Beatles that Astrid heard, and for whom Stu played bass, were different from the one that emerged on record.  In Hamburg, they played rock n roll covers; the writing partnership was not in evidence.  John Lennon was to later comment that The Beatles were at their best in Hamburg.  “The only original song I remember them played was “One After 909”.  They were amazingly talented, beyond the other bands that played, but when they released “Love Me Do”, it was a revelation”.

When The Beatles broker into national and international consciousness in the early sixties, Lennon and McCartney’s songs made them unique;’ they simply did not sound like anyone else. This wasn’t rock n roll, it was beat music!  Equally importantly, they didn’t look like anyone else. The Beatles absorbed the sense of style and fashion that Astrid shared with Stuart.  It set them apart and kissed the tired old Rocker image goodbye.  Here was something more esoteric, that drew immediate attention to the band, and formed an allegiance among teenage fans the moment parents began to scoff and rail against their long, scruffy hair. By the time they left Hamburg, they had become The Beatles visually as well as musically.  It was the birth of unisex, although Astrid is quick to dismiss any claims to have created a look; “Let’s put it this way =- they liked the way I dressed.  Stuart was my height and size exactly, so he could wear my clothes.  He used to go around in my leather suit, and my collar-less suit, and wear my shirts and with the very high collars.  The Beatles couldn’t stop laughing when they saw him.  John would say “Have you got your mother’s suit on?”  We didn’t sit down and talk about dressing up strangely to shock people; it was just the way I dressed.  I have always worn black and white shirts, black waistcoats.  I made a lot of my clothes myself.  The Beatles liked the waistcoat and asked could I make one for them.  They put them on, and the white shirts and black ties, and later on they remembered the collarless jacket, which became the famous Beatle-jackets.  It was all so natural – there was nothing planned at all.

“It was the same with the hair.  Klaus used to have that haircut.  He wouldn’t go to a barber, because they still did the Nazi haircut here in Hamburg, so I cut his hair. When I first saw Stuart, he had that James Dean quiff.  When he saw Klaus’s hair, he liked it so much he asked if I could cut his the same, so I did.  So there was nothing crated. My inspiration, again, was Cocteau.  It was a French style.  It was a passing on, a natural sharing.  It was the same with the boots.  I always wore ballet training shoes, which quickly wear out.  I got them from Annelo & Davide in London.  One time when Stuart and I were in London, he came with me to their shop.  I saw these high-heeled Spanish flamenco boots for boys.  They were a little pointed and flat in the front.  Because Stuart was so tiny, I said “Aren’t they great?”  He loved them because they would make him taller!  So Stuart was the first one with those Beatle boots.  When the others saw them, they went crazy for them, and went out and bought some.  So that’s how it all came together”.

Astrid in Liverpool

Astrid visited Stuart in Liverpool in December 1961.  “I loved Liverpool.  Everybody was so kind. George’s parent gave me such a warm welcome.  I went with The Beatles in their van when they played Litherland Town Hall, and The Cavern.  The Cavern.  That was absolutely fantastic.  Unlike the Kaiserkeller, at The Cavern you couldn’t get alcohol and you couldn’t dance.  You just sat there, or stood around and listened to the music – that was it!  It was like something was leaking from upstairs because sweat condensing on the ceiling dripped onto you.  You’d think it was raining!  Later I went to the lunchtime sessions, when the kids were coming – little, tiny kids, skiving school.

“That firs time, I stayed for four or five weeks, but did not take my camera.  I went back in 1964, and took some pictures. Four of these are in the exhibition”.  It is the four photographs taken in Liverpool which are more spontaneous in nature than Astrid’s studio portraits, which underline Astrid’s great give of capturing telling and revealing images.  “Liverpool Kids”, in particular, is a stunning reminder of just ho9w different the early sixties were.  It is a photo that could have been taken any time during the previous half century – only the tell-tale Vespa glimpsed way in the backgr9jdn give a clue to the decade.  It was into this “old fashioned” world that the phenomenon of The Beatles had exploded.  From this single image, the extraordinary visual impact they must have had back then becomes crystal clear.  They must have seemed like aliens.  They were the future.  And, to underline Astrid’s point about her tag as The Beatles’ photographer, she comments, ruefully, “Some people look at that photo and ask “Is that the young Beatles?", or if they see the picture of a young boy I met in Liverpool called Les Cartlidge, sitting with his guitar on a bench next to an old man, they ask, “Is that the young John Lennon?”  It’s a bit much”.

Another telling image from her Liverpool pictures is one of the youngsters waiting outside The Cavern; it’s striking image of eager black and white faces.  Somehow it is fitting that Astrid has chosen Liverpool to make her final public Beatle-related appearance.  There is a lot of respect for her for the dignity she has shown over the years by refusing to cash in on her association with The Beatles.  She has grown to love the city and its people over the years, and of course this is the city in which Stuart is buried.  “I have had lovely times in Liverpool, the Liverpudlians have shown a lot of affection towards me, I am looking forward to the Convention, but, after that, the time has come for me to stop talking about cutting The Beatles’ hair!”

And for The Beatles she retains only love. “The Beatles were brave.  They had to be to go through what they did in Hamburg, living in the most horrible places, with no parents there to support them, with very little food, only one pair of shoes each, and earning so little.  If they hadn’t endured all that, rock music would not have evolved in the way that it did.  They changed my life, and there’s not one day that I don’t think about them.  I*’m thankful because they and their music gave me so much happiness.  I am proud to have been part of a process that changed a whole generation.  There is so much that is written about them which is not true.  They are wonderful people who deserve everything they got because they gave so much joy to the world”.

In conversation, Astrid emerges as a woman of tremendous dignity, great poise and kindness.  Stuart remains integral to her life. Since he died on April 10th 1962, and her ambition to be a photographer stalled in the wake of Beatlemania, life has not been easy for her, although she never draws attenti8on to this.  She has emerged as a survivor, finally able to embrace her past, and to acknowledge her crucial role in the greatest show on earth. “I’ve been at peace for a long time.  I am grateful for the life I've had.  I feel good that I can still say The Beatles are my good friends.  They have always been there for me. That – for me – is friendship”.


This article is from 2001 so, obviously, exhibitions and Astrid speaking at the Convention in Liverpool, as mentioned in this article, are in the past.  I post this article because I think it’s a wonderful record of how Astrid played a huge part in this story, and how Stuart has never left her heart.

Thanks to Colin Hall for allowing me to share this article with all Liverpool Beatlescene readers.

November 2013.


Back to home