Monday, March 3, 2008

Astrid Kirchherr

A number of diverse and fascinating women have played important roles in the history of The Beatles. While I intend to profile each at length, I thought a good place to start would be with Astrid Kirchherr. If you don't know that name already, you're probably unaware that the original Beatles line up was John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete. Poor Pete was just replaced with Ringo when the Beatles got signed due to his musical mediocrity, but Stu was the "good looking" bassist and John's best friend (Paul would go on to take Stu's place on all counts).

When the Beatles were young and savage in Hamburg, Astrid (a local photographer) and Stu fell in love, resulting in Stu's decision to stay in Germany with Astrid and become an artist. He died shortly thereafter of a brain anneurysm. The 1994 film "Backbeat" tells this story rather poorly with the notable exception of the fantastic actors playing John, Paul and George. Ian Hart's John Lennon is so perfect, he portrayed the Beatle in another (more interesting) picture, The Hours and the Times.

Though the tale is tragic (if mythic), Astrid's photographs remain and are still some of the most soulful and compelling the Beatles ever did. As a woman, her art would have otherwise faded into obscurity (as is the fate of most women artists, especially in the early 1960s), had it not been for her soon-to-be-legendary subjects.

John and Stuart

Astrid with Stu

One can easily see that her photography stands on its own, but it is thanks to her connection with the Beatles that her art lasts.

"The question "Why have there been no great women artists?" has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, "Influenced" by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by "social forces," but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast."
-Extract from Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, 1988 by Linda Nochlin, pp.147-158

Nochlin goes on to point out that the few women whose art survives the shuffle of history have done so because of their connection with a man whose art was considered "great".

Kirchherr's talent, while considerable, was discarded by male art critics and magazine editors who saw her not as an artist but a woman with access to the boys.

"Every magazine and newspaper wanted me to photograph The Beatles again. Or they wanted my old stuff, even if it was out of focus, whether they were nice or not. They wouldn't look at my other work. It was very hard for a girl photographer in the 60s to be accepted. In the end I gave up. I've hardly taken a photo since 1967."
-Astrid Kirchherr

Like many women artists of her time, Kirchherr was shut out of the artistic community and now puts her talents to use as the owner of a photography shop in Hamburg.

Though Kirchherr has become resigned to the hand she was dealt in her institutionalized exclusion from avenues of success, she serves feminist scholars today as a notable example of Nochlin's theory on women and the arts, and remains an important player in early Beatles lore.

Footnote: Kirchherr and her friend Klaus Voormaan are credited with giving the Beatles their iconic haircuts.

1 comment:

dhampste said...

In Defense of Pete Best

"Poor Pete was just replaced with Ringo when the Beatles got signed due to his musical mediocrity ..."

Liverpool musicians who were on the scene as well as other witnesses say that Pete Best was an excellent drummer. Bill Harry, creator of "Mersey Beat", which chronicled the Liverpool music scene in the early 1960s, notes that While in Germany, Pete developed the locally famous "atom beat" in which he used the bass drum very loudly while laying down a solid beat. Other Liverpool drummers began copying this style, including a drummer from the band "Rory Storm and the Hurricanes" named Ringo Starr.

Beatles producer George Martin did not want Pete replaced permanently, he only wanted to replace him for the first record, because of inexperience in the studio. He did the same thing to Ringo. The famous version of "Love Me Do" does not feature Ringo, but a session drummer!

John Lennon once said "Our best work was never recorded, you know. We were performing in Liverpool, Hamburg and around the dance halls, and what we generated was fantastic." So there best work took place when Pete Best was a member. George Harrison made similar comments. Paul McCartney admits in his "Wingspan" documentary, that the dropping of Pete had nothing to do with his drumming ability.

The main reason for being dumped seems to have been his popularity with the girls and overall being the most popular band member. Perhaps his shyness and lack of communication with the other band members may have contributed.

You can get the whole story and some great situational anecdotes from Bill Harry and others at

Sincerely yours,
Dave from Georgia USA