Features

Saturday Deluxe / 16 May 2020

RIP Astrid Kirchherr

Astrid Kirchherr who befriended The Beatles in Hamburg in 1960 and took the first photographs of the group, has died aged 81.

Kirchherr had studied at art college in Hamburg with Jürgen Vollmer and Klaus Voormann and was introduced to The Beatles when they played at the Kaiserkeller club in the Reeperbahn in 1960. They became friends and her early photographs of the band are legendary and of great historical importance. Her influence was significant. With Vollmer and Voormann she dressed in black and they were considered ‘bohemian’ by The Beatles and she is credited with giving the group their ‘moptop’ haircuts and helping to transition their style from plain rockers to something more interesting.

In 1960, The Beatles were a five-piece with Pete Best on drums and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. Astrid had been in a relationship with Klaus Voorman (who would go on to design the cover to Revolver and play with Lennon on early solo albums like Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) but eventually became romantically involved with a besotted Stuart Sutcliffe and the pair were engaged to be married.


The Beatles photographed in Hamburg in 1960 by Astrid Kirchherr. Pete Best is far left and Stuart Sutcliffe is far right.

Tragedy struck, when Sutcliffe died in April 1962 of a brain haemorrhage, on the eve of The Beatles returning for another stint in the German port city. Sutcliffe had already left the group by this point (which is why Paul ended up being the bass player) and was planning for a life together with Astrid in Hamburg.

Astrid stayed in contact with the band during the 1960s and continued with her photography. In 1967, she married English drummer Gibson Kemp (who had replaced Ringo in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes!). That marriage ended in the mid-1970s and although she wed again (the second marriage ended in 1985) she never had any children. Astrid remained in Hamburg, where she would occasionally consult on Beatles related projects (like the film Backbeat).

The pre-fame era of The Beatles is a fascinating period (John once said “I didn’t grow up in Liverpool, I grew up in Hamburg”) and the group’s friendship with Kirchherr, Vollmer and Voormann at such a young age (they were all still teenagers) was arguably just as important for their development as the marathon four-to-six-hour live sessions they would undertake on stage every night.

Astrid Kirchherr died on Tuesday after a “a short, serious illness”.

41 responses to Saturday Deluxe / 16 May 2020

  1. Fogarrach says:

    And if you repeat “Suomi fab viisi” backwards, five or two times, I can’t recall which. It translates roughly as “mother is in in the pantry, let us eventually arrive in Tallinn for coffee”

  2. Jarmo Keranen says:

    I have a Finnish version of the Philip Norman’s book Shout. In the text of the Beatles picture it says “Still on the drums were Stu Sutcliffe” and the picture shows Pete, George, John and Paul!

    • Fogarrach says:

      Dear Jarmo,
      Everyone knows that the Finnish language is notoriously complex, what with all those post positions, long vowels and complex grammar.
      It is clearly too complicated to translate “stu sutcliffe left the Beatles” into Finnish. Thus, the Beatles became the suomi fab viisi.
      This same logic explains the number of members of the Leningrad cowboys. Originally a trio, that same linguistic quirk ensured no one could leave the band. Thus resulting in an ever expanding band.

      What do you mean I need to get out more?

      • Erik says:

        Wanted to let you know, Fogarrach, that I am sitting here applauding you for dropping a Leningrad Cowboys reference into the conversation. Bravo.

      • Kai Karkkainen says:

        Fogarrach,
        being a Finn myself I found your comments hilarious, thanks for them. ”Suomi fab viisi” : that’s priceless!

  3. Frank Sidebottom says:

    will always be part of the greatest (musical) story ever told !

  4. Keith Ainsworth says:

    Astrid also took a new portrait of George Harrison for the inner sleeve of his 1968 album Wonderwall Music.

  5. GentleRabbit says:

    A wonderful woman, artist and collaborator. She styled The Beatles, just how she liked them…

    and then they conquered the world.

    They would have been unrecognisable without her skill, taste and ideas. An early, formative, avant-garde influence on the biggest band ever. May she rest in peace x

  6. Michael says:

    Aside from Astrid famously photo-documenting the Beatles early Hamburg days, her photographs also revealed someone with a keen eye for black and white composition, particularly her use of stark lighting for photo-portraits that approximated Rembrandt-like fine art quality.

    I always thought of Astrid Kirchherr as the fifth Beatle, since her Bohemian influence on the band-mates not only helped to fine-tune their public image, but also their creative tenacity. RIP Astrid.

  7. adam shaw says:

    To many of our hero’s are passing away .
    RIP to all that have died recently.

  8. JayCee says:

    Great article – so many pieces are referring to Astrid as if she was just a photographer who took pics of The Beatles. But, of course, her influence – and even that of her fellow Exis Klaus and Jürgen – was SO important to the development of the band at that time. Attitude may well have been all Liverpool, but style soon became all bohemian Hamburg. RIP Astrid.

  9. SimonP says:

    I only know of this lady from the 90s fillum Backbeat. I haven’t seen it for 20 odd years but seem to recall that the film implied Sutcliffe’s brain haemorrhage happened after he was given a good kicking by some sailors…

  10. Geoff D says:

    I’ve always loved black and white early Beatles pics and Astrid knew how to shoot them. Nice tribute Paul – thanks

  11. Fogarrach says:

    A woman dies. And clocks did stop.
    And then a comment, a nice comment, sends me in a direction.
    So.
    The fat lady sings . Arc light
    Youtube it.
    You should, you shall…

  12. Dave says:

    Ok. Forgive me not knowing her name before . But very sad news . Many will miss her !

  13. Charles says:

    Some people seem to be naturally 10 years ahead of culture and everyone around them and she was definitely one of those people. R.I.P.

  14. Colin Harper says:

    Aside from the quality of her photographs, what I’ve always found most remarkable is the fact that her tsunami of documentation involved the Beatles – an act that would just happen to go on the change the world.

    There is surely a parallel universe in which Astrid became friendly with, say, Kingsize Taylor & the Dominoes in Hamburg at that time, rather than the Beatles, and posterity would be left with hundreds of striking B&Ws of an act that would have no impact on anything, leaving only a tantalising handful of imperfect amateur snaps of the Beatles in Hamburg. Quality photos – any photos – of pop acts were rare in those days – usually only one or two studio publicity shots, endlessly re-used around the world (e.g. the handful of PR images of Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry from their heydays), which was of course their purpose.

    There are hit-making acts from the 60s for which there are literally no photographs, or very few. For instance, researching my books on John McLaughlin, I was unable to find even one image of the the October 63 – January 64 Tony Meehan Combo (one Top 30 hit, three UK TV appearances and a well-publicised c.30-date package tour around Britain and Ireland) – from agencies, Shadows fans, scouring the regional press and music mags of the time. Similarly, a pal working on Johnny Kidd projects had a lot of trouble unearthing an image of a particular hit-making line-up of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, and apart from those promo pics where they’re standing round a tree, there is almost nothing on the classic line-up of the US band Love.

    So Astrid, magically, was the right person in the right place at the right time.

  15. Craig Hedges says:

    Definitely a contender for a future biopic film, Astrid is a major part of the Beatle story. Love her photos of John in Stu’s attic, she really captured his vulnerability.
    Paul, I’m always impressed with stories like this that you really research your topics and get your information correct, it was nice to read your article as opposed to a lot of the news services which got info wrong.

  16. Brian Roberts says:

    I had the great pleasure to meet her once on a photography job…slight bit of pressure there but she was lovely. Fabulous artist and a major influence in the early days of The Beatles.

  17. kid992 says:

    Always loved those Hamburg photos. No one ever had a better back story than The Beatles and no one had a bigger influence on that back story than Astrid and her friends. Alan Williams book The Man Who Gave Away The Beatles is a very funny account of that time.

  18. David Fisher says:

    Thanks for posting this tribute Paul. Astrid was a tremendously important figure in the evolution of The Beatles as you say. I used to live in a shared house with my band – like The Monkees (more so than you can imagine) – and we had a large original Kirchherr print of a John Lennon portrait in pride of place in the entrance hall. I don’t know what became of it, alas, because it was a thing of beauty.

    I was getting worried this morning that you might have contracted this awful virus when there were no new posts. I check in first thing every day and you’ve been silent for a few days. I’m delighted to see you’re ok.

  19. Fogarrach says:

    And do you know what, I think there is something lovely and everything appropriate about this news appearing under the Saturday deluxe header.

    Astrid had a real impact and influence on one of the greatest pleasures in my life, the Beatles.

  20. Fogarrach says:

    Thanks Paul for letting us know,
    When the world was younger she might have been the first German girl I knew the name of.
    During these times my family and I have enjoyed quite a bit of Beatles music, an online screening of yellow submarine, and listening to the “i am the eggpod”podcasts.

    The latter has helped me to revisit and reevaluate their solo stuff, some of which I’ve had problems getting into.

    Astrid was an intelligent, beautiful and arty woman. My thanks to her for her part in my history and my kind thoughts to her family.

    • John McCann' says:

      Not sure that she had any family,she was 81,parents obviously dead,no children, Wikipedia does not say whether she had any brothers or sisters?,,she gave a decent haircut, but was she ever seen at tittinhurst park/Dakota,,,high farm kintyre? or sir frank crisps former home no she wasn’t,why is that?,,, maybe not as tight with the Beatles as some early biographies would have you believe,ray Coleman and the like?,, Having said that I wish her well on her journey, amen

    • John McCann' says:

      First German girl I knew the name of was Eva Braun,thats because the first LP I had was a tonic for the troops,the boomtown rats,which contains the song I never loved eva Braun,the best band ever to come from Ireland, and gerry cott is the finest guitarist that island ever produced,no banks of effect pedals for him,a bit of a ross compresser and away he went, fantastic?

  21. Ron van Rossum says:

    Very very sad news. RIP.

  22. Andrew r says:

    Paul also a mention for the great Phil May of Pretty things who died last night
    A great misunderstood band who should have been huge . A sad loss

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Thanks Andrew.

    • Peter Stanton says:

      The great Phil May indeed and a great band, the Pretties. Saw Phil and Dick Taylor at the Million Dollar Bash last year and hoped to see them again at the 50 the anniversary of Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival.

      More sad news.

  23. Xavier I. Callobre says:

    I applaud your sharing this news of a “non-musical” person, who was so important and influential in the career of the Beatles. Although she had no Deluxe Edition releases to report on this site, she is more than deserving of being mentioned here. It is a sad day for Beatles fans, but Astrid’s importance will live on forever.

    • Eamonn says:

      Maybe…but where’s the superdeluxe love for Little Richard?! A lil’ more important than Astrid and Kamen, surely ;)

      • MARK says:

        Music is crafted in many ways..many influences..by many people within the industry with iconic photo’s past and present..
        stay safe and healthy

    • John McCann'. says:

      No mate her importance will not live on forever; Epstein took one look at them, ,took them out the leather and put them in suits (after licking his lips) the rest is history,voorman was obviously very hurt by her shenanigans with Sutcliffe, but he later went on to do classic albums with John, I think she was looked at askance by the other Beatles,? of course you’ll only hear that from my mouth nobody else,

  24. Bob McCartney says:

    Definitely played a role in crafting their image.
    May she Rest In Peace.

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