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Fresh Air Remembers Beatles Photographer Astrid Kirchherr


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Astrid Kirchherr, who took the first publicity photos of a then-struggling rock group called The Beatles, died last week.

She was 81 years old. In 1960, young Astrid had just completed a photography course at the College of Fashion and Design in Hamburg when her boyfriend, Klaus Voormann, took her to the seedy Kaiserkeller in Hamburg's red-light district. He wanted to show her a new rock group from Liverpool he had discovered the night before. No recordings exist of that October night in 1960 or of any other night The Beatles played that year. But the group's earliest-known live recording, from 1962 at a different Hamburg club, gives a hint of what was awaiting Astrid Kirchherr as she descended those stairs.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Well, she was just 17, if you know what I mean. And the way she looked was way beyond compare. How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there? Well, she looked at me...

BIANCULLI: When Astrid met the group in 1960, The Beatles consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and two others. Pete Best, not Ringo Starr, was the drummer then. And Stu Sutcliffe, an art student friend of Lennon's, played bass, but not well. Before long, he quit the group to pursue his art career and live with Astrid, who quickly became his girlfriend. She gave him, then the other Beatles, what's now known as the moptop Beatles haircut and also photographed the group in many now-iconic formative photographs. Stu Sutcliffe died in 1962 at age 21 of a brain hemorrhage. Astrid became a professional photographer.

The 2008 book of photographs by Kirchherr and fellow photographer Max Scheler called "Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time" captured The Beatles in 1964, during the first flush of Beatlemania. When the book came out, Astrid Kirchherr visited FRESH AIR and told Terry Gross about the first time she saw The Beatles perform in that small cellar club in Hamburg.


ASTRID KIRCHHERR: When I went down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed how beautiful these boys looked. And being a photographer then, it was a photographer's dream. In fact, it was my dream because I always thought to - I would like to take pictures of young boys who looked like them. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic for me. So ever that first night, I went nearly every night to see them. And that's how it started.

TERRY GROSS: You described the way they looked as being a photographer's dream, your dream. Would you describe how they looked, the first time you saw The Beatles?

KIRCHHERR: Well, they all had these - I don't know what you call the hairstyle - you know, like the rockers did in the '50s, like Marlon Brando with a lot of grease. And they had - they were...

GROSS: With their hair slicked back, like a little pompadour?

KIRCHHERR: Yes. Yes, yes, you're right. So - and they wore really mad clothes, sort of - not very clean but unusual. Like, John had a leather jacket on, and Stuart had a real proper suit jacket on. But they were so individual, every one of them, and tried to be stylish in their own little way because then, as you have read before, they didn't had any money at all. So they made the best of - out what they had. So John had a pair of jeans on, which he rolled up, which was very trendy then. Stuart had very, very pointed shoes. So I've never seen anything like it before.

GROSS: Did you need their permission to start taking pictures of them?

KIRCHHERR: Well, I - through my boyfriend, Klaus, I asked them if they were willing, that I can take their pictures, and they were just jumping up and down with joy. So one morning, because I only take pictures in daylight, we met on the corner of the Reeperbahn. And there they were, all dressed up nicely and washed, and their hair was all shiny, with the grease and everything. So it took a whole morning from afternoon, and I took quite a lot of pictures.

So that's where it started. And then I did the prints. And one night, I went down to them to offer the prints to them, and they were absolutely delighted. So after that, they began to trust me as a human being, not just as a pretty girl, which was very nice of them. In fact, I - then we started talking to one another, and they accepted me as being an intelligent individual, which they could talk to, not only look and make funny jokes.

GROSS: A fellow artist.

KIRCHHERR: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you describe when you first met The Beatles that their hair was greased back.


GROSS: How did you change their hair? And why did you change it?

KIRCHHERR: Well, my boyfriend, Klaus, had a big problem because his ears used to stick out. But in any other way, he was the most beautiful boy that the world has seen. So I thought, how can you get this to go, these big sticking-out ears? And then I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.

So when the boys saw Klaus - Stuart was the first one who said, oh, I would like to have that hairstyle. And because their hair was very long, I could do it in one night, so - which I did. And Stuart was the first one who performed on stage with the so-called Beatles or Klaus haircut.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, I never heard it before referred to as the Klaus haircut.



GROSS: What other changes did you make or suggest to The Beatles about their look or their clothes, whatever?

KIRCHHERR: Well, the fact is that Stuart was the same height as I am, and he could wear my clothes. So, immediately, when he moved in with me and my mother, he got hold of all my clothes, like leather pants, leather jackets, collarless jackets and wide shirts with big, big colors like in the old days and waistcoats and big scarves and things like that.

But when he first appeared to play with them in Hamburg again, he used to wear my - a suit of mine made out of corduroy, in black, and it had no collar; it was collarless. And John just couldn't stop laughing and said, oh, have you got your mom's jacket on? So that was the start of the collarless jacket, which later on, it was copied all over the place. But, in fact, I copied it from Pierre Cardin, a Paris designer, who - I saw a magazine or something, and I thought that was a fantastic idea.

GROSS: Well, if John was making fun of Stu's jacket that didn't have lapels, how come he ended up wearing one himself? Like, what changed the attitude from mockery to I want one, too?

KIRCHHERR: Well, John was always a little bit sarcastic. So at first, even with the hairstyle, he couldn't stop laughing. But in the end, he just joined in. That was John. That was typical.

GROSS: It's interesting that Stu Sutcliffe would wear your clothes because most men wouldn't dream - back then, particularly - of wearing their girlfriend's clothes. It would be more OK for a girlfriend to wear her boyfriend's clothes, but not vice versa.

KIRCHHERR: Well, you know, Stuart was a very special person. And he was miles ahead of everybody. You know, as far as intelligent and artistic feelings are concerned, he was miles ahead. I learned a lot from him, because in the '60s, as you may know or read about, we had a very strange attitude towards being young, towards sex, towards everything because it was still so short after the war. And we had this big burden to carry, as far as our parents and as far as our country went through, you know, after the war.

GROSS: Well, tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a teenager growing up in post-World War Germany.

KIRCHHERR: Well, it was very hard because it is hard to imagine now that there weren't any magazines. You couldn't buy any English authors or anything that came from America, like jeans. It was impossible. So we had to do our own clothes if we had weird ideas like wearing long scarves like the French people did. You had to knit them yourself.

Or long sweaters you used to nick from your father because you wanted to look like the Sartre people in France or in Paris, like Juliette Greco or other people. And I was very, very much influenced by the films of Jean Cocteau and by Sartre and everything that came out of France because it was closer than America or England. And anyway, England was then, told by the older generation of Germans, were still our enemies.

GROSS: Did that come between you and the Beatles at all, a sense that your country had recent - your countries had recently been enemies? Did that interfere at all in the relationships, relationship between you as people?

KIRCHHERR: No, not in our relationship. But John used to make funny remarks of it from the stage because most of the youngsters couldn't speak English because we didn't had English in school, you know, in the beginning when, after the war, we went to school. So he used to shout from the stage, we won the war and you krauts and all of that, you know, which most of the people didn't understand. But the English people, they just were furious with laughter.

GROSS: So that's why he said it, because he knew the German people wouldn't understand. (Laughter) He could say anything.

KIRCHHERR: Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. Kirchherr died last week at the age of 81. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) You say you will love me if I have to go. You'll be thinking of me. Somehow, I will know. Someday, when I'm lonely, wishing you weren't so far away, then I will remember things we said today.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2008 interview with Astrid Kirchherr, who was famous for photographing the Beatles and for inspiring their famous haircuts. She died last week at the age of 81.


GROSS: You became engaged to Stu Sutcliffe, who, at the time when you met him in 1960, was the bass player in the band. Seems to me you both lived in a very visual world. I mean, he was an artist who learned to play bass so he could be in the Beatles. And you, of course, you know, were a photographer, a very visual person. So even though you didn't speak each other's languages at first - he's English, you're German - it seems like you must have had this visual connection.

KIRCHHERR: Yes. There was a sort of bond between us because - maybe I correct you there. Stuart just played in the band because John persuaded him to be in the band. And the first painting Stuart sold, John persuaded him again to buy a bass for that to be in his group. So actually, all Stuart wanted was to become a good painter and not a musician.

GROSS: Why did John want him in the band?

KIRCHHERR: Because...

GROSS: Why did John want him in the band so much knowing that he didn't know how to play?

KIRCHHERR: Well, because John always said when - Paul was moaning about, you know, how Stuart didn't practice and all that. But John always said, it doesn't matter. He looks good. He is rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: So you were engaged. What kind of life had you envisioned for yourselves together?

KIRCHHERR: Well, when you're young, you just in love. And every day is so new and so fresh and so beautiful. You just don't think of the future. But Stuart was very mature. And he thought he could become a teacher in art school in London. So that was what he was planning and then that we, maybe, go back to England. Or maybe he could teach in Germany.

GROSS: He died. Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage after a series of excruciating headaches.


GROSS: When he was getting those headaches, did you think and did he think that they were a symptom of something very serious?

KIRCHHERR: No, not at all. When you're so young, you don't - death doesn't occur to you at all. It is not - it's so far away. I mean, a 21-year-old boy, you never think that there's something very drastically happening to him.

GROSS: So I think what happened is, one day, he collapsed.

KIRCHHERR: Yeah. He collapsed a couple of times in school. And they brought him home. And the doctor came and got X-rays. And so - and then it went better for a short while. And then, one day, my mother phoned me at work and said, you've got to come home. And Stuart is not feeling well. They brought him home from school again. And that's the day he died.

GROSS: You were with him in the ambulance when he died?

KIRCHHERR: Yes, yes.

GROSS: You know, you said that death doesn't occur to you when you're young. But you had to deal with it. You must have been quite shocked.

KIRCHHERR: Of course I was. But, you know, all my friends helped me an awful lot. And first of all, John did, you know, and George, the two of them.

GROSS: How did they help you?

KIRCHHERR: Well, John - you know, John had a very funny way of telling the people he loved what was going on. And one day, he just said, you have got to decide if you want to live or die. There is no other question. And you think about that. And then we talk about it again. And George was just sweet, you know, the - not like John in a harsh way. But the things that helped me was John.

GROSS: So you made the decision to go on...


GROSS: ...And continued with your work as a photographer?

KIRCHHERR: Yes, yes.

GROSS: The photos in your new book, "Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time," are from 1964, when they were shooting "A Hard Day's Night." How did you end up with them when they were shooting that?

KIRCHHERR: Well, the magazine stand in Hamburg - maybe you know the magazine - the chief photographer there was a friend of a friend of mine. And so he knew that I was very close to the Beatles. And he asked me if I could sort of act as a door-opener for him to take pictures of the Beatles, and because, at that time when they did "A Hard Day's Night," Brian Epstein stopped all the press activities. And no photos were allowed to be shot then. So I'd phoned George - and, you know, George was always my sort of guardian angel - and told him about it.

And he said, OK. You can come over if they pay you for it. Otherwise, you can stay at home. So I went to this done and told them. And they gave me quite - for the '60s, quite a good amount of money. And then we went over. And George sent a chauffeur. And they picked us up from the airport. And I stayed with George and Ringo then at the time they were making the film. So and then when we went to the movie and did all the shots of them acting and relaxing and having fun, after that, we went to Liverpool to meet Ringo's father and mommy and Georgie's mum and dad.

GROSS: Are you still taking photographs?


GROSS: Why not?

KIRCHHERR: No, because, you know, when all these Beatle thing was going on, nobody was interested in my other work, no one at all. They just said, yeah. Great, great. Where are the Beatles pictures? And so I wasn't sure if I'm really good. Or is it just the Beatles that made me sort of, in a way, famous. And I wasn't sure anymore if I'm good or not. So I just gave it up. That's it.

GROSS: What did you do instead?

KIRCHHERR: Well, I was always an assistant to a photographer for another 20 or 30 years. And then I started interior design. And I just did things which I liked to do, you know, which had at least fun.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

KIRCHHERR: Oh, it was lovely talking to you. Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr spoke to Terry Gross in 2008. Her many books of photographs include "Astrid Kirchherr With The Beatles" published in 2018. She died last week at the age of 81. After a break, we'll remember Fred Willard, the comic actor who died last Friday at age 86. Also, Justin Chang reviews "The Trip To Greece," the new film starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. And John Powers reviews the newly restored Japanese animated film from 2003 "Tokyo Godfathers." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true and help me understand? - because I've been in love before. And I found that love was more than just holding hands. If I give my heart to you, I must be sure from the very start that you would love me more than her. If I trust in you, oh, please, don't run and hide. If I love you too, oh, please, don't hurt my pride like her, because I couldn't stand the pain. And I would be sad if our new love was in vain. So I hope you see...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "FOR NO ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.