"You have to ask why they would take someone into their group who was not a musician, and did not even have their beginning skills," says Sutcliffe, sitting in her elegant West London apartment, the rooms of which are filled with Stuart's paintings. She is convinced that Lennon was the decisive influence; Stuart was tremendously self-assured and confident for an 18-year-old boy, and Lennon was in awe of him and his artistic talent.
Even so, she insists, the Beatles' abilities were well hidden at this stage. "I remember in 1959 I was dispatched by my mother to go and see them. My parents frowned on the idea of him being in this group, but they didn't dismiss it out of hand. So I went along with Stuart to this incredibly seedy joint in Liverpool. I must have been 15. As far as I can remember, none of them were particularly skilled."
At this point, she pulls from a file the photocopy of a Beatles playlist of a gig dating from around this time. It is a genuine piece of pop music history, and is notable for the number of songs the Beatles performed back then but never recorded: Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" and "Hallelujah I Just Love Her So," Chuck Berry's "Carol" and "Johnny B. Goode," Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Also included on the list were two Carl Perkins songs, "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Honey Don't," an unidentified piece called "Rock-a-Chicka," and two instrumentals written by their group--"Winston's Walk" and "Cat's Walk" (Winston was Lennon's middle name).
"I didn't describe to my mother how seedy the joint was," Pauline Sutcliffe continued. "I had the sense not to do that. Instead I said: 'Well, Mother, they could play a whole tune!' That's how low one's expectations were.
"As the group evolved, none of this was supposed to impinge on Stuart's art school life. The group was a boy's hobby; it was not how he intended making a living."
In summer 1960, Alan Williams, then the Beatles' manager, offered them a chance to play in Hamburg for a month. One assumes that the lurid attractions of Hamburg night life were spelled out as an inducement. "But Stuart found a way of presenting it to my mother that made it seem all right," recalls Pauline. "It was an experience, another country, it was just for a month, it wouldn't interfere with art school. They drove to Germany in Alan's van, which seemed to be held together with string."
Hamburg was the place where a number of Liverpool's "Merseybeat" groups went to cut their teeth in the early 1960s, including the Searchers, the Big Three and Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, who featured a drummer called Richard Starkey or Ringo Starr. The Beatles' first trip to Hamburg came about only because the Hurricanes, who were of marginally higher status, pulled out, having received a better offer from a vacation camp in England.
John, Paul, George, Stuart and the Beatles' then drummer Pete Best played their first Hamburg gigs in a strip joint called the Indra Club, as a kind of audition for playing a larger club, the Kaiserkeller.
"There's a myth which says Stuart still couldn't really play at this point," says Softley. "But while they were at the Indra, the bass player in another group at the Kaiserkeller fell ill, and Stuart was sent on ahead of the Beatles, as it were, to deputize for him. So he can't have been that bad." In Softley's research he talked to Liverpool pop group leader Howie Casey, who confirmed that Sutcliffe "had a great live style." And Klaus Voormann, who was then living with Astrid Kirchherr, remembered him as "a very good dance band bass player."
Says Softley: "Apparently he was very punk, very insistent. He would turn his bass up really loud, also it was dominant and driving."
Voormann was the first of the Exis to encounter the Beatles, and became an important figure in their circle for several years. He was signed by Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles from 1961 until his death in 1967, to a recording contract as one-third of the group Paddy, Klaus & Gibson. In his capacity as artist, he drew the cover of the 1966 Beatles album "Revolver." He played on Lennon's album "Imagine" and George Harrison's "Concert for Bangla Desh," and toured with the Plastic Ono Band. (Voormann declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Astrid Kirchherr still remembers vividly the night when Voormann first saw the Beatles. "He had gone one evening to the Reeperbahn. He went to the cinema and afterward he was walking around when he heard this noise coming from a cellar. He followed the noise, and saw this English rock 'n' roll band playing. He's heard the music on records, but never heard it played live before. He couldn't believe his eyes or ears.
"When he got home, he was very excited. He asked me to go along and see them. I didn't feel like going. . .but he persuaded me and I went along with him to the Kaiserkeller Club. I was wanting something new, and for me the Beatles were. . .outstanding. I was breathless, speechless."