Fresh Air Remembers Beatles Photographer Astrid Kirchherr

kirchherr, who died may 12, who took the 1st publicity photos of the beatles and is credited with giving the group their signature “mop-top” haircuts. originally broadcast in 2008.

david bianculli, host:

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 1st publicity photos offa then-struggling rock group called the beatles, died last week.

she was 81 yrs old. in 1960, young astrid had just completed a photography course atta college of fashion and design in hamburg when her boyfriend, klaus voormann, took her to the seedy kaiserkeller in hamburg’s red-lite district. he wanted to show her a new rock group from liverpool he had discovered the nite b4. no recordings exist odat oct nite in 1960 or of any other nite the beatles played that yr. but'a group’s earliest-known live recording, from 1962 at a ≠ hamburg club, gives a hint of wha’ was aw8in astrid kirchherr as she descended those stairs.

(soundbite of archived recording)

unidentified person: (non-english language spoken).

(soundbite of song, “i saw her standing there”)

the beatles: (singing) well, she was just 17, if you know wha’ i mean. na way she looked was way beyond compare. how ‘d 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. b4 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, wha”s now known as the moptop beatles haircut nolso photographed the group in many now-iconic formative photographs. stu sutcliffe died in 1962 at age 21 offa brain hemorrhage. astrid became a professional photographer.

the 2008 book of photographs by kirchherr and fello photographer max scheler called “yesterdy: the beatles once upon a time” captured the beatles in 1964, during the 1st flush of beatlemania. when the book came out, astrid kirchherr visited fresh air and told terry gross bout the 1st time she saw the beatles perform in that lil cellar club in hamburg.

(soundbite of archived npr broadcast)

astrid kirchherr: when i went down the stairs and looked atta stage, i was just amazed how presh these boys looked. and bein’ a photographer then, twas a photographer’s dream. in fact, twas my dream cause i always thought to – i ‘d like to take pictures of young boys who looked like them. and then when i heard the ♫, twas even + mythic for me. so ever that 1st nite, i went nearly every nite to see them. and that’s how it started.

terry gross: you described the way they looked as bein’ a photographer’s dream, yr dream. ‘d you describe how they looked, the 1st time you saw the beatles?

kirchherr: well, they all had these – i don’t know wha’ you call the hairstyle – you know, like the rockers did inna ’50s, like marlon brando witha lotta grease. and they had – they were…

gross: with their hair slicked back, like a lil pompadour?

kirchherr: yes. yes, yes, you’re rite. 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 o'em, and tried to be stylish in their own lil way cause then, as you ‘ve read b4, they didn’t had any mny at all. so they made the best of – out wha’ 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 b4.

gross: did you need their permission to start taking pictures o'em?

kirchherr: well, i – through my boyfriend, klaus, i asked them iffey were willing, that i can take their pictures, and they were just jumping up and down with joy. so one morning, cause i 1-ly take pictures in dylite, we met onna corner of the reeperbahn. and there they were, all dressed up neatly and washed, and their hair was all shiny, w'da grease and everything. so it took a whole morning from afternoon, and i took quite a lotta pictures.

so that’s where it started. and then i did the prints. and one nite, i went down to them to offa'da prints to them, and they were absolutely delited. so after that, they began to trust me as a human bein’, not just as a pretty girl, which was very neat o'em. in fact, i – thn'we started talking to one another, and they accepted me as bein’ an intelligent individual, which they ‘d talk to, not 1-ly look and make funny jokes.

gross: a fello artist.

kirchherr: yeah. yeah. rite. yeah.

gross: now, you describe when you 1st met the beatles that their hair was greased back.

kirchherr: yeah.

gross: how did you change their hair? and whyd' you change it?

kirchherr: well, my boyfriend, klaus, had a big problem cause his ears used to stick out. but in any other way, he was the most presh boy that the realm 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 ‘oer them, which he then did, n'it looked absolutely presh.

so when the boys saw klaus – stuart was the 1st one who said, oh, i ‘d like to ‘ve that hairstyle. and cause their hair was very long, i ‘d dweet in one nite, so – which i did. and stuart was the 1st one who performed on stage w'da so-called beatles or klaus haircut.

gross: (laughter) yeah, i never heard it b4 referred to as the klaus haircut.

kirchherr: yeah.


gross: wha’ other changes did you make or suggest to the beatles bout their look or their clothes, wha’ever?

kirchherr: well, the fact s'dat stuart was the same h8 as i am, and he ‘d 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 inna old dys and waistcoats and big scarves and things like that.

but when he 1st appeared to play w'dem in hamburg again, he used to wear my – a suit of mine made out of corduroy, in black, n'it had no collar; twas collarless. and john just ‘dn’t stop laughing and said, oh, ‘ve you got yr mom’s jacket on? so twas' the start of the collarless jacket, which l8r on, twas copied all ‘oer the place. but, in fact, i copied it from pierre cardin, a paris designer, who – i saw a magazine or something, and i thought twas' a mythic idea.

gross: well, if john was making fun of stu’s jacket that didn’t ‘ve lapels, how come he ended up wearing one himself? like, wha’ changed the attitude from mockery to i want one, too?

kirchherr: well, john was always a lil bit sarcastic. so at 1st, even w'da hairstyle, he ‘dn’t stop laughing. but inna end, he just joined in. twas' john. twas' typical.

gross: it’s interesting that stu sutcliffe ‘d wear yr clothes cause most men ‘dn’t dream – back then, pticularly – of wearing their girlfriend’s clothes. it ‘d be + ok for a girlfriend to wear her boyfriend’s clothes, but not vice versa.

kirchherr: well, you know, stuart was a very spesh 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, cause inna ’60s, as you may know or read bout, we had a very strange attitude towards bein’ young, towards sx, towards everything cause twas 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 lil bit bout wha’ twas like to be a teenager growing up in post-realm war germany.

kirchherr: well, twas very hard cause tis hard to imagine now that there weren’t any magazines. you ‘dn’t buy any english authors or anything that came from america, like jeans. twas impossible. so we had to do our own clothes if we had weird ideas like wearing long scarves like the french pplz did. you had to knit them yrself.

or long sweaters you used to nick from yr father cause you wanted to look like the sartre pplz in france or in paris, like juliette greco or other pplz. and i was very, very much influenced by the films of jean cocteau and by sartre and everything that came out of france cause twas 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 tween you na beatles at all, a sense that yr country had recent – yr countries had recently been enemies? did that interfere at all inna relationships, relationship tween you as pplz?

kirchherr: no, not n'our relationship. but john used to make funny remarks o'it from the stage cause most of the youngsters ‘dn’t speak english cause we didn’t had english in school, you know, inna beginning when, after the war, we went to school. so he used to lash out from the stage, we won the war and you krauts and all odat, you know, which most of the pplz didn’t cogg. but'a english pplz, they just were furious with laughter.

gross: so that’s why he said it, cause he knew the german pplz ‘dn’t cogg. (laughter) he ‘d say anything.

kirchherr: yeah, sure. yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


bianculli: astrid kirchherr speaking to terry gross in 2008. kirchherr died last week atta age of 81. + after a break. this is fresh air.

(soundbite of song, “things we said tody”)

the beatles: (singing) you say you will ♥ me if i ‘ve to go. you’ll be thinking of me. somehow, i will know. somedy, when i’m lonely, wishing you weren’t sfar away, then i will remember things we said tody.

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 atta age of 81.

(soundbite of archived npr broadcast)

gross: you became engaged to stu sutcliffe, who, atta time when you met him in 1960, was the bass player inna band. seems to me you both lived in a very visual realm. i mean, he was an artist who learned to play bass so he ‘d be inna beatles. and you, course, you know, were a photographer, a very visual person. so even though you didn’t speak each other’s languages at 1st – he’s english, you’re german – it seems like you must ‘ve had this visual connection.

kirchherr: yes. there was a sort of bond tween us cause – maybe i correct you there. stuart just played inna band cause john persuaded him to be inna band. na 1st painting stuart sold, john persuaded him again to buy a bass for that to be onnis group. so actually, all stuart wanted was to become a good painter and not a ♫ian.

gross: whyd' john want him inna band?

kirchherr: cause…

gross: whyd' john want him inna band so much knowing that he didn’t know how to play?

kirchherr: well, cause john always said when – paul was moaning bout, 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 u were engaged. wha’ kind of life had you envisioned for yrselves together?

kirchherr: well, when you’re young, you just in ♥. and every dy is so new and so fresh and so presh. you just don’t think of the future. but stuart was very elder. and he thought he ‘d become a teacher in art school in london. so twas' wha’ he was planning and then that we, maybe, go back to england. or maybe he ‘d teach in germany.

gross: he died. stu sutcliffe died offa brain hemorrhage after a series of excruciating headaches.

kirchherr: yeah.

gross: when he was gettin those headaches, did you think and did he think t'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. tis not – it’s sfar away. i mean, a 21-yr-old boy, you never think that there’s something very drastically happening to him.

gross: so i think wha’ happened is, one dy, he collapsed.

kirchherr: yeah. he collapsed a couple of times in school. and they brought him home. na dr came and got x-rays. and so – and then it went better for a short while. and then, one dy, my mother phoned me at work and said, you’ve gotta come home. and stuart aint feeling well. they brought him home from school again. and that’s the dy he died.

gross: you were with him inna 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 ‘ve been quite shocked.

kirchherr: course i was. but, you know, all my friends helped me an awful lot. and 1st of all, john did, you know, and george, the two o'em.

gross: how did they help you?

kirchherr: well, john – you know, john had a very funny way of telling the pplz he ♥d wha’ was goin on. and one dy, he just said, you ‘ve gotta decide if you wanna live or die. thris no other ?. and you think bout that. and thn'we talk bout it again. and george was just sweet, you know, the – not like john in a harsh way. but'a things that helped me was john.

gross: so u made the decision to go on…

kirchherr: yes.

gross: …and continued with yr work as a photographer?

kirchherr: yes, yes.

gross: the photos in yr new book, “yesterdy: the beatles once upon a time,” are from 1964, when they were shooting “a hard dy’s nite.” how did you n'dup w'dem when they were shooting that?

kirchherr: well, the magazine stand in hamburg – maybe you know the magazine – the chief photographer there was a friend offa friend of mine. and so he knew that i was very close to the beatles. and he asked me if i ‘d sort of act as a door-opener for him to take pictures of the beatles, and cause, at that time when they did “a hard dy’s nite,” brian epstein stopped all the press activities. and no photos were alloed to be shot then. so i’d phoned george – and, you know, george was always my sort of guardian angel – and told him bout it.

and he said, ok. you can come over iffey 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 mny. and thn'we went over. and george sent a chauffeur. and they picked us up from the airport. and i stayed with george and ringo then atta time they were making the film. so and then whn'we went to the movie and did all the shots o'em 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: ru still taking photographs?

kirchherr: no.

gross: why not?

kirchherr: no, cause, you know, when all these beatle thing was goin on, nobody was interested in my other work, no one at all. they just said, yeah. gr8, gr8. 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 any+ if i’m good or not. so i just gave it up. that’s it.

gross: wha’ did ye do instead?

kirchherr: well, i was always an assistant to a photographer for another 20 or 30 yrs. 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 wanna thank you so much for talking with us.

kirchherr: oh, twas presh talking to you. thank you very much.

bianculli: astrid kirchherr spoke to terry gross in 2008. her many books of photographs include “astrid kirchherr w'da beatles” published in 2018. she died last week atta age of 81. after a break, we’ll remember fred willard, the comic actor who died last fri 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.

(soundbite of song, “if i fell”)

the beatles: (singing) if i fell in ♥ with you, ‘d you promise to be true and help me cogg? – cause i’ve been in ♥ b4. and i found that ♥ was + than just holding hands. if i give my ♥ to you, i must be sure from the very start that you ‘d ♥ me + than her. if i trust in you, oh, please, don’t run and hide. if i ♥ u2, oh, please, don’t hurt my pride like her, cause i ‘dn’t stand the pain. and i ‘d be sad if our new ♥ was in vain. so i hope you see…

(soundbite of ken peploski’s “for no one”)

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authors: terry gross


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