By Chris M. Junior
This much is true: Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer were young German photographers who befriended and photographed The Beatles during their life- and career-changing time in Hamburg, Germany.
What isn’t so clear cut is whether it was Kirchherr or Vollmer who played the key role in the band members adopting the now-iconic mop-top hairstyle.
In a 2008 interview with National Public Radio host Terry Gross, Kirchherr gave her version of the story. Kirchherr recalled that Klaus Voormann, who was her boyfriend before she met Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960, had “these big, sticking-out ears.” As a way to conceal Voormann’s ears, she said, “I had the idea to just roll the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.”
Kirchherr told Gross, “Stuart was the first one who said, ‘Oh, I would like to have that hairstyle.’ And because [his] hair was very long, I could do it in one night, which I did. Stuart was the first one who performed onstage with the so-called Beatles or Klaus haircut.”
When The Beatles returned to Liverpool, England, Kirchherr said guitarist George Harrison asked her to cut his hair like Sutcliffe’s. Drummer Pete Best couldn’t adopt the hairstyle because he had curly hair, she added, while guitarists John Lennon and Paul McCartney “didn’t want to know about” the different look at first.
“A little bit later, John and Paul went to visit an old friend of ours, another German photographer, called Jürgen Vollmer,” she added. “He used to live in Paris. Paul and John visited Jürgen, and he persuaded them to have their hairstyle changed.”
That’s not how Vollmer remembers it. During a late September interview in Hamburg, Vollmer said he came up with the now-famous straight down, ear-touching and forehead-covering hairstyle — which he calls “the pony” — one day in 1955.
“It was an act of rebellion; it wasn’t that I thought it looked beautiful,” Vollmer said. “So when The Beatles came in ’60 for the first time [and played] at the Kaiserkeller, they saw me with this hairdo. Klaus has often said that I was the first [to have it]. Klaus never had the pony; it looked too feminine for him — that’s what he said. He wore his hair to the side. And Stuart never had a pony; he also had it to the side.”
Vollmer also was wearing his hair more to the side by October 1961. At that time, he was living in Paris, and it was there, Vollmer said, that Lennon and McCartney paid him a visit and asked him to cut their hair like his used to be. Vollmer said he cut McCartney’s hair first.
“I didn’t [want them to change]. I thought they looked great,” he recalled. “For me, as a photographer, I loved their hair — the Elvis [Presley] hair. But they said, ‘We want it like you had in Hamburg.’ That’s the thing: I didn’t even have the haircut anymore.”
While the true origin of The Beatles’ mop-top hairstyle may always be enmeshed in she-said, he-said, there’s little debate over the accomplishments of Kirchherr and Vollmer as photographers. Look no further than their latest books: “Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective” (Liverpool University Press) and Vollmer’s “On Filmsets and Other Locations” (Steidl).
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