Unearthing a forgotten archive with Rock & Roll photographer Alec Byrne
It’s amazing what you can stumble upon when you have a good root through your garage. There might be those hundreds of Allen keys you’ve stored in a glass jar, a string of old broken Christmas decorations you knew you’d never get round to fixing but kept anyway, or maybe that ball of elastic bands you know will definitely be handy one day. There aren’t many people who’ll find a priceless archive filled with pictures of rock & roll icons sat in a box. But this is exactly what happened to photographer Alec Byrne.
He took pictures of music’s good and great in the 60s & 70s before quitting the biz to move to Hollywood. His boxed up archive of photographs came with him and remained in storage for almost four decades surviving a studio fire, a flood and an earthquake. Recently Alec’s fantastic shots were re-discovered culminating in his book London Rock: The Unseen Archive, that coincides with an exhibition of the same name opening at Proud Central today. We sat down to chat to Alec about what it was like for a young photographer wading through a sea of musical stars.
The MALESTROM: So Alec great to speak with you, tell us a little bit about this amazing treasure trove you’ve had locked away?
Alec Byrne: Ok well I basically spent about ten years in the music business starting out as a young teenager and in 1975 the music had changed. I tried shooting these other bands, but the punk thing I never got on with, so I basically just quit and from shooting rock stars, instead I wanted to shoot movie stars so I boxed up everything moved to Hollywood and started that.
So the archive if you like remained in boxes. I had a photo agency in Hollywood and the IT company came by, a guy called Drew Evans and as he was leaving he saw a picture of The Beatles by the front door and said ‘where did you buy that?’ and it was like ‘oh no I took that and some others,’ and he asked where the photos were now, and I told him they were in boxes in the garage, and he was very excited and said ‘let me see what I can do with this.’ It took me about two years before I trusted anyone to get into the stuff so I went away on holiday and I said to Drew ‘here’s one box of stuff see what you think?’
When I came back he said ‘this is insane, this stuff has got to be seen.’ So I asked him what he wanted and he organised a show at Smash Box Studios in Los Angeles five years ago this week, it was a one night show and over a thousand people showed up. To me it was a life changing moment because from being hidden away, I mean some of these images I’d never seen in print, so when I showed up at this gallery I was as amazed at some of the people who attended. It was quite emotional, there were people who were like ‘oh my god I was at that Zeppelin concert!’
You know they’re sharing stories, it was like ‘woah’ (laughs), it had an affect on me and I took the bloody pictures. So when you have other people reacting that way, it was like ‘ok we’ve got to get these things out.’ It took five years to get the book together and now we have the gallery show at Proud. What is great is this all started a mile away from where the gallery is in Fleet Street, so now I’ve done the full circle fifty years later we’re back round the corner from where it all began.
TM: Was that where the NME office was Alec?
AB: I started at the Keystone press agency on Fleet Street on Red Lion Court and I was a sixteen-year-old dispatch rider which sounded very glamorous at the time. Basically my job was to race out and meet photographers, collect their film, race back to Fleet Street and then it would be processed and put out. I would just hang out with the dark room guys and one day I ended up taking some pictures, and they would show me certain things and then I remember seeing my first print appear in the photo developer and from that moment I was hooked and then it became an obsession. You don’t take no for an answer, you know it all, no one can stop you, so I just took off and next thing you know I’m seventeen years old and I’m on a retainer for NME.
TM: So it wasn’t that you really wanted to be a photographer?
AB: It had crossed my mind as a young kid at school, it was drilled into me though that if you want to be a photographer then you need to know Chemistry and Math and all these things, and I hated school, I couldn’t wait to get out of school, so to me it was like – well that’s never gonna happen so just forget it – but then when I was in the dark room I just became obsessed. I was shooting everything, family members, the dog, the cat, the park you know, but it was an incredible time.
TM: What was it like shooting these stars at such a young age?
AB: Well as a sixteen year old I’d go to concerts and when I did the first couple of shows shooting, I was just a punter you know, you buy your ticket and go along. Then I’d say to some guy ‘can I stand by the stage there to get a better shot?’ And it’d be like ‘sure go ahead,’ and then eventually when I started getting these pictures published, I managed to get the NME to give me a letter which I’d show the management of these clubs, but they made it very clear that we’re giving you a letter not a job, we’re under no obligation to use any of this stuff, but we’ll help you get in.
So the first time I remember going backstage with a band, you know it was like wow I’m one of the boys, I’m back in the dressing room and you know I was a young kid so it was like ‘this is amazing!’ So it really was a thrill. I loved the music, would buy the albums, used to pay to go to the shows. I can still remember getting that cheque from NME, getting the envelope and opening it up and thinking wow there’s a cheque for a guinea, one pound one shilling (laughs), it was like ‘this is amazing! I’m doing something I love and I’m getting paid to do it?!’ It was just like… ‘I want more of this.’
TM: Who was the first artist? Were you star struck?
AB: It was 1966 or 67 I think and… what amazed me looking back on some of these images – I did a band called The Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood in it. And I can remember being backstage thinking we need single headshots, a group shot, an upright, but I didn’t have the balls to go in and say ‘ok guys I’m sorry to interrupt, can you all go over here and we’ll get a group shot,’ so when I look back at the film, all I got were these single shots, not posed, I just snapped and disappeared.
So I was intimidated by the first few shoots, but you move on from that, like feeling intimidated by The Spencer Davis Group. One of the few dates – I’m terrible with dates – but one of the few dates that I can remember was a shoot I did on May 4th 1967 and the only reason I remember that date was because my birthday is May 3rd. I’d just turned eighteen-years-old, and I used to do Top of the Pops every week and Hendrix was on and everyone in London wanted to see Hendrix! I remember as I was shooting, in the corner of my eye I could see this figure moving in and out and when Hendrix finished and came off the set, this figure came out of the light and it’s Mick Jagger! So I went straight up to them and said ‘guys I need to do a picture, can you stand close, ok look here.’ So having just turned eighteen I’m now directing Hendrix and Jagger (laughs), and I found out later that was the first time they’d been photographed together.
So in the space of one year from being scared to interrupt somebody, to directing these two iconic figures (laughs), you know something happened during that year I think.
TM: What was Hendrix like? You also took that other great picture backstage at The Saville Theatre?
AB: He was the opposite of his stage persona, you know from this wild, crazy, mad f**ker to this polite, soft spoken, mild mannered guy really approachable and willing to… you know I’m just a young kid telling him ‘Jimi can we do this, I’m trying a new flash technique,’ bouncing of a mirror in the dressing room and I’m directing this thing and I’m just a young kid, so he was very approachable and I was a big fan. I listened to all his records, and this guy when he hit London, was you know… The Beatles showed up at his concert! You know Jagger turned up at Top of the Pops to see and meet Jimi, he wasn’t performing, so he created a storm when he arrived in London.
TM: Out of all the people you met, who had the greatest star presence?
AB: Well I did a lot of this stuff almost on my own personal interest level, so I loved Zeppelin, loved their music and wanted to shoot more but they had a kind of weird, wild management and it was very difficult to work with. So quite often some of the relationships I had were based on their agent, their manager, their publicists you know maybe I had a better relationship with the Stones than I had with Zeppelin so I didn’t shoot as much Zeppelin as I would have liked. Then with The Beatles they were very difficult, because I didn’t have McCartney’s home phone number so you’d work whatever contacts you had to get the access.
TM: Were they difficult in general The Beatles?
AB: I did a lot of stuff with McCartney and I did quite a few things with Ringo, Lennon was always very aloof, very remote, it was rare to get any kind of face time with him. Harrison was just very quiet almost like he didn’t really care, he wanted to do his own projects. I was much more active towards the end of The Beatles. I did an Abbey Road shoot, which was a real buzz. They were doing the first worldwide live broadcast from Abbey Road and I was there but it was mobbed with media.
Then again there were other things, once again based on your contacts, Jagger decided to do his first movie Performance, it was a closed set and I tried for weeks and weeks to get in. Eventually I got the phone call – ok you’re in, next Tuesday, Knightsbridge – and I go along to this location at this residence and I go up one flight of stairs and there’s everyone pushing past you, it’s in a house so you’ve all this lighting equipment, audio and everything, it’s full hustle bustle.
So I reach the landing open the door and there’s Mick in bed with two naked women – you know as you would expect (laughs) – and this room is full of film crew, and all this stuff and I thought the only way I’m going to stay here is if I go in a corner, which I do and the sound guy comes out and barges past me, so the only place to sit is on the corner of the bed. So I sit on the corner of the bed and as I look over my shoulder there’s Mick glaring at me with these two naked women (laughs) as if I’m moving in on his chicks, so that was my only threesome with Mick!
TM: (Laughs) That’s pretty impressive Alec…
AB: (laughs) That was one of my favourite portraits… it was a very moody, gritty film Performance. It was shot on handheld 35mm cameras, so it was very edgy… a great story behind it, Warner Brothers thought they were getting a Stones version of A Hard Day’s Night, (laughs) happy go lucky people and it turned out to be the complete opposite.
During the taping at the house when I was there, I didn’t see this but it’s well documented, one of the naked women in the bed was Anita Pallenberg and she was Keith Richards girlfriend, and he wouldn’t come on the set, but he was outside in his car (laughs) during the taping, ha you know seriously pissed off.
TM: Ha, well you don’t want to mess with Keith…
AB: No! He’s still alive! Testament to what the hell was he on?
TM: Did you have many dealings with the Stones as a whole or just Jagger?
AB: I did a number of things, obviously the big events like Hyde Park was really quite something and I was really happy with some of the pictures that were taken on that day and again when you’re that age you’re just balls out. It was like you know, ‘there’s no media here,’ and I’d just say ‘I’m with Granada? TV’ and then I’m up on one of the towers beside the stage and shooting right down from this great view. With the Stones and Jagger I did a number of different things, again it came down to management, they went through so many changes. Interestingly one of the other guys I really connected with was Bowie, when Space Odyssey had just been released I thought I just love this music, I’ve got to shoot this guy and I called up and eventually they agreed and said let’s do this shoot at Beckenham Park. So I go along to the park and there’s no entourage with him, no bodyguards, no hairstylist, none of stuff that you get nowadays and it was just David standing at the gate.
We were both South London boys and we immediately clicked, so we went and into the park and I was really happy with the shoot and then a couple of weeks later and I got a call saying David wants to use one of those pictures for the tour, it was his first tour with Humble Pie and it was like ‘sure, yeah great go ahead,’ and they used the picture in the tour guide and then fast forward to a couple of years ago when he put his final CD collection out, 5 Years I think it was called, and it was a compilation of all his work and came with a book, and the lead picture in the book is the one from the park that day and this was the last project he did before he died. This is a guy who’s been photographed over a thousand times and this one picture from 50 years ago at Beckenham Park he kept. I was very touched.
TM: Tell us a bit about Bob Marley and what it was like to photograph him?
AB: (Laughs) The shoot was arranged at… I’m pretty sure it was The Montcalm Hotel in Bayswater. So I go along and I go up in the lift and as the door opens, I’m thinking now what room’s he in, but I needn’t have worried because you could smell the smoke. So I just followed the trail of marijuana to the room. I open the door and there was this like blue haze – and this was a time by the way, it’s no big deal now of course, when Jagger and Richards were in Brixton prison for pot – so it was like ‘Jesus doesn’t he care?’ So I go in and it’s like ‘hey man have some herb,’ and they pass me a joint and I’m thinking God I’ve got to shoot you, you know, I don’t want to get ripped, but you can’t say no when Bob Marley hands you a joint, so I did partake but not enough to get out of my box. And I ended up getting what to me were some of my favourite pictures from that shoot, just in the hotel.
TM: Sounds like it was probably quite a relaxed shoot?
AB: Oh it was a very happy shoot, he was surrounded by some odd people though, so it never developed into like ‘hey come back, we’re here next week,’ you know, so… I don’t know, he just seemed to manage it so well, I don’t know if it was because he smoked so much, I was a little bit light in the head to put it mildly.
TM: So he had an entourage with him?
AB: Yeah he did, there were quite a few people coming and going. One of the things that struck me was don’t they care? I was a bit paranoid, they were just like ‘hey it’s a natural herb man.’ It was a funny experience.
TM: Of all the pictures in the book, which means the most to you?
AB: During that whole decade there’s no one band that you’d say these are the ones. The Doors were unbelievable, Hendrix, The Who were some of my favourites and Zeppelin were incredible. There’s no one band and there’s no one single picture that was like ‘this is it,’ if I had to run into a burning house to save a photo, this would be the one I would take (laughs). There’s never been anything like that and you know this book should never have seen the light of day with the fire and the flood…
TM: Yeah what happened with that? Was it in LA?
AB: No. My studio in London nearly burned to the ground, in Red Lion Square, the roof was pretty much gone and I lost thousands of negatives that were destroyed. When I left the music business, when I walked away in 1975, I boxed up everything into a container and shipped it to California and during the crossing there was a storm and water got into the boxes. Hundreds of negatives were destroyed by water, and then I had an office on Hollywood Boulevard and in 1994 we had an earthquake and again hundreds of negatives were damaged. We weren’t allowed back into the building, there was military patrolling and I ended up sneaking in at five in the morning with a truck, loaded up the archive and got it out. So after the fire, flood and quake, fortunately there was still enough pictures to make the book (laughs).
TM: You mentioned The Doors, we can’t let that go, what was Jim Morrison like?
AB: I’d love to give you some stories about spending time with Jim when they were in London, but they were like mega stars and so just to be able to shoot them – I think it was The Roundhouse – I mean they were like Royalty when they blew into town, and I was a big fan. He was totally mesmerising onstage and to have this band who was one of the tightest groups that you’ve ever heard, how they could hit that beat when Morrison would just stop singing, walk around the stage, God how do you play that tight, amazing!
TM: One particularly striking shot is that Marc Bolan hero picture?
AB: (Laughs) Ohhh – that to me sums up the rock & roll performance picture, with the lighting in the background, T-Rex illuminated, totally into the guitar. I did quite a few things and he was very easy going, very approachable and what a show, the volume that they would play! I think that’s why my hearing has gone today. How these guys when I meet them now are not completely stone deaf I’ve no idea. Standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps in those days, the volume that they would put out.
TM: There’s another picture of Iggy Pop contorting himself, what’s the story there?
AB: That I don’t have too many memories of. I mean there was so many bands that did not make the cut in this book, one’s that I did know like The Kinks, Sweet, Slade, Status Quo, so many that were very British bands that the American publisher, who really had a lot of input, were like ‘well we’ve never really heard of Sweet.’ There were so many shoots that I don’t even remember the name of the bands. I have hundreds of contact sheets and we’ve registered whoareyou.com and we’re gonna put these up on a website, so if you recognise any of these bands? Please let us know!
TM: Who was your favourite subject?
AB: Well obviously I’d like to say that me and McCartney were real tight buddies, but we weren’t, I did a lot of stuff with McCartney, he did an almost biographical show, James Paul McCartney for ABC television, I spent a lot of time on that show and I was the only photographer on that. Some of the big bands like Zeppelin and The Who I never spent that much time with. I always went into this with more of a professional outlook, I never wanted to be a rock star, my musical talent was zero so I could never really sit down and shoot the shit. So it was all pretty much on a professional level, I wanted to do the best pictures I can, get in, get out and make sure I was welcome to come back the next time.
TM: How much effort went into setting up the photos cause their quite candid? I know you said earlier you were quite shy when you started out, did that set the tone for your style of photography going forward?
AB: I think it did. And I think it made me more presentable to the management of the band. Like ‘Byrne’s ok.’ He’s not going to drag the band off or disappear on a bender. I remember with Emerson, Lake and Palmer when they did The Isle of Wight with Bob Dylan. I had a Mini Moke, it was like a miniature jeep type thing, and I remember driving round the island with Keith Emerson hanging onto the car, and then he said, ‘let me drive it’ and I said ‘ok I want a picture of that.’ So I sat on the hood of this Mini Moke, there’s a picture of it somewhere, anyway this was a bad idea! Keith just took off like a mad f**k and how I managed to hang on I don’t know. It was really sad to see him pass. When you’re that age and you’re young you know no fear, you don’t take no for an answer, I guess I managed to balance it, where I wasn’t trying to be a buddy, just get the best pictures I could get. So I think that may have made a difference.
TM: Is there anyone you would have liked to have photographed?
AB: Having the NME cache gave you access to just about anyone who originated here, anyone who came into town and we all know that London was the epicentre of the world for that period. So The Beach Boys come into town, Aretha, The Doors anyone who’s here doing a show or having a party, you had access to them. I do remember that when I was leaving the business near the end, I’d never done Elvis, never photographed Sinatra and they were obviously huge icons of the music business. But Elvis never came to England, so it was just one of the things that stuck in my mind.
TM: You mentioned earlier why you’d given it up, because the music changed…
AB: It did. It changed. When you’ve done Crosby, Stills and Nash and Dylan, all these talented musicians and then you’re in a mosh pit getting spat on (laughs), I don’t know why but I just didn’t get off on that (laughs). I was going back and forth to LA at the time and I thought it’d be fun to shoot movie stars and so that made an easy transition.
TM: We always ask for a piece of wisdom from our interviewees or a mantra you live by. Have you got any to share?
AB: That’s a good question… I guess never take no for an answer. Whether it’s stubbornness or persistence, I don’t know. But never take no for an answer. Just keep persevering, you can’t have a thin skin. You just have to keep trying and trying.