Imagine, if you can, a time before pop music as we know it; a world devoid of preened boy bands, borrowed tunes and press hype for glorified karaoke. Nice isn’t it? In 1964 that alien world actually existed and the only thing teens had to scream about was four boys from Merseyside sporting seriously questionable haircuts. They were at the very start of a journey that would become the stuff of legend, laying the foundations for nearly all the music that we know and love today. And at their side, crouched behind them, out at the beach and in their hotel room was Harry Benson, a Daily Express photographer lumbered with the task of documenting the rise and rise of Beatlemania as it spread through Europe and on to the US.
In retrospect Harry had it made, on tour with the greatest band in history, securing the future success of his career; but truth be told, he wasn’t too impressed with the task at hand. The night before he joined The Beatles in Paris he was supposed to be boarding a plane for Africa to document the continent’s decolonisation. Big news, and more to his tastes than shooting pop stars, but “if you’re a news photographer working for a Fleet Street newspaper, you do as you’re told”. And thankfully he did, as the resulting photos have gone down in history as the most intimate, vibrant portraits of the band when they were still finding their feet in showbiz.
Looking back it’s hard to imagine a time before The Beatles became the universal institution they are today, but in the early days even the cocksure John Lennon had his doubts about their future; “Lennon and McCartney were talking about writing tunes for West End shows… John wanted to be a classical guitarist. Ringo wanted to open a hairdressers”. But before they had the chance to start penning show tunes, superstardom struck. “Overnight (they) turned into a major story, hitting all kinds of layers of society, and I was right at the centre of it.” At that point Harry realised he was working on a story worth covering and left his grudge over Africa behind.
“Lennon and McCartney were talking about writing tunes for West End shows… John wanted to be a classical guitarist. Ringo wanted to open a hairdressers.”
From then on he was immersed in the band’s daily life, filling roll after roll with shots of the band, developing film on the fly in his hotel bathroom to wire back to the Express for the next morning’s paper. In spite of this constant contact with the band he maintains that friendships never blossomed and his relationship with all four Beatles remained strictly professional. “I don’t want to get close to people,” Harry says, “then you end up not being able to use your best photo.”
One such photo depicts the Beatles surrounding Muhammad Ali, “he was Cassius Clay then”, as he holds Ringo aloft, an iconic image that only came to be because of some quick thinking and crafty manipulation on Harry’s part. Watching TV one morning in his Miami hotel room he saw footage of the young Clay preparing for his dual with reigning champion Sonny Liston. Both boxer and band were staying in the same city and Harry saw the obvious potential of a shoot with the two parties. But Lennon had other plans: “He said no, let’s get the other guy, Sonny Liston, he’s the real champion. Cassius Clay is a big mouth.”
So Harry packed them into the car, told them they were off to see Liston but took them to Clay instead. What followed was one of the most well-known shoots of Benson’s career, capturing two of the era’s most legendary icons together at the height of their fame. A week later Clay was world heavyweight champion and The Beatles had successfully broken America. Still, John Lennon was a bit bemused: “He said ‘Clay made us look stupid… it’s Benson’s fault’”.
These kinds of photos, Harry believes, couldn’t be taken in today’s media-savvy world. “There were no idiot publicists to control things,” and so the potential for spontaneous, natural shots was much greater. Nowadays musicians prefer to be photographed astride fabricated backdrops in carefully-lit studios, but “studio photography is sh*t,” and fails to capture the personality of an artist in the same way that Harry’s shots do.
Thumbing through the pages of The Beatles, the comprehensive collection of Harry Benson’s shots, it’s abundantly clear that he was and is an incredibly skilled photographer, producing well-composed, well-timed shots with a natural eye for narrative and atmospheric lighting, but in 1964 he too was at the start of his career, still cutting his teeth as a jobbing photographer. So why was it that he was chosen to trail this monolithic band, what made him so special? “One thing The Beatles never liked was having ugly people around them. The other photographer [at The Express], I knew him, the other photographer was ugly.”
The Beatles On The Road, 1964-1966 is available now from Taschen.