There are coffee table books, and then there are huge, fantastic publications so weighty that they’re likely to shunt your table a couple of inches closer to the floor, as in the case of this staggering beauty by TASCHEN. The Rolling Stones is a 518-page testament to the incredible wealth of photographs that have been taken of the iconic band over the course of their 50 year career, and it’s breathtaking.
Photographer Gered Mankowitz first met the band at the beginning of their career in 1964 before travelling to the USA to photograph them on tour, and he shot the book’s cover image on Primrose Hill a few years later in 1967. We spoke to Gered about his incredible career, about touring with the Stones as an impressionable 18 year-old, and the sad demise of the 12-inch LP.
Famously, Gered’s talent was first spotted by renowned photographer and founder of Camera Press Tom Blau at the age of 14. “I took some pictures on a school trip, my father showed them to Tom, and he offered me an apprenticeship when I left school.” From there, Gered spent time assisting fashion and commercial photographers before accidentally stumbling upon music photography.
He was 18 when he was hired to photograph the Rolling Stones for the first time. “I met them at their manager Andrew’s office at the end of ’64 and they were absolutely lovely. They were charming, they were funny, they were friendly and approachable. They weren’t at the peak of their career yet, but they were second to The Beatles and they were making a big noise, so it was the most important session that I had done up to that point.”
18 is incredibly young to land such a career-defining gig, I respond. “I think that’s the way it was happening in those days, you know? Nobody was putting up any barriers because of your age. Everybody was embracing youth, whether you were a photographer or a designer or a rock singer or a hairdresser.
“It was a new wave. I think one was aware that something was happening but I don’t think that one had the objectivity to see it as a movement. You were just going forward and making mistakes and lumbering clumsily into your profession with likeminded people, who wanted to be caught somehow differently to how the Cliff Richard generation of British pop stars had been seen.”
At the end of 1965 Gered went on tour of the US with the Stones. “In a way, that was the consolidation of my relationship with them. It was just me and the band and their roadie Ian Stewart, who had been part of the original Stones. Access wasn’t an issue. I was treated like another Rolling Stone. The best thing, actually, was being on stage with them night after night. I was allowed to be on stage as long as I didn’t get in Mick’s way. They didn’t have a lighting show, they didn’t have a proper sound system, it was extremely crude and terribly low key in terms of packaging and presentation and equipment.”
I probe Gered for an anecdote about partying through the night, but he doesn’t yield. “Everybody wants to know whether it was just packed with sex and drugs and rock and roll, but the reality is that in those days the touring was very amateur, very badly organised. We would rush off after the show, jump into a car, go out to the airport and get on a rickety little plane and fly through the night, so we’d arrive somewhere at three or four in the morning when everything was closed. I mean, it was a little wilder than it was in northwest London, but it wasn’t the mad, drug fuelled frenzy that it became.
“We had time to party in various different places – New York, where we were based for the first eight or nine days, Miami in the middle of the show, that was quite fun, and LA at the end, when they went into the recording studio.” Did he realise at the time how influential the images he created were on the Stones’ growing fanbase? “I think the reality is that you don’t consciously create an iconic image. What I tried to do is to shoot everything like it was a cover.
“In those days record covers had to fulfil very definite requirements. It wasn’t until the end of 1966 when I shot the cover of an album that was going to become Between the Buttons, when I shot them on Primrose Hill early in the morning with that blurry, psychedelic, druggy look, that was the first time that I felt like I was setting out to create a specific cover.”
The image he’s talking about is the one selected by the band as the cover of TASCHEN’s huge new 500 page book, chronicling 50 years of The Rolling Stones, something Gered is visibly humbled by. “I have to accept that that’s really about as good as it’s gonna get,” he laughs.
Finally I ask Gered what he thinks about the state of music photography today, prompting a weary head shake and a smile. “It all seems derivative of what we were doing in the 60s,” he tells me. “I think the biggest change is the format. The demise of the 12 inch album. In my day there weren’t a lot of media for people to see a band, so often the sleeve was the only visual contact that people had and it was an incredibly important part of the experience. Listening to an album from beginning to end, and the almost ritualistic aspect of switching it over. You didn’t just idly go and buy a couple of albums because it was a lot of money. So the cover was a part of that experience.
“I think a lot of bands nowadays count on luck. They shoot lots and lots of material and they hope that out of that will emerge something,” Gered tells me. “We did it slightly differently. I think we got better results. It was a better, purer, more interesting, more creative, more honest time. It reflected a relationship with the band that you simply cannot get anymore.”
The Rolling Stones, published by TASCHEN, is available now.