Gary James' Interview With Photographer
From 1965 to 1975 Barrie Wentzell was photographing the biggest musicians of the day for the British publication, Melody Maker. We're talking The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and the list goes on and on. Barrie Wentzell shared some of his memories with us about meeting and photographing those people.
Q - You're writing your autobiography, are you?
A - Yes. People have been pestering me for years, since 1975. "You have all those pictures!" I didn't want to look back on it. Screw it! Fifteen years ago (2003) people started finding out I was here (Toronto). "Have you got pictures of Jimi Hendrix? Eric Clapton?" "Aw, fuck, somewhere." I started looking through stuff, realizing they still work as pictures. Right. They're not just snaps to other stories. Oh yeah, I remember that day. You look back at a picture like it's a family album. You look at it and remember being there. It takes you back. There's lots of stories of what went on behind and in front of the pictures. All of the picture books I've seen are just pictures. There's not much story. I wanted to do it right from where we started, the beginning, and follow it through that period from '65 to '75 and what was going on and what I was involved with and the story behind the picture. This is what happened when we went to see Elton John or whoever. Tell it in the same style as Melody Maker used to. It started in 1928 I think as a professional musicians' paper. It spread from there and carried on. When I joined it was '65-ish. They started using visuals, pictures of artists, 'live' and interviews, which had never been done before. It was like a privileged position. (laughs) Three or four musicians a day, and going to gigs in the evening. So, it was really concentrated in that period of work and play. A lot of these characters were learning their instruments alongside me learning how to take pictures. (laughs)
Q - That's absolutely right. At the same time you're working on your autobiography you or somebody is working on a documentary about your life?
A - There's already one out, done by Lesley Ann Coles. Some years back she started doing a twenty minute film on Melody Maker and said, "Hold on, there's a bigger story here." She interviewed some of the artists and the old journalists and tried to get the bigger picture of what that period was and people talking about it as much as the pictures of me. I was there. I was part of the team. We all worked together and it was fantastic. It was a gift. It was the best gig we ever had I guess. (laughs)
Q - You must have the negatives of your photos under lock and key someplace, don't you?
A - Yeah. Well, you have to now. At one point I thought, "Oh, shoot. I'll have to burn it because I don't want to know about that." There's a lot of bad memories in there as well, but I do look at the whole thing. It's all part of the period. You can't negate people from that. That's what I was doing with the book. Everybody's in it. We're all part of the thing, and let's make up and be friendly. (laughs)
Q - Having an original negative of Hendrix or The Beatles must be worth a lot of money.
A - Apparently now. I never even thought about it. To me, after you've done the pictures and it's appeared in the paper, then you put it away. I didn't realize there was an after life to that. Really it was just what you did at the time, put it away. I guess anything, if you keep it, becomes valuable in some sense.
Q - You sell your prints in museums and exhibitions?
A - Yeah. I still have a darkroom and I'd go into the darkroom and print like I used to print. It's getting harder and harder to get the materials, so it's becoming more expensive. But it's difficult to a degree. Going into a darkroom is like going into an alchemy. You never know if it's going to be the same. I printed a picture of Frank Zappa last week and I went, "Oh, hi Frank! How are you going to appear today? Are you going to behave or not?" Sometimes it doesn't work. You have to say I'll have to try that tomorrow. It's a totally intimate process being the creator of the pictures and being able to print them. Yeah, people collect them and they're in museums and galleries and part of collections. Yoko sent me back a picture of John that I had lost. So, somehow they seem important. I have to look after them. It's like your family and friends. You want to see them in good homes. I turn down a lot of offers for stuff. No. I don't think John Lennon would have liked that usage. You have to keep the ethic as it were. If you love that picture of Jimi Hendrix, I'm really pleased.
Q - Your prints are expensive I would guess.
A - Yes, because I do limited editions. Fifty of the series of whatever in various sizes. I don't think we've changed our prices in fifteen years. When I started out I asked what is an actual photograph worth in terms of photography as it were. No matter who it was, because Rock 'n' Roll fifteen years ago wasn't really collectable or of interest, but Sotheby's and Christies said, "No, if you've got the original print from that it's worth that and if you have all the negatives it's worth that." What?! I think it was Gared Mankewitz, my old friend, photographer; "What do you charge for these things? I don't want to be above or below." You gotta be at a certain price not to offend other people you know. So he gave me his facts and figures and I go, "Okay. I'll start with that," and we haven't changed it, so the pictures have actually gotten cheaper. I know it's a lot of money, a grand or two for a print, but it's handmade by the artist and photographed by the artist. Even the digital stuff I supervise. It's a personal thing rather than a mass produced thing. Anything you're gonna buy, you can't make many of them. So, it's a different way of looking at stuff. Painting is a one-off thing. Photography, yes you can reproduce. I know I'm in books, records, TV. There's many uses of the pictures, but if you want that original of Hendrix or The Who, that's something you collect and keep forever and it goes up in value, which I didn't understand, but apparently it does.
Q - That's because so many of the artists you photographed are no longer around. And who would've know at the time that they weren't going to be around for very long. Who knew in 2018 we'd still be talking about Jimi Hendrix?
A - Yeah, or still listening to the music. That period of music had become the classical music of the 20th Century. Interesting. Everybody got a record deal in a sense. A lot of creativity and beautiful stuff came out of that Arts and Renaissance after the Second World War. Somehow it was the shape of things to come if you want it and we all thought it was going to get better and John Lennon's song "Imagine" would become a reality in twenty years. (laughs) It seems we're a long way from that. I don't know what happened.
Q - You're so right about the 1960s being the Classic period of Rock and Rock 'n' Roll. There you are, right in the middle of it all!
A - Yeah, but it was probably unique in a sense because I can only speak from an English perspective. Growing up as kids after the Second World War, going through the '50s with rationing. I'm talking about 1953. In 1947 the British government made higher education free, health service. We had free health service. We had free health and free education. You could go to university or Art school like I did for free. You could live places really cheaply. Life was easy. There were a lot of places to set up or move in with a commune and start up. There'd be somebody playing the guitar. There was an atmosphere and the youth searching for something and making up songs and listening to the old musicians. We had Lonnie Donegan I guess who'd given us Lead Belly and a lot of those old tunes and the Blues. We listened to a lot of American music. It was amazing. Can we get a guitar? I mean, instruments were hard to get. It was a struggle. Through that somehow I learned to play this tune from records 'cause there were no guitar teachers until Bert Weadon, who was a terrible guitar player, but he wrote a book. It was like, "Eureka! Now we can do that!" So, it was all experimentation. Record companies were just putting out one or two early albums like ten inch or twelve inch Classical mainly, or Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney. Then Elvis happened I guess and suddenly in England it was, "Oh, we went to do that," like John Lennon said. Skiffle bands were turning into electric instruments. But there was not an outlet for it. Tommy Steele and some of those people got record deals with Decca and that. When The Beatles finally got signed and started to sell units, record companies went, "What?! We've turned 'em down. We've turned everybody else down. What are we going to do?" Sign everybody. Everybody gets a deal because you don't know what's going to work and that's how that plethora of music happened. Record companies found it made money and started nurturing the artists and us in the press. We're going to gigs, discovering bands and putting them on the front page and they never had a record deal. Next week they were on Top Of The Pops. It was amazing that suddenly all this happened. You can't really do that anymore because it's not the same world.
Q - You had a chance encounter with Diana Ross. You took her picture. The picture appeared on the cover of Melody Maker and that led to you being hired by Melody Maker, and the rest is history, as they say. Is that story correct?
A - Sort of, basically I guess that was true.
Q - Where did you run into Diana Ross?
A - I was working, printing photos for a fellow journalist who did a lot of theatre. He had passes to various places. In down time he said, "Here you want to do photography." I was interested in music and Jazz at the time. I went along to the BBC. You could walk in then and say, "I'm the photographer. I'd like to take some photos." I think I popped into a Jazz program there with Count Bassie playing, rehearsing. It was great. You could sit around chatting with the musicians while your idols are there. Then I went off to the BBC bar, which you could do then 'cause there was a lot of drinking going on at the BBC. There at a table were The Supremes with a journalist from Melody Maker, Laurie Henshaw. I asked if I could sit down. I asked Miss Ross if I could take a picture. She said yes. The journalist said, "Carry on ol' boy." I did a roll of pictures nervously. It was very dark, but one worked okay. The journalist said, "Why don't you pop into the Melody Maker office? We can always use one or two." So I did the next week. Somehow I got on the front page with a credit, which had never happened before. I got seven and six pence or something. I went, "What?!"
Q - What would that have been in American dollars?
A - Probably a couple of bucks I would imagine. Things were cheaper back then. This is a trade paper. It wasn't paying Life magazine fees. They were paying the lowest possible thing. They begrudgingly started paying for pictures. Normally they were sent in and they got to use them. Then a week later I got a call from the Assistant Editor saying, "We'll give you a gig at the Melody Maker for twenty bucks a week." I went, "Oh, great. That'll cover the rent. What do I have to do?" "Just go to interviews, take pictures and send them in." "Oh, alright." I said, "How did I get this job?" He said, "Our photographer, John Hopkins, had been taking pictures but somehow he got arrested through some misdemeanor that somebody else had done." I went, "Okay." I stepped into this sort of gig and started off from there. Wow! That's what happened. (laughs) Certainly on from nowhere into the Melody Maker, Fleet Street and going off and photographing Count Bassie and all these amazing characters starting out in new bands. Even Bob Dylan came in one day and they threw him out, the doorman at the door. The team was amazing, the old writers, Max Jones, the Jazz writer. He knew Louie Armstrong and Billie Holiday personally. So, any Jazz characters or Blues artists that came into town like B.B. King would go on with him. It was fascinating to hear the stories 'cause they were like old friends. It was like, "This is journalism?" You were invited to people's homes and hotels and chatted. It was hard to get away from Frank Zappa 'cause he'd play his old albums two or three times over and talk about it. Yeah, thanks Frank. (laughs) That doesn't happen anymore. It was a unique position. Melody Maker was trusted as the Bible I guess. Everybody read it and it was the Facebook of the day. If you wanted to know where the gigs were, what gigs were available, musicians wanted. Lots of bands formed from the back pages of the Melody Maker. Members of Genesis answered one time. So, everybody was in a family. We knew the musicians we hung out with at night in the Speakeasy and the Marquee and we were around the same age when we started out. I think everybody's still alive, even Syd Barrett. (laughs)
Q - You were the Chief Photographer at Melody Maker?
A - Funny enough, I was freelance. I sort of worked independently. I wasn't on the staff. I was the Chief freelance photographer. That had never happened before. The New Mirror Express didn't have one or any of the other papers. It was a nice title. Ray Coleman, who took over the editorship, had the great idea of, "Oh, these pictures on the front." People hadn't seen these artists and put the picture big and had it much more visual. So it was like, "Wow!" Wonderful to work for. A lot of the picture quality was crap in newsprint. Now, looking at the original like it was for Frank Zappa, I didn't realize the quality in that, how it came out. It was a rag, but somehow it worked, you know? Looking back at the pictures, that was nice. I had a great time. I'm glad I'm not dong that now. (laughs)
Q - So in effect, I would be wrong in stating you were the Chief Photographer for Melody Maker?
A - Well, I was actually because I sent in pictures. When I started there were only one or two around. I was the only one going out with the journalists who interview people. So, we got a lot of intimate interviews and pictures inside people's homes 'cause we were trusted. That intimacy coming into our age we realized we're doing an interview with Eric Clapton and we've got him at home and the story that goes with that. You've got the whole picture. So the reader would go, "Wow! I'm there." That was the whole idea of what I was trying to do. I knew I was in a privileged position. I wanted the person reading Melody Maker or seeing that article to feel they were there too. It was photo journalism, which was a great tradition which has somehow gone now.
Q - Were you allowed free reign to take photos of artists backstage as well as in front of the stage while they were performing?
A - In the later years when the wall started going up it was, "Sorry, you can't come in here." There was sort of distance with some artists who didn't like what had been written about them. People went a bit weird. I carried on regardless 'cause I knew all the bouncers and they'd get me on. It was sort of like who you knew. I don't think I ever got thrown out of any of that.
Q - Is Peter Grant the guy who came up with the backstage pass?
A - Maybe. When I first met him he was working for Mickie Most I think. He was tour manager for Gene Vincent, who was on his last leg, excuse the pun. I remember him saying, "If I have a band I'll never let them get treated like that." So it started off a great ethic and pretention. I always got on well with him. He never threatened me. Richard Cole was probably the hardest one. I got on well with Peter. He was a nice chap really. You didn't want to cross him. He had a soft side to him and he was really sweet, but he could be a terror. He had to fight. A lot of English bands that went to the States were getting ripped off 'cause of the American promoters. So, they'd come back skinned. "How's the tour?" "Fuckin' great! Made a lot of money." "Where is it?" "The promoters ran off with it." (laughs) It was Chuck Berry who said, "You get the money back pocket and go and play because when you come off, the promoter is gone. You get paid first." I guess Grant went off and set another status for musicians. "We're not going to get ripped off. We're gonna rip off you wankers! You've been ripping off Elvis and all of these other people forever." So, it was a tough business. When that came in, things changed. It became nastier.
Q - What year did you meet The Beatles and what was that like?
A - I met The Beatles when I went to Brian Epstein's house when they were launching "Sgt. Pepper". There were about thirty photographers there. I think Linda Eastman was there too. I remember it was a bit of a scuffle, but I managed to get a few pictures inside and a couple of snaps outside. That was it. Wow! The Beatles. The Beatles were like gods. Wow! What nice chaps. (laughs) Paul was fantastic. Ringo was great. George became more reclusive. You didn't want to disturb him. We used to know George's driver who drove him around. We drove around in George's limo because George never went out. (laughs) Terry (George's driver) said, "We gotta get George out." And there was this little club, a musicians' drinking bar near The Marquee. Terry said, "I want to bring him a beer so tell everybody no to recognize him, to ignore him just say hi and move on. He just wants to have a drink in the pub and be left alone." So, I think we arranged an evening when everybody was told George might come out. Just say carry on 'cause that's the best you can do. It worked fantastic for about twenty minutes. He came in, was sitting there laughing and joking and people were ignoring him. The one girl came in, "Oh, George! Wow!" and spoiled the whole thing. He ran. Oh, fuck. (laughs) John was indefatigable. (laughs) Such a brave chap. He didn't have to do all that love and peace stuff. He really did care and he really meant it. He left a fantastic legacy, that song "Imagine". There was a sort of feeling, I think it was about 1967, everybody was cool. Somehow everybody came together. That moment. If it's possible we can do it again. It was a lovely high everybody was feeling on the same plane. Wherever you were was it. Everybody seemed to be happy being themselves and sharing all over the world in that little space together. It was a bit ego-less in a sense. Strangely enough we weren't doing it for our own self interest. We'd spread it with out friends and that's the spirit of the paper and period. It was sharing. It wasn't insularity.
Q - You also photographed The Rolling Stones. What were like to work with and what do you remember about Brian Jones?
A - Not much really 'cause he was hardly around. The last time I saw him was at the Rock And Roll Circus. Brian was able to pick up any instrument and play it I think. He was sensitive. Obviously he wasn't going to last very long. First person I ever saw playing a slide guitar in late '63 or early '64 at a little club. It was Ken Collier's Jazz Club during the week and it was Studio 21 on Sundays. The Stones played and it was like, "Wow!" Amazing little Chicago Blues band. I think it was the best it ever got. (laughs) It went downhill from there.
Q - What do you remember about Jimi Hendrix?
A - I met Jimi a few times. A nice chap. He was something else really. Such a gifted musician. Very sort of humble. One of the best musicians around in '67. He'd been here a year already. Such a nice chap. Only around for four years and he did all that.
Q - After ten years you left Melody Maker. Why? It seems like that must've been a good job.
A - Yeah, it was. It could've gone on forever but it was a certain convergence of a lot of things. I got a divorce. I got custody of my daughter, which was unusual back then. It was a different feeling. Things got really silly I think and I was losing interest somehow in it. I'd had enough. I've got to leave the party. I thought if I'd stayed any longer bad things would happen. It was a pre-Punkish time. I think I left before the bomb went off. (laughs) Things were just getting bigger and sillier. I somehow lost the spirit. It was gone. I was feeling different. I should move on. So, I left and moved to a place called the Isle Of Wight. I didn't know what I was going to do there. I had no idea, but I ended up working in my brother's vegetable shop, selling vegetables on the street, which is totally different, like Monty Python, you know? And then he sold it to a friend of my Dad's who was the son of Ted Heath, the band leader. So, we're back with a couple of ex-musician characters. But I'm glad I left all that stuff behind 'cause looking at the documentary that has been done and hearing the other journalists' reasons for leaving the paper at various times. They jumped ship. It's interesting. I'm glad I left when I did. I left it to other people to carry on with that. It was fun for that ten year period really, but that was it, you know? But, everybody's got cameras now. I don't have to take pictures. When I started I was the only person I knew who had a camera. (laughs) But now, look around. Everybody's taking pictures with their cell phones. There's such a plethora of stuff, I don't know what it means anymore.
Official Website: www.BarrieWentzell.com
© Gary James. All rights reserved.