Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
Imagine if you will, being a photographer in the Swingin' Sixties in England. Phillip Townsend doesn't have to imagine. He was there. He photographed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. What was that like? Philip Townsend explains.
Q - Mr. Townsend, I like the title of your book, Sorry You Missed The Sixties, because when you get right down to it, how can a person who didn't live in that period fully understand what it was all about? Wouldn't you agree?
A - People who lived in the '60s were the first to live a life without the prospect of war. For ten years, from 1935 to 1945, there was always the possibility of the Nazis invading Eastern Europe. In Britain, there was not much traveling. People didn't just skip on a cruise ship and go for a cruise. Package holidays were non-existent and the furthest that the average Britain traveled to for a holiday would have been Scotland. Then it all changed. Suddenly people realized there was more to life than living in a small provincial village or town. It was difficult to go anywhere. There were a few trains, but no motorways and to get to Birmingham or Manchester from London was a day long trek.
Q - What did you think was going on then? Did you think this was a passing fad or there was more to it?
A - I had never experienced life like we knew it in the '60s. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew I wanted to be part of it. I had no idea if what was happening was going to last or if it was a passing fad because I had no experience to draw on. People used to confuse the upper middle class having a good time in the '30s with the excitement that we were experiencing with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Carnaby Street. Suddenly people who had no chance of anything other than spending their lives tucked away somewhere in the provinces could catch a train or hitch a lift to London and hang out and experience a life that none had experienced, a life that no one had experienced before because it was all new. I didn't think about whether it was going to last, but on reflection, I am glad it did.
Q - When did you start photographing the up and coming bands in England in the '60s?
A - When I first came to London in 1958 with my mother, who was a compulsive gambler, we had to wait a couple of years to realize what a great place London had become. For two years there were no book makers. So you couldn't bet on the horses except through the government controlled tote and casino gambling was illegal. In 1960, they started to change and I started photographing the new, interesting and exciting people who were now hanging around. We knew that Rock and Roll was here to stay in 1961 when people like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley started touring here. I was never a music photographer exclusively. In fact, when The Beatles started in 1962, I did not get to know them until 1963. However, in April, 1963, my friend
Andrew Loog Oldham, who I had met four years previously in the South of France, asked me to photograph the new group he had just found and who he said were going to become the world's greatest Rock and Roll band. They had no recording contract and had been paid only $20 a night for gigs. I had never heard of them. I knew they were The Rolling Stones. Andrew had signed them five days earlier and it was the first time they had ever been photographed together.
Q - If they didn't have a recording contract, who paid you to take the photos?
A - As I said, I was a close friend of Andrew Loog Oldham. He said to me "I have no money. We have no money and until we get a contract, the band has no money. So if you take the pictures for no money and let us have the prints of the ones we want, one day you will be surprised how much money they are worth." I said yes and he was right!
Q - You bought The Stones barbequed chicken that day?
A - When I went 'round to meet The Stones for the first time at a tatty apartment off the King Road where the houses are now worth a lot of money, the first thing Mick Jagger said to me was "We are very hungry. Before we go out, will you please go to the barbeque shop and buy us a couple of chickens?" Being nice and well brought up, I did!
Q - Where and when did you first photograph The Beatles?
A - I first photographed The Beatles in 1964 for The Daily Express, a newspaper. At that time they had the biggest circulation of the world.
Q - Did you travel with The Beatles?
A - No.
Q - Did John Lennon give you any problems?
A - I never had any trouble with any members of the band. They did what their PR told them to, unlike The Rolling Stones, who I had to direct.
Q - Did you photograph The Beatles at the request of Brian Epstein?
A - Brian Epstein had a big record business to run in Liverpool and spent a lot of time up there. While I photographed The Beatles many times, the management were always very protective of the photographic CR (copyright) and over the years many photographers were sued by Apple Corp. Ltd. I was not dependent on my Beatle photographs for money, so therefore I never breached the copyright restrictions. In fact, the only Beatles pictures that I still own are the ones of The Beatles, their wives and management with the Maharishi, which I took, believe it or not, for the Maharishi's public relations company at their first meeting in 1967.
Q - How was it to work with some of the other people you photographed? I'm talking about Princess Grace, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton?
A - In those days there were only a few stars around. In Britain there were a few newspapers, three radio stations and a couple of TV channels and they were only on for a few hours a day. It was very difficult to get publicity because the media was almost non-existent. The big American stars who came over occasionally and the British celebrities of the future were literally lining up to be photographed. Even people like Richard Burton. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Marlin Brando and Grace Kelly were only too pleased to be snapped if they knew the snapper was likely to get them in the newspapers. Marlon Brando was the only one not too happy to be snapped with the Queen's cousin Princess Alexandra because there were rumors going 'round that their relationship was not strictly platonic.
Q - Why was Princess Diana such a fascinating subject to photograph? Who was clamoring for pictures of her?
A - Whereas the '60s changed the class system in Britain forever, people had already gotten bored with the Royal Family. And then along came Princess Diana, who was completely different from the boring and dis-liked Royal Family. She was like a breath of fresh air that really excited the public and she was almost universally loved. All the media, by this time, were much larger than in the '60s and were following her every move and I believe that if the existing family hadn't awakened to the fact that she was a valuable asset, the Royal Family would have slowly disintegrated. The press never tired of photographs of her and unlike the rest of the Royal Family, she was always ready to help the media with new pictures. I do not regret the fact that I have never joined the queue of photographers to photograph the Queen, even though I have been offered the honor many times.