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The photographer who defined the image of the Beatles

Beatlemania in the frame

With their music, the Beatles defined an era. With his camera, Harry Benson defined their image

With their music, the Beatles defined an era. With his camera, Harry Benson defined their image

David Bennun | August 31st 2017

When Harry Benson, a photographer for the Daily Express, was assigned to cover the Beatles in early 1964, he took on the job with reluctance. As a newsman, he was more interested in reportage than entertainment. When he met up with the band, they had just embarked on the second act of their career, which splits neatly into three phases: three years spent working their way to stardom; three years of intense touring and recording; and three years of slowly falling apart. Benson began photographing them at the very moment when global fame overtook them. He soon realised that far from being just another show-business tale, their success was a major news story, at the heart of dramatically changing times.

Benson shadowed them over the following 32 months. This would nowadays be on the swift side for a major act to complete the cycle of recording, releasing and touring one album. In that time, the Beatles made five LPs, became superstars in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australasia, pursued a relentless and exhausting performance schedule, starred in two feature films, and experienced the joys and perils of unprecedented celebrity. 

Despite the Beatles’ fame, the press and public had the kind of access to them that would now be unthinkable. No photographer was as close to them as Benson. The Beatles came to trust him – to respect his professionalism and his disinclination to ingratiate himself with them. It also helped that the smart, ruthlessly ambitious young Glaswegian looked the part – the Beatles, he was told, didn’t like having unattractive people around them. His lens caught the band in all aspects of its working life. The results, collected in a sumptuous new book, “The Beatles On The Road 1964-1966”, document the most sustained frenzy any pop act has ever endured, or surely ever will.

Love me do “Ringo getting to know the fans a little better”, Miami Beach (1964)

This was Beatlemania, and Benson’s pictures show it from the viewpoints of both the fans and the band. We see the chaos of concerts and public appearances, and the mop-top photo ops staged with such endearing naivety that they have a candid quality despite themselves. His photographs capture both the wonder and the madness of Beatlemania; the innocence and the experience of a group whose huge popularity saw them flung daily into a maelstrom of mass hysteria.

Perhaps the single most telling Beatle quote in the book is one from John Lennon in 1971: “One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were.” This new form of stardom was less a Faustian bargain, more a deranged free-for-all in which none of the parties truly understood the terms of the arrangement until it was over. 

 

“The famous pillow fight photograph. 3am. Georges V Hotel”, Paris (1964)

The band had long revelled in the sleazier side of rock’n’roll, freely availing themselves of the sexual opportunity slyly hinted at in “Ringo getting to know the fans a little better” (above). But on the night the Beatles learned their first American hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, had topped the US singles chart, Benson captured a different side. He encouraged them to indulge their reputed fondness for a pillow fight. John Lennon replied it would make the band look childish. Then he blindsided Paul McCartney with a pillow.

The session went against Benson’s preferred documentary method: “My philosophy has always been photograph what you see...then get the hell out.” Yet, although the escapade was initially staged, it quickly dissolved into the spontaneous larking about that Benson caught so neatly in this photo, which contains everything the world found adorable about the Fab Four. The public saw happy, irrepressible scamps enjoying the most wholesome bedroom pursuit imaginable. “Every photographer comes down to one picture,” Benson notes in the book, “and that is mine.”

 

“Cassius Clay holding Ringo”, Miami (1964)

This, along with the pillow fight, is one of the few images in the book orchestrated for Benson’s camera; a fly-on-the-wall approach otherwise dominates. Lennon berated Benson for arranging this shoot, claiming the boxer, who as Muhammad Ali would rival the Beatles in his fame and myth-making capacity, had “made fucking fools out of us” by turning them into bit players in his own publicity. Hindsight tells a different story. Ali’s clowning perfectly mirrors the Beatles’ own.

 

“When John said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, people in the Bible Belt burned their records. John sits alone after issuing an apology to the press”, Chicago (1966)

Few bands survive the pressures and conflicts of stardom. There is the loneliness of the road, the inevitable drift into new interests and relationships. While the public saw the Beatles as a hydra-headed, indivisible entity, Benson witnessed the first signs of their fragmentation. Nothing showed as clearly how their all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit was dissolving as their response to the outcry when John Lennon made his observation that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. Lennon understood what Beatlemania meant better than anyone else at that point. As he tried to explain, he was making a serious point about the way the Beatles as an object of worship had supplanted traditional religiosity among the young. So furious was the response in the Bible Belt – they feared attempts on their lives – that their manager Brian Epstein said he was willing to shoulder the cost of cancelling the tour. According to Benson, Lennon received little sympathy from his comrades: “They had changed, they were more cynical and were sick of touring.”

 

“Beatles Forever” (1966)

This captures the pandemonium and intimacy of a business yet to become an industry, when the world’s biggest draw played what were in effect super-sized club gigs. The banner is unwittingly ironic – the Beatles are literally and figuratively heading for the exit, and would soon give up touring completely – yet also accurate. Over 50 years later, their presence is undimmed. Throughout Beatlemania, they would talk among themselves of “the downfall”: an inevitable tumble from public favour. Instead, the public’s appetite outlasted their own, and has yet to fade even now.

The Beatles: On the Road, 1964-1966 by Harry Benson (Taschen), out now

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