By E.M. Fredric
SANTA MONICA, CA (The Hollywood Times) 05/13/19 – On May 9th the Ron Robinson Flagship store held a special exhibition – with opening reception and an artist signing – by photographer, Alec Byrne with his: LONDON ROCK: THE UNSEEN ARCHIVE. “One of the great things about the book coming out,” said Byrne “is that I had some material on the Rolling Stones returned to me by a woman named Linda Switzer, who found out about LONDON ROCK after reading about it online. Some color transparencies that I hadn’t seen in 50 years!” Byrne worked in Rock n Roll for ten years then quit and came to Los Angeles where he resides with his family. He went on to shoot movie stars after a rough 6 months hiatus between jobs. In LA? That’s a hiccup. Byrne and Switzer met for the first time and many books were signed.
Alec became a photographer – with no training – at age 17, by 18 he had photographed two legends, the late Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger after the former had played on Top of the Pops at the BBC. For the next ten years he was shooting weekly for the BBC’s bands that came, anyone from Bob Marley, The Doors to Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, The Who and more.
Julian Lennon was signing his children’s book a week prior to Byrne’s event and when I mentioned it, he arranged to have a book sent to him because of a photograph had captured of a young Julian with his father, John Lennon in LONDON ROCK.
Alec captures and frames a time of music when the subjects were young, vulnerable, daring, living life on the edge because it was a time when our youth believed living to the age of 27 – was leading a full life. Excess was the name of the game, freedom and lots of love along with addictions were integrated into some of the most remarkable stars and songs of a few lifetimes.
View a brief overview of LONDON ROCK here:
Alec Byrne is a man at ease with himself, life yet retains a boy like wonder as he looked around like a kid in a candy store as we chatted:
When did you first hold a camera, how did you get it and was it a natural love of photography straight away?
AB: I don’t really remember holding a camera for the first time to be honest. It was a long time ago! I do remember being in the darkroom at Keystone Press, the photo agency where I worked as a dispatch rider, and seeing the developing and printing process for the first time. Seeing the paper in the dish and the image magically appearing was a big moment for me. I caught the bug and never looked back. I got my hands on a camera soon after and I took it everywhere I went.
Did you have professional training?
AB: No training really – just doing it a lot was my training. I took pictures of absolutely everything. The first photo I had published was of a gas station near my house when I was 17. So the subject matter wasn’t really important at the beginning.
When did you start listening to music your parents didn’t and what got you into the rock scene as far as being in love with it?
AB: In the UK we only had the BBC and they weren’t big on playing new music at first. We used to listen to Radio Luxembourg at night – they played American music, rock and roll. That was my first taste I guess. Everything changed when the Beatles hit. Later I saw the Who at the Marquee and that changed my life. I became a mod – the music, the clothes was all big part of my identity as a teenager.
When did it occur to you that you were able to see the layers of a personality when shooting and how did you help open a subject up?
AB: Once I started shooting bands I found that what worked for me was to get all of the obvious stuff out of the way at the beginning. Then I would ask for something odd at the end, once everyone was relaxed. When I shot Fleetwood Mac in Hyde Park I had them stand off in the distance for a bit, then we did some shots on a bench, and then I said, “What about getting in that boat over there?” Or with Cream. We shot in the studio for a while and then went up to the park. I asked them to get in line with some kids for some ice cream. Those “at the end” shots are some of my favorites.
Were you ever on the road with the bands?
AB: Never on a tour. I shot mostly in London and that area. I would go to Paris now and then – shot Jimi Hendrix there and the Osmond’s. I remember shooting McCartney and Wings in Rotterdam. The farthest I went was New York for John Lennon’s concert at Madison Square Garden in 1972.
When you stopped so abruptly after 10 years, was it difficult? The music had changed, what was the change for you as a music lover and photographer?
AB: The music was definitely changing. Punk started happening. I still loved taking pictures of bands but I decided I didn’t want to get spit on while doing it! Also, the UK was changing – politics, the tax laws – I found myself worrying more about accounting than taking pictures. It just wasn’t the same anymore. I’ve always been more about looking forward (which is partly why it took so long for the book to come out) and just felt like I needed a fresh start. Ironically the last band I ever shot was after I moved to L.A. I was sent with a writer to a house in the Hollywood Hills to take pictures of the Sex Pistols for a magazine. Turned out they had broken up the night before so half the band wasn’t there. I left London behind to get away from punk and then the last band I ever take pictures of is the ultimate punk band!
With so much of the American music being held up as what to play by – other than The Beatles – what bands or musicians that you shot would you say are in that royal club of having made, changed or created such a distinctive style?
AB: Jimi Hendrix was just an electric performer with a totally unique style and persona. Just a wild man. And his playing was just unlike anything anyone had heard. It’s really hard to appreciate now because he’s been so influential. But at the time when it was new it was just incredible, totally revolutionary. And what fascinated me about him is how quiet and soft spoken he was off stage. Very humble, quiet guy really. But something happened to him when he performed. Never saw anything like it before or since. I remember seeing him open for The Who, a band I loved, at the Saville Theatre. He blew them off the stage – not an easy task.
Most musicians say the rock is about sex, drugs and girls (not that it has changed much) and what would you say as photographer? The bi-sexuality, androgyny, wife/girlfriend beatings became as normal as the times that were filled with drugs and lots of money being made fast – what were some of your experiences in just being around?
AB: Well, that was all going on of course (though I don’t know about the beatings you’re talking about). I stayed out of it to be honest. I had a job to do – it was hard work. But I never really got into drugs. A pint of cider now and then I suppose. I was shooting constantly – almost every night and running my business. If I’d gotten into all that other stuff I probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did. I did smoke a joint with Bob Marley once before a shoot. Some of my favorite photos came out of that. So, who knows?
What artist impressed you the most either as a musician, person or overall sensation and what time period – did that change or evolve?
AB: Well, Hendrix, as I said. The Beatles and the Stones of course. I remember being very shaken up when Brian Jones died. I even went to his funeral and took some pictures. I spoke with him a few times at different shoots and shows. So it was stunning when that happened – I never knew anyone that died before. I was only 20.
Age 17 was young but it was also such a different time where youth was looked as more mature – how old did you feel around these guys and what made you so calm in knowing what to do?
AB: I think I picked up some things from the Keystone guys. But at first I didn’t really know what to do! I tried to be what I thought was professional. But it wasn’t like I knew what to do out of the box. I learned quickly because I was just doing it all the time. Some of the first music photos I had published were of the Spencer Davis Group. It was one of the first times I was backstage at a club. I tried to be cool and hang back but I was too green to realize I should have asked them to get together for a group shot. So the editor chewed me out and I knew for next time. That’s how you learn.
Explain how you got the Hendrix/Jagger shot.
AB: What happened was, I would go around to the BBC studios and shoot bands who were performing on the Top of the Pops TV show. I was on retainer at New Musical Express, the big music magazine at the time. I heard Hendrix was performing so I made sure I was there. This was May of ’67 which I remember because it was the day after my 18th birthday. Hendrix and his band were rehearsing and I was taking photos. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a guy standing and watching next to the one of the TV cameras but it was hard to see. All the lights are on the stage in a studio like that, it’s dark everywhere else. But then I worked out – hey it’s Jagger! And he was just there to watch…checking out the competition I think. Once the rehearsal was done, Hendrix came down off the stage and Jagger went over to talk to him and I just went for it. “Hey guys, how about a photo?” I got them to move closer together, shoulder to shoulder and they were probably thinking “Who is this kid?” Anyway, just one frame. I got the photo. I’m pretty certain it was the first time they’d ever met. We’ve looked and haven’t been able to find an older photo of them together.
Do you mentor or have you mentored kids after your meteoric rise within the photography world?
AB: I never really had the time I was working so much. And I was a kid myself! I “retired” from the music biz at 26!
What does this archival discovery mean to you?
AB: Well the photos were sitting in boxes in my garage until a few years ago. It’s been wonderful getting them out there with London Rock and seeing the interest in them and that era. I had always thought I would go through everything myself at some point and put a book together but it turned into “Well I guess I’ll get to it next year.” Eventually 40 years went by somehow! When we finally did get them out we printed some and did a one night show at Smashbox Studios here in town. This is about 7 or 8 years ago now. To be honest I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. I thought I’d stop by to show my face and then had dinner plans with family visiting from out of town. They say a thousand people ended up coming through. It was incredible. I really had no idea. I’d also never seen the photos printed like that before – big 20×24 prints. I was used to seeing them in magazines, tiny. So it was totally different. Anyway I lost my voice telling stories all night. They had to flash the lights to get people to leave. Our poor guests ended up getting In-N-Out on the way home.
The Show runs at least another 5-6 weeks, pre-signed books can be gotten online or in the store or you can meet Alec at one of these events:
June 8th at Ron Robinson Flagship Store at 1327 5th Street Santa Monica, Santa Monica – from 4-6 PM there will be a Q&A.
Ron Robinson Santa Monica Store: (310) 393.2870
June 9th Alec Byrne will be at the Melrose Store at 8118 Melrose Avenue, W. Hollywood. from 4-6 PM
Info for both store signings: Ron Robinson