Is Alec Byrne's archive the greatest rock photography discovery ever?
Photographer Alec Byrne's astonishing forgotten archive has been resurrected for a new book and exhibition
London Rock – The Unseen Archive is the title of a new book by Alec Byrne, an English photographer who worked for NME from 1966 onwards, starting as a 17-year-old, shooting some of the biggest music stars of the 1960s and 70s, including David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and Marc Bolan. Many of its candid images have never been seen before. Byrne gave up rock photography after relocating to Los Angeles during the mid-70s, and much of his library of images spent many years locked away in a garden shed. That they survived at all is a minor miracle.
“In 1970 my studio in London was destroyed by fire,” he recalls. “And when I shipped everything to California, during the crossing there was storm damage and water got into the boxes. Then I had an office on Sunset Boulevard, and in ’94 the building was red-tagged by the Northridge Earthquake.”
It wasn’t until a visitor to Byrne’s office expressed admiration for a framed Beatles print on his wall that the seed of the book was sown. “He asked me where I bought it, and when I replied that I’d taken the photo myself, that led to a conversation about these boxes of photos in the garage.”
Byrne, who had by then moved into cinematic photography, decided to hold an exhibition of his work in Los Angeles. When 1,000 people turned up on its sole night, “I knew right away that they had to come out of those boxes in my garage and out to where people could see and enjoy them,” he explains.
Asked to name his favourite of the photos in the book, he singles out a session that he did with David Bowie at Haddon Hall, the singer’s home from October 1969 to May 1972. “Forty-five years later, one of those shots was used as the opening image in his Five Years boxed set ,” he marvels.
Byrne is also extremely proud of a photo of T.Rex playing at London’s Lyceum in 1974 that shows Marc Bolan on his knees. “I was so lucky to get that!” he exclaims. “Those lights saying ‘Rex’ behind him were flashing, so when I got into the darkroom I was thrilled to have captured Marc in that pose and with the words illuminated behind him.”
Catching Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix at Top Of The Pops seemed equally heaven-sent. “Every Thursday at four p.m. I visited Lime Grove Studios [where TOTP was recorded], and on this occasion I saw Jimi go over to Jagger. So I asked whether I could snap them together and they said it was fine.
His photo of a collection of stars (below) taken at the shooting of the Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus in Wembley in December 1968 is another remarkable image.
“Oh my God,” he exclaims. “Just a minor line-up of talent! I don’t even know how I managed to get into that taping [of the film], but once inside it was so disorganised. Everyone was just wandering around, which for a photographer was incredibly beneficial. The amazing thing was that there seemed to be no egos; there was no diva-esque behaviour. ‘Hey, guys, would you mind if I got you all together over here?’ And it was no problem. That wouldn’t happen now. You wouldn’t even gain entry to the building now.”
Besides the onset of punk rock – “to me that really wasn’t music,” he says – the already declining access to stars contributed to Byrne abandoning photographing rock stars, and switching to the world of cinema instead.
“I was lucky when I arrived in Hollywood and [one of] the first people I connected with was David Soul, and for six months I was the only photographer allowed on the set of Starsky & Hutch.”
Were those images of a bygone age always lurking in the back of his mind?
“No,” he admits. “Trying to make it in Hollywood you must be so driven and focused that they were pushed into the background. But seeing them again in my book is a stirring reminder of rock’s golden years.”