Far Out Meets: Beatles historian Tony Barrell on the early days of ‘Beatlemania’
The life and career of The Beatles is one that has been so resolutely researched and read over that one might expect there to be nothing new to learn about the Fab Four. The band’s widespread appeal was so large and encompassing that it feels as though no stone has been left unturned in regards to their meteoric trajectory from a skiffle-influenced club band to the biggest act on the planet. However, to think such a thing would be forgetting one important factor — the fans.
More so than any other musical artist in the world, The Beatles have a devoted fanbase which, year by year, continues to swell. When Beatles manager Brian Epstein made the ludicrous claim in the early sixties that the kids of the year 2000 would still be listening to The Beatles, the music world scoffed. But, 20 years after that fact, and nearly six decades after John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were introduced to the world as The Beatles, the band continue to gather up listeners, young and old, every single year. With the new additions to the fanbase, the impetus to learn more, know more, hear and see more of the group grows stronger. Luckily, if the early days of the band, the era known most prominently as Beatlemania, is of interest then Tony Barrell’s new book is just the ticket.
Through the eyes, and camera lens, of four esteemed photographers and the expert words of Tony Parnell, ACC Art Books is providing some key insight into the moments The Beatles exploded. Beatlemania: Four Photographers on the Fab Four, is one of those books that will please every kind of Beatles fan.
If the electric magic of seeing four lads turn into megastars through a series of perfect photographs if your thing, then the work of esteemed photographers Terry O’Neil, Norman Parkinson, Michael Ward and Derek Bayes is littered through the book. Of course, some of these images are well known, highlighting the bright eyes and young hearts behind some of these iconic snaps. But some, largely Derek Bayes’ contribution are hidden gems, previously unseen images of the Fab Four in the infancy of their fame.
For us, however, the real beauty of the book comes from the stories behind these images and make-up the iconography of the band. For that, there is no better man for the job than Tony Barrell. An acclaimed music journalist, Barrell found himself digging into The Beatles fame in 2017 with his book The Beatles on the Roof, which saw detailing the final moments of the world’s biggest band and that special performance atop the Apple Records building.
Here though, Barrell looks back to the very beginning of the journey and “the meteoric impact” they had on not only music but the entire culture. When I spoke with Barrell about the band’s rise to fame, there seemed to us to be a symbiotic relationship with photography, something so expertly explored in this book, “Pop photography was already quite big at that point,” Barrell says, “but they suddenly became one of the most photographed bands in the country.”
It had a helping hand in spreading the message of The Beatles beyond where their records could reach. “If you read the introduction to the book, I discovered that there was a fan in Finland who wrote to their fan magazine, she wrote, ‘I’ve heard so much about the Beatles and I’ve seen pictures, too, but I’ve never heard the boys playing the records haven’t come to Finland.’ This is somebody who’s becoming a fan, purely racking up pictures of them and meeting about them without hearing the music.” It’s a small snippet of the huge impact the band had when they eventually burst on to the music scene.
Across four photographers we are given a rare glimpse into the making of the band. Michael Ward captured the group for a promotional shoot in during the Big Freeze of 62-63, just at the beginning of their journey. Meanwhile, Terry O’Neill met the band as the buzz of the sixties began to reach fever pitch. Parkinson’s relaxed images were captured during the recording of their second album while Derek Bayes’ candid images are from the filming of Help!. Each one provides a different insight into how Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr became The Beatles.
Within this book, this is the subject we’re really approaching, the birth of The Beatles. The images collected all centre on the few years before The Beatles became musical heavyweights and were, instead, were transitioning from club band to the pop idols of the entire globe. Could the band’s global impact land so heavily again, Barrell’s not convinced, “Because of the fragmentation of media we have now, you know, we only had like two or three channels back in the sixties,” he contemplates, “It’s really hard to make that kind of impact when the Beatles were like a meteorite hitting the world of music, weren’t they.”
“I think somebody would have to be so exceptional to do that,” he concludes, “And of course, they were exceptional — really exceptional back then — because it was so rare for bands to write their own music.” Barrell’s insights no know bounds. While it may well be known around the drinking fountains of Beatles fandom that the band were pioneering songwriters for simply writing their own material, for many of the group’s newer fans, this may not be so apparent. Imagine explaining to a teen in 2020, that the biggest musical acts on the planet sang largely other people’s songs, they wouldn’t believe it.
“I think there were artists, you know, struggling artists writing their own music, but they weren’t as talented and as clever The Beatles.” No, the Fab Four had two very special secret weapons in Lennon-McCartney, “They just so happened to sort of musical geniuses in the band that played off each other. They had a huge diet of fantastic rock ‘n’ roll music. So they knew what worked. And, you know, they had so much to influence them and they took the material and they just ran away with it.”
Looking through the book, with some of the images as well known to us as those of a treasured family album, there’s something extremely comforting about the historical work Barrell has put in for us. “In some case, I mean, in many cases, I find that photographers don’t take down a lot of detail. They don’t even recall the date of the photoshoot. So in some cases, I just had to figure out what was going on.” Modesty aside, what Barrell provides with all the images is rich context and intriguing detail that only adds to the tightly woven fabric of The Beatles’ tapestry.
Naturally, to chance our arm, we asked Barrell for his favourite image out of the lot, and as proof of his knowledge, he picked one many of us will never have heard of. “It’s a tough one,” he confesses, “There were some so many great pictures in this book. But the one that blew my mind was Michael Ward’s picture from Liverpool, a zebra crossing going across this ever crossing at six and a half years before they did at the Abbey Road cover.”
It’s clear speaking to Tony that there is more than just an author here. More than just a gifted journalist detailing the first chapters of the fabled story of one of the greatest bands to have ever graced the earth. This is a fan providing a fan’s guide to how The Beatles came to be. As rich in detail and insight as it is in imagery and iconography, Beatlemania: Four Photographers on the Fab Four, is simply a must-have for any dedicated maniac.