I had no intention of taking a camera. I was practicing on drums that had fallen from the back of a truck at our home on Forthlin Road, Liverpool. But when I was 13, I broke my arm at Boy Scout Camp, so Pete Best got the job in our kids’ group. That’s when I started taking pictures with the family box camera. But that was fortuitous, because if I had become the drummer for The Beatles, we would probably have chosen the Oasis route.
I would go everywhere with the Beatles. I was part of the act. It’s like Rembrandt’s little brother is in a corner with a notepad and paper, drawing his older brother. I was lucky – you couldn’t have had a better group to practice, right?
As for Paul’s amazing group, this is one of my favorite photos. It was taken in the lodge at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, in ’61 or ’62. It had gone from doing ballroom dancing to rock ‘n’ roll, so while our child was playing to experiment his music, I did the same with photography. At that time, the Beatles were supporting people like Joe Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. Can you imagine These concerts were extraordinary, magical. I was shooting from the ballroom balcony and sometimes the bouncers would throw the drunks on the floor!
They had just played the show when I took this photo backstage at the lodge. They were in their leathers and they left the scene. This is why John’s hair is slicked back. It’s not Brylcreem – it’s sweat. I had taken a more serious photo before this one. It was not difficult to lead them. I would say to John, “If you want to be taller than Elvis, do what the photographer tells you.” So I said to them, âNow let’s take a fool of it. Do what you want.
The nonsense made them laugh. The best it is. You have to remember that scousers are weird. We are surrealists without even knowing it. John’s face on the left reminds me of Marcel Marceau. Have you ever seen John Lennon look like this before? I remember, just before my mom took a picture of my dad, he stuck out his tongue. It’s the same sense of humor as in this photo.
I call our child “Rambo Paul” in this photo because his looks remind me of Stallone. I think Pete was one of the silly voices on The Goon Show. Then there’s George pulling on the nipples. I don’t know why he’s showing Paul’s nipple. And we can’t ask him now.
The most important thing this photograph communicates is joy. It’s all about the fun, the camaraderie. They were totally relaxed in each other’s company and bounced off each other. All this stuff about the Beatles arguments – we all have arguments, for goodness sake. This photograph is a much stronger reflection of reality.
I certainly didn’t feel at the time that I was watching the most important band in history. Over the years, with the Beatlemania, there was this concept of them as famous as Beethoven and Rembrandtâ¦ not quite Jesus, we will not take this path again! But this photo shows what the Beatles looked like as human beings – four working class guys from Liverpool. The idea of ââworld fame, of being a billionaireâ¦ something like that, it wasn’t just distant, it seemed impossible.
This period at Liverpool could be difficult. It was after the war, the fund had abandoned the cotton business and our mother had passed away, so her salary as a health visitor midwife was gone. Dad was on his own, raising two guys on Â£ 10 a week.
Despite everything, it was an extraordinary time. David Puttnam once wrote in the preface to one of my books: âWhat I love about Mike’s photos is that he captures a period in time. You see the hair combed back, the periwinkles, the faux brick wallpaperâ¦ âThat’s why my new book, Early Liverpool, is important because it tells you what life was like back then. Not just the Beatles, but every other artistic facet of Liverpool – comedy, poetry, pop art. The whole place was bouncing back.
Mike McCartney CV
Born: Liverpool, 1944.
Qualified: “I got on the 86 bus, went to the library, pulled out all the photography books, and learned photography in the back room on Forthlin Road.”
Influences: âHenri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, surrealism, mom and dad.
High point: âWrite Thank you very much for The Scaffold and his Top 4 success – praised by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Queen Mum. Lily the Pink arrives at number 1. The National Portrait Gallery is buying 11 of my photos and also exhibiting at the Smithsonian, Washington DC.
Low point: âRealizing that selling Catholic Bibles was not my career. The devil got me!
The best advice: “Only do this if you love him and never give up, which you cannot when you love him.”
Early Liverpool is available now through Genesis Publications, with the collector copy priced at Â£ 295. Details: mikemccartneybook.com