Scenes From Swinging London Captured in New Book

How rock history was discovered in a cardboard box.

Though most photography is digital now, a lot of people who used film cameras probably have a box of old photos gathering dust in a garage or closet. And maybe an interested person comes along and the photographer shares the contents of the box, and maybe because this particular photographer happened to spend his teenage years immersed in the London’s legendary late ‘60s rock scene, that box contains previously undiscovered shots of some of recent music history’s biggest figures. This is how the work of photographer Alec Byrne has been rediscovered and is captured in the recently released book: LONDON ROCK: The Unseen Archive.

Interview excerpt: Byrne remembers David Bowie

Like any aspiring 16 year old mod in 1965 London, Byrne cobbled together enough money to buy a Vespa motor scooter. Not academically inclined, Byrne had already left school and joined the workforce. In 1966, he used that Vespa to land a job as a photo courier, whose job it was to rush film from news scene photographers to the darkrooms where the photos would be developed for printing and distributed to local newspapers and magazines.

“It was this vicarious thrill where you were seeing news events before your friends or family would read about them,” remembered Byrne, who appeared at SXSW to promote LONDON ROCK with a signing at the SXSW Bookstore and an interview session. “This is before television news was the leader, and the dominant media in the U.K. was newspapers.”

The Who at Keith Moon's House for Who's Next Record Release Party. July 1971, © Alec Byrne.

The Who at Keith Moon's House for Who's Next Record Release Party, July 1971. © Alec Byrne.

 

Interview excerpt: Byrne discusses photographing The Who

“At every single news event, you’d see this row of dispatch riders ready to grab the film and go, except they’re all on Triumphs, Nortons, these high-powered machines, and I’m on this little scooter,” he laughed. “How I managed to maintain this job I have no idea, but it was exciting and different. And that was how I got exposed to the darkroom and to photography.”

Obtaining a Yashica MAT EM camera for £40 (the equivalent of two months salary), Byrne set out to take his own shots and soon turned to the local music gigs he went to regularly for subject matter. Of course this being mid-’60s London, those local acts happened to become some of the biggest bands in the world.

“I was just so driven and just shooting so much. It was a never-ending stream… I had no concept of how important or valuable because six months from now… ‘Who cares?'”

“I was very much a mod, and The Who were the gods of the mod scene,” said Byrne. “So I used to go every Tuesday to the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, they would play there in the early days. I started taking pictures and would send them into the music papers.”

Soon his budding career as a rock photographer began to compete with his courier job: “What started out as a one picture a month became more like two a week, and I was seriously thinking about quitting the day job.”

Byrne’s decision was ultimately made for him when after sneaking into the news agency’s darkroom in the wee hours to surreptitiously develop his own shots — something he did regularly — he fell asleep only to awaken to the morning manager’s keys opening the door. Discovered violating all kinds of agency rules, he was fired on the spot. So he called the New Musical Express, who had been publishing his photos, and said that he was available for full-time work.

The Beatles at the

The Beatles at the "Our World" Broadcast Press Call, June 1967. © Alec Byrne.

 

“It was a never-ending stream of local-grown acts,” said Byrne. “And then as I got more exposure to all the record companies, I was allowed carte blanche to shoot anyone, anything, any venue… then you start seeing all the Americans coming in. And London truly was the epicentre of the music world… It was quite amazing, but I had no idea that there was a direction I was following.”

Before long, Byrne’s photos were being requested by music magazines from all over the world, and he was prompted to co-found the London Photo Agency, completing his transition from teen scooter courier to erstwhile business owner: “I was just so driven and just shooting so much. It was a never-ending stream… I had no concept of how important or valuable because six months from now… ‘Who cares?’ So I didn’t think anything of it.”

Interview excerpt: Byrne talks about meeting Bob Marley

But back to that box in Byrne’s Encino, California garage, which after being looked through by his friend Drew Evans, co-founder of the L.A.-based über ARCHIVES photo agency, yielded the remarkable shots that comprise LONDON ROCK. The survival of the pictures in that box is also the story of the countless images that were lost along the way due to fire, flood, and earthquake.

The first disaster was a fire in the London Photo Agency office in 1970, which destroyed thousands of prints, negatives and contact sheets. Byrne resiliently absorbed that devastating blow and continued shooting the likes of Iggy Pop, T. Rex, Elton John, Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and Bob Marley, until 1975 when, still in his mid-20s, he made the decision to trade the rather dreary world of mid-70s London for sunny California.

Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger at Top of the Pops taping, May 4, 1967. © Alec Byrne.

Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger at Top of the Pops taping, May 4, 1967. © Alec Byrne.

 

Interview excerpt: Byrne talks about the photo of Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger

Part of his decision was prompted by a desire to escape the pigeonhole of being viewed solely as a music photographer, but he was also motivated by changes in London’s music scene. “The punk scene came along, and that closed the book for me,” Byrne recalled. “After shooting all these people like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Dylan … all these iconic, talented singer-songwriters, I’m now standing there getting spit on, and it was like ‘Ehh, I think I’m done with this’…”

So he packed up for Los Angeles. During the transatlantic move, the ship containing his archives was hit by a storm, and leaking seawater ruined hundreds more images. Again Byrne found his feet and embarked on a new career photographing film and television actors, leaving the world of rock n’ roll behind.

In 1994, Los Angeles was hit by the Northridge earthquake, which caused massive damage to buildings throughout the city, including the one on Hollywood Boulevard that housed Byrne’s office and yes, what remained of his archives. With their structural integrity compromised, buildings that were slated for destruction were “red-tagged” and watched by National Guard troops to prevent looting.

When Byrne asked if he could go in and retrieve his photos, he was sternly told by a patrol that even a nearby medical building full of people’s medical files would soon be flattened, so him getting his archives was out of the question. Undeterred, even by the possibility of severe punishment, Byrne had to act quickly: “So five o’clock in the morning, I went in with a friend, pulled a truck up in the back and loaded up the stuff and went away.”

After that, Byrne decided the safest place to keep his archives was in his garage, which is where the treasure trove sat for 20-plus years. After being rediscovered, Byrne’s photos have been shown in galleries, as well as in LONDON ROCK, and a new audience now has the pleasure of seeing so many music legends from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix to Tina Turner during their prime.

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