A SXSW Conversation with Alec Byrne

A SXSW Conversation with Alec Byrne

In the middle of the Texas tech conference, V’s consulting creative director Greg Foley chats with legendary music photographer Alec Byrne.

In the middle of the Texas tech conference, V’s consulting creative director Greg Foley chats with legendary music photographer Alec Byrne.

Text: GREG FOLEY

Alec Byrne was a young, 17-year-old mod zipping around London in 1966 when he stumbled into the burgeoning music scene with his camera in tow. Over the course of the next decade, he shot David Bowie, Elton John, T. Rex, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many more, only to bow out of the industry altogether as he turned his lens to Hollywood. For decades, these images sat in storage until he unearthed his work for what would become his first bookLondon Rock: The Unseen Archive. We sat down with the photographer during the South by Southwest festival in Austin to reminisce on his work and the journey he's taken to collect it into an archive.

GF: What’s one of the most memorable shoots for you in the book?

AB: Meeting David Bowie for the first time. I shot Bowie about a dozen times, but the first time I was told to meet him at Beckenham Place Park in London. I was expecting this guy with an entourage or something flashy. And when he showed up, it was just him. He was very thoughtful, and of course he was a fellow South Londoner, so we just hung out spending hours in the park. He was very accommodating doing whatever I would ask. It was an honor years later for his last release—a box set called Five Years—that he used one of my portraits from that day as the first image in the booklet. And it wasn’t from a print, it was scanned directly from a program he had saved. Of all the thousands of times Bowie was shot, for him to remember that image means a lot to me.

What’s the craziest thing you ever saw behind the scenes?

Well, even someone like Hendrix, who was a wild performer, was really quite mild-mannered and cooperative off stage. The real surprises were with artists who you’re with from the beginning, before the ego kicks in. When you say climb up this post and hang off that and they’ll do it. The Love Affair—one band who had big success with their single “Everlasting Love”.  I thought, look they’re called Love Affair, the single is “Everlasting Love”, and the statue of love is Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. So I said, “Why don’t you go there and you climb up this statue and we’ll wait and see what happens.” So we got there, they climbed up and the traffic started coming to gridlock. Hundreds of people stood watching, the police were called, and I said, “Don’t come down just yet”. Then sure enough, the cops take them away, they appear in court—obviously newspapers and TV covered all this—and within two weeks, their record was number one.

How did you decide who to shoot?

I can remember driving around listening to the radio, and a track would come on and I’m thinking, "Whoa that’s really quite good, who is that?" And I’d call up the record company and say, "I really like this band. Can I get them in the studio next week?" And sure enough, the band would show up and you’d do a photo shoot with them as the record was just coming out. Many times, you’d do a photo shoot and it just ended up in the bin. The record didn’t go anywhere.

The book features so many iconic artists. How did you get access to them?

Maybe I got lucky because people thought “He’s just a young kid”. I wasn’t threatening. Every Thursday at 4 o'clock, I would go to Limegrove Studios in West London where they would tape Top of the Pops. And everyone you could think of has been to Top of the Pops, you name it. Sad thing is—typical BBC move—they would reuse the video tape to save money, so they would tape over these classic performances. Can you imagine… ”Well that Hendrix stuff was good, but we need the tape.”

Did you know that these artists were going to matter? 

Not at all. Nobody was saying, “You better hold on to these because they’ll be worth a lot of money in fifty years”. Nobody thought the Rolling Stones would last more than a few years. In fact, when somebody wanted an image, you would send the original color transparency to the magazine. How dumb was it to say, “Do send them back when you’re finished”. Now you can see bootlegs of them on eBay.

Much of London Rock is in black and white. Did you shoot much in color?

The reason there’s not that much color in the book is that the original film was never returned. Hopefully it wasn’t tossed in the garbage and it’s floating around out there, in file drawers or whatever. Bit by bit, it might find its way home, especially with the book coming out.

How do you look at that revolutionary time now in perspective?

I feel that I was completely blessed to be alive during that time. When I went back into the archive, pulling out slides of negatives that hadn’t been out of a folder for 45 years. It was like looking at old diaries or something. Back in the day when I was shooting this, I felt that in six months, no one was going to give a damn about the Kinks or The Who or anything else. When I look back and see all that stuff now, to be surprised by it, that’s special.

Do you think we’ll ever see a time like that again in music?

I really don’t. I think we were all just lucky to be alive then. Don’t forget England was a very dreary place in the early ‘60s. I can remember as a kid listening to the crackling static of pirate radio coming from ships moored off the coast thinking, “Oh, yeah that’s The Animals I think”. Meanwhile in the states, you’ve got every type of radio. We really envied you all.

What made you decide to stop doing rock photography?

Right around punk. The Sex Pistols were around and after doing a couple of gigs, I didn’t quite enjoy getting spit on and the mosh pit with kids jumping all over you while you’re trying to shoot. And also for the last couple of years I was shooting in London, I kind of liked film and TV people, so I went out of my way when people like Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman were in town. So I was kind of heading that way and when I got the chance, it was time to make the move (to Hollywood). It was like, “Do I stay in London, do Sex Pistols and all that or…”

Was Iggy Pop around at that time?

He was and he’s in the book. But he was mature, sort of a great musician compared to—and I’m just talking about the no talent guys. I mean the Sex Pistols were ok, it was just the crowd that would follow them and some of the lesser bands which you’d never even remember. Especially when you’ve done Dylan, Bowie, when you’ve done all these great acts, the idea of doing Snot & the Slowbags, Kill Whitey or whatever—all these controversial, anarchistic names—is like… [meh].

So anarchy got you out! What’s next? Any chance we’ll see a book about your other work?

I figure if this book is ten years of my life and I’ve done thirty years in Hollywood, hopefully there’s something there.

© Alec Byrne

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