Alec Byrne’s “London Rock: The Unseen Archive” is an intimate visual time capsule of cultural upheaval

By Steve Appleford

Mick Jagger plays cool for teenage Alec Byrne’s camera between takes for the film “Performance”

Alec Byrne owes his career as a photographer to his decision to become a Mod. As a restless teenager growing up in London in the mid-1960s, the Who’s anthemic “My Generation” rang loudly in his ears. “The whole buzz in London was the fashion, the culture, the clubs,” and the snarling rebellion expressed by the Who, he says now, “really spoke to me.”

He would eventually turn that obsession into a career as a rock photographer at the center of London, immersing himself in a world populated by Beatles, Rolling Stones and other pillars of rock & roll. Many of his pictures are now collected in the book “London Rock: The Unseen Archive,” after many decades in storage.

It all happened because he was a fully committed member of the Mod scene, dressing sharp and riding his Vespa scooter to the Marquee and other tiny clubs hosting the exciting new sounds of the moment. The scooter led to him being hired as a courier for Fleet Street newspapers.

“I would walk into a newspaper through this smoky haze and Telex machines clacking away. It was an electric atmosphere,” Byrne recalls fondly. “The competition from all the other newspapers and agencies were like these big biker dudes with Triumph and Norton 500cc machines. And they would just laugh at me. I was some kind of girly boy — my Mod parka with chromed out Vespa. But going to things like Downing Street or Wimbledon tennis or any type of news event was some kind of vicarious thrill.”

These thrills inspired Byrne to begin taking his own pictures, and his subject was inevitably the rock scene. Byrne began by sending his photos blindly into Melody Maker, NME and other music publications, and after a few months he was being assigned acts to photograph, beginning with the Troggs (“Wild Thing”) and the Spencer Davis Group (“Gimme Some Lovin’”). Soon he was shooting the biggest names in popular music at a moment of upheaval between the generations.

“Because of their sense of humor, the Beatles were more accepted by parents. The Stones were like the dirty, unwashed, unacceptable face of rock & roll music,” Byrne says. “It was just a time for rebellion. Living through it, you never thought it was going to end. You never thought further than six months.”

One photograph in the book is a quick portrait of guitar phenomenon Jimi Hendrix standing with Mick Jagger at a TV studio in London. The Stones singer had come to watch Hendrix perform on “Top of the Pops,” just as most leading voices on the London scene made a point of seeing him play.

“When he arrived in London, he had no track record. His reputation just took off like a lightning bolt and everyone had to check him out,” Byrne says of Hendrix, whom he photographed several times. “Seeing someone like that play in a small venue is just outstanding. He was a total wildman onstage. Offstage he was the most polite, soft-spoken and agreeable … As a photographer, you asked him, ‘Jimi, can you do this?’ ‘Can you stand over here?’ ‘Can you wear this?’ He was the most easy-going guy you could ever deal with. No attitude, no diva complex — just the opposite of the stage persona.

“Other guys, like Keith Moon — he was a total mad fuck onstage and off,” Byrne recalls of the Who’s founding drummer.

Byrne remembers a day shooting with the Faces, which included singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood, where the photographer struggled to keep the attention of the playful, partying quintet.

One artist he did connect with was David Bowie at the beginning of his career. They agreed to meet at a park near where Bowie lived, and Byrne arrived to find the curly haired singer waiting alone at the gate.

“There was no hair stylist, makeup, crew. No management or publicist, roadies, hangers on,” he says of meeting Bowie, who was a month away from beginning his first tour, opening for Humble Pie. “We were both South London boys. I think we clicked, because that one hour turned into the afternoon. I got some great pictures.”

T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan rocks the Lyceum Ballroom in this Byrne photo from 1974

Bowie liked the pictures enough that he requested one of them for the tour’s program guide. And shortly before his death in 2016, Bowie included the same photo in a CD career retrospective, “Five Years.”

The image is a full page in “London Rock,” a large elegantly produced book, which Byrne will be signing this Sunday at the Diesel bookstore in Santa Monica. Inside its pages are his black-and-white and color pictures documenting the explod-ing music scene as he watched it unfold.

“Everyone in that age group wanted to be in a rock & roll band,” he says. “There really was a lot in’67-’68. There was probably 200 singles released a month, at least. Half would disappear with very little airplay or promotion. There were a lot of bands that came that never really made it.”

As a photographer, Byrne got to meet visiting acts from the U.S. and elsewhere, ranging from Frank Zappa to the Beach Boys. Also passing through town was a new voice from Jamaica: Bob Marley.

The future reggae icon was staying at an upscale hotel, and Byrne was in the elevator loaded down with his camera, lights and tripod when he realized he didn’t remember Marley’s room number.

“I started rifling my pockets trying to find the room number, and then the elevator doors opened and you were just hit by this smell. It was dope,” he says now with a laugh. “I just followed the smell to his room.

“He had a bunch of guys in there and the first thing he said was, ‘Come in, come in. Have some herb!’ And I’m there to work, but it was hard to say no to Bob. It was one of the few times I got stoned on a shoot.”

Over the years, several of his rock subjects have since died. Among the first to go was Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones, who drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969, a month after being fired from the band. Jones’ death shook the London scene.

“No one had the effect that Brian Jones did. I had met him maybe six weeks before he died, and he seemed in good spirits even though he was supposedly battling heavy drug use,” says Byrne, who drove two hours north of London to cover the funeral. Some of the Stones also attended, but Jagger and Keith Richards did not.

Some of the pictures Byrne shot that day are in “London Rock.”

“I’d never lost a member of the family; no one close to me had died. I had never been to a funeral in my life. To go there and look down into the grave and go, ‘That’s Brian Jones in the coffin’ — that had a huge effect on me.”

In 1975, after a decade working at the center of the London music scene, Byrne decided to try something new and packed up for Los Angeles. The music had evolved and he wanted to try documenting the world of TV and film.

“The whole business, in my mind, had totally changed,” he recalls. “You had
the Sex Pistols, the whole punk energy. England was a very easy place to leave
in ’75.”

Byrne ended up relocating permanently in Los Angeles, where his new subjects included actors Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, Rod Steiger and the TV show “Starsky & Hutch.” The rock pictures had mostly remained buried in storage as his attention turned to Hollywood.

“I was so focused on going forward,” Byrne says. “I figured maybe when I retired, I would sit down and go through these pictures and see what was there. But I never really spent time thinking, ‘I wonder if Jimi Hendrix means anything nowadays.’”

***

Alec Byrne discusses and signs “London Rock: The Unseen Archive” at 3 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 7) at Diesel, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Copies of the book are $95. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com.

Share