arts and design

‘I was part of the Beatles’ act’: Mike McCartney’s best photograph

I didn’t intend to pick up a camera. I’d been practising on drums that had fallen off the back of a lorry into our house on Forthlin Road, Liverpool. But when I was 13, I broke my arm at scout camp, so Pete Best got the job in our kid’s group. That’s when I started taking photos on the family box camera. It was fortuitous, though, because if I had become the Beatles’ drummer, we’d probably have gone the Oasis route.

I would go everywhere with the Beatles. I was part of the act. It’s like if Rembrandt’s kid brother was in the corner with a pad and paper, sketching his older brother. I was lucky – you couldn’t have had a better group to practise on, could you?

When it comes to Paul’s extraordinary band, this is one of my favourite photos. It was taken in the dressing room at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, in ’61 or ’62. It had gone from holding ballroom dances into rock’n’roll, so while our kid was on the bill experimenting with his music, I was doing the same with photography. In those days, the Beatles were supporting people like Joe Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. Can you imagine? Those gigs were extraordinary, absolute magic. I’d be shooting from the ballroom balcony and the bouncers would sometimes throw the drunks off on to the floor below!

They’d just played the show when I took this photo backstage in the dressing room. They’ve been in their leathers and they’ve come offstage. That’s why John’s hair is all slicked back. That’s not Brylcreem – it’s sweat. I’d taken a more serious photograph before this one. It wasn’t hard to direct them. I’d say to John: “If you want to be bigger than Elvis, do what the photographer tells you.” Then I told them: “Now let’s have a daft one. Do whatever you like.”

Silly things made them laugh. The dafter the better. You’ve got to remember that scousers are weird. We’re surrealists without even knowing it. The face that John, on the left, is pulling reminds me of Marcel Marceau. Have you ever seen John Lennon look like that before? I remember, just before my mum would take a photo of my dad, he would put his tongue out. It’s the same sense of humour as you’ve got in this photo.

I call our kid “Rambo Paul” in this photo, because his look reminds me of Stallone. I think Pete was doing one of the silly voices from The Goon Show. Then there’s nipple-shooting George. I have no idea why he’s pointing at 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 business about the Beatles’ arguments – we all have arguments, for Christ’s sake. This photograph is a much stronger reflection of the reality.

I certainly didn’t get the sense back then that I was looking at the most important band in history. Over the years, with Beatlemania, there’s been this concept of them being as famous as Beethoven and Rembrandt … not quite Jesus, we won’t go down that route again! But this picture shows what the Beatles were like as human beings, which was four working-class Liverpool lads. The idea of global fame, being billionaires … anything like that, it wasn’t just remote, it felt impossible.

That period in Liverpool could be hard. It was after the war, the bottom had dropped out of the cotton business and our mum had died, so her wages as a midwife health visitor had gone. Dad was just on his own, bringing up two lads on £10 a week.

Even so, it was an extraordinary time. David Puttnam once wrote in a foreword to one of my books: “What I like about Mike’s photos is that he captures a period in time. You see the back-combed hair, the winkle-pickers, the false brick wallpaper …” That’s why my new book, Early Liverpool, is important, because it tells you what life was like back then. Not just the Beatles, but all the other artistic sides of Liverpool – comedy, poetry, pop art. The whole place was bouncing.

Mike McCartney’s CV

Mike McCartney.
Mike McCartney. Photograph: Sonny McCartney

Born: Liverpool, 1944.
Trained: “I got on the 86 bus, went up to the library, took out all the books on photography, and learned photography in the back bedroom of Forthlin Road.”
Influences: “Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, surrealism, Mum and Dad.”
High point: “Writing The Scaffold’s Thank U Very Much and its Top 4 success – liked by prime minister Harold Wilson and the queen mum. Lily the Pink getting to No 1. The National Portrait Gallery buying 11 of my pics, and also exhibiting in the Smithsonian, Washington DC.”
Low point: “Realising that selling Catholic Bibles was not the career for me. The devil got me!”
Top tip: “Only do it if you love it and never, ever give up – which you can’t when you love it.”

Early Liverpool is available now through Genesis Publications, with the collector copy priced at £295. Details:


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