The Beatles Unseen Archives (2001) is one of those photo collections which turns up in low-cost bookshops every so often, proclaiming to tell the Fab Four’s story with “rare and never-before-seen” images, all strung together with a bit of basic biographical text. I got it as a Christmas gift years ago and, after a cursory flick-through, put it on the shelf where it remained until recently. On closer inspection, however, it’s an enjoyable visual whistle-stop tour through some of the more public aspects of their career, eschewing many of the familiar images we’re used to in favour of shots and situations you probably haven’t seen – or, at least, may not have known the context of.
Drawn from the archives of London’s Daily Mail and compiled by Marie Hill and Tim Clayton, it features 600 black and white images (200 of which were previously unpublished), mainly taken by the paper’s own photographers or freelance snappers. Starting in 1963, it is divided into years up to and including 1971, with a generous section on the solo years thereafter. There aren’t that many photos from 1963, in fact, reflecting how slow the mainstream press was in cottoning on to the phenomenon of Beatlemania, which had been building throughout the year. But 1964 and ’65 more than make up for that, accounting for the thickest chapters by far, highlighting both the band’s huge workload during that period and the insatiable, almost insane public desire for information about them. The pace begins to slow a little from 1966 onwards, but it’s clear that their every movement or utterance remained newsworthy – not least because their journey became weirder as the decade progressed.
The bulk of the images are your typical paparazzi shots, taken at personal appearances, photo calls, location filming, film premieres, nights out and on holidays (there are numerous airport photos, always a stock in trade of the tabloid press). There are no images from the recording studios, and very few from live concerts. It’s very much ‘The Beatles in public places’, often on their way to doing something else. Some of the photos (particularly from the ‘60s) are a little grainy, and someone – either at the time or when compiling this book – has clearly drawn lines on to add definition in a few places, which looks ridiculous. That aside, the fact that many of the photos aren’t posed or overly staged gives them a nice authenticity and immediacy, and provides an intriguing window on their world.
Certain things leap out at you when perusing the book. In the early/middle ‘60s sections in particular, the Fabs look modern and relatable to 2020 eyes, but the world around them often doesn’t. Whether it’s cars, buildings or people, the band members look out of time in comparison – which, in many respects, they were. It’s like everyone and everything else is pedalling furiously to catch them up. When you see them at some swish Mayfair party in 1963 or charming a slightly bewildered America in 1964, it’s like the buttoned-up, musty post-war world is finally starting to let its hair down (literally). Nowhere is this better represented than some shots of them being feted by the principals at Oxford University’s Brasenose College in 1964 (you can only imagine what the intellectual but anti-establisment Lennon made of that). Or by soon-to-be Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the same year’s Variety Club of Great Britain Awards (again, the photos of John sipping tea and exchanging small talk with Wilson’s wife Mary, who looks about 102, are priceless).
There are also some great snapshots of their fans, either gathering in their thousands outside a (what would today be considered an absurdly small) concert venue or actually getting to meet the band. Whether mingling with them on a Miami beach or chatting with them at autograph-signing sessions in Edinburgh, it shows how easy it was to interact with them – something unimaginable with today’s superstars.
Lots of images feature their wives and girlfriends. While John and Ringo married their Liverpool sweethearts, George and Paul took the more traditional rock star route of pairing up with a model or actress. It’s easy to forget that Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher were real ‘English rose’-style babes of their day, and they lend a real degree of glamour to some of the photos. And though Yoko and Linda were less obviously beautiful, they could nonetheless be striking to look at, as captured in a few of the portraits here.
Other interesting pictures abound. Highlights include Paul and Ringo in their morning suits on their way to Buckingham Palace to collect their MBEs; a corny but fun photo call to mark Paul’s 23rd birthday; the band relaxing while filming Help! In the Bahamas; their return to Germany in 1966 as four uber-cool, budding psychedelic dandies, and John and Paul in full flower-power gear returning from the group’s holiday in Greece during 1967’s Summer of Love. These middle-‘60s chapters are filled with fun, knowing grins, insouciance, boundless charm and a palpable sense of comradeship. They were newly-crowned kinds of the world, and most of the time they loved it.
The book also reflects the great shift that had happened by the decade’s end. After 1967, there are hardly any pictures of the group together, as the four retreated into the studio and began pursuing different interests when outside of it. Not only that, but the lovable, clean-cut moptops who had been happy to pose with children and little old ladies just a few years earlier were now replaced by earnest, hairy hippies hanging out with Hare Krishna devotees or promoting banners proclaiming ‘Britain murdered Hanratty’. Looking back with jaundiced, 2020 eyes, one can only imagine the seismic impact this change must have had on a previously adoring public, with many people falling out of love with the band around that time (my Mum always considered John went “crazy” after he hooked up with Yoko, and I doubt she was alone in that view). One can also see, by contrast, how Paul’s marriage to Linda sent countless teenage girls into paroxysms of grief – he is outrageously good-looking in some of the 1969 photos captured here, his earlier cherubic features giving way to more mature masculinity.
There is a healthy section covering the solo years, though hardly any images of John after he moved to the US in 1971, and very few of the others at all after 1990, despite a lengthy accompanying write-up of that decade’s Anthology reunion project. The early ‘70s inevitably showcase some fashion disasters – there are some particularly gruesome shots of Ringo, with wife Maureen, and (separately) Paul and family, en route to Mick Jagger’s St. Tropez wedding in 1971. Paul rocks the bearded look but otherwise looks like he’s just finished mucking out some cows back on the farm. And the tartan suit he wears at the Wings launch party later that year is just unforgivable. George and Ringo don’t cover themselves in glory elsewhere in the decade either, when they both dally with curly perms, but such snaps are part of the book’s appeal. Other curios include Paul being awarded a Rhodium disc by the Guinness Book of Records to recognise his unmatched song-writing success (for some obscure reason, Dallas actress Victoria Principal was also in attendance) and, in 1980, picking up an Ivor Novello Award from Yul Brynner. Most bizarre of all is a shot of Macca from a mid-‘80s Buddy Holly Week where he looks like an Elvis impersonator who has wandered onto the set of Miami Vice. There are some lovely shots I hadn’t seen before from Ringo’s wedding to Barbara in 1981, and a sweet one from yet another awards bash, in 1988, of Paul and Linda with fresh-faced daughter Mary – the same Mary who is now in her 50s. Eeek. It concludes with a selection of images from Paul’s triumphant return to the concert stage in 1989/90.
The text which accompanies each chapter is generally sound, if unimaginative, though some of it is a little questionable (was Beatlemania really on the wane by 1965? The pictures here alone indicate not). The real value is in the captions, which usually provide a bit of invaluable context for the images. The odd mistake creeps in here and there, usually around the chronology, but on the whole they seem pretty reliable. The most egregious caption is for an early Wings photo, which mistakes guitarist Henry McCullough for Linda. Ouch. Okay, they both had long blonde hair, but really…..
The odd bit of sloppy proof-reading and drawn-on lines aside, Unseen Archives is a surprisingly worthwhile collection of Fabs photos, documenting most of their career together and a fair bit of the solo years. Most importantly, it shines a light on some less obvious moments in lives lived in the glare of the public eye, and provides some intriguing little insights how they were shaped by the world around them – and how they helped to shape it, in return. I’ll give this one a 7.