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Paul McCartney’s photos of the Beatles at their peak

Jun 27, 2023

“1964: Eyes of the Storm,” a beguiling book of previously unpublished photographs by Paul McCartney, begins with a moment of pandemonium. McCartney calls it the beginning of a roller-coaster ride, when “you’re gradually raised into the sky. There’s a brief pause at the top when everything is nervous anticipation.”

Then, “all hell breaks loose.”

For McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and all the under-30s among the 73 million Americans who tuned into CBS that night, that moment was Feb. 9, 1964, when the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s a moment that’s been recalled countless times, but here we see it from a new, candid angle, thanks to McCartney’s lens: a shot of Starr setting up his “precariously perched drum kit” for a rehearsal of the show.

John F. Kennedy had been assassinated 11 weeks before the Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan, and agony and ecstasy were in nonstop competition right through the release of the band’s final album, “Let It Be,” six years later.

McCartney’s photographs from Liverpool, London, Paris, New York, Washington and Miami are more intimate than anything in “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s sprawling archival documentary of a couple of years ago. McCartney, living with his subjects practically every minute in their Mayfair apartment on Green Street, backstage, in hotel rooms and in the back seat of their Austin Princess limousine, was one of the four corners of the band’s fort: He could peer underneath the blanket whenever he wanted to.

McCartney had been interested in photos since he loaded up the family Brownie as a child. He discovered the ones in this book a few years ago. The photos, which are on display through Oct. 1 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, were taken with a 35mm Pentax camera, mostly in black and white, until the boys reached Miami, when McCartney suddenly switched to color — an echo of the transformation the whole world was starting to experience, when color TVs were still a rarity in America. (Color broadcasts didn’t exist at all in Britain until 1967.)

McCartney’s thoughtful recollections in the book are accompanied by a couple of other essays, including a fine recitation of the stations of the cross by Harvard history professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. The words in this volume are as compelling as the pictures, making for an unusually good coffee table book.

If you were 13 in 1964, as I was, and, like the Beatles, newly arrived in London, you had a front-row seat to an extravagant decade. Being there for those moments was the timing of a lifetime — anyone’s lifetime.

The Beatles’ overnight ubiquity transformed youth culture (a new category) all over the globe. But with the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd performing at the Marquee Club; Peter Cooke, Lenny Bruce and Barry Humphries at the Establishment on Greek Street; David Frost doing weekly satire with Ken Tynan and Bernard Levin on the BBC; Trevor Nunn directing at the Royal Shakespeare Company; and four new residents who were suddenly the most famous people on the planet, there was one undeniable epicenter: “It was the big city,” McCartney writes. “It was London, and I loved it.”

Twenty years earlier, the euphoria from winning World War II had quickly given way to the dreary ’50s, as Britain shed its wealth and its empire. An ill-advised invasion of the Suez Canal sealed its status as a has-been superpower. Then, suddenly, the Merseyside version of rock-and-roll that popped out of four lower-middle-class Liverpudlians fractured the class system and gave Britain more cultural clout than anything had since Shakespeare.

The foundation of it all was a gigantic dual role played by African Americans. McCartney and Lepore are both excellent on this subject. Little Richard and Chuck Berry had released their first albums in 1957. Together with scores of other Black artists, they were role models and inspirations for the Beatles and countless others. McCartney explains it this way:

“America had a huge advantage because of its Black music — early blues and jazz — which was simply lacking in European culture. The whole thing came from black people, who were the pioneers of it all. … Anyone who reads the history knows that such music originally emerged out of slavery, from what was sung in the cotton fields, music that was then filtered through gospel into a kind of sound no one had ever heard before. Our fascination with all these forms of music, including our own, was building to a crescendo, as if a star was exploding.”

When the Beatles toured America, during the burgeoning civil rights movement, they did something no other White stars had ever done: They refused to play in front of segregated audiences. At the time they played in D.C., Southerners in Congress were plotting a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act that would last 54 days. On June 19, 1964, after a heroic effort by Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, it finally passed the Senate. Two days later, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were mutilated and murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi for trying to register Black voters there.

A fusion of culture and politics got its special power from the common goal of a new generation: a worldwide rebellion against authority. Julian Bond was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Thanks almost entirely to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bond was one of 11 African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, the year he turned 25. However, his colleagues refused to seat him because he was a declared opponent of the war in Vietnam. A federal court upheld his exclusion. He wasn’t able to take his seat until 1966, when the Supreme Court finally voted 9-0 in his favor.

Lepore quotes Bond as saying that the Beatles had lots of Black fans. “They were so fresh and irreverent,” he remembered. They were “what we imagined ourselves to be — contemptuous of adult forms and not willing to conform to the standard way of dressing or thinking.”

There is something for every Beatles aficionado in the 275 glorious images in these pages, although McCartney is barely present, since he only occasionally handed the camera to someone else to snap a shot of him.

If you’re a George man like me, you will be particularly pleased with the image of him posing as a gendarme in Paris, or the one of him “living the life” in Miami, receiving a drink from a woman, her head out of frame, who is wearing a bright yellow bikini dotted with brass buttons.

The cover features an action shot of fans racing through a Manhattan street toward the rear window of the boys’ limousine.

“You might think that all this was terrible,” McCartney writes, “that we felt like animals in a cage.”

Not Paul!

“This was something we had always wanted, so when it actually happened,” he writes, “I felt like we were the stars at the center of a very exciting film.”

Open this book, and for a few magic moments, you’ll be right there, too.

Charles Kaiser is the author of “1968 in America,” “The Gay Metropolis” and “The Cost of Courage.” In the mid-’60s, he saw Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; Ike and Tina Turner; and Simon and Garfunkel perform at Royal Albert Hall.

By Paul McCartney

Liveright. 335 pp. $75

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