By Arjan Arenas
2023 was a pretty good year for fans of The Beatles. The start of last month saw the much-anticipated release of what was touted as their final song, “Now and Then”, which was written in the 1970s and recorded in parts over the following 20 years, before being completed with a little help from AI. It merges new vocals and instrument-playing from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr with the earlier recorded contributions of their late bandmates John Lennon and George Harrison. It is a technically accomplished and lyrically moving song which served as a fitting coda to the story of arguably the greatest band in history. And as a fan of the Fab Four born three decades after the band broke up, I feel privileged to have seen the release of a new Beatles song in my lifetime.
However, amidst all the coverage of “Now and Then”, it’s easy to forget another Beatles-related highlight of the year: namely, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of photographs taken by McCartney early on in the band’s heyday. Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm (which ran from 28 June until 1 October) captured a pivotal moment in the band’s career. Taken in glamourous locales on and off tour ranging from London to Paris, New York to Miami, these photos (and its tie-in book, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who missed these photos at the gallery) chart the band’s stratospheric rise from national to international superstars. However, they also provide candid, literal snapshots of the lives of four young men whose lives we see changing irrevocably in those two short months, and who are visually documented adjusting to living in the limelight.
McCartney stresses in the book’s introduction that despite having been avidly taking photos since childhood, a hobby he resurrected to document the Beatles going on tour, he was very much an amateur. He pays tribute to some of the professionals from the press who covered the band while touring, notably the veteran Slovak photographer Dezo Hoffmann, who took the bulk of the photos in this collection which weren’t taken by McCartney.
Many will probably be familiar with the kind of tour photos of the band featured here: screaming teenage girls being restrained by police; the boys mucking around on tour buses. More hardcore fans of the Fab Four might recognise a few candid shots of some of the other figures who were instrumental in the band’s story, including manager Brian Epstein, and friend and long-time roadie Mal Evans (who in particular seemed to be cheerfully taking advantage of the glamour of life on tour).
However, these photos also document the more humorously surreal aspects of being in the world’s biggest band. You could see a photo of Harrison solemnly posing next to a specially designed bust of himself, or of the camera technician in New York who had to put on a wig and stand in for a poorly Harrison during a live TV performance. Then there’s McCartney’s intimate shots of life at home (including a few self-consciously serious self-portraits), with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Elsewhere, a striking photo he took in Washington of the gun and ammunition in a police officer’s holster reflects the wide-eyed young man’s shock at seeing something utterly alien to him back home in England. While most of the photos are in black-and-white, there’s a dash of vibrant ’60s colour towards the end, showing McCartney and co. taking a relaxing break from touring by the sea in Miami.
You don’t have to be the biggest Beatles fans to appreciate the photography of Eyes of the Storm. This was a highlight exhibition of the year. Through his photos, McCartney offered a fantastic insight into the band’s meteorically rising star during their early days. It was clearly a wild ride, and luckily, he also found time to stop and savour the sights.