Harry Benson's best photograph: the Beatles pillow-fighting

'Paul was having a brandy. John crept up behind and hit him with a pillow. Then it all took off'

I was meant to be going to Uganda to do a big news story for the Daily Express but, at the last minute, the paper called and said they wanted me to shoot the Beatles in Paris instead. I considered myself a serious journalist, so I managed to talk them out of it. I knew who the Beatles were, but it was early in 1964 and they had yet to have their big breakthrough. I wasn't interested in running around with them.

Five minutes later, the editor called and told me I was going whether I liked it or not. So I caught up with them in Fontainebleau, where they were doing a warm-up gig before the big Paris show. I went out to my car to get an extension for my flash and, when I got back, they were playing All My Loving. It was sensational. I thought: "Christ, this is it – the breakthrough." The music story had become a news story.

From then on, I made sure I stayed close to them. When we were in their hotel suite later, one of them said: "That was some pillowfight we had the other night." When I suggested photographing them having another, John said: "No, we'll look silly and childish." Paul was having a brandy – he always ordered expensive drinks – and John crept up behind him and hit him on the head with a pillow. And then it took off.

I like the fact Paul is hitting John and John is hitting George. There is a flow that makes the picture pretty perfect. Paul is the key. You see how his pillow is up? That's what makes the shot move. The composition reminds me of the famous Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima shot. For once, they're out of their usual stiff lineup: whenever they posed in a line, one or two of them – usually Ringo or George – always looked stupid.

The bathroom of my hotel room was my darkroom. I did the developing on the toilet seat and, of course, I was using chemicals. The people who stayed after me probably got skin problems. Once I'd finished, it was just a quick wipe of the seat before sending the pictures to London. When I called to see how they were, I was told: "They're fine." Then they asked: "What have you got for us next?" If I'd been shooting for Life or Vanity Fair, they would have said: "Don't work for a month – go and have a big dinner."

Looking back at all the pictures I took that night, any one of them would have done the job. But this one stands out. It took me to America: I stayed with the band on their first US tour. When I shot them being punched by Muhammad Ali, John didn't like the result at all. He said I'd made them look like fools. They wouldn't talk to me for a while, but they soon got over it.

I've done plenty of jobs in my life, and there are many I'd like to have another go at. But this isn't one of them. I don't know why I did it so well. I was young, I guess.


Born: Glasgow, 1929.

Studied: Glasgow School of Art.

Influences: "No other photographers. Lord Beaverbrook, who gave me a job."

High point: "Going to America with the Beatles."

Low point: "Bobby Kennedy: I was right there when he was killed."

Top tip: "Buy a guitar instead!"


Interview by Karin Andreasson

The GuardianTramp

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