'I took the last ever shot of the Beatles – and they were miserable!'

The Fab Four’s farewell, the Rolling Stones’ airlift out of Altamont, the Who’s infamous toilet stop … the great rock photographer Ethan Russell relives his legendary moments

‘George Harrison was miserable from frame one to frame 500,” says Ethan Russell. “He was so over it. I don’t think he did anything but scowl for three hours.” The photographer is recalling the day he unknowingly took the last ever shot of the Beatles together. It was 22 August 1969, and they were all at John Lennon’s countryside estate near Ascot.

“Paul was trying to hold it together,” he adds. “He had his arms crossed like, ‘Come on, lads!’ But the concept of the Beatles just didn’t sync with who they were any more. I could have asked them to smile, but it would have been totally fake and I’m glad I didn’t. This marriage had come to an end – and boy does it show.”

‘She had been sent a doll with pins stuck in its torso’ … Yoko Ono and John Lennon with their cat.
‘She had been sent a doll with pins stuck in its torso’ … Yoko Ono and John Lennon with their cat. Photograph: © Yoko Ono. All rights reserved. Used with permission

The fact that this hugely significant photograph isn’t even one of Russell’s best speaks volumes about his career. Over a prolific 10-year period that culminated in 1978, Russell shot the world’s biggest rock stars, usually at their most candid. He had a ringside seat at what’s often seen as rock’s golden era. Russell wasn’t just friends with Lennon and Yoko Ono, he knew their cat as well. And when pandemonium gripped 1969’s Altamont free concert, where a fan was killed as the Rolling Stones played, Russell was airlifted out with the band.

Born in Mount Kisco, upstate New York, in 1945, Russell fell in love with rock’n’roll after seeing Elvis Presley do the snake hips on TV. But it was the 1966 thriller Blow-Up, about a photographer who swaggers around swinging London photographing models, that really turned his head. “I asked my dad to borrow money to buy a camera and got a plane to London with just the clothes on my back. I didn’t have a plan. I knew I loved all of the British bands, but photographing them seemed impossible.”

‘I almost fell to my death’ … the Beatles over Savile Row in 1969.
‘I almost fell to my death’ … the Beatles over Savile Row in 1969. Photograph: Ethan Russell/© Apple Corps Ltd/All rights reserved

Russell immediately felt at home in the city, which was a far cry from the turmoil gripping America as the Vietnam war intensified. Still, he felt slightly underwhelmed. “I couldn’t find a scene,” he says. “In San Francisco, where I had been a student, everyone was smoking dope, and music was driving people’s lives. But London was a bit drab. One was like an Eden, the other this monstrous urban metropolis. London had its charms, but you had to know the right people.”

Convinced that a career as a rock photographer was no longer possible, Russell started taking pictures at a children’s hospital. Then one day, he noticed something from the top of a double-decker bus. “I’m going to pick up my car after a service – and I see John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce whizz past. I was jumping up and down like a little kid.”

It was a sign of things to come. A journalist called Jonathan Cott, who was a friend of his flatmate, needed a photographer for an interview – and Russell got the nod. The interview turned out to be with Mick Jagger, for a feature in Rolling Stone magazine. That’s quite a first gig. “Then Jon called me again,” says Russell, “and asked if I wanted to come and photograph John Lennon. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Actually, it almost wasn’t. “I remember thinking my photos of John were no good,” says Russell. “So I called him up and said they were shit. He said, ‘Come on by.’ And I took them again. There were no barriers between us: he was so human, so warm, present and giving. He was John fucking Lennon! How could John Lennon be being so nice to me?”

The two hit it off: the fact they both had long hair, spectacles and a penchant for spliffs only strengthened their bond. The trust they shared is evident in a beautiful shot Russell took of John and Yoko in their garden, with a black cat playing on the Beatle’s shoulder. It wasn’t long after their first meeting, yet Lennon already felt comfortable enough to ask Russell to take some spontaneous pictures of him and his girlfriend, who was causing a lot of controversy.

Down-to-earth star … Jimi Hendrix and Mick Taylor of the Stones backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969.
Down-to-earth star … Jimi Hendrix and Mick Taylor of the Stones backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Photograph: © Ethan Russell/All rights reserved

“I drove down to the house and no one was there,” he says. “The front door was open so I just walked in. Yoko came down first, in this black cape, and said she wanted to show me something. She had got this brown parcel in the post and inside it was a doll with long black hair. It was dusted with charcoal and had pins viciously stabbed into its torso. There was a note that said, ‘Leave John alone!’”

He pauses, clearly moved. “Look, they had the greatest love story of the 20th century. At a time of enormous sexism and racism, they managed to block it all out and create their own universe. That’s what I wanted to show with my photographs. It was just the three of us and the cat – that’s as intimate as it gets.”

‘How I got on stage, I have no idea’ … Janis Joplin at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969.
‘How I got on stage, I have no idea’ … Janis Joplin at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. Photograph: © Ethan Russell/All rights reserved

Russell had become “John’s guy” and in 1969 was brought in to capture the Let It Be sessions, alongside a film crew. It was a tumultuous time: the Beatles had split by the time the album came out. “The atmosphere was very tense,” says Russell. “Years later, I bumped into Ringo, but he didn’t recognise me. He said it was because he was stoned out of his mind throughout Let It Be. I don’t blame him as those were difficult times.”

Russell was one of the lucky few who got to cram on to the roof above the Apple studio on Savile Row for the Beatles’ last public performance. Russell’s wide shot from behind has lost none of its power half a century on. “I had to climb up a wall and almost fell to my death. I like that picture as there was nobody bigger in the world, yet they really were quite small in the context of the city of London. The photo shows they were mere mortals after all.”

Russell was no longer struggling for work. In fact, he was hired for the Rolling Stones’ now legendary Let It Bleed tour, which culminated in Altamont. “It was like being in Vietnam,” says Russell. “We were airlifted out and it was traumatic for everybody. Our lives really were in danger. The happy hippy days had ended.”

‘People who wanted to be like him ended up dead’ … Keith Richards at US customs in 1972.
‘People who wanted to be like him ended up dead’ … Keith Richards at US customs in 1972. Photograph: © Ethan Russell/All rights reserved

Russell prefers to remember the good times. Backstage at a sold-out Stones show at Madison Square Garden, he remembers seeing Jimi Hendrix jamming with then Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. Although he felt intimidated by Hendrix, Russell’s photograph captures a more down-to-earth side of the star.

Later that night, Russell also bumped into Janis Joplin. He had shot the singer a few months earlier, running on stage during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a striking shot, with Joplin looking right down the barrel of his camera. “She was phenomenal,” says Russell. “Her voice was a force of nature. How I got on stage, I have no idea. But I ran on and took that. When I look at it now, I see her thinking, ‘Who the fuck is that?’”

And now their paths had crossed again at Madison Square Garden. “I would usually leave the venue with the Stones in their limo, but it was completely full. This other black limo pulled up and a woman with a husky voice said she could give me a ride back to the hotel. I got in and I was on the back seat with Janis. She was drunk and coming on to me. I didn’t really like it as I was way too uptight back then. I was so nervous, I got her to drop me off at the nearest hotel and ran for a cab.” Not long after their encounter, Joplin died of a heroin overdose. “It was sad. She just couldn’t beat her demons.”

Russell, who lives in Marin County, California, thinks two of his greatest photos are also the cheekiest. One shows Keith Richards in front of an anti-drugs poster at a US airport. In 1969, says Russell, things weren’t druggy at all. But by 1972, when the shot was taken, everything had changed. “The Stones were taking dangerous quantities. I thought getting Keith to stand there was hilarious. It was ironic. People ask if I ever was tempted to take drugs with them, but I never worked high or drunk. All the people who wanted to be just like Keith ended up dead.”

The other cheeky shot was taken for the Who’s landmark 1971 album Who’s Next. Pete Townshend, the band’s guitarist, was driving the band home from a gig through the rain at 100mph. “I was terrified by Peter’s driving,” says Russell, who suddenly noticed a monolith as they were passing Easington colliery in County Durham and sensed it might make the perfect shot. “Only Peter actually pissed against it,” he says. “The rest was just cans I filled with water and poured down its sides. We thought it would be fun to show the band taking a loo break. The sky was put in later to give the photo this other-worldly quality. Without it, it would just be a boring grey English sky.”

‘Only Pete actually pissed against it’ … the shot for the cover of the Who album Who’s Next.
‘Only Pete actually pissed against it’ … the shot that made the cover of the Who album Who’s Next. Photograph: © Ethan Russell/All rights reserved

Russell pretty much gave up on photography towards the end of the 70s, depressed and disillusioned after hearing music referred to as “product” by a studio executive while working on a shoot with the singer Linda Ronstadt. “The minute that’s the mindset,” he says, “they want product photography – and something dies. I knew I had to leave, so I shifted my attention to video and film-making. I rarely take photographs any more.”

Now 73, Russell is happy to look back, though, comfortable with the idea of being defined by this work. “You see photos from that era,” he says, “and it’s just people getting their picture taken. I never wanted it to be posey. I just wanted to record what was in front of me. I guess I want people to say, ‘Ethan Russell was someone who captured the truth’ – and almost fell off a roof doing it!”

Ethan Russell’s CV

‘Something died – I knew I had to leave’ … Ethan Russell.
‘Something died – I knew I had to leave’ … Ethan Russell. Photograph: Courtesy: Ethan Russell

Born: New York, 1945.

Training: Self-taught.

Influences: “Henri Cartier-Bresson had beautiful framing. If I can do one thing well, it’s finding the right frame.”

High point: “The 1969 tour with the Stones. But I also made a 44-page photobook to go with the Who’s Quadrophenia album. I got to create this whole world based on Peter’s songwriting. It felt exhilarating.”

Low point: “When music became show business in the mid-70s and there was more of a barrier between photographer and artist.”

Top tip: “Only shoot stuff you believe truly matters – and make sure you own it. There’s no point taking photos of Beyoncé if you don’t own the rights.”


Thomas Hobbs

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'I was shattered' – Paul Weller, Booker T and more on the day the Beatles split
Fifty years ago today, the counter-cultural whirlwind that was the Beatles ended. Musicians, fans and insiders relive the devastating day their era-defining story came to an abrupt close

Interviews by Jude Rogers

09, Apr, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
'We were lucky people didn't throw tomatoes': Klaus Voormann on his Beatles and Plastic Ono days
He played with the Fab Four in Hamburg, inspired their moptops, drew the famed Revolver cover, and gigged with Yoko Ono. As his illustrations are published, the great musician relives his fabulous escapades

Alexis Petridis

04, Nov, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Annoying snobs was part of the fun’: Paul McCartney and more on the Beatles’ rooftop farewell
As Peter Jackson’s TV series Get Back recasts the Fab Four’s final days in a more positive light, the ex-Beatle remembers the responses to their historic gig above the streets of London

John Harris

18, Nov, 2021 @10:45 AM

Article image
Beatles biographer Philip Norman: 'Yoko was waiting for me – with two lawyers'
He has charmed Elton John, angered Paul McCartney – and horrified Yoko Ono. What will he uncover about the ‘murky’ death of Jimi Hendrix? The great rock writer reveals the pain – and pleasure – of chasing stars

Philip Norman

11, Nov, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
'This tape rewrites everything we knew about the Beatles'
Mark Lewisohn knows the Fab Four better than they knew themselves. The expert’s tapes of their tense final meetings shed new light on Abbey Road – and inspired a new stage show

Richard Williams

11, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Ringo Starr focuses on missing Beatles photos at launch of new book
Set of images recently found by drummer makes him think bandmates kept similar collections

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

09, Sep, 2015 @11:42 AM

Article image
Beatles on the brink: the truth about the Fab Four’s final days
The director’s new documentary weaves together hours of unseen footage to dispel many myths about the band’s final weeks

John Harris

26, Sep, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Guaranteed to raise a smile! Our pop critic's verdict on Liverpool's Sgt Pepper celebrations
Lucy in the Sky fireworks, A Day in the Life of the living dead, Lovely Rita’s parking meter parade … Beatlemania is gripping Liverpool. Our writer dives in

Alexis Petridis

05, Jun, 2017 @4:30 AM

Article image
Beatles’ unused Abbey Road photographs to be auctioned
Full set of six pictures of John, Paul, Ringo and George to be sold along with image of street sign used on back cover of album

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

15, Oct, 2014 @3:35 PM

Article image
Beatles 'backwards' Abbey Road photo sells for £16,000
Photograph of Fab Four fetches nearly twice the expected price

Sean Michaels

23, May, 2012 @11:25 AM