The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet: Michael Joseph's best photograph

‘When I told the caretaker of the house the Stones were a bit wild, he asked if there would be any naked ladies – because they charged £10 extra for that’

The funny thing is that I’d had a virtual punch-up with the Rolling Stones just a few weeks before I did this photoshoot for their Beggars Banquet album in 1968. The Milk Marketing Board had sent me up to Newcastle for a campaign, and the Stones happened to be staying at the same hotel. We’d just been to their concert, and were having a late dinner. They were sitting next to us. Various women were coming up to Mick Jagger and asking for his autograph. So my girlfriend, Julie – who became my wife of 55 years – went over, but she didn’t even get a chance to ask, because Mick just waved her away saying: “No, love, you’re too young.” I had my camera ready, but unfortunately I didn’t take a picture. That would have been fantastic, Mick waving his arms around.

The next morning, the band were lounging around in the hotel foyer. To their evident annoyance I got my camera out and was about to snap them, but then their car arrived and they left before they had a chance to say to me: “Who do you think you are?” When I got chosen to do their album cover I was dreading the thought that Mick was going to recognise me, so I had my hair cut much shorter and changed my clothing.

I was known for doing group scenes – a shoot with up to 50 people became known as a “Michael Joseph” in the business – and my early shot of a boardroom for a White Horse whisky ad in 1965 had been used as a giant poster all over England. That was what got me the Beggars Banquet job. The shoot location was wonderful, up in Sarum Chase, in Hampstead, north London, where Frank O Salisbury, the Victorian society painter, had lived and worked.

The caretaker there – a very careful, grey-haired man – said: “So this is for the Rolling Stones?” I said: “Yes, I’m afraid they’re a bit wild.” He said: “No, that’s not a problem. But I’m a bit worried. Will there be any naked ladies?” And I said: “No, it’ll just be the band. Why, what’s the problem with naked ladies?” And he told me: “Well, for naked ladies, we charge £10 extra.”

The 1961 film Viridiana, directed by Luis Buñuel – which has a famous scene of beggars at a banquet – was probably in the mind of Mike Peters, the art director. There’s meant to be a look of decadence about the photo. That word sums up the era. The swinging 60s was considered a period where people did what they liked.

The Stones arrived punctually. They were impressed with my lighting setup, and this fantastic, beautiful room. I was already there, talking through a megaphone to the goats, dogs and all the other animals we had for the shoot, getting them to understand what it was all about. I was good with animals and they behaved very nicely. Most of the feast on the table was prop food, but luckily, I’d put down a bowl of real cherries, and the goat was munching away on those. There were some cats knocking around the set, too, and they didn’t seem to be put off by 20,000 joules of light flashing away.

We only had two hours for the whole session, so literally within 10 minutes, the band were all changed. They just put on whatever costume they fancied and we didn’t bother with makeup – it wasn’t necessary. I put Keith Richards in the centre of the photo because he was the best-looking and the youngest. Bill Wyman, not so good-looking, so we put him further back. On the right, Brian Jones was very happy playing with a labrador. Charlie Watts was chatting up the stuffed monkey that’s on the table. Mick was happy to be centre-stage, standing on the table, cuddling some of the animals. There were other shots from this session where he’s holding a baby eagle, but then he got bored with that.

Brian had been busted the night before. The police knew the band were smoking drugs, so they’d raided his place, but didn’t find anything. So he wasn’t actually arrested, but he was a bit subdued for the whole shoot. I obviously didn’t bring it up. Presumably, they’d been out drinking all the night before, but none of them even brought a cup of coffee in to the shoot.

The band were very well-behaved and it all went like clockwork. My girlfriend was also at the shoot and at the end of the session, Mick came up to me and said: “You and your bird can come in my limo up to Swarkestone” – where we were doing more pictures for the album. But I never had any dealings with the Stones after that.

• Best of Proud is at London’s Proud Galleries until 27 October, featuring rare shots of JFK, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and more, by photographers Michael Joseph, Brian Duffy and Norman Seeff.

‘Always keep a camera handy, every minute of your living day’ … Michael Joseph whose shot of the rolling stones for Beggars Banquet.
‘Always keep a camera handy, every minute of your living day’ … Michael Joseph whose shot of the rolling stones for Beggars Banquet. Photograph: Picasa/Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph’s CV

Born: Kimberley, South Africa, 1941.

Training: London College of Printing.

Influences: Bill Brandt, Lord Snowdon, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel.

High point: “Shooting Harold Macmillan making the Wind of Change speech in Cape Town in 1960.”

Low point: “Getting stuck in Vietnam for a month.”

Top tip: “Always keep a camera handy, every minute of your living day.”

In memory of Julia Lilian Joseph, 7 December 1942–8 October 2019


Interview by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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