Photographs and text by Harry Benson
If you were young during the 1960s, it may be one of the enduring disappointments of your life that you were not one of the Beatles. Only four people in the world were—John, Paul, George and Ringo—and for much of that decade those four were the white-hot center of the pop universe.
In the days before Harry Benson, a PEOPLE contributing photographer, became a celebrated photojournalism he was a news photographer for the London Daily Express. In 1964 he was assigned to follow the Beatles on tour during the first flush of their world stardom. If it wasn’t the same thing as being one of the band, it may have been the next best thing.
No longer the moody boys in black leather who played tiny clubs in Liverpool, the Fab Four had been transformed by their manager, Brian Epstein, into export-quality pop stars in bowl haircuts, mod jackets and neckties.
Though Benson describes him as “the least manipulative manager I’ve ever seen,” the Beatles we see in these pictures are the group that the sly Epstein wanted us to see—energetic, funny, winsome and chummy, a four-headed pin wheel at the center of a whirlwind made by hysterical fans. Sinatra and Elvis may have set off waves of mass adulation in the U.S., but it look the Beatles to unleash puppy love on a global scale. Which is one reason why, when he doesn’t show them onstage, Benson most often photographs the group draped around the hotel suites that were their luxury prison cells so much of the time.
Benson’s chronicle ends with the last Beatles world tour in 1966, when their music had begun to push toward complexities that could not be reproduced in live performances. Soon Epstein would be dead and the whole world would be loosening its tie. The Beatles and their public would be leapfrogging one another toward the cultural crescendo of the late 1960s. John, Paul, George and Ringo would become less lighthearted, less accessible to lucky photographers (unless they happened to be Linda McCartney). That bittersweet story would make another, different kind of picture book. It’s more of an unmixed pleasure to look at this one. (Universe, $24.95)