Don McCullin's A Day in the Life of The Beatles

Don McCullin's A Day in the Life of The Beatles

Insightful collection of rare photopraphs from Don McCullin

In 1968, war photographer Don McCullin spent a full day taking pictures of the Beatles. Brian Donaldson peers at yet another cultural artefact of the Fab Four

Given that it’s just over 40 years since they went their separate ways as a band, the grip which the Beatles still maintain on the cultural landscape is almost supernatural. Rarely does a week go by without something related to the Fab Four making its way into the mainstream media. In the last fortnight, we have learned that George Harrison performed a fake séance for John and Paul in the early 60s, while the house which Ringo was born in has been boarded up to prevent fans stealing any more of the brickwork as souvenirs ahead of its planned demolition.

The release of an Apple compilation, Come and Get It (featuring the likes of Mary Hopkin, Badfinger and Ronnie Spector), resulted in a ten-minute slot on Radio 4’s Front Row while we can perhaps draw a veil over the quartet’s ‘appearance’ in the new sketch show from Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield. Of course, the fact that early October heralded the date when John Lennon would have been 70 only serves to keep this juggernaut bumping along.

Into this continual ferment has arrived an evocative book of photographs by Don McCullin. In 1968, the foursome was walking tall after the epochal success of the previous year’s Sgt Pepper, but the downside was that everyone wanted a slice of them. Tired of having photographers constantly requesting studio time, they chose to do one big shoot with a snapper of their choice. The man they opted to hire was McCullin, just fresh back from a tour of camera duty in Vietnam. Not only did they appreciate him as a lensman, but they clearly felt a political kinship towards a man who was partly responsible for bringing the truth home about the horrors being done in the West’s name.

But if the Beatles were concerned that he might feel a venture with them was a flippancy compared to the historically crucial work he was creating in southeast Asia, they needn’t have worried. ‘I got a phone call, which I thought was just a joke,’ McCullin recalls in the foreword to A Day in the Life of the Beatles. ‘An unfamiliar voice said he was phoning from Apple and wondered if I would consider spending a day photographing the Beatles for a fee of two hundred pounds … They didn’t know that I had practically levitated a couple of inches off the ground. I would have given them two hundred pounds.’

The full-day session produced a Life cover image but many of the pictures have remained out of view ever since. Most attention has already been drawn towards an image composed by Lennon (McCullin allowed them free rein on ideas) which had him lying prone, seemingly dead, as the other three look on with curiosity rather than pain or fear. A premonition of his own bloody demise 12 years later or a statement about the slaughter which McCullin was bearing witness to? Perhaps even more prescient to the band’s state of play are the relatively few appearances of Yoko, all of which feature Paul either nowhere to be seen or fixed firmly in the foreground, Lennon and Ono way back in the frame, almost out of focus.

A Day in the Life of the Beatles is out now published by Jonathan Cape.