The Beatles on the Beach
By MARK ROZZO
Published: September 2, 2011http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/magazine/lives-the-beatles-on-the-beach.html?_r=1
Paul McCartney and Astrid Kirchherr in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, 1963.
Astrid Kirchherr, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, 1963.
Paul McCartney, Astrid Kirchherr and George Harrison, 1963.
Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, 1963. (From the Astrid Kirchherr archive, courtesy of Guernsey’s.)
On Saturday, April 27, 1963, the Beatles played Memorial Hall in Northwich, England —— the concert poster described them as “Hit recorders of ‘Please, Please Me.’” The next day, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr flew down to Tenerife to unwind with two of their closest Hamburg pals, the graphic artist Klaus Voormann and the photographer Astrid Kirchherr. (John Lennon took his own holiday in Barcelona with the band’s manager, Brian Epstein.) For the upstart combo, it would be their first taste of the jet-set life and, in the saga of their ascent, a momentary breather about halfway up Mount Olympus. The first No. 1 record was in the bag, the next one was heading up the charts and full-blown Beatlemania was just a few months off. The island’s black sand, towering volcano and opportunities for sunstroke were as exotic to the Beatles as their newfound celebrity. But none of that notoriety followed them to Tenerife, where they stayed at the Voormann family cottage. The bandmates ran around asking the locals: “You know us? The Beatles?” — only to be met with bewilderment.
“Nobody expected them to become that big,” Kirchherr, who took her Rolleicord camera along to document the holiday, told me last month via e-mail. “Nobody in the whole of show business had ever been that big.” Voormann — Kirchherr’s ex-boyfriend from art school — first stumbled upon the Beatles in October 1960 as they were pounding out Eddie Cochran and Little Richard covers at the Kaiserkeller, a nautical-themed dive in Hamburg’s red-light district. Not long after, Kirchherr began snapping pictures of the five young Beatles (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, the drummer Pete Best and the bassist Stuart Sutcliffe), brooding and bruised black-and-whites as gritty and real as they were scrupulously stylized. Rock ’n’ roll pilgrims deplaning in Hamburg today are often surprised to find that the city doesn’t look exactly like that anymore.
“Astrid was the one, really, who influenced our image more than anybody,” Harrison once said. Voormann told me that Kirchherr’s large-format photographs “took the Beatles into a different dimension.” Sutcliffe, who became engaged to Kirchherr seven weeks after they met, described her — a headstrong blonde given to form-fitting, head-to-toe black leather — as being “like a rose that has run its dark leaves over the wall to look at the sun.” (Sutcliffe died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1962.)
Kirchherr, who is 73, gave up photography in the late 1960s, frustrated by the unending requests for her Beatles images. Yet she remains an indelible presence in the mythology of pop. It can be a heavy legacy. “I had a great time sharing my memories, but I’m getting a bit tired of performing,” Kirchherr said. So on Sept. 24 and 25, the New York auction house Guernsey’s will lessen the burden by offering for sale Kirchherr’s entire Beatles-related photographic archive, about 600 lots in all, including her original negatives (along with the rights to their use) and rarely seen images like the ones from Tenerife. (Kirchherr says she believes the image printed on this page might have been taken by Harrison with her camera.) “For me,” Kirchherr said, “they are still my dear friends, not the Beatles.”
Mark Rozzo is the executive editor of Town and Country.