Q&A: Photographer Ethan Russell on Being a Fly-On-The-Wall for The Beatles’ Rooftop Gig and ‘Let It Be’ Sessions

Ken SharpCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

For 30 days in January of 1969, American-born photographer Ethan Russell was enlisted to capture The Beatles during recording and film sessions at Twickenham Studios and Apple Studios and also photographed the band’s legendary rooftop concert.

Ethan’s four separate shots of the Fab Four adorn the classic cover of their Let It Be album and hundreds of his remarkable “fly on the wall” images are included in the new The Beatles: Get Back book, which is available now wherever books are sold.

Rock Cellar: Ethan, you were witness to 30 days of the Beatles recording and filming. What’s the story your photographs tell?

Ethan Russell: You know, it’s really more show than tell. I mean, that’s just the answer, right? There’s a lot of layers to what was going on with them at that period of time in particular. I literally was this young kid that came off the street [laughs] from San Francisco that managed to find myself there. And so for me, it was a lot about just being in their presence.

But then their presence was initially in Twickenham Film Studios, which turned out to be not supportable for a variety of reasons, and then they moved into the basement studio at Apple. So just from my point of view, my experience was working with not only the biggest act — they were bigger than an act. They were the biggest thing on the planet as far as I was concerned, and most people I know.

With my pictures, I don’t set stuff up. I didn’t then, and I didn’t for most of my career, I let the viewer be there. Simple as that. So if I’m four feet from the Beatles, so are you, and I think that’s the value my pictures bring.

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Rock Cellar: You were able to be a fly on the wall, and your presence had to be unobtrusive. How were you able to gain their trust to achieve what you wanted to accomplish?

Ethan Russell: As opposed to a lot of work I did with other acts, in particular the Rolling Stones, the fact of the matter with the Beatles is that while I was there and I was a fly on the wall, I wasn’t the only fly in Rome. They were being filmed, so there was a certain kind of formality to it. I thought it was a very abstract idea, to try and make a record on a film soundstage, and it was an idea that at the end of the day didn’t really work so they moved into a recording studio.

It took a while for them to be comfortable enough not to notice what was around them. I was trusted, I think, because you didn’t know I was there. I really did keep myself out of the way. And the real answer to that, honestly, is that I came to them through a short but still somewhat close relationship with John Lennon. John trusted me and I think John liked and trusted me because I took good pictures of his girlfriend, I really do. You know, I treated Yoko well. I treated her with respect when millions weren’t.

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Rock Cellar: Speaking with a variety of folks who were there, the atmosphere and mood was different at Twickenham. It was certainly a much more dour, down period, and then upon moving to Apple Studios, it seemed that things lightened up and became brighter, certainly with Billy Preston joining in. 

Ethan Russell: I was only 22 years old, 23, and they were what, 25? Everybody was pretty young, right? And so for me at that age, it was insane to think, what was this act doing at 9 AM in the morning in the middle of a soundstage? It was just kind of crazy.

It was cold and it was just not conducive to making a record, and they got fed up with that. There was more to it than that. But that alone might have been enough. They got fed up with it. And I think you put your finger on it. Billy Preston was the key. George bringing Billy in provided a whole new energy, and I think they were glad to be in what amounted to a recording studio. So at least it was about music in a way that was supportable and it wasn’t freezing. 

Rock Cellar: When you saw the original Let It Be film that came out, how closely did it match your memories of your experiences? 

Ethan Russell: Well, that was a long time ago. I went to the opening in Piccadilly Circus. None of them were there. I do remember walking out, and I don’t remember particularly walking out with a sort of energy that I walked out of A Hard Day’s Night with, the Beatle films that had meant so much to me when I was younger. But for me, to be honest, my pictures were 80-foot high in Piccadilly Circus, so I had a certain charge out of it regardless of the film. I don’t remember feeling one way or another about it. But the fact that I don’t remember thinking, “oh, this was pretty good!” probably tells the story.

Rock Cellar: I understand you weren’t witness to it or you may not recall the argument that was captured on film between George and Paul, which really is kind of a nothing burger when you really look at it and read about it in context in the new book. Was George’s overall unhappiness evident to you during the early sessions?

Ethan Russell: I was aware of his sort of kind of disgruntlement and the tenseness that was going on. But that’s because everybody was aware. I didn’t overhear the argument, so I don’t have a lot of light to shed on it. It’s clear that there was some tension and I think you expressed it properly that it got blown out of proportion, probably because of the fact that recording broke down. You know, if that same event had happened while they were in Apple Studios and George just walked out because he was pissed and came back the next day, I doubt it would have created the same kind of headline.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk a bit about the challenges of shooting the rooftop performance.

Ethan Russell: I had been with them for most of that month. I’d been downstairs with them in the small room all day, every day when they were around. I walked up to the roof the day before with McCartney and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, so I sort of knew it was in the cards. But Glyn John has told me that that he didn’t know that they were really going to go out on the roof and do the concert while they were standing in the stairwell to go out.

The Beatles on the roof, Jan. 30, 1969 (Photo: Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.)

The Beatles on the roof, Jan. 30, 1969 (Photo: Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.)

It was really touch and go. To me, it was just another day of shooting. It’s amazing how something as big as that can be become normal, but it was. I didn’t have a motor drive in my camera. It all seems crazy to me now, shooting something like that. I didn’t have an assistant, right? I just wandered around the roof, but it was very close. And so if you look at the film footage, you can see me putting my leg over the barricade and leaning back so that I can try and just get all four of them in frame. It was almost impossible even with the lenses I had with me.

Ethan Russell, changing lenses in the background of the 1969 Beatles rooftop performance of ‘Dig a Pony.’

And so, you know, it’s the equivalent of backing up while standing next to the Grand Canyon. [laughs] I could have fallen and I could have died. There’s no question about it.

Rock Cellar: Can you discuss when you presented images to the folks at Apple, and how the idea for the special UK edition of the first pressing came about with the inclusion of a book of your photographs?

Ethan Russell: That really is the unique moment. I was initially hired by Neil Aspinall. First off, he tried to hire me for a day, and I said I wouldn’t do it for a day and that I needed three days. So I got this little bit of time that I could shoot with them, which gave me enough capacity to have a little bit more of what was going on. And when I went into Apple to show those pictures to Derek Taylor, who was the press officer, it was kind of crazy, which it always was in the press office.

We went down into Peter Brown’s office, which was the only quiet room in the house. It was a big room, and we started to protect the images on the wall of his office and they were these big sort of wide-angle shots, some of them from the rafters, of them playing. So they were impressed. They were impressive photographs; Tony Richmond’s lighting had all that color in it so they were pretty impressive.

But while that was happening, it was only supposed to be Derek and maybe Neil Aspinall and me and while it was happening, Paul McCartney walked in, Ringo Star walked in, George Harrison walked in and John and Yoko walked in. And the whole time that I was working with them later, I never saw them all be at one place at one time unless they were in front of the cameras. That was the really unique moment.

And it wasn’t me that suggested doing a book. Someone said we should do a book, and then I was hired permanently. And then the idea of doing a book became what we were doing and that was put together simultaneously and for several months after filming had stopped.

beatles let it be cover

Rock Cellar: Touch upon selecting the images for the Let It Be album cover.

Ethan Russell: John Kosh and I did it. I’d certainly been around while the entertainment went back to being the entertainment business and then the music became corporatized and the art department became sort of like in-house controllers, but it was nothing like that with them. They were so busy and had so many things on their plate that they left us alone.

So John Kosh and I went through the pictures together. We chose the pictures that were in the book. We showed it to them, but nobody ever really commented on them. The images for the cover of the album were chosen. I liked the one of Paul. I remember that was an early shot. I like the one of John, which was an early shot.

George was tougher because there wasn’t as much material. But the only picture that was changed was a picture of Ringo. It’s in my book. I have a collected book of my photographs with the Beatles stuff in it and it’s in that book because I liked it.  It was an image of Ringo in Twickenham with a very purple kind of cast to it from the lights that were there and he’s kind of looking down and I just thought it was a nice picture.

I showed it to him. And his response was, “I don’t look as good as me mates.” [laughs] So we changed it. That’s the story behind those pictures.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg with The Beatles & Billy Preston-Apple Studios-Jan 26 1969-Ethan A. Russell_©Apple Corps Ltd

Michael Lindsay-Hogg with The Beatles & Billy Preston-Apple Studios-Jan 26 1969-Ethan A. Russell_©Apple Corps Ltd

Rock Cellar: This didn’t end your involvement with the Beatles. You actually shot the Beatles’ last photo session ever at Tittenhurst Park, John’s house, on August 22, 1969. Wasn’t it supposed to be done at a London studio? 

Ethan Russell: That’s correct. So I continued to be around Apple and shot other Apple bands and was friends at the time with Neil Aspinall; I was pretty friendly with everybody, really and so they were just throwing work my way. And at some point, I got a call from them saying that there was going to be a Beatles photo session they wanted me to do so I started to put that together in a studio in London, which I used actually for the Stones [Through The Past Darkly album cover].

And I was in the middle of doing that when I received a call the night before saying it’s all been changed. We’re going to go to John’s house. So that’s where we went. And that was a bit more catch as catch can, because it was changed last minute and there wasn’t really a plan to it. During the filming of Let It Be and during this session, you could feel a kind of weight for all of them to be sort of moving this Beatles thing along still. So it had its moments, and there were some nice pictures that came of it.

The difference is that most of the photography I had been doing, I was a person that was watching them do something else that they were focused on. When you do a photo session, the focus is on having your picture taken, which is a really bizarre energy to deal with, and I wasn’t good at trying to overcome it. So most of what you got was this feeling that was real, which they weren’t having a very good time.

Rock Cellar: I’ve seen a bunch of those shots and I don’t think there’s one shot where George looks happy.

Ethan RussellI don’t think there is. I don’t think any of them are. But George looked miserable the entire time, and I don’t know why. He certainly didn’t share it with me, but I think he just didn’t want to be there. He was really done with it.

Rock Cellar: Wasn’t there an acetate of the Abbey Road played at some point near the end of your session? 

Ethan Russell: Yes, that’s true. Well, we went into John’s house at one point, and while we were in there, somebody came in within an acetate of Abbey Road. It immediately sounded like a Beatles record, so it was always exciting for that reason. That album seemed to happen incredibly quickly to me. I mean, Let It Be seemed to take forever. But to me that happened quickly. It may not actually be true.

It was a sort of buttoned-up, nice record with harmonies that sounded like The Beatles. Get Back or Let It Be, whatever you want to call it, was kind of the odd man out.

Rock Cellar: Lastly, I’ve had a sneak peek at the beautiful Get Back photo book, the companion to the Peter Jackson film. Could you pick a few of your favorite images of yours in that book?

Ethan Russell: In the book, I love the pictures of them on the rooftop, and my images are mixed up with some by Linda McCartney photographs as well. And then some grabs from the thing. But there’s this picture on page 57, it’s actually a double, page 56 and page 57. This was taken early on at Twickenham and regardless of what’s going on with them, they look like they’re have a pretty good time in this shot.

I’m four feet away from the biggest act on the planet. It just was phenomenal for me, and it does look fun. So I like that photograph because you get the four of them playing music. You can see all four of them. I mean, it’s kind of a mundane challenge, but it’s a challenge when you’re dealing with a group of people, like five Stones or four Beatles, if you’re not telling them what to do, then to get them all framed in a way where you can see their faces is a little mini challenge, and you see it here.

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