Terry O'Neill On  His Rolling Stones and Beatles Pics

We used to laugh behind Mick Jagger's back saying: 'Can you imagine Mick singing at 40?' And he's bloody nearly 70 and he's still going.

Josh Baron

Interview by

May 2010

We used to laugh behind Mick Jagger's back saying: 'Can you imagine Mick singing at 40?' And he's bloody nearly 70 and he's still going.

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* Interview by Josh Baron | by phone, 2010 | digital recorder


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David Gerlach: Welcome to another edition of Blank on Blank.  I’m David Gerlach and thank you for joining us as we partner with journalists and interviewers, writers and authors. Together we’re building an archive of the American interview.

Today we get to hear from legendary pop photographer Terry O’Neill. Now O’Neill did have a famous marriage to actress Faye Dunaway. But he made his name taking candid pictures of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John long before they turned popular music upside down.


This conversation comes to us from Josh Baron. He’s the editor-in-chief of Relix magazine. And we begin with Terry O’Neill. It’s the early 1960s. He’s working for a newspaper in London. And at night he likes to check out some of the upstart rock ‘n’ roll bands that are popping up. He takes pictures of them. Then, when he gets back to work, he’s in the newsroom. He often shows these photographs to his editors. But guess what? They don’t like them. They don’t like them at all. They don’t think they’re suitable for print. So what happens next? This is Blank on Blank.

Terry O’Neill: I only photographed musicians I liked. You know? I got asked to do these Beatles. The picture published them and the paper sold out. So the picture editor said to me: Who else was out there? I had been watching a group called the Rolling Stones who were playing down in a little town called Richmond.

[Music: Rolling Stones “I Wanna Be Your Man”]

Terry O’Neill: I told them about them and I wanted to photograph them. They were horrified how they looked. So they said “God, aren’t there any good looking groups?”

David Gerlach: Just to note the obvious irony in that editorial observation since Mick Jagger became one of the biggest sex symbols in rock ‘n’ roll history. Lips, hips and all. But O’Neill also says that when he photographed the Stones way back in 1963, this was before they were big, the band was clearly still finding its way. It was even looking for its face. And as proof, he looks at one of those pictures from back then and O’Neill says that Mick Jagger was still just one member of the band.

Terry O’Neill: You can see from that lineup that Mick wasn’t really the star of the group at that time. The star was Brian Jones. When I photographed the Beatles for the first time, John Lennon was to the fore and the other three were sort of behind him. You know what I mean? He was definitely the leader. But as time goes on the singer becomes more of a star.

David Gerlach: So Terry O’Neill was making a name as a new breed of pop photographer and now he was ready to make his mark across the Atlantic with American movie stars.

Terry O’Neill: When I was 24 I quit the job at the paper and came to work in LA. You know, I wanted to go to Hollywood and I met people like Fred Astaire. Funny enough, I mean, I was always friendly with the Beatles and the Stones. We all used to go to this club called the Ad Lib Club. We used to sit and joke about what job we were going to get when all of this was over.

David Gerlach: O’Neill says there was one other running joke at this club. A joke about when the game would be up for Mick Jagger.

Terry O’Neill: We used to laugh behind his back saying, “Can you imagine Mick singing at 40?” And he’s bloody nearly 70 and he’s still going.

[Music: Rolling Stones - “Under My Thumb”]

Josh Baron: Is there a difference in photographing musicians versus actors or royalty or other people?

Terry O’Neill: Well they’re more laid back and easier to do. I feel always at home. You know what I mean? With a royal it’s more on a formal basis. I mean, the funny thing with movie stars is people think they make the picture. None of them really like being photographed. It’s a privilege really. They don’t mind the movie camera, but the still camera’s not nothing. So you’ve really got to become friendly with them and break down their resistance.

Josh Baron: How does that work as a photographer?

Terry O’Neill: You get a reputation. People open the door to you and suddenly it becomes easy. But you got to get the reputation and I was just obviously sort of taking the right sort of pictures. So it all worked. I was one of the first people… When I first went to Hollywood I was using 35mm, and they’d never seen that. All the stills men used these 5x4s and 10x8s and God knows what.

Josh Baron: Very intrusive.

Terry O’Neill: Yeah. So I was going around with a 35mm and people loved that, because it was all so easy. It wasn’t a big deal to do sort of natural, candid photos. People loved that. That really opened up Hollywood to me. When I came back to England the whole music industry was dead. So I was known for picking out great musicians or future great… And they said ‘Who’s great?’ And I said ‘I had heard this kid called Elton John.’ I think he is American. Well it turned out he was English. So I went to photograph him and nobody really wanted to publish the pictures. Vogue magazine published one and that started the whole thing off.

Josh Baron: Vogue did you say?

Terry O’Neill: Yeah. I mean all the papers thought he wasn’t attractive and all the rest of it. I thought he was one of the greatest piano players I had ever heard. I thought he was fab.

[Music: Elton John “Bennie and The Jets”]

Terry O’Neill: So I really got behind him and of course I ended up doing a lot of work with him.

David Gerlach: That’s photographer Terry O’Neill on why he took pictures of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John long before they were famous and this is Blank on Blank. I do want to thank Josh Baron, the editor-in-chief of Relix Magazine for adding his interview to the archive. Now for more interviews that you can hear nowhere else, head over to BlankonBlank.org. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening. 

Music: The Rolling Stones “I Wanna Be Your Man” “Under My Thumb” | The Kinks “Picture Yourself”
Photos: cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com