George Harrison was miserable from frame one to frame 500,” says Ethan Russell. “He was so over it. I don’t think he did anything but scowl for three hours.”
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The photographer is recalling the day he unknowingly took the last ever shot of the Beatles together. It was 22 August 1969, and they were all at John Lennon’s countryside estate near Ascot.
I drove down to the house and no one was there,” he says. “The front door was open so I just walked in.
Yoko came down first, in this black cape, and said she wanted to show me something.
She had got this brown parcel in the post and inside it was a doll with long black hair. It was dusted with charcoal and had pins viciously stabbed into its torso. There was a note that said, ‘Leave John alone!’”
“Paul was trying to hold it together,” he adds. “He had his arms crossed like, ‘Come on, lads!’ But the concept of the Beatles just didn’t sync with who they were any more. I could have asked them to smile, but it would have been totally fake and I’m glad I didn’t. This marriage had come to an end – and boy does it show.”
‘She had been sent a doll with pins stuck in its torso’ … Yoko Ono and John Lennon with their cat. Photograph: © Yoko Ono. All rights reserved. Used with permission
The fact that this hugely significant photograph isn’t even one of Russell’s best speaks volumes about his career.
Over a prolific 10-year period that culminated in 1978, Russell shot the world’s biggest rock stars, usually at their most candid. He had a ringside seat at what’s often seen as rock’s golden era. Russell wasn’t just friends with Lennon and Yoko Ono, he knew their cat as well. And when pandemonium gripped 1969’s Altamont free concert, where a fan was killed as the Rolling Stones played, Russell was airlifted out with the band.
“I remember thinking my photos of John were no good,” says Russell. “So I called him up and said they were shit. He said, ‘Come on by.’ And I took them again. There were no barriers between us: he was so human, so warm, present and giving. He was John fucking Lennon! How could John Lennon be being so nice to me?”