The secret 60s: ‘we were making it up as we went along’

Matthew Hull

Philip Townsend presided over the first ever photo shoot of the Rolling Stones. Briefed by their manager to ‘look mean and nasty’, the pics reveal instead blues-obsessed middle-class boys – just one of the revelations Matthew Hull discovers when he talks to Townsend ahead of his exhibition at The Lowry

One of the most striking images in Mister Sixties: Philip Townsend’s Portrait of a Decade is of a secret show held at fashion icon Mary Quant’s studios. A model with smoky eyes in a checked cape practices a runway walk while a man in a thin tie and a woman with a tall hairdo look on. Emanating sleek glamour, it’s a frame that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Mad Men.

‘It may surprise you to discover,’ says Townsend,  ‘that the overriding atmosphere on these shoots, but also in the fashion and music scenes more widely, was not cool but naivety. We really were making it up as we went along.

‘Until the late fifties, Oxford Street shut at four o’clock on Saturday and that was it, London just closed up shop until nine o’clock on a Monday morning. There were no decent restaurants and certainly no music, just a few terrible middle-class plays with people discussing why Aunt Fanny never left the parlour,’ he says. ‘Then it was the 60s and there was an explosion in music, clubs and clothes. Immigrants arrived and there were finally good restaurants. It was a thrilling time and we were just riding the wave.’

Happy snapping

Working on newspaper commissions, Townsend’s brief was to document ‘Swinging London’ and he did exactly that, taking pictures of wide-eyed shoppers rifling through the wares at Carnaby Street boutiques, for example, or of dancers seemingly surprised at their own ability to twist. Even celebrity snaps are punctuated by artefacts of the decade – a picture of John Lennon at an audience with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi shows him peering from behind a luridly floral sofa, while a photograph of the Rolling Stones at Marble Arch is cut by the blur of a tail-winged car that happened to drive past.

Townsend acknowledges that he’s best know for his images of the Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager who would propel the band to stardom, told Townsend in 1962 that he was going to discover ‘the greatest rock and roll band in the world’. A few months later the photographer received a call saying he’d found them – although when Townsend first met the band there was a distinct lack of rock n’roll behaviour in evidence. ‘There were no egos really,’ he says. ‘They weren’t arrogant or stupid. It seems strange to say it now but the Stones, the Beatles, everyone was just happy to have their picture taken.’

Out of the cupboard

Despite the epoch-defining nature of the images – neatly enough, Townsend’s photographic career began in 1960 and ended in 1969 – it is only in the past few years that his work has begun to be displayed. The photographer’s official biography claims he ‘casually consigned his pictures to his cupboard’, only unearthing them decades later. Whether this recent rediscovery is genuine serendipity or a shrewd marketing ploy, Townsend’s work is now celebrated and much in demand, with this Lowry show following on from exhibitions in London and Birmingham.

‘I had been to see Mick Rock’s work at Urbis in 2006 and had been really impressed,’ he says. ‘After the other successful shows I thought it was about time I tried to exhibit up here in Manchester. I’ve always been great fan of L.S. Lowry. I could have picked one of his paintings up in the 60s for a few thousand pounds, but, sadly, I let it pass me by,” says Townsend, a man who could probably chronicle the 60s through his anecdotes alone. His best stories, though, are the ones told through the lens of his camera – the ones he made up as he went along.

Mister Sixties: Philip Townsend’s Portrait of a Decade, The Lowry, Salford Quays. 18 September – 7 November. Free entry. The exhibition is part of The Manchester Weekender – don’t miss Townsend in conversation with Word Magazine editor Mark Ellen on Sunday 3 October (2pm, £5). Images (top to bottom): Mods; The Beatles; Pearly King & Queen, all Philip Townsend.

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