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Swinging Sixties Icon David Bailey Sounds Off on the Beatles, Stones

If you lived through the ’60s, David Bailey changed your life.

If you didn’t live through the ’60s, David Bailey changed your life.

Whether you call it “Swinging London” or “The British Invasion,” or use terms like “boomers,” or “youthquake,” to conjure up that mythical time when peace and prosperity met mind-expanding drugs, free love, and pop culture to create a vibrant new attitude, legendary photographer David Bailey was one of the principal iconographers of the era that changed the world.

Having been there, done that, it’s not surprising, but still bracing, to hear Bailey today blithely dismissing ’60s icons such as the Beatles, whom he initially thought were “squares,” or pinpointing when the fizz was gone from the champagne, which he vividly recalls as “when Sammy Davis Jr. and Judy Garland flew in,” adding sharply “you knew it was all over.”

Since he didn’t just chronicle the fun, but certainly participated in it as well with gusto and abandon, from Ibiza to Piccadilly, Morocco to Melrose, it’s no mean feat that he not only never stopped making great photographic art, but expanded beyond the lively arts portraiture of the period to a lifetime of globe-trotting image-making of unusual power and poignancy that continues up today and is the reason he’s being honored by the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Bulgari Hotel fete of U.K. culture on Feb. 9.

The continuing richness of his work, not to mention the precision of his total recall of names and events — half the time accompanied by a joyfully raspy laugh — makes a hell of an argument for whatever lifestyle he practiced.

Looking back on the origins of that time, Bailey describes the early ’60s as a period when “young people had money and everything was changing, though,” he notes ruefully, “it was not great if you were a coal miner working out in the country. There were probably 2,000 people in London who were driving the whole thing and we all knew each other.”

“Baby Jane Holzer was the first of the Americans to get it. And of course the French never got it!” says Bailey with no attempt to stifle either the rasp or the laugh that follows.

The model and Warhol superstar’s place on Bailey’s list of ’60s culture heroes is especially telling as he’s long-past being impressed with simple celebrityhood, that is, if he ever was. For instance, though he played his part in the global culture seismic shock called Beatlemania, Bailey recounts “not really being into the Beatles until maybe the ‘White Album.’ ”

His casual dismissal of the Beatles’ early oeuvre, which he recalls he “didn’t like much,” involves a crackling Cockney rendition of something that goes “IwanttoholdyourhandIwanttooldyourhandIwanttoholdyourhand,” which he notes with a gruff chuckle “did NOT sound like Bob Dylan to me.”

“They looked old-fashioned, manufactured” observes Bailey, who admits the London Times twice named him “worst-dressed man in London.” Bailey attributes the Beatles early image misstep to the band’s famous manager Brian Epstein, who of course, was photographed by Bailey and “looked like the Devil, but he was all right.”

More to Bailey’s liking were the Rolling Stones, and Bailey credits the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham for helping the band pull together its tougher, more street-savvy, image, saying, “I LOVE Andrew Loog Oldham. He WAS a Rolling Stone. When I first knew him, he had nowhere to live.” Bailey was also aloof to the Beatles’ vibe since his musical tastes ran more to “blues and jazz,” an affection he shared with the late founder of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, who Bailey says, “was much more into the blues and the pure blues and, of course, he lost out when Mick and Keith wanted to go in a more pop direction.”

But long before the Stones got their name from Muddy Waters, the older Bailey was already sampling the “pure blues” in London’s Soho club scene of the 1950s. “I had my first reefer outside the Flamingo Club, which was Jeffrey Kruger’s place and it was there before Ronnie Scott’s opened.”

But as much as Bailey might have mingled and more with the swinging celebrity set of music stars, actors, and models, he was devoted to a work ethic that saw him move from promising photographer to respected artist and a celebrity in his own right at warp speed.

And of course even his working life was rife with fascinating people. He took those two sides of his world — the starry photographic subjects and his deep appreciation for the arts — and made documentary films on Cecil Beaton, Luchino Visconti, and Andy Warhol.

He actually got the famously monosyllabic Warhol to open up on film and remembers the pop art revolutionary fondly.
“Andy was great. I met him all the way back in 1961 or 1962 when he was drawing shoes. My friend Miki Denhoff, who was art director of Glamour, told me, ‘You should meet this artist. He likes the same things you do.’ I think he was just beginning the Elvis silkscreens.”

Bailey notes 1966 as “the absolute peak, the top of the wave,” of a phenomenon that catapulted him and his mostly London-based photographic subjects to world fame. Google search his name and images of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, models such as Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree, and countless others, pop up.

For all of his good humor and relaxed, unpretentious musings about his past and one of London’s peak eras, his serious side emerges when the subject of his amorous pursuits from that time is raised. When asked if living through the joys of the fashion world, surrounded by sophisticates and sybarites of all stripes, wasn’t a little, shall we say, exhausting in the arena of romantic pursuits, Bailey’s voice suddenly drops low and serious.

“No, not at all. I was VERY discriminating. Only the best. Jack [Nicholson], and me and Warren [Beatty]: we were the three wolves.”

Now approaching 80 and happily married for more than 30 years, with three children, Bailey’s spirited approach to his work and life makes him as in demand for interviews as he is for the gallery shows and museum retrospectives filled with the beautiful images he creates. And though the London Times may have, as he notes, chided him for some unfortunate sartorial transgressions back in the ’60s, two years ago GQ named the septuagenarian one of Britain’s 50 best dressed men, describing him as “an icon for the past five decades.”

Right. On to the sixth!

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