England's 1969 Rock World Comes Alive At Photo Show

by Ron Foley Macdonald
   Atlantic Zone March 26, 2003

On view at Halifax's Viewpoint Gallery on Gottingen Street until March 30 is an extraordinary photo show by Nova Scotian artist Eric Hayes. Now based in Bridgewater, Hayes was a 23-year-old professional snap man in Britain during the height of '60's rock culture, shooting pictures of the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, The Who and Jimi Hendrix over a frenetic year-and-a-half when London was still swinging at maximum velocity.

Those photos have lain dormant for more than thirty years until Hayes gathered up the various scattered print and negative sources. The result is an astonishing array of images of rock's glory years, cradled between three of the most important cultural events in the late '60's British popular music calendar: The Rolling Stones TV special Rock and Roll Circus in December 1968, the Stones free Hyde Park concert in July of 69 and the massive Isle of Wight Festival the following month.

Hayes' images from those three landmark events form the core of his show at the Viewpoint. But that's not all. The British Columbia native caught thrilling images of many other major artists and groups of the time, including Steve Winwood of Traffic and Blind Faith fame, Country Joe MacDonald, Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin.

The photos managed to capture the enigmatic charisma of these musical giants, giving us a stirring reminder that the '60's really did have talent to burn. A heavily costumed John Lennon, for example, on the set of Rock and Roll Circus, practically pierces the camera's lens with a penetrating stare that clearly sees through the ridiculousness of his own fame. A showbizzy, white-suited Bob Dylan, accompanied by The Band at the Isle of Wight appears to already be in the process of deconstructing his own 'spokesman for a generation' persona.

A series of shots of The Who in action reveal that band's extraordinary intensity just as they were riding the crest of their 'Tommy' rock opera popularity. A particular Hayes favourite is drummer Keith Moon, whose flailing energy and fondness for controlled substances eventually led to his all-to-early demise in 1978.

The shots of Jimi Hendrix also poignantly suggest that the first great rock era couldn't be sustained over the long run. Hendrix's innovations and talent could barely be contained by the four albums released in his lifetime; some musicians and cultural analysts have been struggling in the guitarist's wake ever since his premature passing in September 1970.

The show really hit home for me when I notice that Eric Hayes was responsible for the cover photography on Fairport Convention's landmark 1969 Island album Unhalfbricking. That recording contains what is often considered the official beginning of the English Folk-Rock movement, the classic 11-minute rendering of the traditional tune A Sailor's Life. The band at the time contained two legendary figures of English pop music, vocalist Sandy Denny and guitarist Richard Thompson. Shortly after the album's release, a terrible accident with the band's van cost Fairport the life of their drummer Martin Lamble; the group would eventually bounce back with new personnel and the classic album Leige and Leaf.

Hayes cover photography catches the personality of the band perfectly, taking tea in a London backyard while partly obscured by a fence; Denny's parents stand proudly out front of the compound. The back cover photo reveals Fairport gathered more intimately around a large, friendly table as they dig into a simple but nourishing feast. Hayes allows the band a decidedly un-glamourous and very domestic shot that corresponds nicely with Fairport Convention's attempts to reconcile the past with the present by gently blending traditional folk music with contemporary rock instrumentation.

Each of the photos in the show seem utterly fresh and astonishingly vivid, making it less an exercise in nostalgia and more a celebration of living, dynamic images from what was clearly a time of great and enduring vitality.

Eric Hayes' remarkable photography is available for purchase from http://www.erichayes.ca/. Located at 2050 Gottingen Street across from the Marquee Club, the Viewpoint Gallery's hours are Wednesday to Sunday noon to five, and its web address is http://www.viewpointgallery.ca/. Call 902-420-0854 for more information.