Harry Hammond and the Birth of British Rock

Shirley Bassey backstage, photpgraphic negative, Harry Hammond, 1959. Museum no. S.9064-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shirley Bassey backstage, photpgraphic negative, Harry Hammond, 1959. Museum no. S.9064-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Harry Hammond (1920 - 2009) is regarded as a ‘founding father of music photography’. Focusing on the music industry in the UK, he photographed British and visiting American stars on stage and off for over two decades. Many of his images are well-known; some, like Buddy Holly, are as immortal as their subjects.

Hammond won universal trust and respect from the artists. Cliff Richard tells how ‘it was always such a pleasure to have him around’ and how his ‘iconic black-and-white images seemed absolutely to capture the atmosphere and “rock’n’roll” mood of the ’50s and early ’60s’.

For Harry these were the golden years:

‘I’d seen it all: jazz, swing, pop, R&B, bossa nova, doo-wop, and finally, Britain’s acceptance of rock’n’roll’.  With the arrival of the Beatles, and finding that there were now at least 20 photographers at every concert, I decided to slow down’.


Cliff Richard with Ray Mackender (manager) and unknown on a Lambretta scooter, photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1958. Museum no. S.14271-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cliff Richard with Ray Mackender (manager) and unknown on a Lambretta scooter, photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1958. Museum no. S.14271-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Putting on the style

Growing affluence in the 1950s gave many young people more spending power than ever before. ‘Teenagers’ became a powerful social group, and youth culture a mass market.  No longer dictated by the rich, fashion became exciting and affordable to girls who shopped in boutiques like Mary Quant’s. Pop music flourished as hit records sold by the million. Singers like Lonnie Donegan and Cliff Richard celebrated their sudden wealth by buying status symbols such as new houses and cars that lay beyond the means of many.

Lifestyle and ‘image’ became an obsession, with pop stars leading the way. ‘The Crew Cuts’, for example, claimed to be the first group to be named after a haircut. Meanwhile in 1963 The Beatles finally shed the black leather rocker image of their Hamburg days and became fashion icons overnight, setting the trend for designer suits and hairstyles as well as music.


Buddy Holly and The Crickets, performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium on their UK tour, photographic negative, Harry Hammond,1958. Museum no. S.12031-2009.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Buddy Holly and The Crickets, performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium on their UK tour, photographic negative, Harry Hammond,1958. Museum no. S.12031-2009.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rock around the box

Demand for rock’n’pop was fed by film, radio and television, most famously by TV in America in 1964, when The Ed Sullivan Show introduced the Beatles to 73 million viewers and took the USA by storm .

In 1957 the BBC’s 6.5 Special produced by Jack Good won pop music huge audiences on British television. But the BBC insisted on padding out the magazine format with non-music items. Good went over to ITV and created Oh Boy! (1958) consisting of 30 minutes’ non-stop rock broadcast live from the Hackney Empire. In the event Oh Boy! trounced 6.5 Special and established the careers of British stars including Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard.

An added attraction for touring stars was top billing on ATV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which flourished from 1955 to 1972. Cardiff-born Shirley Bassey made her television debut at the Palladium in 1957, the year of her first hit.


Shane Fenton New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert, Empire Pool (Now Wembley),photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1950s. Museum no. S.11098-2009.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shane Fenton New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert, Empire Pool (Now Wembley),photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1950s. Museum no. S.11098-2009.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Denmark Street and the New Musical Express

Affectionately known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’, Denmark Street in London’s Soho lay at the heart of the music business.  Since the 1890s many a song sheet has been published and sold there, and since the 1930s many musical instruments – Bob Marley bought his first guitar here.

In the 1960s and ’70s Denmark Street also became famous for its recording studios.  Rivalling EMI’s studios at Abbey Road, they attracted immortals such as The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones, who cut their first album in a Denmark Street basement.

Pop music has measured its success by the number of recordings sold since the New Musical Express published the UK’s first singles chart in 1952. Published weekly by music promoter Maurice Kinn, the NME encouraged readers to become fans and vote for their favourite groups, the most popular of which would play at NME’s annual Poll Winners’ Concerts.


The Beatles New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert, Empire Pool (Now Wembley), photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1963. Museum no. S.9100-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Beatles New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert, Empire Pool (Now Wembley), photographic negative, Harry Hammond, 1963. Museum no. S.9100-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Britain strikes back

After World War II Britain played host to an amazing variety of music. Mostly Black American in origin, it included swing, jazz (modern and traditional), skiffle, rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll. Britain responded so creatively that by 1964 it was exporting its own brand of such music back across the Atlantic.

In the 1950s the dominance of the singer, or solo instrumentalist, over their backing group was often reflected in a stage name that kept the two distinct: ‘Cliff Richard and The Shadows’, for example.  

The 1960s saw the group emerge as a dominant creative force. Leading bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles chose names that avoided singling out individuals. The collective title implied an ensemble, which proved highly fruitful with the song-writing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.


The Harry Hammond Photographic Collection

The Harry Hammond Photographic Collection, was acquired by the V&A from the artist in the 1980s. The collection comprises over 9,000 images of the British popular music scene in the 1950s and 60s, on the eve of the boom in British pop music. It can be explored through Search the Collections


This content was originally written in association with the display 'Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Photographs by Harry Hammond', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 13 October 2012 -3 March 2013.

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Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock

Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock

For nearly two decades Harry Hammond was Britain's leading showbiz photographer. Starting in the late-1940s, his camera captured the definitive images…

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