In 1975, Elton John was playing a series of benefit concerts at a club called the Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was something of a return to his old stomping grounds, as John played here when he was in the process of getting discovered. His first performances there in 1970 were included as a part of the 50 greatest shows of the last 50 years by Rolling Stone magazine.
Four years later, John could sell out an 18,000 seat arena in an hour (with no internet). As a result, demand for his benefits concerts was high. And with only 750 tickets available for the three shows in the Troubadour, amateur rock photographer David Stratford was able to get his hands on one.
He arrived early to scout security, which could have confiscated his camera equipment. But while doing this, he ran into a problem. “I got there, and I drove by as I would tend to do because I got there really early, and I noticed they were set up and they were actually frisking people before they went into this little club which holds up 250 people and I go ‘crap.’”
Stratford continued, “But everybody back then, including me, wore bell bottoms and I had a roll of masking tape in the car. I thought I'd go for it and so I taped the body to one ankle and the lens to the other ankle. I ended up trying to get in and I walked up, and as they were frisking me, I seriously thought I was going to wet my pants. I was scared to death, but they stopped as they did with everybody else at the thighs.”
Stratford got into the club, and perched himself on a staircase to get shots of the show. He even got to meet Bernie Taupin and got his autograph.
From 1973 to 1976, Stratford attended numerous concerts in the Los Angeles area and Utah and took approximately 10,000 photos of performers like The Rolling Stones, The Carpenters, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. He never thought he’d do anything with them. But 45 years after his first shot, his photos have found a new life on Instagram.
Stratford was born in Texas in 1955. However, when he was two-months-old, he moved to sunny Southern California and settled in Orange County where he still resides.
Stratford developed a love for music during his childhood, a love he got from his mother who would teach guitar lessons in Tijuana. “We always had music in the home,” says Stratford.
Some of the first music he listened to during his youth was The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and James Taylor. But as he got older, Stratford developed a taste for louder music.
“I started getting into garage band stuff like Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, a little bit of Jethro Tull but I started out with more of the mellow folk rock kind of stuff. [I liked] all the stuff that was out at that time I guess. I like a wide range of music though, and I think that comes from my mom.”
Stratford was introduced to photography when he was a senior at Anaheim high school. At this time, he had an extra elective and decided to take a photography class. It was here that he got his inspiration to shoot pictures at concerts from a student teacher named Skip Loomis.
Stratford explains that “The main photography teacher didn't teach it, he had a student teacher come in to teach that class. This student teacher was just back from Vietnam and was working to get his teaching credential.”
He says that Loomis knew about his interest in music.
“He loaned me his camera. I was going to a Zeppelin concert and he said, ‘Here, borrow my camera,’” Stratford continues. “I came back and just saw these photos that I had, and it was just, I was hooked on it.”
During this time, Stratford never owned a camera. Instead, he borrowed them from other people, an impressive feat considering the large number of shows he attended. One of the only pieces of equipment he owned was a Vivitar zoom lens with an adapter so that he would be able to use a zoom lens no matter what camera he was borrowing.
He has also never considered himself an actual photographer.
“To this day I have never really had any photography training. I'm a music fan, and I got up there with a borrowed camera and would fight my way to the front to get a shot or two.”
But the shows Stratford had to fight through were very different than the concert extravaganzas of today, which everyone films on their cell phones.
“It was all about the music,” explains John Einarson, a Winnipeg-based rock writer. “They didn’t have big screens, so if you were sitting far away, they looked like specs on the stage. There was no sophistication of sound equipment at all. Quite often … you were using the house PA system,” He continues, “There certainly wasn’t any sophistication in the way of lighting as well, you just kind of arrived, played, and whatever lighting they had and whatever sound system they had you used that.”
Einarson says that by the mid-70’s, bands like Yes were beginning to use their own PA system in order to have a better recreation of their sound. He also pointed out that artists were starting to use their own, more elaborate stages and lighting equipment.
As a result, John Rutherford, a music fan who saw nearly every major artist in the 70’s, says, “We were always fascinated to see what was next, and what bands would do and try to do to one up the last effort.”
But, according to Brad Simm, publisher of Calgary’s BeatRoute magazine, and teacher in the journalism program at Mount Royal University, they could also be “tough and tumble.”
Simm explained how one time he went to a 1974 show featuring Kiss, Savory Brown and Manfred Mann at the Father David Bauer Arena in Calgary. “You went in there, and the place holds probably 2,500 people, full of pot ... cops all around ... it was booze, drugs and don’t look at somebody's girlfriend.”
Simm further added that “there was a whole cross-section of freaks, dealers, groupies, goons, narcs and roadies that made the carnival complete.”
These are the scenes that one would see at a show in this period, which is what Stratford has captured.
Some of the first concerts that Stratford documented were Grand Funk Railroad, David Crosby and Graham Nash (with a special appearance from Art Garfunkel), and of course Led Zeppelin.
The Zeppelin show was at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. and it was unlike anything Stratford had seen before.
“Suddenly the lights dropped and Bonham started pounding out the intro to ‘Rock and Roll’ and then Jimmy and everybody came on ... and it was just so loud. I was really blown away,” says Stratford.
He says that being that close to the stage allowed him to see things he wouldn’t have seen if he was further back.
“It was during the encore, Jimmy just kind of looked at me and winked and just ripped into this solo that just took my breath away,” says Stratford. “It was just amazing, and being a guitar player I can appreciate just how good he really was, or how bad I was compared anyway.”
Due to the fact that what he was doing was often frowned upon by promoters and sometimes the artists, Stratford developed a formula on how to sneak past the security at these shows.
“I would just sort of work around, looking to find certain allies where they aren't as attentive or someone hasn't quite gotten there yet.”
He says that it took some time to pass different levels of security in the upper and lower bowls. But as he says, “Once you're on the floor, it was pretty easy to move around down there.”
One of Stratford’s low points as a photographer came at a Chicago concert in 1974 at The Forum. He went with some friends and was their ride for the night. Naturally he didn’t see much of them during the show. As he was making his way to the front of the stage, his night came to an end.
“I was about halfway down the lower sections of the lower bowl. I sat at the end of this row. There was an empty seat and some guy at the other end of the row had lit a joint and was taking a couple of hits and he just passed it down the row and me at the end of the row, not wanting to you know ‘break the pattern’, the joint was passed to me. I took a hit and passed it to the guy that was right next to me in the aisle.”
Unfortunately for Stratford, the man in the aisle was an undercover policeman.
“Back then it was absolutely illegal to smoke marijuana,” says Stratford. “So they basically took our entire row out of the concert and took us to the police station, and it was kind of a rough night for me.”
Stratford was disappointed that he wasn’t able to get many shots of Chicago, but even worse he had to call his parents to tell them what happened. His friends also had to find their own way home.
Depending on the show, Stratford would have to spend the whole night fighting his way to the front of the stage. Lots of times he would run out of film by the time he got to the front, and one time he missed a potentially iconic photo involving Pete Townshend of The Who.
“[Townshend] took his guitar and swung it over his head and down on the stage and nothing happened, and then he took it again, swung a little harder and nothing happened. Roger Daltrey walks over to him and is just laughing at him and saying ‘you can't even bust your guitar!’ So Pete like spits on his hands, takes the neck of the guitar, and just hammers it down and that guitar just shattered,” says Stratford. “And that was all right in front of me. I had no film, but it was awesome.”
Stratford says that the crowd at that concert was the roughest he ever had dealt with. It was either that, or an Elvis show with crazed women who would let nothing get between them and the King.
Stratford was almost always at a concert throughout 1974 and 1975. He even became the “official station photographer” at KEZY FM in Anaheim, a term that Stratford uses very loosely.
With this gig, he got to meet Keith Moon and Elton John’s drummer Nigel Olsson, who gave interviews for the station.
By 1976, Stratford left California to attend Utah State University taking photography – a decision he ultimately regretted. He continued to take photos at the occasional concert that passed through Logan, Utah, but eventually decided to hang up his camera for good.
“I didn't really have what it took to be a photographer, a concert photographer, which is what I was interested in. And the funny thing about it is that when I got to the photography classes at Utah State, the photography teacher starts out and they say, ‘Okay, we can teach you how to take pictures. What we can't do is get you into the photography scene.’”
Stratford adds that he could have stayed in Southern California where the opportunities were, but he didn’t have any money or equipment. “I didn't have any way of sustaining it or doing anything that would be remotely professional at the time.”
As Stratford moved into a working life, he started a publishing company that made yellow pages books. He later sold this company in 2000.
In recent years, Stratford found his old film strips and began scanning them into his computer to get a good look at his shots. He was never able to afford to make prints of all of them back in the day, so he was seeing a lot of these photos for the first time in great detail.
Stratford says, “I had been scanning and sort of toying around with them not really [knowing] what I'm doing or anything but my son said, ‘Dad you should put these on Instagram,’ and I said, ‘What's that?’”
Three years after having his son help him set up his account, Stratford has just recently gained 10,000 followers.
Stratford has found his success to be an unexpected surprise.
“I have all these people like Baron Wolman, who was the first chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. He's following me. Neal Preston is following me. He was like the premier concert photographer. The only one to tour with Zeppelin and things like that. Industry people, they're all following me and they're all going ‘wow cool’ and I'm just blown away.”
Stratford’s photos have captured the imagination of those who have looked at them.
Simm notes, “For a guy that’s untrained ... he really got different perspectives and personalities. Like those Jimmy Page photos. Page did a lot on stage, but for him to focus in and get those classic moves, it’s just like ‘wow!’”
He adds, “They’re not just dumb pedestrian photos, he’s taking real shots of looking at those guys posturing in a way that’s iconic.”
Einarson found it impressive that “he captured these iconic pop music heroes in the exact moment in which we think of them. Like Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull) with one foot up in the air, and some of the pictures of Mick Jagger, they’re just spot on.”
He says, “He captured the moments, he captured the iconic look of these artists so very, very well.”
Rutherford said that the photos allow him to look back on his concert experiences and reminisce.
“That’s something very unique about it, this is kind of like a hidden archive. Sort of a treasure trove that’s just been uncovered.”
He continues: “I recognize so many of the things, because I saw the exact same tours ... For me, it just brings back this rush and flood of memories, almost like flashbacks. The clothes that Jagger’s wearing, the guitars that these people were playing, I saw those very outfits, and those very instruments, and the same stage setups. It just brings back a flood of memories about everything that surrounded going to see those shows.”
Rutherford stated that he also took photography in high school, and dabbled in concert photography. He and his classmates found it difficult to shoot from the crowd
“We were not getting that level of clarity and high resolution, so I’m very impressed by [Stratford’s] photographs,” he says, comparing his work to Stratford’s.
Stratford believes he took around 10,000 images from 1973 to 1976 and has scanned roughly 7,000 of them. He also knows that he has photos of shows that he hasn’t even gone through yet. Some of his collection has also been lost or is missing, including shots from a Pink Floyd concert. He has even been approached to make a book about his days on the concert scene.
“I've never had any training in writing or photography so it's weird that I would do a story in photography. But you know, I guess it's not about the skill, it's about the adventure that I had.”
You can follow Stratford on @frommyseat on Instagram to see his work.
- By Jackson Reed