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See Pics of Beatles, Stones, U2 and More From Japan’s Top Rock Photographer

Koh Hasebe recalls documenting legendary artists in Tokyo, London and beyond

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Koh Hasebe

When Koh Hasebe became a rock photographer in the 1960s, the word "rock" didn't even exist in Japan. "It never even came to mind to try to become a rock photographer," the 85-year-old lensman tells Rolling Stone in Tokyo. "I was at a dead end as a film photographer — the arrival of rock in Japan gave my career new life."

Born and bred in Tokyo, Hasebe had gone to Paris to recharge and happened to meet the head of one of Japan's biggest music publishers. "He offered me the job of shooting the Beatles in London," Hasebe recalls. "After the Beatles, all my offers came from rock photography. It was just as Western artists began to visit Japan, and I somehow became the go-to guy to document tours."

The quiet, unobtrusive Hasebe jokes that when he went to his high-school reunion and told his friends he was a rock photographer, they replied, "So, you take pictures of rocks?" It's an indication of just how alien rock culture was to a Japan that had only just emerged from the ruins of World War II, a time of hardship etched on Hasebe's memory.

"Rock wasn't something that decent people listened to," Hasebe notes. "But for anti-establishment youth, it was a beacon. I was already a bit older, so I was able to view rock a bit more coolly. But it wasn't as if rock changed Japan overnight. It's only now that we can look back and see that rock did in fact gradually — but, in the end, greatly — impact Japanese society."

Over time, rock provided a powerful spur to individuality in a highly conformist society. "Japanese musicians didn't write songs for themselves at the time, like, for example, Bob Dylan," Hasebe observes. "Artists weren't really able to express themselves freely. It was in the Sixties and Seventies that self-expression was born."

The Beatles

The Beatles (London, 1965)

"I knew I wouldn't have much time with them. But then it turned out they were super welcoming — they'd never met Japanese people before. The Beatles had already broken in the U.S., but they weren't well known in the East. So they were glad when the invitation came from Music Life magazine. They said we could take as many photos as we like. Film stars don't usually open up very much. But the Beatles were really friendly, and curious about us. They were like a new type of creature in the celebrity world. Their approach was different — and the same phenomenon was happening in Japan, where there was a group called the Three Funkies. So my first impression of them was really positive." —Koh Hasebe

Jimi Hendrix and Koh Hasebe

Koh Hasebe

Koh Hasebe with Jimi Hendrix (London, 1967)

"A British music magazine held an event, and the editor suggested coming and said there would be chances to shoot. But I didn't know who would be there. I'd never even heard of Jimi Hendrix, but the editor said he was really famous and suggested taking our photo together. I was like, 'That's not necessary,' but he insisted. Jimi was very quiet. I couldn't put the image of him together with what I saw of him later doing his wild act in concert." —Koh Hasebe

John Lennon and Paul mcCartney

Koh Hasebe

John Lennon and Paul McCartney (London, 1967)

"This is from the 'Fool on the Hill' recording session. I was told they would allow photographs, so I went. They were still working the song out. Paul was on his piano and John was working out accompaniments on the guitar. There was an Asian woman there, I didn't know who it was but thought she might be Japanese. Afterward it turned out to be Yoko Ono. No one in Japan knew her at the time." —Koh Hasebe

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Koh Hasebe

John and Yoko (London, 1968)

"There was talk of the Beatles doing a concert in London, so I flew there to be at the ready. It was December and there was a Christmas party. I was told it would be OK to shoot them, but Paul didn't show up, and George left soon after I arrived. John was in a separate room with Yoko. Both of them were happy to be photographed." —Koh Hasebe

Led Zeppelin

Koh Hasebe

Led Zeppelin (Hiroshima, 1971)

"This is Hiroshima Peace Park. It's Robert Plant, Jimi Page sitting and John Paul Jones standing. They wanted to see the Atomic Dome, but otherwise they were in Japan to party. They just wanted to do shows and hang out. They would bring loads of chicks back to their rooms. They got down to business when they performed though. Who knows what they were up to back stage, but their concerts were tight." —Koh Hasebe

John Fogerty

Koh Hasebe

John Fogerty (Tokyo, 1972)

"Japanese food wasn't so well known at the time, but the Creedence guys really enjoyed it. They wanted me to take their photo together with the waitress. They'd picked up some girls in Australia and brought them to Japan. But they didn't want photos taken of them with the girls, so this was the only shot I got." —Koh Hasebe

Rolling Stones

Koh Hasebe

The Rolling Stones (Kingston, 1972)

 "I went to shoot the Stones in Jamaica ahead of their Japan tour. They were recording Goat's Head Soup. They said I could shoot everyone individually except Mick. They said Mick gets nervous before recording. Before I knew it Mick was there, kneeling on the floor with a shamisen. Then they started recording the last song on the album, 'Star Star,' right away. I was the sole audience member for the Stones' recording, but Mick ignored me entirely. I couldn't shoot Mick alone, so I just stood there and listened. After the recording they introduced me and said I was doing publicity for their upcoming Japan tour. Of course the tour never happened because the Japanese government wouldn't issue visas due to the Stones' drug arrests." —Koh Hasebe

Carlos Santana

Koh Hasebe

Carlos Santana (Kamakura, 1974)

"Carlos was super friendly. He even helped carry my heavy camera bags. He was a gentleman — a unique and spiritual guy. He suddenly began worshipping the Great Buddha at Kamakura — not even Japanese do that. People were surprised." —Koh Hasebe

Paul McCartney

Koh Hasebe

Paul McCartney and Family (Brisbane, 1975)

"This was the same situation as the Stones. I went to Australia to do some advance press before the Wings tour of Japan, but the tour never happened because Paul got busted at the airport trying to bring weed into Japan. I was supposed to have been Paul McCartney's official cameraman. I was waiting at the hotel, but he never showed up. I wondered what was going on, and then learned that he'd been busted. I figured they would release Paul and let him into the country, but they held him for a few days and then sent him back to England." —Koh Hasebe

Queen

Koh Hasebe

Queen (Tokyo, 1975)

"This was the day after Queen's first concert in Japan. The audience was all young girls, so I wasn't worried to be right in front. But they rushed the stage — my camera and glasses were swept away — a girl fell right onto me. I had to save another from falling into the pit. Freddie Mercury wouldn't allow photos unless we set up a time, but during that one hour he would pose however I asked. Backstage Freddie had his own room. But the band didn't hide the fact that he was gay from me at all. I think they trusted me not to bring it up." —Koh Hasebe

Steven Tyler

Steven Tyler (Kyoto, 1977)

"We were told we would get thrown in jail if we did any drugs over there, and we were neck deep in it at the time. So Joe and I went to antique stores and bought as many old opium pipes as we could and scraped them. Did it work? Fuck yeah! We wrote some great songs at that time. I just remember how cold it was that day. The reason I bought that camera was my uncle used to take pictures, and Joe and I went to a few stores over there and it seemed cheaper. They took us to a lot of temples. It was gorgeous." —Steven Tyler

kiss

Koh Hasebe

Kiss (Tokyo, 1978)

"They had their official cameraman with them. And he wanted to shoot them with geisha. The geishas were probably more uptight about it than Kiss. I met them without their makeup but they wouldn't permit anyone to photograph them that way at the time." —Koh Hasebe

Suzi Quatro and Len Tuckey Tokyo 1978

Koh Hasebe

Suzi Quatro and Len Tuckey (Tokyo, 1978)

"I did approximately 16 tours of Japan. The first was in 1974. This was one my biggest areas in the world, even had a sake named after me. I got married to my guitarist in 1976 in England, and the promoter Mr. Udo suggested we do another ceremony in Tokyo, which is where the photo was taken. It was the full Japanese ceremony. With makeup and wig. And dress. Which was given to me as a present to take back to the U.K. Incredible — all done traditional and serious. I was glad I got to experience this. Japan was and remains one of my favorite places to tour." —Suzi Quatro

Andy Summers

Koh Hasebe

The Police’s Andy Summers (Tokyo, 1981)

"This shot was taken on the outskirts of Tokyo during the 1981 Police tour. This in fact was my idea — to go in the ring with a sumo wrestler. A scrawny English guitarist doing battle with a mighty sumo giant seemed to appeal to everyone, so with a few phone calls from our promoter Mr. Udo it got set up. We had to appear at 9 in the morning. It was January and freezing cold. We bowed our way into the house where we were introduced to my opponent. We were very respectful to one another. We ate a meal together as part of the ritual. I disrobed, got my hair tied into a knot with a chopstick and somehow got tied into the sumo loincloth. We entered the ring and commenced battle, which mostly was my opponent tossing me like a cork across the ring. I did my best most aggressive sumo wrestling but it was rather like an ant wrestling an elephant. Eventually realizing it was useless I surrendered and admitted defeat. Honor now being satisfied we trooped back to the hotel and I got straight into bed now having developed the flu due to the ass-freezing ordeal. Japan in the early eighties still seemed to be in the process of getting westernized and still Japanese enough to be exotic to us — a British rock band. In 1981 we were hugely popular in Japan and as a consequence were followed by large mobs of girls everywhere we went. They waited for us and watched us eat breakfast every day at the hotel in Tokyo, where the breakfast room had a large plate glass window directly into the street. Bringing our brand of rock music to Japan in the early eighties was an experience that almost felt like a first encounter. We were three blonde boys with guitars and loud music. The fans hadn't developed Western cool or style at that point and we seemed to be regarded almost like alien gods. It was unsettling but fun at the same time." —Andy Summers

Talking Heads

Koh Hasebe

Talking Heads (Kyoto, 1981)

"We made friends with Japanese musicians over there, and hung out quite a bit with a group called Plastics, who were a bit like B-52s-meet-Kraftwerk. They'd been to New York a few times and one member's tiny apartment was filled with stuff scavenged from Canal Street. They had friends who were fashion designers, illustrators (Pater Sato), TV talk show hosts (Yuji Konno) and models (Sayoko). It was an exciting milieu. It was a counterculture that was not aggressively rebellious as were some Japanese in the '60s, but it did exist parallel to the main commercial culture. Obviously our friends were already aware of what had been going on in New York and elsewhere, but they were reinterpreting those signs, symbols and music in their own very unique way. Everything was being repurposed and somehow it all came out very Japanese. I loved seeing stuff from our culture stripped of the meanings we had attached to them. Similarly a new wave of Japanese fashion designers were about to have a worldwide impact — at that point their innovative designs were only available in one or two boutiques in New York. It was all very innovative and not as focused exclusively on luxury and branding as fashion is today. An exciting moment." —David Byrne

U2

Koh Hasebe

U2 (Tokyo, 1983)

"It was a nice day and I suggested shooting them outside. So we went to a park. I thought it would be interesting to photograph them with this woman who happened to be there. But of course she likely wouldn't have been thrilled with the idea, so I had the band sit at the next bench. I shot the photo with a telephoto lens so she wouldn't notice it. U2 weren't that famous yet, and they were really friendly." —Koh Hasebe