To make a permanent record of the time, The Beatles hired a photographer to come up with a photo for Life's magazine cover.
Don McCullin wasn't a celebrity photographer. He is world famous for his pictures of war. Known as one of the century's greatest and most compassionate journalists, McCullin worked in Uganda, Beirut, Bangladesh and Belfast - and even suffered shellshock in Vietnam.
For McCullin, 1968 was an interesting year. He'd been with the Marines for the Tet offensive in Vietnam and covered the war in Biafra. But between assignments in London, he received The Beatles' request.
The world was clamoring for current Beatles pictures. When Life magazine wanted a cover, The Beatles decided to hire a name photographer.
"I was in awe of them, really," McCullin recalls. "They were the most famous pop group in the world, and I was expected to take a total turn from the work I used to do or I did at the time. And then I suddenly had to find myself photographing celebrities."
The group would soon grow divided over their choice for manager, their business enterprise Apple would sink, and John Lennon would scandalize the world with his love affair with Yoko Ono, pose in the nude on an album and be busted for drugs.
But artistically The Beatles maintained a united front, and the musicians were at the top of their game. In 1968 they had just recorded "Hey Jude," were working on their soon-to-be celebrated White Album, and the cartoon movie Yellow Submarine had been released.
McCullin spent just one day with The Beatles. The shoot took up most of a sleepy Sunday when London was almost deserted.
"It was rather kind of foolish really. We just went along from one venue to another. We were discovering, you know, the east side of London, the East End of London," he says.
Normally the photographer comes in for 10 minutes and leaves, but he spent what he calls "a very fluid day" with the musicians, wandering around the city, taking their pictures in unusual circumstances when they let their guard down and were having fun.
"We turned it into a nice day and they were very cooperative. I said, 'Why don't you do this and why don't you do that,' and they just went along with it," he notes.
What pleased McCullin was the fact that he got them to be people and not rock stars, he says.
"They came from a poor, working class background, and they became internationally known by the whole world. And I had this wonderful privilege to spend the day with them. They didn't overpower me by their fame. They were very down to earth and very natural and easy to be with," he says.
Perhaps the most stunning photograph depicts three Beatles crouching over John Lennon, who was playing dead with his glasses on the ground, in what turned out to be an eerie prophesy of his eventual death.
"I feel very uncomfortable about this photograph. It wasn't my instigation, McCullin says.
"He was basically acting the fool and messing around and trying to be very amiable. He was doing very strange and odd things. And John Lennon was John Lennon. And nobody could make him or persuade him to do anything," explains McCullin.
"He said, 'Take a picture of me doing this.' It makes me feel sad that what happened to him finally was he was actually dead, which is very uncomfortable for me to think that I am the person who took this photograph," he adds.
In other photos, Lennon clearly stood out. "He was the spiritual leader of The Beatles, I would have said. He had a very strong personality and, you know, he wasn't the kind of person who would suffer fools gladly, and people went along with it. John - he was a very strong-minded person," he notes.
In another shot, The Beatles are behind railings, among people who had gathered to see what the fuss was about. The people on the street kept their eyes on the photographer and nearly missed the fact that The Beatles were all around them.
The pictures show a day in the musicians' life 31 years ago. Once a cover was chosen for Life magazine, they were thrown in a drawer and haven't been seen since until now.
"If you want the honest truth about my feelings about all this is that photographically I'm not very impressed by these photographs. If I had the knowledge of photography that I have today, then, I think I would have turned in a much better set of pictures," he points out.
"But, you know...I'm not very good being with celebrities. I'd much prefer to be with people who are not famous," he adds.
©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.