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All The Pictures On The Wall: Acclaimed Photographer Tom Sheehan Talks To Tootal Blog

Renowned music photographer Tom Sheehan was born in Camberwell, South London. After working in-house for CBS Records he turned freelance in 1978, becoming chief photographer on the Melody Maker where his work appeared for the next two decades during the height of its weekly circulation.

His images have since featured in, amongst others, the NME, Q, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer and latterly Mojo magazine.

No one starts out as a top-level photographer. What has your path been to get here?

Mainly a love of photography, and certainly a love of music. As a kid I grew up in south East London, although we didn’t have electricity in York Close until 1957 or ’58. I’ve got a twin sister and two elder sisters, who were of an age when Rock ‘n’ Roll first hit. We had a wind-up gramophone and they’d take it down in the square on a summer’s eve. They’d be playing it and the Teds, or the kids who thought they were Teds, with the haircuts; boppin’ and all that, and me and my twin sister would be sitting on the stone steps watching them gyrate, “rang tang” around. Mum would give us a call and tell us it’s time for bed. And, you know, it’s, “Oh, Mum…” A summer’s evening at 7 or 8 o’clock, that’s no time for bed. Well, it is if you’re seven, I suppose.

In the environment that I came from – my parents were Irish immigrants – the only path for me was going to be Electrician or a Priest. One of them meant dirtying your hands and the other one meant dirtying your soul, probably. I harboured ideas of being a painter but I was absolute rubbish, so I ended up being a photographic printer. Learning. Working in a few darkrooms. Assisting people.

Music seems to have played a big role in your life when you were growing up?

First Exposure: The young Tom Sheehan circa 1969 (Photo courtesy of Tom Sheehan).

I just loved music. The bands that were coming through post-Beatles – The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Stones, The Pretty Things and all those important UK bands – they were so relevant to me when I was fourteen. And all the time my love for music had this momentum; it was growing. You know what it’s like when you’re young; you’re insatiable and you’re hungry for new things. It only took a few years for me to realise that there was all this other stuff out there – Soul music, R&B Music. All that stuff was the foundation of a different kind of music. But what really got the better of me in the late Sixties was the music coming out of San Francisco; all the American stuff, I got into that big time. It was just a place that was so magical.

Can you remember the first record you bought?

I certainly can, it was “Baby, Please Don’t Go” with ‘Gloria” by Them, it was ’64 or ’65. In the house we got electricity about 8 years before; we had a Dansette and each week we’d buy a single. I did a morning and an evening paper round. My elder sister had moved out, and my other sister and my twin, we’d kind of pool our money. And I can remember going up to buy it in this electrical shop up by Loughborough Junction station. They had huge, great washing machines the size of a small prefab, vacuum cleaners about seven foot tall that didn’t pick up dust, and at the back they had a counter with a couple of racks and two of those funny little listening booths. That was the first single I bought; at the time albums were a bit out of reach, they were about 39 and 11, or two pounds or two guineas, or something. It was a long time until I bought an album, and I think price – or the lack of funds – put me off buying a lot of music.

Can you remember the first time you were allowed to buy your own clothes?

The Cure in 1990 (Photo © Tom Sheehan)

We use to go over to Peckham, which is down the road from Camberwell. They had Raoul Shoes, which ended up being Ravel, and they had these wonderful shoes called Sportscasters. They had a moulded soul, and a line round them, and they did them in different colours. And in that same area there was a shop – and I can’t remember what it was called – and when the college boy scarf came in, they had them made up; not a real college one but a “looky-likey” one, and we bought those.

And coming up from Camberwell to the West End, and Carnaby Street, and spending Christmas or birthday money; pocket money on a button-down; absolutely tremendous. We were well turned out, if not expensively turned out, because I was still a kid. You’d admire older kids who’d maybe started work, when you see them in their tonic suits, and that. My first suit, which was from Burton’s, was a mohair, my Mum and Dad paid for it; it was a two-piece, kind of sandy brown mohair suit; it was fuckin’ brilliant…

Is that a wistful look in your eye?

Well, yeah, I think the wistfulness comes from the fact that my folks didn’t have two ha’pence to rub together, and they bought me a suit. Jesus Christ! And I weren’t a moany kid neither, that’s me twin. But it’s that sort of thing, I suppose; my missus can’t believe that I don’t buy clothes now, right? All I buy is button-down shirts, a jumper if it’s winter, a pair of Baked Beans; boots; a zip-up jacket. And scarves. That’s all I’ve worn for years. I just saves fussing, you know?

You’re a self-confessed fan of Tootal scarves. How did you first discover them?

Well, I’ve got a few of them now. In about 1964, we were round at a friend of ours, Martin Ellison, who lived in the flats on Dog Kennel Hill, over in East Dulwich. We were “wannabe-Mods”, let’s say, or just smart people. Our parents, the only time you’d see them smart would be a wedding, a funeral or going to church. Nine times out of ten they worked in some kind of manufacturing job, so they wouldn’t be going to work in a suit. Martin’s dad, he’s half taking the mickey out of us, going, “Look at you lot, trying to be Mods, and all that”. He said, “When we were kids, we’d turn out on a Saturday night with our Whistles on, yeah, with the old Mutla on.” He’d say that with his South London accent; “Mutla”, and he’d do this little routine like he’s doing up the old Tootal scarf. And we adopted this name; it has stuck with my friends and me to this day. Our kids call it “Dad’s Mutla”.

When you left school did you get an apprenticeship or was there a college course?

Paul Weller: Shoot for Uncut Magazine, February 2006 (Photo © Tom Sheehan)

Oh no, I never went to college. Because of the background you come from, you’re always told, “It’s never going to happen”. When your English teacher is saying, “Sheehan, you’ll amount to nothing…”

I was a photographic printer, and there wasn’t even a goal at the end of it. A lot of it wasn’t even printing interesting pictures. Plans for buildings, commercial work… That was in The Times Drawing Office, in Pollen Street, London W1. My brother-in-law, he was a director there, so I kind of got in the back way but I was treated like anyone else. I was in the dark room, mixing developer and making tea, as anybody of my age in 1966 would have been.

I think it was probably the love of music that spurred me on. When I’m listening to music, I’m enjoying the tunes and all that, but also I’m looking at the images. My heroes were these American photographers, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” I hadn’t gone to college and got the qualifications you needed on the commercial side, but there was this other way of working within the music industry where it doesn’t have to be bolted down, you don’t have to be starched; you can just go and do it.

Was it a natural progression from printing to actually taking the photos?

My first camera was thirty-nine quid, I think my parents lent me the money and I bought it on Oxford Street. It was a Praktica Nova 1B, and it had a light meter in it. I just used to take my camera to gigs. Me and my mates, we heard on Radio Caroline there was going to be a free concert down at Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury, and a lot of people that were playing at the Isle of Wight festival were coming over. We went to see the Edgar Broughton Band; Rod and The Faces was there, a couple of other bands. We left before it ended because we had to get back but we were there for six, seven hours. So, I’d go down and take some pictures of that, and things like the Hyde Park Festivals then realise there’s 42 million people in front of me, so me and my mate ‘No Neck would just go to the pub cause we didn’t want to sit through Roy Harper, or The Third Ear Band.

What was your first big break?

Manic Street Preachers, House In The Woods Studios, circa 1992 (Photo © Tom Sheehan)

I got fed up of reading the music press, because I wasn’t interested in Bowie, I wasn’t interested in Sweet; Glam was builders in blouses, with make-up on. I started buying Zigzag magazine, which Pete Frame and John Tobler had set up. ‘Tobes’ was also Press Officer at CBS Records, and he said, “We’re starting up this photographic department, are you interested?” And I went, whoosh, straight into it. Worked there for three and a half years and it was fantastic; they signed The Clash, The Vibrators but they had a huge American roster too. I started in ’75, left half way through ’78, so there for about three and a half years but I’d always wanted to work for the music press, so I left to start an agency. In my first year, I’ve got stuff that I shot for Record Mirror, Sounds, NME and the Maker, being The Jam, being the Boomtown Rats, being… whatever, you know. And then I was doing The Chieftains at the Royal Albert Hall, with a guy called Harry Doherty (Deceased) from Melody Maker, and he said, “Tommy, do you want to go and do The Cars in Germany?” And that was it; I ended up with the Maker for about twenty-five years.

Who were the photographers you admired?

Henry Diltz, Joel Bernstein, a guy called Thomas Weir, he did that fantastic picture on the back of, I think it’s [Grateful Dead] Aoxomoxoa, a fish eye picture of all their family. It’s just the way it’s printed, the technique more than anything. If you like a group like The Dead, or whoever, you’ll see who did their pictures and you’ll be a fan of them too. That’s how it came about; seeing pictures of people like Neil Young, and it’s… wow, this is brilliant. And it wasn’t a brick wall in Camden; it was like a field, seashore or a forest. All the pictures seemed to have a tremendous relaxed element about them, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. To get all the nuts and bolts done before anybody comes in and then give it the illusion that I’m working on the hoof.

Is that your typical preparation process? Do you have to research your subject?

Yes, nine times out of ten. It will be a cold day in hell when I don’t know whoever I’m photographing. And sometimes it’s good even if you don’t like them, or their music, let’s say. Sometimes you might personally like someone, like the cut of their jib or whatever, but not particularly groove with their music. But then ten years down the line, the penny drops, and you go, “What have I been missing all these years?” But that’s the great thing about music, isn’t it? Someone tells you something, and you just go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, alright”. And then later on, you have some tune in your head, you re-investigate it and you go, “What have I been missing?”

Paul Weller, 100 Club, February 2015 (Photo © Tom Sheehan)

Do many musicians have a strong idea of how they want to be presented?

Yeah, I think most people do, but certainly with bands like those I’ve done in my books, they do have a strong visual persona. It’s good to continue that, and I don’t think you can willingly try to change someone’s image. I don’t like to get bands to do something daft. I’ve done a few pictures I’m ashamed of because it just “isn’t them”, but if you’re on a brief for an idiot editor, and it’s for a cover, and you’ve got to swag them into doing it, it’s a bit… deceitful. I don’t work that way; I always work upfront and honest.

Lee Brilleaux (L) of Dr Feelgood, backstage with Tom Sheehan, circa 1980 (Photo courtesy of Tom Sheehan)

The band usually ends up wearing what they walked in with. They look good; they’re happy with it. There isn’t a lot of time for verbals. If you’re away with a band, you’re allotted ‘X’ amount of time. Even if you’re with a band and they’re mates, you wouldn’t want to photograph them when they’re not looking their best. I only did it once, when Ozzy Osbourne pissed on the Alamo. [Adopts American drawl] “When you piss on The Alamo, you piss on the State of Texas”. I’ve got no great agenda in turning the band into a picture just because it looks like one of my pictures; for me to say, “I did that”. We’re all pulling the same bit of rope; I wouldn’t want a dodgy picture to go out of a band, or a band to be upset with the picture. They can disagree with the fact that it’s not what they want, but it’s just down to trust.

You’ve now had three collections of your photos published; The Cure, Manic Street Preachers and Paul Weller. How did that come about?

This friend of mine, Chris Carr, a legendary PR guy, introduced me to Chris Marksberry who owns the Flood Gallery. He also publishes books and he suggested it. I thought, who could I do? And he said, “You could do a Weller one, couldn’t you?”

Paul Weller, Black Barn Studios, Surrey. November 2009 (Photo © Tom Sheehan)

It was coming up to Christmas, and I thought, ooh, Paul’s been away on tour, he’s probably going to go to family… I’ll ring him after Christmas. Christmas came and went, and I thought I’d ring him after New Year. So, it’s about a week and a half after New Year, and I texted him, and I goes, “Mature Lensman here. Want a word”. And within fifteen minutes, he goes, “What do you want, Tommy?” “I’m releasing my archive in book form, and you’re going to be me first victim, mate”. And he went, “I told you to do that last year”. And I said, “Oh, sorry, mate. I thought you were just talking about me doing a book of all my stuff”. And he goes, “No, no, no, no. I’ll do a forward for you”. I don’t like asking favours of anybody, so I said, I’ll get Simon Goddard (who has interviewed him) to come down, or get you on the blower. And he goes, “No. I’ll do it myself, Tommy, it will be my pleasure”. And you think, “What a fuckin’ bloke. What a bloody chap”. You know what I mean? Absolutely fantastic!

Paul always knows what he’s doing. People, like me, that have been photographing him for years, he knows our background, he knows our endeavour, our musical tastes and he furrows his brow every time I mention the Grateful Dead. He’ll come round to it; give him time. He’s still a young ‘un… at 58.

Tom Sheehan’s three books are available from www.thefloodgallery.com

Aim High: Paul Weller In Photographs, 1978-2015

In Between Days: The Cure In Photographs, 1982-2005

You Love Us: Manic Street Preachers In Photographs, 1991-2001

They are also available from Amazon, Waterstones and other good bookshops.

Tom Sheehan’s newest collection, R.E.M. Athens, GA., 1984-2005, will be available from Flood Gallery Publications in Spring 2018.

For more details of Tom’s work visit www.tomsheehan.co.uk