Legendary Photographer Tom Sheehan Explains His Iconic Images

Legendary Photographer Tom Sheehan Explains His Iconic Images

Tom Sheehan has been taking photos of musicians for 66 years, and he's got some stories.
June 8, 2016, 12:00am

Legendary music photographer Tommy Sheehan has been taking pictures of rock, pop, and rap's great and good for more than 40 years. This month he has his first book out, Aim High: Paul Weller in Photographs 1978—2015. Here, he tells John Doran the stories behind ten of his iconic shots.

People had been on at me for ages to do a book, but I hate being the center of attention. When I last shot Paul Weller in February of 2015 for the front cover of Mojo, he said, "Tom, you should do a book." And I just thought he meant a book of my work.

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A couple of months down the line, a publisher approached me and asked, "Out of all of the artists you've shot, who could you do a book of?" And "ding!"—that's when the lightbulb went off. I texted Paul saying, "Hello mate, Tommy here…" And bless him, he came back within fifteen minutes: "How can I help?" He's that kind of bloke. He wrote the preface for the book, saying how he likes working with [this] mature lensman.

I'm coming up for the fortieth anniversary of when I first worked with him. You're not best mates with the people you shoot—you have a professional relationship and hopefully a mutual respect. I wouldn't want to be the sort of person who was always getting on the nerves of musicians, trying to hang out with them and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm friends with him in the same way I'm friends with you. Actually, he's just like you, John—except the big difference is, he's written a load of brilliant songs.

Ozzy Osbourne

It was February of 1982, and we went to America to do Ozzy for the Melody Maker. He'd just bitten the head off the bat, so I think Jonesey [former editor, Allan Jones] thought it would be a good story. Sadly, it was just one month before his guitarist Randy Rhoads died in that bizarre flying accident on the same tour. We met Ozzy in the bar of this hotel at about eleven in the morning. He was supposed to be off the juice, but he was ordering these large brandies and leaving them next to Jonesey on the table, so if Sharon walked in she wouldn't realize he was drinking.

I said, "Do you mind if we quickly go over to the Alamo for some pictures?" So he disappeared upstairs and came back down wearing these huge bell-bottomed culottes and this kind of wooly blouse top with bat wings. He went into the gift shop and bought himself a handbag and a straw stetson. We jumped in a cab to the Alamo and banged off a couple of shots, but then he said, "I've gotta have a piss." Either side of the main door ,there are these concrete urns about three-feet high, and he took a piss in one of them. I was like, "Oh, for fuck's sake…"

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He shook himself dry and clambered up into this alcove over the door while I was snapping away. From behind me, I heard someone going [thick Texan accent], "Yeah, that's the guy I saw urinating on the Alamo." And this Texas Ranger goes, "Really? Get down from there, buddy." And the fella goes, "Yeah, and this one was taking pictures!" And the Texas Ranger was like, "Really? Well, we'll take him in as well." So he was taking our names and then said, "Hey, ain't you the guy who bit the head off the bat?" And Ozzy said, "Yeah, I fucking did. It was like a Crunchie wrapped in chamois leather."

While he was calling for backup, I rewound the film, replaced it and gave that to Jonesey, in case they confiscated my cameras. By this time, there were loads of rangers on the scene and one of them goes to Jonesey, "Hey buddy, are you with these guys?" And he was like [puts on ridiculous accent], "No, I am a Swedish tourist!" Eventually they let Ozzy out of lockup, so he could do the show that night. When we saw him, he was shaken up. "They locked me up with a murderer! He was covered in blood… he'd just killed his wife…" Fucking hell.

Snoop Dogg

This was in about 1994. We got to LA on the Thursday, and we kept getting told, "It's going to happen today." Except it didn't happen on that day, or the following day, or the day after that. On Monday, the day we had to fly back to the UK, we got the call to go to his place. When we bowled up, it was at the tail end of a weekend party. There was a lot of smoking going on, there was a little kid, about 12 years old, rapping for everyone; he was great.

We'd been told we couldn't mention anything about the court case against Snoop that was going on—he was accused of being an accessory to a murder. I said to him, "Do you remember the black power salute that Tommie Smith did at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?" And he said, "Yeah." When he was posing, I said, "Do you mind if I just clip these on?" I'd bought a pair of plastic handcuffs from a joke shop at Amen Corner in Tooting on the way to the airport. I did a few frames, and then nearby there were some steps with some bars, and I said, "Sit on those steps there, mate." I went round through the other side and shot him looking through the bars, but it wasn't a suggestion that he should be in prison—it was just a stupid visual.

Shaun Ryder

Love this guy to death. Did the very first pictures of him for Melody Maker. Shot him over a period of twenty years. But he represents the chaos that can come with the job. I was shooting him for the NME up in Manchester one time, and the journalist, who was pretty inexperienced, was asking me, "What's he like?" I said, "Well, he'll be late. He'll come in with his tail on fire. Something will have gone wrong. Something will have happened to him to stop him from getting here on time. And you're going to hear all about it. Then he'll have a drink, and everything will be OK."

He bowled into the hotel bar half an hour late, going, "Fuckin' hell, Tommy, sorry I'm late, sorry I'm late… I was in the car… I couldn't get it started… then I couldn't find anywhere to park it, so I just dumped it. And then a bus stopped and the driver said, 'You can't leave your car there. Fucking move it.' I said, 'I'm not fucking moving it. I'm leaving it there!'" And then, finally, when he stopped talking, he had a pint and a chaser, and then another pint, and he said, "Right, I'm just going to go to the loo before we do this." He went to the loo, and after a few minutes, he came back, but he was like this [mimes eyes rolling back into his head with tongue sticking out and sliding off chair]. Giving it all that… fucking hilarious.

Mick Jagger

What can you say to Mick Jagger, who's been shot a million times? I said, "You're probably new to this, Mick, but don't worry, you'll be fine with me." He was wearing a poncho, so we did some shots and then that came off, and he was wearing a coat, so we did some shots and then that came off, and then he had a shirt on, so we did some shots with that, and then that came off, and then he had a vest on, so we did some shots with that.

So there were four set-ups in ten minutes. What a chap. Totally professional. When you're faced with someone who has been photographed millions of times, you just have to crack on and get what you can. The second time I shot Neil Young, I'd only taken a few frames when his manager, Elliot Roberts, tried to put the ax on it. There was a bottle of water on the table, so I said to Neil, "Why not pick up that bottle of water, point it at the lens and give me the mad staring eyes?" And Elliot said, "You don't want to see the mad staring eyes." I was like, "Look, who's shaving this pig?" As in, "I've only got five minutes to do my job, but they're my five minutes, so fuck off."

Paul Weller

The first time I met Weller would have been in 1978, over at the RAK Studios in St. John's Wood. The Jam was making All Mod Cons. I hadn't paid that much attention to them because when punk came along, it wasn't for me. Even though Joe Strummer was only about two years younger than me, I was seen as an outsider with long hair. Punk didn't appeal to me at all.

I'd seen the Jam supporting the Clash at the Rainbow, a show that had its own problems. All of the punks were tearing up the iron-sided cinema seats and lobbing them over into the pit, and I got coshed on the head with one. Someone like Weller doesn't want a fuss made of him. A lot of journalists, to a certain degree, want to put words in the artist's mouths. Photographers often want to make the artist do something stupid that will haunt them until their dying day. It's not my endeavor to do that or to have the picture itself end up on an art gallery wall. What I want is to capture who that person is at a specific moment in time.

John Lydon

I first met Lydon when I was shooting his brother Jimmy Lydon, who had this punk group with Jock McDonald called 4" Be 2", and they were posing with Bananarama outside of Wormwood Scrubs prison, for some reason that has since been lost in the mists of time.

This photograph was taken around the [PiL album] Flowers of Romance period, in his flat near Maida Vale. I did some shots in his hallway and said, "John, just throw yourself behind this candelabra." He was like, "You're too fucking late, Sheehan, Anton [Corbijn]'s already got that shot." And I was like, "Well, I ain't fucking seen it… so just do it." Strangely enough, he did, and I rattled off a few frames.

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John'll strike a pose, perhaps, but you've got to be quick to get it. Normally if you try to direct people like that you're fucked. They won't do it. They'll just walk off. I was over in New York in 1981, and we went out for a drink. After hitting a few Irish bars for some Guinness, we ended up in Studio 54. It was a Monday night and quite empty. Coming back from the loo, I couldn't resist doing my Uncle Harry from Sheffield's nob dance, but yeah… I went out for a drink with Lydon and ended up dancing at Studio 54. Later on, we spent the rest of the night on the roof of his building watching the clouds roll up the Hudson. Just drinking and talking absolute rubbish.

Richey Edwards

The Manics were supporting Suede in Paris, and the idea came up for us to go to the Catacombs. The piles of bones in the tunnels come up to about knee-high, and in the center, there's a six-foot-tall wall of bones and skulls. It's not very wide, so I couldn't do a group shot, only individual portraits. Afterward, we went back to the venue, the Bataclan, for sound check, and I shot him just by the stage door, where there was that piece of stencil graffiti that said, "I've seen the future, it is murder." I mean, it was quite a statement in itself, but in hindsight, twenty odd years later, you think, Jesus fucking Christ… It was horrible—just horrible—what happened [at the Bataclan] late last year.

When you're doing these jobs, at the time, you don't really realize what's going on with the musicians psychologically—you're one step removed. The music industry is a magnet for all different kinds of people, and some of them are too fragile—they shouldn't be anywhere near it. I'm not necessarily talking about Richey specifically here, but nine times out of ten, whatever bravado you're seeing on stage, they're certainly not like that off stage. Their art comes from the heart, and it comes from the soul. These musicians are compelled to do what they do, no matter what. And those people often aren't made for the business side of the music business.

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An obvious example of this would be Elliott Smith. When I first heard his music, I thought it was fantastic. I was really very pleased to have the opportunity to meet him and really wanted to discuss music with him, but he wasn't having it. A very, very shy guy. Not everyone who enters the arena is built for [the fight]. Not only that, but perhaps he didn't have the [right] people around him, and his lifestyle was such [a mess]. What a fucking waste. Even though it's easy to say that after the event.

Liam Gallagher

Liam Gallagher is how he seems on stage, but only to a degree. I flew with Oasis on its first trip to America in May of 1994 for the CMJ. The guys were due to play their first gig in New York at Wetlands. On the flight, the rest of Oasis was up the front [in first class], but Liam came back to say hello to us and have a drink. I'd heard all the stories about him being lairy, but he came and stood with us for a chat, and then when someone was nipping into the loo, he looked after their kid for them. I was thinking, He's quite polite for a rock 'n' roll animal.

We were heading back through Times Square after shooting the "Live Forever" video. He wanted to get a New York T-shirt like Lennon used to wear. When we came out of the store, the sky went black in seconds, and raindrops the size of tennis balls started falling. We ran for it, and I rattled off two frames. There is often a dynamo of tension between members that powers these groups, but I've never actually been in a situation where it's gone completely awry apart from once. I was taking some pictures of the Cure and something had been going on. Something had been said, and just like that, Simon Gallup nobbed off. That was it. That's all it took, and he was gone completely…

Mark E. Smith

This photograph was taken on High Holborn in 1984. When we saw the sign for the eye hospital, it just seemed obvious for him to blink one eye because we'd been drinking. It was on my birthday. I heard him going on about this day afterward: "I couldn't believe it. Every other time he'd shot me, he'd been dead professional, but this time, he was all over the place. When we got back to the pub, the cunt told me it was his birthday." So yeah, I broke the golden rule that day and had some neck oil before the job was done. The Golden Rule: WCF. Work Comes First. But hey, once in sixty-six years ain't bad.

Notoriously, Mark doesn't get on with the majority of journalists or photographers that he meets. When it was UNCUT's hundredth issue, it had a spread of pictures of musicians holding their favorite albums. The Fall was playing in Brighton, so I went down to take his picture. We went to the venue early, but of course, he wasn't there. He doesn't do fucking sound checks. His missus said he was back at the hotel, so I went back to the hotel. I couldn't raise him there, so I went to every pub and bar on the block but still couldn't find him. So I went and sat in the bar at the hotel, and then he came out of the lift.

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When I saw him, I said, "Fucking hell, Mark, I've been looking for you everywhere." And he said, "Fucking hell, Sheehan, if I'd known it was you, I would have come downstairs sooner. I presumed they'd send some cunt." Now, was that me being welcomed into the fold? I don't think so, but it's probably as close as I'm going to get. We've always got on, for whatever reason, but I couldn't tell you why.

Tom Waits

The fact that Tom Waits is playing a role is helpful to the photographer because he's acting for the camera, which is very unusual. Musicians can have an incredible presence on stage, but usually off the stage, they're not performing. They won't do that thing for you because they're not performing monkeys. You've just got to get in there somehow in that short amount of time you have.

I was fortunate enough to photograph him in 1978 in Scandinavia. He'd just gone through all of that schtick of the poet living in the Tropicana Hotel and all that malarky, so yeah, he was just starting to adopt this character. Then I had another encounter with him in the Portobello Hotel. He was pretty tight-lipped. We had a third encounter ten years ago over in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, in the Flamingo Motel. I got wheeled in to do my pictures, and I said, "I want to do a couple in here, but I want to go outside…" But he said it was too bright. I told him there was a great bit of highway, just outside the hotel, but he said no. I said, "For fuck's sake! You won't remember me, but I've had two encounters with you, and if you combine the times it adds up to nine minutes, so it ain't gonna be a lot out of your life to just go and stand outside." He started laughing his head off, but the cunt still wouldn't go outside…

So you could say that it's helpful that he's acting, but the persona that he's adopted is a gruff one, so I get a bit fed up when I see those stage managed pictures of him being "in character." I'd like to see him doing something else… not something daft, but something a little bit different. The chance of anyone penetrating Waits's exterior is pretty slim. I think you'd have to be a really close chum of his.

Aim High is out now via The Flood Gallery.