Justin Thomas Photography

The writing's on the wall

The Cure saw the future, Peel and Joe Strummer didn't

Justin Thomas left Caernarfon and began working for Sounds in 1978. "I was told to stop taking pictures at this Joan Armatrading concert and I said, 'What about those guys in the pit?' They said, ' they're professionals' - and a lightbulb turned on in my head." His new retrospective features images from then to present day.



is at Graffik Gallery, 284 Portobello Road, London W10 5TE for three weeks, opening on 19 July



published July 2012

Written by Oliver Cox — September 04, 2012


Justin Thomas has spent the last 35 years working as a music photographer, documenting some of the industry's finest and most influential artists through his intimate behind the scenes portraits and captured moments of on-stage theatrics. This Friday sees the opening of When You Hear the Music, Trouble Disappear, an exclusive solo exhibition held at West London's Graffik Gallery that highlights some of the photographer's most iconic images. We caught up with Justin ahead of the show's opening to talk about his methods, most memorable images and the shots that got away...

What draws you to photographing musicians?

I’m drawn to bands who move. I’m looking for that moment when Bob Marley flicks his head back and all his locks flail out like tendrils, when the stooping KEEF brings down his arm or Wilko Johnson does the splits in mid-air with his Strat pointing straight out like a machine gun. It's a challenge, and when all the elements that make a good photo come together at the same time, composition, exposure and capturing THE moment, it’s extremely satisfying, especially if you have captured it exclusively - a unique image, yours. There's a lot of luck involved in 'live' photography, 9 times out of ten you'll misfire, but digital cameras give you the freedom to shoot at will, which was a luxury I never had when I was starting out - I didn't even have a motordrive. I think that enhanced my sense of anticipation. Photographing musicians, is, like most other forms of photography, about pushing your finger down a fraction of a second before you think 'it' is going to happen. It’s about anticipation...if you've seen the picture already, you've missed it.

Is there one shot that has particular meaning to you, or you would describe as your best work?

I particularly like the Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross frame. I had been very moved when Stevie came back for the 2nd part of his 3 hour Wembley show after the interval. He was led to the lip of the stage, and then left on his own. He was using his feet to balance, half on, half off the stage, while he rocked his body to the sound of his harmonica. There were moments when he was so involved in his music that his upper body was almost parallel to the stage, so much so that I thought he might fall on my head. It was very endearing watching him, knowing that he might fall 12 feet down. He looked very vulnerable in his ecstasy. On the final encore he brought on Marvin and Diana, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Motown, was, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest label of all time-joy unlimited, and here were the Kings and Queen. The only thing that might have topped it would’ve been if Aretha had popped up on harmonies. I love the composition and Marvin in the middle, pin sharp; smiling sweetly...can I get a witness?!

Has there ever been a moment where you’ve missed what could have been an iconic shot?

It was about 1978 and I’d been in North London to shoot George Thorogood and the Destroyers and they’d put on such a blinding show that I used up all my film. It was a bad mistake. Me and my mate decided to go down the Music Machine to catch the end of Link Wray and Robert Gordon's set - two fabulous gigs in one night! At the end, my mate went backstage to shake their hands, but took ages. I went to see what was keeping him and the first person I bumped into was Sid Vicious. I couldn’t believe I had no film left, at which point my mate elbows me in the ribs and goes, ‘It gets worse, look who’s just walked in behind you’ – and when I turned around there was Bob Dylan himself! The king of punk and America’s greatest singer-songwriter together in this tiny little room in Camden Town – can you imagine how many copies of that shot I could’ve sold? One good thing did come out of it though, and that was noticing just how small Dylan actually is. I mean, this bloke is a hero of mine, always has been, but he’s just a little fella. That moment really helped me with my approach to the job after that because I realised that no matter how big the stars look on screen or on stage, they’re just flesh and blood...'just like everybody else'

What’s the most difficult factor when photographing live music?

There are loads of difficult factors involved in shooting live photography - having flagons of piss thrown at you by bored audience members at heavy metal concerts like Castle Donnington spring to mind. I was the house photographer at Brixton Academy for 10 years, and it would not be uncommon to have a full pint of beer come flying over into the photo pit and exploding all over your camera; at other times it might be somebody's foot kicking into your head on the way back into the mosh pit. When I started out doing punk bands, I’d run my hand through my hair on leaving the venue and it would be coated in spit.

Is there one musician you haven’t shot, who you’d like to?

There are many artists I wished I’d photographed, but THE one, was the greatest performer and guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix. I wanted to go to The Isle of Wight festival when I was 14, but my mum wouldn't let me. No-one has or ever will come near. I went to see Jeff Buckley as a punter once at The Astoria and was completely blown away by the way he turned the place into a church...a very spiritual occasion...but in a way I’m glad I didn't take pictures 'cos I appreciated his performance so much more. When you are taking photos you don't notice the performance so much 'cos you are concentrating on getting 'THE' shot.

'When You Hear the Music,Trouble Disappear' is open 20th July - 18th August 2012 at Graffik Gallery, 284 Portobello Road, London, W10 5TE


http://www.fredperry.com • published on Thursday, 19th July 2012

Written by Oliver Cox — September 03, 2012

My Life As A Rock N’ Roll Photographer

From humble beginnings in Caernarfon to decades of getting up close and personal with everyone from the Stones to Transvision Vamp via the Hanoi Rocks and Guns N' Roses, it's been a hell of a ride...

 " I grew up in the beautiful old Welsh town of Caernarfon. At the age of 10  my mum remarried and I spent a lot of time between Normandy and Paris- ‘the city of light’. I’d been dreaming of living in swinging London since I was about 10 years old.My mum was very trendy and used to have ‘beatnik’ parties in the cellar of our house in Wales.I used to sit at the top of the stairs through the night listening to all the fantastic music and wishing I could live in London with all the groovy people. When I was around 13 my stepfather was seconded to London and the dream became reality. Music was like a ray of light in the darkness of mid-sixties Wales. Around 1966 The Hippies ‘invaded’ Caernarfon; as a young boy, they seemed like another exotic species with their coloured shades, long hair, afghan coats, flowers and smelling of patchouli oil. I used to go to a ‘milk bar’,drink my Coca-Cola and put songs on the jukebox trying to impress them, like Rainy Day Women, You Really Got Me, Hello I Love You etc, and secretly smoke cigarettes with them. They were very exciting times, it was as if I’d been introduced to a secret society, and i noticed how they repulsed the older generation The 4 stand out TV moments of my childhood were the Tamla Motown special on ‘Ready Steady Go’ (the first time a programme had been dedicated to all black artists); The Who, with the fantastic Keith Moon, playing ‘Happy Jack’ on ‘Top of the Pops’; Jimi Hendrix on ‘The Lulu Show’, when he stopped playing the pre-arranged song and started playing another until he was faded out, and Rolling The Stones video to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ on ‘Top of the Pops’, when they had all their faces painted.

When I was about 11 I was given a small portable Ferguson transistor radio which was permanently glued to my ear listening to the ‘pirate’ station, Radio Caroline, and at night I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg from midnight to 3am under my pillow. These were the ONLY places where you could hear ‘Underground’ music, until Radio One was launched by the BBC to capture the new youthful audience. I was hooked. I used to buy the 4 main music papers- NME, Melody Maker, Disc and Music Echo, Rave magazine, while my sisters got The Beatles’ monthly fan magazines.

I used to save up all my money to buy the latest singles and play them on the family ‘Dansette’ record player. The first one i bought was the Twist and Shout E.P by The Beatles. An older neighbour in the street next door bought an electric guitar and I used to go round and watch him play with my mouth hanging open in awe at the extraordinary sound that came out of the amp when he plugged in. I was quite a bright pupil at school, but i was a daydreamer. I wanted to be a Hippy, in a band, and ‘be free maaan!’ I thought the whole Hippy ‘free love’ ideology was fascinating and wanted nothing to do with ‘The Straights’ or the 9-5 work regime. I started reading books by Timothy Leary like ‘The Politics of Ecstasy’, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Damian’ and ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ by Carlos Castenada and watching films like ‘Performance’ and ‘Easy Rider.’

I started experimenting with LSD from the age of 15, absolutely loved it and the extraordinary things it showed me. I was living in my own little world with music at the centre of it, smoking weed constantly, and I was a great worry to my parents ‘cos all I wanted to do was drop out….. In desperation, my stepfather bought me a Russian Zenith-E camera. it was a very basic ‘honest’ camera, totally mechanical and ‘manual.’ I started buying camera magazines and taught myself about ‘F stops’ and shutter speeds, composition, etc. i left home at 18 and lived in squats amongst the Hippy community of Kingston-upon-Thames. I had odd jobs , kitchen porter, roller-truck driver in a warehouse, cleaner.

I was living the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll life style and started going to gigs regularly.  I’d been to many when I was still at school, such as the wonderful Thin Lizzy and an unforgettable ‘all nighter’ with Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies whilst on acid.

My favourite bands were Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, Dr.Feelgood, The Faces, The Who, The Kinks, Little Feat, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Doors, The Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Free, The Isley Brothers, early Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Otis Redding, The Small Faces, Cream, Traffic, J.J Cale, early Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and everything psychedelic.

I was still getting the music papers regularly, my favourite photographers were Michael Putland, Pennie Smith, Barrie Wentzell, Jim Marshall, Baron Wolman, Ethan Russell, Michael Cooper,etc. I went to see Joan Armatrading at Hammersmith Odeon and took my camera with me. I got up and went down the front to take some photos and one of the security guys told me to sit down. I pointed said “what about those guys there?” pointing to the guys in the photographer’s pit. “They’re professional mate,” he replied, and it was like a lightbulb turned on in my head. Maybe I could join my love of music with photography and make a living at it? There was no such thing as ‘media studies’ in those days and the job description (‘rock n’ roll photographer’) was unheard of but now, to my excited imagination, a real possibility. Around this time punk hit the music scene like a thunderbolt. I didn’t really like the music, but visually it was very exciting. I started buying tickets, smuggling my camera in to the gigs, muscling my way down to the front and taking pix of bands like The Clash, The Jam and The Buzzcocks.I’d been holding down a job as a salesman during the day and went out at night to take photos.

I managed to save enough money to buy myself an enlarger and taught myself how to make photographic prints in a mock-up darkroom I made in my bathroom. I loved the darkroom. I’ll never forget the first time the photo started appearing on the paper in the developing tray-it was magic! It was a place for meditation and I used to get so carried away that I could spend 6-8 hours in there regularly. I started taking prints up once a week to a new magazine called Sounds which championed punk and new wave. After about 6 months of taking my prints up on a weekly basis and having nothing published, I’d almost given up when one week a small 1 inch square photo of Sham 69 was printed in Sounds sister magazine, called Record Mirror. It wasn’t a particularly good frame, but the most important thing was my name credited down the side of the photo. Ijust thought to myself, ‘if I can do it once, i can do it again’ and 6 months later I had my first front cover of Blondie on Sounds magazine. I gave up the day job and joined the rock n’ roll lifestyle. I became a night person. I would go to 5, 6, 7 gigs a week, go home, get in the darkroom, develop the films (it was all black and white in those days), print them and get to bed around 5/6am. I would have to then physically take the photos up to the magazines - there was no such thing as email attachments!

On one memorable night I did three separate gigs. It was a great time and I was starting to get photo passes and meeting press officers ,managers, PR’s and the bands themselves. Although i was starting to get my name known and generally having a ball, the money wasn’t really great. Around 1983 I started working for Music Life Japanese magazine when I had a chance meeting with their lovely London correspondent Kim Yamakado at a charity football match. I started to get regular commissioned work for Music Life and also Japanese record companies who would visit London and pay me in cash for up to 6 separate jobs in a week. It was a really busy time and around 1983 I met an unknown Glam Rock band called Hanoi Rocks through Kim. Their first concert at the Fulham Greyhound in South London KNOCKED ME OUT;19 year olds on heroin! They were everything i was looking for; young, exciting, dynamic, in their frontmen Michael Monroe and Andy McCoy a Jagger/Richards similarity. I started going to all their gigs and mixing with them socially. We became good friends and they trusted me to be around to record all the sex,drugs and rock n’ roll. This band partied 48 hours a day and then started again as soon as they woke up. I travelled with them to Poland twice, Israel, The United States and most memorably, an unforgettable tour of India, where our minds were literally blown.

On one occasion Nasty Suicide, the guitarist, was lying comatose on the floor under the table that held the bands drinks, while everyone walked around him. I remember saying to one of their managers, Richard Bishop: “shouldn’t we wake Nasty up? He’s gotta be on stage in 10 minutes.” He replied, “no, leave him until he needs to go on.” Whilst all the rest of the band were walking out onstage, Richard kicked him and shouted, “Nasty!!!! GetTheFuckUp!!You’re onstage NOW!!!!!”  Nasty bolted wide awake and ran out onto the stage with the guitar still round his neck and started running round the stage on automatic, like a headless chicken. It was so funny and he played a blinder!

They became like my family and paid for all my flights, hotels etc, which was just as well,’cos the amount of money i was getting from reproductions wouldn’t have covered my costs otherwise. The average day would start leaving the hotel and getting on the tour bus, accompanied by the groupies from the night before. Spliffs were rolled, lines were chopped, the Jack Daniels was passed around; we’d watch movies, talk about the previous night’s gig, maybe retire to a bunk with a girl. On arrival at the next city, book in, go the soundcheck, have something to eat, do the gig, back to the hotel, out to a club, get back at dawn, grab a little sleep, then start over again. The drugs and alcohol were there 24 hours a day. After about a month on the road it’s no wonder you go crazy and even the best of friends have fights. It’s a crazy lifestyle and when you’re young you think you’ve landed in heaven, especially as all you have to do is take pictures. When you don’t know the person you’re touring with it can be a totally different story.I once had to go on the road with Iggy Pop for 3 days; he was having a lot of problems with heroin at the time, (mainly that he couldn’t get hold of any).

He was bad tempered and rude and wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in me taking his photo and told me so in no uncertain terms. I was being commissioned by Sounds magazine to get photos and he wasn’t responding. I pleaded with the PR girl to sort something out for me ,but she said she didn’t want anything to do with him ‘cos he was so obnoxious.

In this business you are only as good as your last job and i knew I couldn’t return empty-handed. On the last morning I saw Iggy getting on the tour bus alone through my hotel window. I grabbed my camera and ran down, preset my camera to what i thought the exposure would be and tiptoed up the stairs slowly. He was sitting down reading a copy of The Nursing Times over the top of his glasses. I quickly focused in (no autofocus in those days!) and popped off a couple of frames and quietly slipped backwards off the coach. He didn’t know i had the photos-job done!

Tragically the drummer for Hanoi Rocks, Razzle, was killed in a car driven by Vince Neil of Motley Crue just as they were making a name for themselves in the USA and the band was never the same again. I had got married to a singer and decided to manage her and give up photography. I signed her to London records and for 6 months everything went well. Then the record company dropped us, she left me and I went into a depression. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to give up photography, ’cos in my opinion the mid-late 80′s were the worst for music. My 5 year break had been good for me ‘cos I was losing interest. I don’t know of any other job where so many obstacles are put in your way to try and stop you doing your job. My favourite pet hate was that you were only allowed to shoot the first 3 songs. Then you had to sign contracts saying you would only sell your photos to your designated magazine, restricting further sales and a chance to make ‘proper’ money.

I started devising ingenious ways of smuggling my camera and a 300mm 2.8 lens into gigs and I used to put 4 rolls of film in each sock and shoot from the crowd. That way, I hadn’t signed any contract and I got to shoot the whole show. Guns N’ Roses’s Axl Rose was notoriously anti-photographers and for their first Wembley Stadium show there were NO photo passes available. That was like a red rag to a bull to me. I bought a ticket, smuggled my camera in, got right down the front and was the only one to shoot the whole show. The photos sold round the world and I’d discovered a way to make ‘proper’ money. I used to do the major festivals like Reading, Donnington, Glastonbury, V etc and developed quite a reputation as a photographer who wouldn’t follow the rules. For instance, when the photographers were herded out of the pit like sheep after the first 3 songs, I’d hide myself behind someone or something and try and get an extra song before being thrown out. That way you could guarantee that you would have something different to all the others. At other times I would just go out in the audience. Shooting from the audience is very difficult ‘cos you are surrounded by people jumping up and down and it’s difficult to keep your camera steady. You also have to choose your moment to shoot and shoot quickly before the security see you. I shot many concerts of high profile acts, like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Britney Spears etc. The great thing about these kind of acts is their showmanship. You know you are going to get lots of costume changes and different set-ups, which means you are going to get more publications.

My favourite festivals without a doubt were the 3 Rock in Rio festivals in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. They were over a 2 week period, so if you missed an act the first week you could get them the 2nd. They were very relaxed; the atmosphere, especially at the first one in the Maracana football stadium, was electric. Probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen. I was also averaging 3 hours sleep a night over 2 weeks and was like a zombie for a week when I got home. The weather, the girls, the drugs, the people, the Cachaca, the bands-fantastic!!!!!! I was getting fed up with the constant hassle from PRs and their ridiculous restrictions. On one occasion I had arranged a photo pass via my agent for U2′s opening night in Las Vegas. When I got there, their PR said “you are not getting a pass ‘cos you used a flash at a Polly Harvey gig in Bristol 2 years ago, when we asked you not to” I couldn’t believe the petty-mindedness of it, especially as I’d flown so far at great expense. I mingled among the photographers and went up to one of them pretending to tap him on the shoulder in a friendly gesture, but at the same time dragging his photo pass off his jacket - it’s a dog eat dog profession! I put my baseball cap down low over my face and got into the pit going past the PR girl - I was in! during the pre show wait i bent down to get some film out of my bag and when i got up she was standing in front of me……she went MAD!!!……”YOU! How did YOU get in here!!!???” She got the security guys to drag me out to the backstage area where she started shouting at me in front of bemused VIP’s like Dennis Hopper + Leonardo di Caprio. I just told her to stick her photo pass up her arse and called her a sad, petty-minded, pathetic little bitch, and shouted at her to fuck herself as I was booted out. The next day I drove down to San Diego, bought a ticket, smuggled my camera in, got down the front and shot the whole show. When i got back to London I told my agent to be sure to put my name on the photos just to annoy the PR! 

At the end of the 80′s i got friendly with another band called Transvision Vamp, fronted by the beautiful Wendy James, and travelled the world with them. It made a refreshing change to be on the road with a female singer, and the behaviour was certainly nowhere near as excessive as with Hanoi Rocks but it was just as tightknit and I became part of the family again. One time i missed a flight from L.A. to New York ‘cos i’d been up all night, and got the next available. I had the aisle seat and a woman had the window. After the plane took off she started ordering large JD’S and coke, so i matched her. We got talking and she told me about her marijuana plants at home; I mentioned I had some hash on me. She grabbed my arm and said “YOU DO?! Give me some.” I told her I didn’t think that was a good idea ‘cos she was already drunk, but she insisted. We both ate some and she kept ordering drinks, with me matching her. Half an hour before landing she got up to go to the toilet. I heard this thud and turned round to see she’d fallen backwards and landed on her head and almost knocked herself out. With the help of some stewards we dragged her back to her seat where she was sick all over herself and slumped forward. When we landed everybody left the plane and the captain came up and said ‘is this lady traveling with you?’ I said no and that she’d been to a funeral and was drinking heavily. He tried opening her eyes and said, “this lady’s on drugs!”….Fortunately I was wearing shades, so I just shrugged my shoulders. He thanked me for looking after her and said I could go. I waited on the other side to see what would happen and was mortified to see her being taken off the plane in a wheelchair covered in sick. I got to the hotel and told Wendy the story and she couldn’t stop laughing and told me to invite her to the evening show.  Fortunately I’d taken her phone number and she came along and apologized to ME for HER behaviour on the plane.

There were loads of crazy situations like that on the road-being chased out of brothels with a baseball bat, having a gun pulled on me in Israel, trashing hotel rooms, waking up to find I was in a hotel corridor, being dragged onstage to sing backing vocals by a roadie, etc. Wendy James is currently in the studio in New York with James Williamson, the guitarist from The Stooges and the drummer from The Bad Seeds…..she is not one to lie down, and I know her day will come.

In the 90s Brit Pop threw up some great new bands like Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Charlatans, The Manic St. Preachers, The La’s, The Stone Roses……..everything was exciting again. I went to Oasis’s Earl’s Court gig in 1995. To me it was one of their best shows when they were at the height of their powers. There was a party backstage and I didn’t have a pass. I arranged for a friend to come back out with one, but the security knew me and warned me not to take any photos. It was frustrating watching the band drive Lambrettas around the backstage area, and not being allowed to photograph it. I heard a rumour about an after-after-show party and noticed Guigsy ,the bassist, giving out tickets. I went up to him and asked him if he could give me any. He said he only had a few left, I said “I only need one.” He said, ok and gave me one. I left the party and headed downtown immediately. I walked into the new venue with my cameras on my shoulder past the photographers waiting outside who couldn’t get in, flashing my VIP ticket. I settled down to drink some of the free champagne and 10 minutes later Liam stormed in with his mates coked out of his head. I grabbed him, told him what a great gig and asked if I could take a picture. I managed to get about 3 frames when I was grabbed round the neck from behind by Liam’s security guy.

I said, “c’mon man, give me a break. I asked Liam if I could take his picture and he said I could. What’s the problem?”

He replied: “we told you you weren’t allowed to take pictures.”

I thought he was going to kick me out, but he said I could stay if I checked my cameras into the cloakroom. It was a great party. Everybody seemed to be going to the toilets every 20 minutes to do the white lines, the booze was free and there were pretty girls everywhere. I couldn’t complain, but I still wanted the shot. Around 4am i went up to the security guy and said,”look, there’s history being made here tonight and nobody’s recording it. What about if I go up to Liam and Noel and ask them if I can take their photo? If they say no, I promise you I’ll leave immediately.’ He looked at me and shouted at me “what part of no don’t you fucking understand!?” I didn’t bat an eyelid, just smiled at him…….then he said “I’ll give you 2 minutes.” I went up to Liam, grabbed him by the arm  and started steering him towards Noel. i knew I had to work fast, telling him what a fantastic gig it’d been and asking if I could take the picture. They stood side by side and I said “why don’t you give your brother a kiss?”

“Kiss him? I’ll fookin’ ‘ave ‘im!” He replied and kissed his brother on the cheek. I had time to take a few more before the security guy said, “that’s your lot, now fuck off and don’t come back’. I love that picture ‘cos Liam’s kissing his brother SO hard his top lip is curled upwards, and also ‘cos i had to work hard to get it and it was totally exclusive.

Towards the end of the 90′s, digital, autoeverything cameras came out and a new breed of photographers with them. Unlike myself who got into the business ‘cos of my love of music, the new photographers were a boring career-oriented lot, straight out of college and lacking in passion. People in the crowd were now also using their mobile phones which made it harder for me to shoot from the audience and I was getting bored and frustrated by all the restrictions. I thought it was time for a change and focused on the movie business. I gradually built up a string of contacts that included management, extras, drivers, cameramen, security, catering, make-up artists, taxi drivers and everything else. They would ring me up when they knew a film was shooting in town and I would pay them a percentage from my earnings. All of sudden I was back to “daytime living.” It was a refreshing change after 30 years of going out to work when everyone else was coming home. I now had evenings to myself. I also became a lot fitter because I got a mountain bike and started cycling round London with a 500mm f4 lens, an 80-200m f2.8 and various extenders and batteries in a bag on my back, looking for film sets. I also started making proper money. The key to good money in photography is exclusivity. If you’ve got a photo of George Clooney or Scarlet Johansson that nobody else has then you can ask for a good price in EACH territory. The other beauty of it is I’m no longer being told what I can or can’t do by prissy PR people. I work when and where I want and it feels very liberating.

I don’t call myself a paparazzi ‘cos i don’t photograph people in their private lives; that doesn’t interest me. I only photograph them when they are on location. Another plus about the film business is all the beautiful locations you see in your travels. Recently i was on Robin Hood in Freshwater West in Wales with Russell Crowe, The Duchess in Chatsworth House in Yorkshire with Keira Knightley and Vicky Christina Barcelona in Barcelona with Scarlet Johannsson.

I travel frequently and to me it’s the same as photographing bands on stage, except I now do actors on set and I’m still after the exclusive. The security on Keira Knightley’s film was very heavy and on the first day we didn’t get anything so we went back to the hotel and drowned our sorrows. The next day we drove into the grounds under cover of darkness at 5am in full camouflage. My 2 colleagues stayed on the ground distracting the security while i climbed 60 feet up a tree with a 500m 2.8 lens. Around 11am Keira came out on set in her 17th century clothes and out of nowhere her boyfriend turned up. He was the only one on set in ‘normal’ clothes so he stood out. I raised my camera to shoot but it was on automatic focus and focused on the end of the branches; by the time I’d re-adjusted it to manual they had both disappeared. I was very angry with myself. Fortunately,10 minutes later they re-appeared and started kissing each other passionately for about 10 minutes. I shot down the tree, jumped over the wall and got back to the car. I’d got the photos and they didn’t even know I’d been there - my favourite way of working.

If they know you’re there they tend to ‘play up’ to the camera, whereas if they don’t you get more naturalistic photos. It was a great scoop and made 4 pages in Hello! magazine and sold round the world. I love to get a scoop. One of my favourites was Led Zeppelin. I’d had a tip that John Bonham’s son Jason was getting married, and that the original members may turn up. I dressed up in a suit to blend in, and stood outside the church and photographed them as they came out. Peter Grant, their notoriously violent manager saw me and approached me. I thought he was going to smash my cameras but he just smiled, asked if i was having a nice day and getting good pictures and walked away. He seemed like the perfect English gentlemen……don’t always believe what you read! I followed the cars to a hotel. it was a lovely day and I spent the afternoon in the garden drinking Guinness and smoking Ganja. Come the evening everyone was getting drunk, so I decided to move into the dancing room and mingle with the guests. A support band played ,then before i knew it someone announced “ladies and gentlemen, Led Zeppelin!” There were John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page 10 feet in front of me on a little stage playing to a 150 people. They hadn’t played together for 10 years and did 5 songs…….probably one of my favourite gigs. Also, my photos sold round the world.

I did The Rolling Stones at the 100 club in Oxford St, when they played to about 250 people. I think Mick Jagger got a bit pissed off with me popping my flash gun off from 5 yards in front of him. He aimed a bucket of water at me, but luckily I saw it coming, ducked and it hit my girlfriend in the face, flattening her 80′s ‘big hair’ and smudging all her mascara. She wasn’t happy, but I told her she’d been anointed! I also saw the genius of Prince at a small club called Les Bains Douches in Paris playing tom 100 people. He came on at 4am and played until 6am….absolutely fantastic. I didn’t bother taking a camera ‘cos Prince’s security are 2nd to none.I had been thrown out of his concert that night at Bercy. His security had taken me backstage, ripped the film out of my camera and stripped me down to my pants. When I asked them if they wanted them off they just laughed, threw me out the side door in my pants and threw my trainers after me, which was just as well as I’d managed to ‘bollox’ a coupla rolls of film in my pants….front cover, Melody Maker monsieur!!

I very rarely shoot bands now, though I did do 2 Pete Doherty videos, although not officially……..Likewise, i got the exclusive first reunion video of Robbie Williams with Take That, on the River Thames which sold VERY well. I also saw an amazing new band called Pinkunoizu at a little bar in Hoxton a few months back….so refreshingly good.

In 2008 I had my first exhibition in Brighton called The Sunshine Bores The Daylights Out Of Me, named after The Rolling Stones song and based on my black and white photos. It did very well and got good press, like a double page centre spread in The Independent newspaper and double spreads in Mojo and The Word magazines.

Come on down sweet Virginia to my new one, When you hear the Music, Trouble Disappear from 20th July at Graffik gallery 284 Portobello Road.



Written by Oliver Cox — September 03, 2012

From punk and reggae to Britpop and beyond: Exhibition of rare photos from past 35 years shows Blondie, Sex Pistols, Blur... and Prince in black panties

He was there among the sea of snarling headbangers and chilled-out fans of reggae as well as the moonwalking masses. For 35 years, Justin Thomas has worked as a music photographer, chronicling the likes of punk and rock 'n' roll, through to Britpop and beyond. His lens has captured artistes at the height of their powers - among them, The Clash, Blondie, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, The Rollings Stones, Michael Jackson, Blur, Nirvana and Radiohead. Now, his work is being shown for the first time in a dazzling exhibition, When You Hear The Music, Trouble Disappear (a lyric from the Stones song Can You Hear The Music), which features several unseen images of some of music’s most acclaimed talent. The exhibition, at the Graffik Gallery in Portobello Road, west London, kicks off in the early Seventies with behind-the-scenes portraits and on-stage theatrics of the biggest stars in the music business with the likes of Iggy Pop and The Who.  As the career of the now 55-year-old celebrity snapper progressed, early portraits of singers such as Sid Vicious, Diana Ross and Bob Marley were followed by those of bands including the Stone Roses and Oasis. Justin, from Caernarfon, north Wales, began taking photos at gigs when he was 18 and it soon became his passion.

Justin said: 'The Clash were my favourite band of the time, they had so much energy! It was very difficult to shoot them 'cos it was impossible to stand still, you would be moved from pillar to post by the crowd. The Music Machine had elevated areas on each side of the stage, so I made sure I was at the head of the queue and secured a position up there. The moment they came on, I climbed up onto one of the speakers. The security were telling me to get down but there was no way they could get to me. I could take my photos without being nudged every five seconds. The place was packed - many of the fans had got in by climbing through the toilet windows and it was well over capacity. Towards the end of the show, I got a frame of Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 jumping off the speaker on the other side and just missing Paul Simenon's head. On the next song, Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols came on... and as far as I know, it was the only time The Pistols and The Clash shared a stage together. Another scoop!'

Justin said: 'I'd missed Marley's legendary gig at The Lyceum and the album was on my turntable constantly. I was a huge fan and was determined to get shots of him at The Crystal Palace Bowl. There was a big lake in front of the stage which must have been 100 feet from the front row of the audience. I realised the only way I would get any frames would be to shoot from the water I left my case with a friend, put four films in my rolled-up shirt sleeves and a couple of spliffs in my top pocket and waded in holding my camera above my head. There was lots of duckweed and it was very difficult to stay upright with the water over my waist. Towards the end, I managed to get closer to the stage but there were about 100 diehard fans there as well and it was extremely slippery. I was worried about falling in the water and ruining my camera and film, as I had already dropped one used roll in the water whilst changing film. It was fantastic to get that close to him especially as it turned out to be his last ever London show. There were no signs that cancer had already taken hold of him and he played one of the most dynamic, spiritual sets it's ever been my pleasure to witness. A true legend!'

Justin said: 'Wilco Johnson was the most exciting guitar player I ever saw. I saw Dr Feelgood loads of times and their shows were absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking photos of bands at that time - or rather, fortunately, 'cos I could enjoy their concerts more. When you are taking photos, you don't tend to notice the music or the performance so much as you are concentrating on getting the shot. So I was very happy when he joined Ian Dury's Blockheads for a Christmas show. I only recently discovered the negs for this show - and they probably pleased me more than any other because Wilco was my all-time hero. An abiding memory is going backstage as an 18-year-old at Kingston Polytechnic and he shared his pharmaceuticals with me. That would never happen nowadays.'

Justin said: 'I did The Rolling Stones secret gig at the 100 Club when they played to about 250 people. They could easily have got another 1,000 in as everyone was crushed down the front, trying to get as close as possible. It was a sweltering bank holiday weekend and Oxford Street was deserted. In the end, they were dragging bemused tourists off the street into what would be their greatest rock 'n' roll experience ever. They played for ages, with Mick asking what we'd like to hear next. Sweat was dripping off the ceiling and my lens kept steaming up. I think Jagger got a bit pi**ed off with me popping my flash gun off from five yards in front of him. He aimed a bucket of water at me but luckily I saw it coming, ducked and it hit my girlfriend in the face, flattening her 80s' 'big hair' and smugged all her mascara. She wasn't happy but I told her she'd been annointed! What a gig, ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rock n' roll band in the world.'

Justin said: 'I'd gone to The Lyceum to photograph someone called Prince (pictured right at the venue, in the Strand in June 1981). All I knew about him was that he was an American artist and this was his first London show. When he came on, I remember all the photographers in the pit looking at one another and saying "WTF!". This diminutive figure came on in a dirty old man's raincoat with a "rude boy" badge on it, black stockings, black panties and high heels in different colours. When I turned round, the audience were going mental before he'd played a note, and then when he did, I understood why! Prince is an extraordinary talent. I've seen most of his tours and lots of his legendary after-show gigs My favourite was at Les Bains Douches in Paris when he came on at 4am and played until 7am for 150 people. He's an absolute genius!'

Justin said: 'I'd been commissioned by a Japanese record company to go up to Blackpool to photograph The Stone Roses. I'd heard a few tracks but I'd never seen them before. When I got to the beautiful Empress Ballroom, it was like a scene from hippy days - everyone was sat down and the vibe was 'E'. It was a wonderful gig and the band blew me away with their power. The deal with the Japanese was that I handed over all my film at the end of the show. I'd shot about nine or 10 rolls of colour but I was so impressed that for the encore I shot one roll of black and kept it for myself. I wish I'd kept more! I've never seen any of my colour shots to this day... somewhere, in the vaults of a Japanese record company are hundreds of unseen colour transparencies of a legendary gig.'

Justin said: 'I love to get a scoop. One of my favourites was Led Zeppelin. I'd had a tip that John Bonham's son, Jason, was getting married and that the original members may turn up. I dressed up in a suit to blend in and stood outside the church and photographed them as they came out. Peter Grant, their notoriously violent manager, saw me and approached me. I thought he was going to smash my cameras but he just smiled, asked if I was having a nice day and getting good pictures and walked away. He seemed like the perfect English gentleman - don't always believe what you read! I followed the cars to a hotel. It was a lovely day and I spent the afternoon in the garden drinking Guinness and smoking. Come the evening, everyone was getting drunk so I decided to move into the dancing room and mingle with the guests. A support band played then, before i knew it, someone announced, "ladies and gentlemen, Led Zeppelin" and there were John Paul Jones, Robert Plant  and Jimmy Page 10ft in front of me on a little stage playing to a 150 people. They hadn't played together for 10 years and did five songs - probably one of my favourite gigs. My photos sold round the world.'

Justin said: 'Guns n' Roses's Axl Rose was notoriously anti-photographers, even going into the crowd to attack one, and for their first Wembley Stadium show, there were no photo passes available. That was like a red rag to a bull to me. I bought a ticket, smuggled my camera in, got right down the front and was the only one to shoot the whole show.'

Justin said: 'I persuaded my agent that it was worth sending me to Bangkok for the start of Michael Jackson's Eastern tour under the premise that "you never know what might happen". I managed to buy an overpriced ticket from a tout. When I got to the venue, it was bristling with security and full body searches were going on. I got the girl who was with me to put the body of the camera in the waist band of her skirt, I hid my big 300m lens in the sleeve of my Levi jacket and had six rolls of film in each sock. We got in. I said to her, "I'm going in there" and she looked at me as if I was mad when I pointed to the packed crowd in front of the stage. It was unbearably hot but fortunately I was taller than the average Thai so at least I could breathe! When I emerged, the girl was laughing because it looked like I'd just been for a swim - my clothes were soaked through. We both sat on a friend's motorbike and it took us ages to get to the PA office. In those days, it took an eternity to wire photos but by 5am I'd managed to send about 20 frames. I got back to the hotel, freshened up and just as I was about to leave for the airport, I was handed a fax from my agent informing me that Jackson had been accused of child abuse. I was ahead of the pack, flying home with an exclusive while everyone else was flying in.'

Justin's photographs are on display at the Graffik Gallery in Notting Hill, London from July 20 to August 2. See www.facebook.com/GraffikGallery


PUBLISHED: 21:44, 12 July 2012 | UPDATED: 23:16, 12 July 2012


Written by Oliver Cox — September 03, 2012

Rock photographer Justin Thomas on his front row run-in with Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger tried to soak him and Iggy Pop told him exactly where to stick his camera. But that didn’t stop photographer Justin Thomas from forging a career on rock’s frontline, writes Nathan Bevan

You can tell just by looking at Mick Jagger’s eyes that he’s not a happy man. Wringing wet with sweat in the packed, pokey and non-air conditioned confines of London’s compact and bijou 100 Club for a secret Rolling Stones gig – a warm-up for the band’s 1982 European tour – he’s clearly taken exception to the man from Caernarfon who keeps pushing a camera in his face.“Those were proper evils he was giving me, it’s true,” laughs Justin Thomas, a veteran music photographer from North Wales in whose latest exhibition of rock photography the prized snap features.“It was on a boiling hot bank holiday and it was like an oven in there, so I think the flashbulb on my little Olympus constantly going off was starting to go down particularly badly with him. In fact, Mick got so angry he picked up one of the buckets of water that had been stored at the side of the stage to cool down the band and threw it right at me.” Luckily though, Thomas saw it coming and managed to get out of the way. “My girlfriend wasn’t so quick, however, and got the contents of it full force in the face,” he adds. “She had this big ’80s hairdo which got completely flattened, plus her mascara was running and her glasses had been knocked off, so she decided to storm off home. “I couldn’t believe it though and was like, ‘What do you mean you’re leaving? You’ve just been anointed!’” roars Thomas, who stuck around to the end and still proclaims the gig to be one of the best he’s ever seen the legendary British rockers perform. Nevertheless, incensing one of the world’s biggest musical icons to the point where he tries to soak you probably wasn’t exactly what the 50-something snapper’s parents had in mind when they bought him his first childhood camera. “It was an old Russian model called a Zenit-E, which I taught myself to use. I think it was a last-ditch effort on their behalf to put me on the straight and narrow. I was somewhat of a handful as a lad, to put it mildly. An avid music fan – “I’d listen to Radio Caroline under the bed sheets until three in the morning and couldn’t get enough of acts like Jimi Hendrix and The Who” – it wasn’t until he attended a Joan Armatrading concert at the Hammersmith Odeon that the penny dropped for Thomas. “I went down the front trying to get some shots and got told by security to sit back down. So I asked why those other blokes who were in the pit taking pictures were allowed to carry on and got told, ‘Oh, they’re professionals’. Right then and there a light bulb went off in my head – I’d had absolutely no idea you could even make a living doing that.” So, with money he made working several dead-end day jobs, Thomas bought himself tickets to as many small club gigs as he could, virtually taking up nocturnal residency at venues like The Marquee and Dingwalls in order to build up a saleable portfolio of pics. “That said, it wasn’t until 1976 that, after six months of trying, I got my first photo published and decided to make a proper go of it,” he recalls. “It was a shot of (UK punk band) Sham 69 and, while it was only about an inch high on one of the pages of the now defunct Record Mirror, I got real buzz from the fact it had my name printed down the side. I realised then that if I could do it once I could do it again, you know.” And while he’s quick to admit that the ‘pay was lousy’, there were certain perks that made up for the lack of financial remuneration. “Every now and again some band’s management would stump up the cash for me to go on the road with them and I ended up seeing some pretty wild things and going to a host of amazing places like India and Israel. I remember touring with this Finnish glam band called Hanoi Rocks who were these completely bonkers 19-year-olds who I thought were going to be massive. Probably would have been too had their drummer not been killed in a drink-driving car crash involving (Motley Crue singer) Vince Neil in 1985, after which they made the decision to split up. But as far as the old cliche about sex, drugs and rock and roll goes, they were a band that lived it to the full.” 

“I went on the road with Iggy Pop in the early ’80s,” sighs Thomas, the Godfather of Punk having come to the UK to promote his LP called Party. “He wasn’t in a good place both personally or professionally at the time, in fact he was a real pain in the backside and the rudest, most miserable bloke it’s ever been my misfortune to meet. He was in the throes of a big drug problem back then, the main problem being the difficulty he was having getting his hands on any, and as a result he was really grumpy and kept refusing to have his photo taken. So, on the final morning, I sneaked onto the bus, popped off a few frames and legged it,” he laughs, the result being an amusingly off-guard and incongruous portrait of the rock wildman sporting reading glasses and a big toothless grin while perusing a copy of Nursing Times magazine. But capturing other legendary acts like James Brown, Prince and Blondie onstage proved to be Thomas’s forté, and soon he found himself having to devise new and devious ways to secure the money shot. “My biggest hate about photographing gigs has always been the many restrictions that get put on you, like only having the duration of the first three songs to get what you need before being turfed out. As a result everyone would get exactly the same shots, making it really hard to find buyers for them. So I’d stash my camera up my jacket sleeve and my rolls of film in my socks so I could gain entry without being herded in and out with all the other snappers." And Thomas’ shot of reggae star Bob Marley, in full flow with dreadlocks flying, at the Crystal Palace Bowl in June 1980 is a prime example of that enterprising spirit, Thomas wading chest deep into a lake of water at the foot of the stage to gain the best vantage point. “I tucked rolls of film in my shirt sleeve, held my camera at head height and did all I could not to slip and disappear under the surface. Actually, I dropped a roll while changing the film over, so there’s probably still lots of undeveloped pics of Bob Marley somewhere in the sludge at the bottom of that lake.”

Even more amazingly, these photographs from Thomas’ 35-year career had simply been gathering dust in boxes under the bed at his Brixton flat, and might still be there had his then neighbour not noticed them and nagged him into holding his first exhibition. “I owe her one, she gave me the kick up the jacksy I needed. Problem was that, because I used to develop and process my films in my bathroom, a lot of the negatives were scratched and blemished, so it’s taken me a long time to retouch them all.” Nevertheless, despite the many incredible images he’s captured over the decades, he admits that the painful memory of one missed opportunity still haunts him. “It was about 1978 and I’d been in North London to shoot George Thorogood and the Destroyers and they’d put on such a blinding show that I used up all my film. Turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made because, a little later on I ended up bumping into (Sex Pistol) Sid Vicious backstage at another gig. I was like, ‘Bloody hell, I can’t believe I’ve no film left’, at which point my mate elbows me in the ribs and goes, ‘It gets worse, look who’s just walked in behind you’ – and when I turned around there was Bob Dylan himself! The king of punk and America’s greatest singer-songwriter together in this tiny little room in Camden Town – can you imagine how many copies of that shot I could’ve sold? One good thing did come out of it though, and that was noticing just how small Dylan actually is. I mean, this bloke is a hero of mine, always has been, but he’s just a little fella. That really helped me with my approach to the job after that because I realised that no matter how big the stars look on screen or on stage, they’re just ordinary people.”

But these days you’re more likely to find Thomas haunting the periphery of major film sets than sold-out concert halls as he goes in search of the elusive images that’ll earn him the biggest pay cheques. “I do stuff for all the daily papers and your Hello!-type magazines,” he says, naming the Pembrokeshire beaches of Freshwater West where they filmed the big-budget Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood as the site of a recent high-profile stake-out. “One of the funniest assignments though was trying to get a shot of (actress) Keira Knightly while she was making the period film The Dutchess at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire a few years ago. Honestly, the security on that set was like the SAS or something and, in order to get any photos at all, I had to scale a 70ft tree at 5am dressed in full camouflage gear and using a long lens. And the minute I got what I needed I had to hotfoot it out of there sharpish,” he laughs. “It was great fun – just like being a naughty boy again.”

When you Hear the Music, Trouble Disappear by Justin Thomas opens at London’s Graffik Gallery on July 19. Call 0208 354 3592 for more information



Written by Oliver Cox — September 03, 2012

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