Justin Thomas Photography

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