Justin Thomas Photography

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.


source: 


http://www.sabotagetimes.com

Written by Oliver Cox — September 03, 2012

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