How Tom Sheehan ‘nailed’ Radiohead
EARLY LAST YEAR, RADIOHEAD WERE PLANNING THE PRESS CAMPAIGN FOR OK Computer and needed a photographer to fly to Japan, where Thom Yorke thought the band could lose themselves in Tokyo’s teeming crowds. Which is when they called Tom Sheehan, a regular contributor to Uncut and for nearly 20 years the Chief Photographer of music weekly, Melody Maker.
“Like a lot of bands,” Sheehan explains, “Radiohead hate having their pictures taken. And I think the reason I was chosen is that they know I like to work fast, very fuckin’ fast, in fact. They didn’t want somebody who was gonna keep ‘em standing around for hours. There are a lot of more ‘artistic’ photographers in the world,” he goes on, “but they’re the kind of c***s who spend all day setting up their lights and all sorts, and Radiohead didn’t want to get involved in any big production numbers. They didn’t want to dress up, throw shapes. They just wanted to get something done fast, without a lot of fuss.
“For the shots that were going to go out with OK Computer, they wanted stuff that was realistic, pretty much off-the-cuff. They didn’t want a lot of arty old bollocks. That was the plan, anyway.
The idea was to take me to Tokyo for a week and do some shots in this computer-age city, and they had this idea that they didn’t want to stand out in the pictures. They hardly wanted to be seen in them at all. For some reason, they thought Japan would be the ideal place to mingle. Unfortunately, everyone in Japan’s only about four foot tall, so they stood out anyway.”
A selection of the shots Sheehan took in Japan, and others during the year of OK Computer that he worked with them – at the album’s international launch in Barcelona, on tour in France, Germany, the UK and North America – appear on the following pages, with annotated comments from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. But when did Sheehan first meet the band?
“I did a session with them in Oxford, for Melody Maker, just before ‘Creep’ came out,” he recalls. “It’s funny, earlier this year I was talking to Cos [Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood] and he said, ‘I remember when you came up to Oxford the first time. You weren’t going to take any shit from us young middle-class twats.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘we were going, ‘We want this and this and that.’ And you just sort of went, ‘Fuck that,’ and just got on with it. And you were right.’ Basically, I was just trying to nail it before they fell asleep.
“My first impassion of them then was that they were very inexperienced. Like any young band, they dream of playing shows and making records, but when it comes to pictures and dealing with the press and c***s like me, they don’t have much of a clue, although they like to think they do. It’s something that even bands who are pretty long in the old tooth sometimes can’t get their heads around. They can be very self-conscious in front of a camera – they don’t know what to do.
“It’s like most bands at that early stage in their careers – they’re basically a bunch of geezers and they don’t look amazing because they haven’t yet made the records that make them look amazing, if you know what I mean. They haven’t actually done anything yet that makes them feel special. What I also remember was how co-operative they were. They came across as being incredibly polite and friendly and inquisitive about what I was doing. Some of them knew my history, as such. They knew I’d taken pictures of U2, the Bunnymen, R.E.M., a lot of people they were into. Compared to some of the bands I’ve worked with, they were also pretty straight. They took themselves quite seriously. I mean, you’re in a pub and the sun’s over the yard arm and they’re not drinking, so you’re obviously not dealing with wild rock’n’rollers. Some bands, it’s like, ‘Well, if you’re buying the beers Mr Photographer, we’ll fucking sit here quaffin’ till the bell goes.’
“With Radiohead, there was a definite seriousness. As far as they were concerned, there was a job to be done and they got on with it. You could sense another level to them, somehow. I don’t know if it was evidence of their ambition, that they knew even then they had something other bands didn’t – but there was a depth there, which no one can really fathom, but makes them the band they are.”
When a band like Radiohead simply don’t like having their pictures taken, how do you get what you want from them?
“Keep it simple,” Sheehan says. “Don’t give ‘em too much too [sic] think about. It’s basically all down to trust and understanding. Obviously, you want ‘em to throw a few shapes, but you’re not there to get something wacky and daft and out-of-character. I always tell bands, ‘If you’re going to start posing, just keep it this side of Dick Emery. If you get carried away, the game’s up, you’ll look like a bunch of c***s and these pictures will come back and haunt you.’ And they will, believe me.”
What’s Thom Yorke like to work with?
“I have to say, one of the charming things about photographing Radiohead is that they’re totally professional in front of the lens. Thom, especially. He can be a real pro when the meter’s running. He reminds me of Michael Stipe. With Stipey, he’ll give you what looks like it might turn out to be a load of old tosh, then he’ll turn it on for a moment, and if you’re quick enough you’ll end up with something blinding. Thom’s the same. He’s got this thing where he can appear to be totally fuckin’ disinterested and then he’ll do something really special. It’s something that comes with experience, I think. He’s learned how to deal with people like me. He knows now that as soon as he’s given you something, he’s out that door, through the slips and away. And he’s always thinking about what we’re doing, and he can be surprising. Like, we did some pictures last year and he suddenly said, ‘I want to do some more eye contact on these shots, so I said, ‘Superb.’ And we did these shots where he’s looking directly at the camera, which is rare for him. Last year, he just started doing that for some reason. It was a smart move, because all that looking away he usually does just kind of labours the point about him being slightly odd and different.”
And is Thom the gloomy miserable soul of popular legend?
“Not at all. Although I’ve met him loads of times, I wouldn’t say I know him that well. He can seem preoccupied and remote, but he’ll talk to anyone. If you’re a genuine fan, he’ll have time for you. But if some press bloke he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t like the cut of their jib, or he thinks they’ve got some secondary agenda, if they’re not being straight with him – that’s when he’ll just slip away.
“A lot of people might be put off by what they think he might be like. And I’m sure he’s pissed off with people thinking he’s a certain way, when in fact he might be like that for, like, an hour every day. It was the same with Costello, years ago. If he was the person he was supposed to be, the person you hear in the songs, he would have been a right twat. But that persona only existed in the songs, the lyrics he was writing, which were angry and bitter. And Thom is a fan of Elvis – he’s from the same mould. Reminds me of Elvis, sometimes. He is serious, he is introverted. But you can’t write songs like he does without being introverted. At the same time, being introverted and not suffering fools gladly doesn’t make you a miserable c***. He’s just got better things to do. But there’s a side of him which is just like everybody else.”
[photo of the band on a train]
TOM SHEEHAN: We’d gone to an area of Tokyo called Shibuya, which turned out to be a bit like Oxford. It didn’t work as a location, so Thom said, ‘Why don’t we take the train…?’
JONNY GREENWOOD: This was when we started to try and execute Thom’s idea of doing band pictures, without the band being the focal point. What we wanted was to become part of the noise and mess of Tokyo.
[photo of the band standing on a relatively crowded street]
TS: This was just below the railway line in Shibuya.
JG: It was great, because all the people were completely ignoring us…
TS: …apart from that geezer who pinched Phil’s arse…
[photo of Ed and Thom sitting]
TS: This is Barcelona, where you spent a week meeting the world’s press and played that club…
JG: Thom’s smiling, so you can tell it’s the first day. It’s all still amusing and entertaining. It’s like kids starting school. At first, they love it, it’s all new. A year later, no one’s smiling quite so much. It’s all become a bit of a routine. We were doing interviews all day for a week.
[photo of Thom in a reflection]
JG: We went out for a walk in Barcelona. At that point, we hadn’t started the tour, so everyone was still vaguely interested in the world around them. It looks like Thom is fresh out of tobacco. Wondering where he can get Woodbines or Raffles…
[photo of Thom looking at an OK Computer poster]
TS: This is Thom holed up in his hotel room with a package that just arrived from London.
JG: That’s what we sent out, one of those bags, to journalists all over the world. It’s funny – whenever a record comes out there’s a big scramble among record companies to see what amusing or entertaining box or free gift they can come up with. I remember that Record Collector magazine was selling them for 20 quid the next week.
[photo of Jonny and Colin]
TS: The Brothers – you and Ed [sic: should be Colin, not Ed] on the roof of the hotel where you were doing interviews.
JG: It’s weird, you know, to spend you working life with your brother. Most people don’t get to do it. We’re very lucky. We come from a small family – that’s half of us, there.
[photo of Thom leaning back on a sofa with his hands over his face]
TS: This was one of the hotels in Barcelona. I’m not sure where Thom’s yawning or crying.
JG: It had been a long week. Great picture by the way, Tom.
[photo of Thom surrounded by fans]
TS: This is Thom coming out of the Number Nine, the club in Barcelona where you played. It held about 200 people. Not long after, you were playing stadiums. Which do you prefer?
JG: I blow hot and cold on that one. When we’re playing stadiums, I think big venues are rubbish. The sound’s dreadful. You can’t see anything. And when we play small gigs, I think they’re rubbish. The sound’s rubbish, and there’s usually a pillar in the way.
[photo of Thom playing a guitar]
JG: This is Thom onstage during the first soundcheck at the Number Nine club… you can see the crew in the background having to deal with the glockenspiels and electric pianos for the first time. There was so much going on, a lot of stuff to get ready…
[photo of Thom walking up an airport ramp]
TS: Thom at Heathrow, just back from Barcelona.
JG: Heathrow’s not a very welcoming place, is it? It’s horrible…
[photo of the band on stage]
TS: This is from the first show you playing in Barcelona, a showcase for the album launch…
JG: We’d actually done three shows in Portugal the week before in a very small club. We went down so badly, the second night was only half-full. The promoter didn’t want us to play. Even when we go to Barcelona, we didn’t know how the album would come across as a live piece. But after the show that night, we were really excited. We thought two things. The first was: ‘This is really great, we’re playing really well, everything sounds good.’ But we also thought, which was actually very encouraging: ‘We can play this even better’. So we had something to do for six months, a reason to carry on, to get to play these songs even better. We weren’t yet saying ‘Why are we here? What are we doing?’ That night we started with ‘Lucky’, it was the first thing we played on what became the OK Computer tour – that started the whole thing rolling. I remember I was shaking. It was so exciting. I never want to lose that feeling. It would be awful to get sick of playing.
[photo of the band during an interview session]
TS: This was a bit of a set-up, when you were sitting around after the Steve Lamacq session.
JG: Yeah. I prefer photos where we’re all sort of pushed into the background and there’s more to look at than just us.
[photo of Thom on acoustic guitar in a recording studio]
JG: Thom’s doing a live vocal for the Lamacq session. He looks very isolated in that booth. People sometimes think he’s someone you can’t approach – and sometimes you can’t. But he’s usually very affectionate, you know.