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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.
GRANT GEE nearly drowned Thom Yorke during the filming of the ‘No Surprises’ video, but still went on to direct Meeting People Is Easy, his brilliant rockumentary about the triumph, tantrums and tensions of the yearlong OK Computer tour. Stephen Dalton reports
Stephen Dalton

WE NEVER EXPECTED TO RUN INTO Radiohead that night in Tokyo. There we were., backstage after a surreal Mansun gig in a rammed club on top of a shopping centre, when half of Oxford’s most famous export since Inspector Morse dropped by for a drink. Radiohead had just begun testing the promotional waters for their OK Computer album after two years away from the fray and were clearly feeling nervous.
Your correspondent assured them he loved the album, especially the way it sounded modem without diluting emotional clout, progressive without sacrificing pop sensibility.
But, as we bade our farewells, we promised to slag the record mercilessly if we were asked to review it. It was meant to be a joke. But Radiohead don’t “do” jokes. Oh, dear. Months later, this throwaway remark almost ruins our chances of an official interview with the band. Radiohead are clearly sensitive, shy, soulful types. With very long memories.
“We were insecure,” admits guitarist Ed O’Brien, with hindsight. “The only reaction we’d had at that stage – apart from the UK – was the American record company calling the album commercial suicide. We were so insecure about anyone being ironic, we didn’t understand irony, and we needed those good reviews and record sales. We were nervy because we hadn’t gone for the easy option, we hadn’t gone for The Bends Part Two.”
Insecure is putting it mildly. The trickle of nerves which was just beginning in Tokyo back in April, 1997 would soon swell to a mighty torrent of emotional and spiritual turbulence as Radiohead were wrenched from Oxford hibernation and catapulted around the globe with the most critically acclaimed album of the decade dangling from their necks like a state-of-the-art, post-modern albatross. A fantastic voyage captured in all its visceral glory in Meeting People Is Easy. Grant Gee’s extraordinary documentary on the rise and rise of these self-lacerating superstars.
A self-taught director and cameraman with a lowkey portfolio of “weird little arty films about nothing in particular”, 33-year-old Gee first met Radiohead early in 1997 during pre-launch preparations for OK Computer. The band were nurturing an ambitious scheme to make promo videos for every track on the album, and Gee was one name suggested by their record label, Parlophone.
The director was shown the album artwork and various related images, then asked to submit visual treatments in a similar vein. But, meanwhile, somebody did the sums and realised this project added up to a seven-figure folly, so it was duly scrapped.
Suddenly, though, with two shows and five days of interviews lined up for the album’s official May launch In Barcelona, Radiohead decided they were embarking on something big which may need recording. As both a cameraman and director, Grant was the obvious choice, and he found himself on a flight to Barcelona. Luckily, as a former Oxford university Geography student, he immediately found common ground with the highbrow Oxonians.
“We sort of got on on that trip and I didn’t upset them too much,” Grant recalls, “and I got really excited because it was the first time I’d ever been in that very intense sort of situation. So when we got back and looked at the pictures I’d taken I thought, ‘Fucking hell, I could do something really interesting with this.’ So I wrote a proposal about a month later, which they liked. There wasn’t an idea to do a film but I said, ‘Look, I can do you a film if we just keep going...’ It just limped and hopped along after that.”
Gee’s proposal, which still holds true in the finished film, was to create a visual accompaniment to the scrambled emotions, shattered beauty and towering angst of OK Computer. Following Radiohead through the multi-media madness of a modem album launch and tour, it is less about the band themselves than their journey through the global promotion machine, pursued by hungry cameras and incoherent rock journalists.
“I said, ‘It’s not really about you, it’s about you at the centre of this process,’” nods Grant. “It’s not even about fame because they’re not even that famous. They’re not like Madonna or Leonardo di Whatshisface, They live relatively normal lives in little houses in Oxford. It’s just about the process of celebrity, this job that you never actually wanted even though you might once have quite liked the idea.”
The common ground between Meeting People Is Easy and its parent album is a shared sense of fusion, millennial paranoia and urban alienation. Grant was present on several legs of the tour and while Radiohead slept or soundchecked, he slipped away to capture hypnotically beautiful images of Tokyo, Berlin, Sydney and London. Buildings, signs, subways, airports, highways.
“Making cities look like alien, slightly spooky places,” he nods, “that was the easy stuff for me. It’s more difficult to shoot people in a little room. All the street shots and architecture, as well as referring to the album sleeve, is just trying to say that this music is made in a world where cities look like this and people are shunted around like this. It’s like the slightly fictionalised sets for the album.”
Which might sound like arty self-justification, but it squares remarkably well with Radiohead’s own views on OK Computer. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, for instance, claims that “To me, the album’s more about speed and transport rather than the future and technology. The title’s not meant to summarise anything. The songs are very transparent, it’s very clear what they’re about and what they’re describing.”
Thom Yorke, meanwhile, confirms that “The millennium has got a lot to do with it. Nowhere is it mentioned on the album because it’s unnecessary to mention it, but it affects everything that everybody does at the moment. I know it’s just a number but it does have significance to me.”

HALFWAY THROUGH FILMING HIS impressionistic rockumentary, Grant Gee tried to drown Thom Yorke. Several times. Grant was directing the unsettling promo video for “No Surprises”, in which the singer is clamped into a glass helmet which slowly fills with water. It’s an eerie, dread-filled clip which was promptly banned by most TV networks. The idea came to Grant after six months on the road with Radiohead. An expression of his subconscious desire to kill the mercurial singer, perhaps?
“Erm, yeah, kind of. Ha, ha, ha! Erm… I’m not saying anything.”
Joking aside, Meeting People Is Easy is full of unspoken tension. Although conventional backstage scenes are kept to a minimum, Grant still conveys the simmering melodrama and frayed tempers as Radiohead struggle to make sense of fame, media overload and almost surreal levels of critical acclaim. But being a stranger in a self-contained gang of lifelong friends, there must have been times when the band suspected Grant’s motives?
“They had some worries,” he admits. “They were worried about it being too revealing in a certain way, but at the same time they wanted it to be revealing. But I did stick to the proposal quite closely, they knew what I was up to. There were a few little things they didn’t want in, and I had to take two shots out of the final film. One was at the end of the ‘No Surprises’ video shoot, where Thom was freaking out after take after take after take. That sequence originally went on for about three times as long. And there was another shot which was politically sensitive just because they were bitching about somebody. But other than that, it was fine, the trust stuff was sorted out up front. They didn’t stop me filming anything.”
So Thom did not veto the scenes where he is obviously losing his rag with everyone around him?
“No, he’s cool like that. He’s very brave about putting his personality up for scrutiny. Because it’s not him in a way – it’s just what he does. I was very impressed by that because I hate seeing myself in even one shot, so the way he can put up with being shown like that I think is courageous for a celebrity to do.”
On the subject of his occasional tantrums, Thom is unrepentant.
“That’s the only way to deal with it,” he shrugs. “You either make all the correct movements and dress in the correct manner or you go the other way. So, if it isn’t right, I stand there and look like it isn’t right. You have to oscillate wildly between screaming megalomania and neurosis, but that’s like anybody in any job. It’s just more amplified because people require it of you.“
When this writer met Radiohead in the middle of their OK Computer tour, the rest of the band seemed to tiptoe carefully around Thom’s mood swings. This seems to be confirmed by one or two incidents in the film. Does Grant share this impression of the band’s internal politics?
“I dunno,” he shrugs, diplomatically. “They’ve known each other for so long it’s like looking at a married couple. You think, ‘How the fuck is that dynamic working?’
“But they’ve been doing it for 15 years. So I don’t know the real codes that are going on between them.”
One remarkable drama which Grant’s film only touches on was Radiohead’s triumphant Glastonbury headlining set in June, 1997. What we see is Thom turning the arc lights on the crowd and getting 60,000 people to sing “Creep”, that love/hate landmark in the band’s personal mythology. What don’t see are the backstage technical fuck-ups which almost turned a majestic comeback set into a Titanic-sized disaster.
“The first four numbers were brilliant,” recalls bassist Colin Greenwood. “Then Thom’s monitors went, mine went, the lights went down, and the stage lights on the floor just burned Thom’s eyes out so he couldn’t see anyone or hear anything. He started to make mistakes and miscues and nearly walked offstage, but Jonny and Ed basically talked him out of it, saying, ‘Look, we’ve got two more songs to go.’ Thom didn’t have any monitors for the encores, which is amazing. But if we’d done that a year before, we would have definitely left the stage and our career in ruins, ha. ha, ha!”

FOR ALL ITS FRACTIOUS ASIDES AND FRAGMENTED textures, Meeting People Is Easy is an immensely beautiful artefact – largely because of Radiohead’s music, spliced and splintered but ever present, raw emotion gushing from its pink, fleshy core like blood from an open wound. Grant Gee may have supplied the breathtaking visuals, but he wisely left the luminous liquid-crystal symphonies to Yorke and Co.
“What I tried to do was scoop out the emotion as much as possible and just show frustration,” says Grant. “Even though there are some candid scenes in there, it is kind of empty. There’s nothing you can show about these people that’s going to have anything like the same impact as the music they make. Some of those rehearsals or soundchecks, when everything comes together, that’s a real emotional wallop. So then everything else conspired to chip away at that or pull it apart.”
Although he hasn’t made In Bed With Radiohead, Grant doubts if he will ever work with the band again.
“It’s quite difficult to be friends with a pop group, or with anyone you work with, especially people who are celebrities of some sort. I always think you’re just kind of schmoozlng. I’d love to work with them again but films are so stupid in the amount of money they cost. Parlophone were very worried about this thing losing money, or just not making any.”
How have Radiohead themselves reacted to the finished film?
“It was weird because when it got to the critical stage of editing, the tour was over. At first they were cool, but come the end they were saying [gritted teeth] ‘We don’t want to watch this stuff AGAIN! No no NO!!!’ But think if it was yourself, if you’d been through a really mad year and somebody comes back and says, ‘Look, this is you freaking out!’
“You’d say ‘Oh fuck off!’”
They could always look back and laugh, of course. But, then again, Radiohead don’t really “do” jokes.