The Smiths and Beyond
When The Smiths took off I was at the opposite end of the country, and four years old. So how qualified I am to pass judgement a photo retrospective that charts their career and its aftermath is probably a moot point. But lack of experience in the field notwithstanding, I know Cummins' photos are the best tools for the job a native of post-punk Manchester from the off, he was personally acquainted with and photographed some of the city's most influential sons, including Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
He also doused The Stone Roses in paint for the cover of NME, but that came later, after The Smiths' demise, after the tragic death of Curtis himself, and after refugees from either camp formed Electronic and got photographed by Cummins again.
For anyone with an interest in British pop the story of Manchester in the years after punk is definitive (and as Dave Haslam and Steve Coogan among others would later discover, lucrative too). It's a phrase beloved of pop theorists that punk 'democratised' music. If urban legend is to be believed, most of those present when the Sex Pistols played Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in summer 1976 went on to form influential bands, including Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks and Magazine, Mark E Smith of The Fall, and Morrissey himself. And thus began a process of diffusion, as a creatively emancipated audience with better record collections and quicker wits than the Pistols turned the 'it' in Do-It-Yourself into something beyond punk's reductive thrill.
Sadly, it's not for being part of this seminal moment in music culture that The Smiths are notorious. In the collective consciousness they're merely dull and effeminate. They're a man in a cardigan waving gladioli. Taken in context, though, those bloody flowers are a gesture of self-assertion, a flag waved for individuality and eccentricity against the detached, glossy nadir mainstream pop had reached in the mid-80's. To his credit Cummins captures this, portraying Morrissey not only as coy, troubled and deliberately enigmatic, but also as a superb stage presence, theatrical, acrobatic, and for an hour and a bit the epicentre of everything for his fans.
So far so good, but ironically it's Morrissey as pop star, icon and hero that steers the book into choppier waters, and gives you cause to sympathise with the band's detractors. Even as The Smiths make something unique from punk's creative impetus, their hardcore fans seem to go in the opposite direction. The most disturbing image here is of the front-row faithful (one pair of NHS specs, four regulation quiffs, five bunches of flowers), gawping at the stage with nothing more or less than awe appreciation in its dumbest, most passive, most counter-productive form. Implicit in the desire to break any mould is the belief, whether you call it anarchy, independence or innovation, that you can build a better one, and it was as much a blessing as a curse for The Smiths that fans bought Morrissey and Marr's wholesale. The band earned themselves a huge and devoted fan base, but one that reacted to music built on energy, defiance and a fierce independent spirit with imitation and hero-worship.
Cummins includes photos of fans with Morrissey tattoos, fans making lonely pilgrimages to the now-immortalised Cemetry (sic) Gates, fans kitted out like their hero. They're unsettling and utterly fascinating for all the same reasons. Following a fashion is one thing but emulating an individual is something very different, a more complete abandonment of independent thought. Worse, aping Morrissey effectively erases everything that made The Smiths and the time and place they sprang from great; punk inspired people to form their own bands, and on this evidence The Smiths inspired their most devoted followers to fantasise about fronting someone else's.
At least the music remains unassailable, and there are sufficiently vivid, kinetic live shots here to do it justice. All in all The Smiths and Beyond is a valuable collection from a landmark period in British music, but it also functions as a reminder of why such an exceptional band still has such bad PR, and how capturing the imagination of your fans can become something all too literal. As a cautionary tale, this should be available on prescription to the Slipknot generation.
(c) Nathan Midgley 2002