Style Lessons From The Smiths
The Smiths, Clickimin Centre, Shetland Isles on the Meat is Murder tour, 28 September 1985. All photographs by Ms Nalinee Darmrong
A new book by rock photographer Ms Nalinee Darmrong records the 1980s heyday of British band The Smiths and their effortless brand of cool.
Music journalism is always at its best when the author is a fan, and photographer Ms Nalinee Darmrong is clearly a huge Smiths buff. Her new book The Smiths, published by Rizzoli, collects photographs she took of the band between 1985–1986, when, in a lull between high school and college, she followed Messrs Morrissey, Marr and company on tour across the US, UK and Canada. These images, documenting shows from the Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead tours, laid the foundations of Ms Darmrong’s career as a rock photographer, yet even 30 years on, they seem searingly personal. It’s noticeable that nowhere in the pictures of concerts are there shots of any other fans – it’s as if the band was playing just to Ms Darmrong. But then the key to the success of The Smiths was that it always felt personal. Every single one of their millions of fans could believe that the band was speaking directly to their unique worries, anxieties and insecurities.
Morrissey on stage in the US during The Queen is Dead tour, 1986
The band’s style still provides plenty of inspiration for a contemporary reader, particularly one who inhabits a world as image-obsessed as ours. Of course, there is the standout figure of Morrissey – a man who, in the book’s front matter is described as someone who “dresses like someone sent to earth to intervene with humankind in a controlling and purposeful way that may or may not be divine” by music critic Mr Marc Spitz. In Ms Armrong’s photographs, we see him flailing around in blouses, striped shirts and his signature quiff – which remains permanently intact no matter how forcefully he flings himself against the stage monitors. (There’s also a double-page spread devoted to one of the singer’s lurid paisley shirts).
But looking through these performative, but unstaged photographs, you get a sense of how defiantly cool The Smiths were compared to the era’s other great pop acts, with their self-consciously reserved, somewhat ill-fitting outfits and neat, blow-dried haircuts. One picture shows guitarist Mr Johnny Marr and bassist Mr Andy Rourke standing on stage in white shirts, blue jeans and Oxford shoes, looking almost like a church band. In another, Mr Johnny Marr works his way through, oversized blazers, white chinos and an oatmeal sweater worn over a polo shirt. Offstage, Morrissey goes for windowpane-check tweed and square, tortoiseshell glasses. And they make all this look great. As Mr Spitz puts it: “When Morrissey appeared on Top of the Pops… wearing jeans, a blouse, with spectacles, no make-up and very little hair product… it was the bigger revolution wasn’t it? When one thinks of who else was in the charts at that time: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Wham!, Billy Idol…” And we thought “normcore” was a new idea.
Left: Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre show, Laguna Hills, US on the Meat is Murder tour, 1985. Right: Craig Gannon, California on The Queen is Dead tour, 1986
There’s a lot in the book that reminds the reader why there can never be another band like The Smiths. They emerged from a very particular environment in Manchester, an exhausted (at the time), post-industrial city in the north of England, just when the UK pivoted from the collapsed post-war consensus towards the consumerist future. Although Morrissey was keen to record the cruelties of his background, he was even more keen to condemn the changes that were arguably going to make life better. Even in their twenties, The Smiths seemed to be men out of time, more comfortable with the familiar limitations of the past than with the future’s discombobulating possibilities. This new book celebrates the unique creativity that came out of that tension.