Under the Covers
The Smiths

under the Covers is a fortnightly column concerning the packaging, artwork, and design that goes into albums. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

The Smiths’ recordings have some of the most consistently compelling and stylistically recognizable record covers in pop music memory. Nearly all of their covers—on singles, records, and collections—bear photographs appropriated from the art world, film stills, or variations of cultural-record-type photography found in books. While each cover’s reference unavoidably ties the band to a specific aesthetic sensibility, there’s also a remarkable formalistic pattern to the series of images. While a book could be written on the subject (and has—Jo Slee’s Peepholism: Into the Art of Morrissey, which is out of print but I’m told is fairly good), in the short space of this column it makes more sense to attend only to the covers of their full-length releases. Special thanks in absentia must be given to Stephane Daigle, whose comprehensive “Coverstars” page contains images and cover information regarding every Smiths and Morrissey release before 1998, and can be found here.

The Smiths [1984]

Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro graces the cover of the Smith’s debut record in a still from the Warhol/Paul Morrissey movie Flesh in which he plays a bisexual hustler trying to save up for his wife’s abortion. The allusion is a potent one. Warhol was, among so many things, a remodeled American take on the English dandy figure: arch, passionate, and affecting a sullen detachment that made him both enchanting and unreachable, much like young Stephen Morrissey himself. Dallesandro always gave the impression of a thick-headed beauty, a living statue—in general, a pretty meat and potatoes guy, but pictured here as coquettishly boyish—shirtless, his blond hair covering his shy eyes, innocently escaping the gaze of the viewer.

Hatful Of Hollow [1984]

For their first compilation, the Smiths chose a photograph of a Jean Cocteau model from a French magazine. On the model’s shoulder is a tattoo of a Cocteau illustration from his Le Livre Blanc, a quasi-sociological “report” on homophobia from 1928. Whether it is read as such, or simply as autobiographical account, the message is still clear: “My misfortunes are due to a society which condemns anything out of the ordinary as a crime and forces us to reform our natural inclinations.” Without even touching upon the thorny speculations about Moz and homosexuality, the philosophical alliance is still strong. The Smiths enshrined social misfits and odd manners. If the world around you pegged you as a criminal for being a public wallflower, cavorting in graveyards, foppery, or melodrama, the music of the Smiths would make you a hero. Yet another young man with his face turned, divulging nothing of himself to the camera.

Meat is Murder [1985]

This is the only Smiths cover (in my findings) whose photograph is altered—the soldier, featured in agit-prop filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s Vietnam conflict condemnation In the Year of the Pig, originally had a helmet bearing the words “make war not love.” Meat is Murder has the distinction of being the most overtly political—both in text and in imagery—cover in the Smiths catalog. Much of the Smiths’ commentary was in fact political, but in a social context. This cover reinforces the politicization of culture; that the statement of vegetarianism and animal rights is as significant as any war. Interestingly, the original pressing contained four squares of the image, yet another Warhol reference, sucking out the impact of the image through the device of repetition. (Fun fact: Antonio was once featured in a Warhol film himself, drinking about a pint of whiskey and passing out on a staircase, not-so-cleverly called Drunk).

The Queen Is Dead [1986]

Probably the most famous Smiths record, The Queen Is Dead takes its cover from the 1965 Alain Cavalier film L’insoumis, the story of Thomas, a deserter from the French Foreign Legion now on the run, who comes to the aid of Dominique, a woman taken hostage by terrorists. Actor Alain Delon (who plays Thomas) is shown here in melancholic recline, caught between the French authorities and the terrorists who held Dominique captive. Out of context, it seems quintessentially Smiths—a brooding mix of passion and disinterestedness, buckling under a “world-is-too-much” weight.

Strangeways, Here We Come [1987]

The only Smiths image in which we get a man’s full face (save the totally boring and incongruous The Very Best of the Smiths cover), but again, the eyes are turned shyly towards the floor. This photograph of Richard Davalos (who also graces the US versions of both Best compilations) was taken during the making of the 1955 Elia Kazan film East of Eden in which he played good brother Aron to James Dean’s wayward Cal. There’s something of the dutiful, refined sentiment of Davalos in the film that is expressed in the Smiths music—almost conservative about its presentation, but like the photograph, something reserved and smirking, a subtle and frustrating “in-joke” mentality that made their stance alternately appealing and forbidding.

Louder Than Bombs [1987]

Another collection, Louder Than Bombs has a photograph from the Saturday Evening Post of British playwright Shelagh Delaney. Delaney rose to prominence at a young age, authoring A Taste of Honey in 1957-58 at the age of 19. The performances received mixed reviews, both praised and criticized for its candid portrayal of British working class. The Smiths themselves were always strangely in tune with middle-class values (the name of the band, for one thing), creating an odd image of a prole-sophisticate, Morrissey tromping around with his jeans rolled up like the Mancunian dockworkers, with Wilde in hand.

The World Won’t Listen [1987]

From Jurgen Vollmer’s book Rock n’ Roll Times, a lone teenager standing with his back to the camera, looking coolly into the street traffic with the grace of careless alienation—again, an image emblematic of the Smiths embrace of youthful rebellion and loneliness (sometimes to the point of parody). The stance is not altogether unlike the model on Hatful of Hollow, a kind of sad, drifting gaze.

Rank [1988]

For their live album, the Smiths used a photograph of actress Alexandra Bastedo from the book Birds of Britain. Bastedo was an actress, featured in British television, some B-side foreign films in the 70s (the most exciting-sounding being La novia ensangrentada, or The Blood Spattered Bride), and British theater later on, eventually becoming, oddly enough, the author of several books on pet care and the overseer of an animal sanctuary. Nevertheless, this photo is clearly of her glory days as an alluring young woman flitting around Britain. Perhaps there’s something about this being the live record that sparked this imagery—the glamorized, attentive female gaze is basically the opposite of so many of the Smiths cover images that came before it—it’s the face “put on” to go meet the crowd. If nothing else, it falls in striking relief; the woman’s look is assured, direct, and confident, whereas all the men on their covers had been obscured, conflicted, and slightly shadowed.

“Belated” Compilations

The Best of the Smiths, Vols. 1 & 2

Singles / The Very Best of the Smiths

The American-issued covers of the Best compilations feature two more outtake photos of Davalos from East of Eden, again captured with the same quiet mystique. The European-issued covers are two halves of a Dennis Hopper photograph from his Out of the Sixties collection, depicting a rugged couple at a diner counter, looking disaffected and cool. The Very Best of the Smiths uses a photograph of British comedian Charles Hawtrey, the only Smiths image depicting a man looking at the camera.

The cover of Singles is from the 1956 film Yield to the Night, or Blonde Sinner, the clunky, populist title they slapped on it in the US). Diana Dors, the actress in the image, plays a nightclub owner who falls in love with the piano player. The piano player’s mistress is killed, and Dors is accused of the murder and sentenced to be executed. The story was a thinly veiled version of a real case involving a woman named Ruth Ellis, the last woman ever executed in Britain.

I set aside the Singles cover here for a reason. The other covers seem, frankly, like somewhat half-assed images aspiring to the same visual themes (people, mostly from torso up) but lacking the nuance and poignancy of the earlier covers. Perhaps this is a cynical or lazy way to read them, but the Charles Hawtrey photograph, especially, feels warm, charming, and almost quirky—certainly not the same style of the previous images. The Singles cover, however, is a nice choice; it conveys a tragic, condemned passion much more appropriate to the Smiths.

All but three of their full-length releases (and a good number of their singles) depict a young man, eyes averted. None of the art is out-rightly sexualized, but all of the images, like the public Morrissey himself, coyly suggest a dismantled sense of ambiguous masculinity, capturing the melancholic, pretty faces of boys. Interestingly, the covers featuring women are much more direct and sensuous, all with their heads slightly tilted: Rank is a downright come-on, and the women on both Louder Than Bombs and Singles are shown in a dreamy repose, waiting for some unseen salvation. At any rate, all of the pictures convey a sense of being both blasé and passionate, alluring but evasive, sophisticated yet earthy—reflective of the enormously affecting music of the band itself.

By: Mike Powell
Published on: 2005-03-15
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