I have been reading the Uncut Smiths special issue today and was reminded of some ideas that I’d had about writing an article on The Smiths and history. A few years ago, this article by Andrew Warnes argued that the record sleeve imagery of The Smiths was essentially a ‘whitewash’ of the black Atlantic sources of the group’s music. Warnes reads the imagery of The Smiths – essentially all black and white photographs of various British kitchen sink dramas and soaps or Hollywood figures from the 1950s-60s – as celebrations of a bygone era, where British and American culture was homogenous, conservative and ‘white’. Many have made similar arguments, that The Smiths (and Morrissey in particular) were nostalgic and wrapped up in the past.
But I think there might be something more subversive going on with the record imagery of The Smiths, especially when contrasted with some of the lyrics written by Morrissey. I believe that the images of The Smiths can be read as a knowing acknowledgement of an idealised past that never existed and that could be seen in stark contrast with the upheaval of the 1980s under Thatcher (and Reagan). The imagery of Coronation Street, 1960s ‘realist’ cinema and A Taste of Honey, for example, are all mythical representations of post-war Britain and can be seen as a sly reference to the nostalgia felt in Thatcherite Britain to go back to a ‘simpler time’. The use of old Hollywood stars could be interpreted in a similar way – stars in the 1950s-60s were ‘untouchable’ and ‘unreal’ and existed in a world where the troubles of the real world (the anti-communism of the Cold War, the growing civil rights movement, increasing youthful dissent, the rampant racism and sexism that existed in American society) did not. In the 1980s, this world was celebrated by the neo-liberals and social conservatives, but for many others, this was an unreal and undesirable turn to the past. The imagery of The Smiths and the packaging of the band’s records, I think, worked in standing out as something odd within the music world of the 1980s. It would have been interesting to see a Smiths album, with its black and white photo of the recent past (of Viv Nicholson, Shelagh Delaney or Elvis Presley to name a few), amongst the futuristic imagery of bands such as New Order, Depeche Mode or Heaven 17. In this context, the imagery of The Smiths’ records highlights the absurdity of nostalgia in 1980s Britain.
This is further highlighted when contrasting the imagery of The Smiths with the lyrics. There are several moments where Morrissey’s lyrics address this idea that ‘dear ol’ Blighty’ was a myth and that there is no use in romantically looking back. For example, the lyrics of songs like ‘Still Ill’, ‘The Queen is Dead’ (with its interlude of ‘Take Me Back to Dear Ol’ Blighty’) and ‘Nowhere Fast’, highlight that Britain (or more specifically England) was going through immense changes in the 1980s and that this often left people alienated. With this alienation, there is a desire to look back to times gone by as an antidote to the pressures and disappointments of the present, but Morrissey declares in ‘Still Ill’, ‘we cannot cling to the old dreams anymore’ and ‘it just wasn’t like those old days anymore’.
At this stage, I don’t know if there’s more to this argument. I really need to read the two edited collections that have been written on The Smiths and Morrissey in the last few years (here and here). But it’s something I like to imagine doing one day…