Like the contents of a can of pop, pent-up and shaken, The Smiths fizzed dramatically if briefly, upending the charts for fewer than five years, before going flat in misunderstanding and acrimony.
It’s a tale that’s already been told, reissued, repackaged and re-evaluated by a city whose weakness is nostalgic self-mythologising; a backward glance to times that never were. The same strain infuses Morrissey’s early lyrics with their earnest playfulness, just as – grown malignant – it informs his charmless, present day rhetoric.
If the flesh and blood Morrissey is the portrait, best left unheeded in the attic, then these monochromes by Stephen Wright are the original; handsome, Wilde and free. While Morrissey’s attention to the language of pop is seldom unmentioned, his subversion of its stagings can be overlooked. In Wright, perhaps, he found the stills photographer who best captured his direction, as he moulded the band’s imagery, from the cover stars and colour palettes of their record sleeves to their bursting of the bubble of Top Of The Pops.
A postcard sent from Steven to Stephen in the wake of the iconographic Salford Lads Club shoot acknowledges as much. Declaring “a sweeter set of pictures were never taken” with tongue-in-cheek, it goes on to lament that “fatal regret: I should have worn my mud-coloured cardigan”.
Feted though the photos that came to grace the inner sleeve of The Queen Is Dead may be, they are arguably eclipsed by their predecessors, a set from the Free Trade Hall in 1984 in which Morrissey in his big girl’s blouse, a dervish reeling in rosaries and gladioli, sets his posterior into posterity. If the sun doesn’t quite shine out of his behind, then flowers tumble from the back pocket of his Levi’s.
Indeed, barely a wrong note is struck. Only a shot from 1986, in which the heads of all four Smiths are suspended in darkness, their arrangement – presumably unintentionally – evoking the video for Bohemian Rhapsody, is jarringly in-apposite; Queen, after all, being creatively dead.
With hindsight, however, it’s another image that lingers most poignantly, like a wedding day photo in the album of the divorced. Steven and Johnny conferring on the stage of The Oxford Road Show, co-conspirators, the unlistening world nevertheless at their feet.
More than what was to follow, that’s the story of their lives.
(Images: Copyright Stephen Wright)
The Smiths 1984-1986 – Photographs by Stephen Wright is at Manchester’s Central Library until August 25, 2018.