The Smiths have it all covered – a celebration of the band’s iconic artwork

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The Smiths album art

The Smiths artwork

With the digital age hastening the demise of the record sleeve as an art-form, Getintothis’ Del Pike fondly recalls the cover art of The Smiths – and yearns for a time when people took cover art seriously.

In an era where cover art for music is becoming almost irrelevant as the majority of buyers are taking the digital route, it is difficult for many, particularly younger music fans, to appreciate how important record covers were once considered. Classic covers like Pop art icon Peter Blake’s work for The BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 are obvious examples of ground-breaking marketing and zeitgeist art, and The Beatles themselves, particularly McCartney had a great deal of input into the packaging of their albums, particularly in their later period.

Cover art has since become the subject of many coffee table books and exhibitions with labels such as the legendary Jazz imprint Blue Note having become as famous for their covers as their content. The recent Hipgnosis – Portraits book further highlights how important the work of album cover artists was, particularly during the period between the 60s and 80s.

The many who spent their teenage years in the 1980s as die-hard Smiths fans will be in no doubt as to the importance of album covers, and to a greater extent singles cover art work. The magic of The Smiths, and possibly the secret to their enduring status as indie icons, is tied up in the fact that with The Smiths it wasn’t simply enough to like their music. Morrissey, very much at the forefront of the Smithsonian design for life and ever-present in the pages of NME and Smash Hits, proclaimed the virtues of vegetarianism, celibacy, anti-royalism and intellectual desires for Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote alongside more carnal desires for Elvis, James Dean and Billy Fury.

Coronation Street, A Taste of Honey and Albert Finney represented Morrissey’s natural passion for all things Northern whilst keeping one foot firmly in the South with his fascination for the capital danger of boxing rings, the Kray Twins and Diana Dors. As Morrissey stated on the 1987 South Bank Show, “The Smiths create their own environment, and you can either go in or you can say, I want Diana Ross instead”.

This whole palette of influences was there for all to see in the collaboration between Morrissey and graphic artist Jo Slee who joined forces throughout the whole of the Smiths‘ lifespan to create a canon of work through cover design that created this world of Smiths; monochrome images as seen through the wrappers of Quality Street with perfectly selected fonts and heroically camp homo-erotica at the fore.

From their debut single, Hand in Glove in 1983, right throughout their reign, the covers demanded to be devoured, and with each release fans would not solely anticipate who would adorn the cover but also what colour the label would be and what artful nugget of Moz wisdom would be etched into the run out groove. Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis gave The Smiths pretty much free rein on their packaging so the standard Rough Trade label would often be tailored to colour co-ordinate the tint of the sleeve.

Hand in Glove’s blue and silver label for example, reflected the beautiful accompanying sleeve that immediately threw the band into controversy with its image of the rear of a casually posed male nude. Speculation of Morrissey’s sexual preferences filled the air from the outset and record stores refused to display the cover from day one. The ever reliable Sun immediately jumped on the freakshow bandwagon by branding Morrissey a paedophile for his “A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you get through your exams” line from the Handsome Devil B–side.

The male nudity/homo-erotic aspect bore comparison with Morrissey’s enthrallment with Andy Warhols work and this was revisited on the sleeve of their eponymous debut album later the following year. This featured a detail from a still of Joe Dallesandro from Warhol’s cult art-house flick Flesh (1968), drawing in on his bare chest. The Warhol connection would re-emerge in 1987 with a blurred pink tinted shot of Warhol stable mate, the transgender actress Candy Darling on the Sheila Take a Bow single. By now Morrissey’s sexual status was a little less ambiguous so this came as no real surprise. An image of Candy Darling also emerged on the 2005 album by Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now, a cover that respectfully bore comparison to a Smiths‘ release.

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The SmithsHand In Glove

The film and TV connections that dominated the visual output of The Smiths first emerged with their second single, the breakthrough hit, This Charming Man (1983) that featured a sepia tinted still of Jean Marais fresh from emerging through a mirror image of himself and lying next to his reflection in a puddle from the 1949 Cocteau film, Orphee.

This classic cover featured the legend The Smiths in what was, at this time in their early years, their trademark font (zapf humanist) in a complementary brown hue. The tradition of the band name and sans song title would remain through all single releases, maintaining Morrissey and Slee’s commitment to continuity and uniformity.

The cover from This Charming Man remains one of the most iconic and easily recognisable single covers from any band and the poster has adorned many a bedroom wall and student living room for the past 30 plus years.

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The SmithsThis Charming Man

Marais was typical of the brand of handsome matinee idol that Morrissey seemed to collect and display like butterflies. Others would include the similarly prostrate Alain Delon on the cover of their landmark 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, taken from the 1964 film L’insoumis, and the shot of James Dean astride his Czech Whizzer motorbike on the 1986 single Bigmouth Strikes Again. Morrissey would re-enact the exact same pose in Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana for the video of his debut solo single Suedehead in 1988. The original shot of JD wearing black framed glasses is notably Morrissey-esque.

Dean’s co-star in East of Eden, Richard Davalos would later appear on the cover of The Smiths’ swansong album, Strangeways Here We Come. This uncharacteristically ugly album cover was a Plan B when original cover star Harvey Keitel would not allow his image to be used, although he did later allow the shot, taken from Martin Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) to be used a stage backdrop and T-shirt design for the solo Moz.

As this episode suggests, Morrissey’s adoration for his screen idols was often a one way love affair. Requests to use images of Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw were flatly refused by both, although Whitelaw later featured on a reissue of William It Was Really Nothing, a still from the 1967 film Charlie Bubbles (ironically directed by Albert Finney).  She would also later appear in the video for Morrissey’s Every Day Is Like Sunday in 1988 alongside Corrie‘s Suzie Birchall. The original pressing of William from 1984 was housed in a sleeve depicting another semi-nude male sharing a bed with a large speaker, later revealed to be culled from an early 80s magazine ad for A.D.S speakers. The CD reissue of William featured Colin Campbell from 1964’s appropriately titled The Leather Boys.

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The SmithsWilliam It Was Really Nothing

Morrissey’s quest to establish his passions and ensure we didn’t forget them took the form of an intricate web of cross-referencing and inter-textuality, so The Leather Boys would re-emerge as a backdrop to Morrissey’s singing face in the promo for Girlfriend in a Coma in 1987. The clip would also feature Rita Tushingham, star of Morrissey’s beloved A Taste of Honey (1961) and cover star of the band’s collaboration with 60s songstress Sandie Shaw for her version of Hand in Glove in 1984. The writer of A Taste Of Honey, another vital cog in Morrissey’s machine, Shelagh Delaney would feature on the cover of Girlfriend…  and also on the cover of the American 1987 Smiths compilation Louder than Bombs.

The choice of Terence Stamp for the cover of the 1984 single What Difference Does It Make, a blue tinted still of the actor menacingly grinning, holding a chloroform pad from the 1965 adaption of John Fowles’ The Collector, raised further conflict between Moz and another of his objects of desire. Stamp, displeased that he was not consulted, ordered a withdrawal of the single and it was hastily reissued with a curiously quiff-less Morrissey re-enacting the pose, tongue firmly in cheek, with a glass of milk. The Morrissey sleeve is now a popular collector’s item, fetching much more than the Stamp original.

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The SmithsWhat Difference Does It Make

Morrissey’s multi-media world as seen through cover art was international and embraced European film idols and Stateside luminaries. We shouldn’t ignore the thrilling image of a leaping Truman Capote from the cover of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side from 1985 and Man In A Suitcase actor, Richard Bradford on the Panic sleeve the following year. Elvis Presley, looking remarkably like Morrissey, would also appear on the sleeve for Shoplifters Of The World Unite in 1987.

Brits such as Rita Tushingham flew the flag for the grim old North, whilst other resoundingly Northern female figures to grace Smiths‘ sleeves would include Pat Phoenix, the actress who Morrissey adored from Coronation Street. In her character of Elsie Tanner, Morrissey could identify with the stern, mancunian female figures that had dominated his neighbourhood as a child and this sleeve (Shakespeare’s Sister, 1985), cemented the obvious bond between The Smiths and Granada’s long running soap.

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The SmithsShakespeare’s Sister

A Corrie style street would also adorn the controversial cover for their 1984 masterpiece, Heaven knows I’m Miserable Now. Standing on the cobbles is a stern faced Viv Nicholson, famous for exclaiming to the British press, following her husband’s substantial pools win in 1961, that she would “Spend, Spend, Spend!”  The Nicholsons’ rapid spending spree was later dramatised in a BBC Play For Today by Jack Rosenthal in 1977, before later becaming a stage musical.

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The SmithsHeaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

Morrissey’s fascination with this most unlikely of Northern heroines culminated in him interviewing her in the back of a car for The South Bank Show and she appeared on further covers for European Smiths imports. The cover was controversial due to her remarkable resemblance to Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, and this was further exacerbated by the single’s B-side Suffer Little Children being based around those dreadful events. Again, copies were withdrawn from shops and Morrissey had to explain himself to the families of the victims. Other Northern women to grace Smiths sleeves would include George and Mildred’s toothy actress, Yootha Joyce on Ask (1986) and Liverpool born Avril Angers on the cover of I started Something I Couldn’t Finish (1987) in a still from another Morrissey favourite, the Bolton set, The Family Way (1966).

Less obvious candidates for cover stars would include an unknown Russian child actor on the sleeve of That Joke isn’t funny anymore (1985), various German girls at a funfair on the 1987 compilation, The World Won’t Listen, and bit part actor Sean Barrett in a still from the 1958 British war film Dunkirk. The How Soon Is Now cover faced censorship in the USA as they seemed to think that Barret is holding his crotch.

The young man on the cover of the Hatful Of Hollow compilation (1984) is Fabrice Collett.  Little is known of him other than he is sporting a tattoo based on a Cocteau drawing that obviously was an attraction to Morrissey at the time. The image recalls the homo-eroticism of their debut single cover.

The 1985 Meat is Murder album cover is perhaps one of the most interesting of The Smiths‘ sleeves featuring a still of Marine corporal Michael Wynn, in action in Vietnam. The image is reproduced four times and is manipulated so that the inscription Make War Not Love, reads Meat Is Murder. Our very own Billy Fury has the honour of appearing on the final official single release Last Night I Dreamt That somebody Loved Me in 1987.

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The SmithsLast Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

While the single covers remain unscathed, the album covers found themselves mutilated for CD release when WEA took over distribution from Rough TradeHatful Of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen have been cropped and really do suffer as a result, while the quartet of images from Meat Is Murder is reduced to just one shot. Morrissey openly denounced WEA‘s Smiths-like attempts at cover art for their various post break-up compilations, placing Morrissey’s beloved Diana Dors and Carry on actor Charles Hawtrey on their sleeves. In contrast Rhino’s 2008 compilation, The Sound of The Smiths simply went for a band shot.

During Morrissey’s subsequent solo career, the cover star motif was ditched in favour of iconic shots of the singer himself, with varying degrees of quality, never quite matching the solid output of The Smiths’ covers. With a lull in the mid-90s when Morrissey would place images of boxers on various covers and Terry Venables on the single cover of Dagenham Dave, fans were understandably delighted by this return to artistic form but it wasn’t to last, with a string of frankly awful single covers in the following years.

The Smiths covers can be seen as a collection, a body of work if you like, and the full story of the Morrissey-Slee years is told in her beautifully illustrated book, Peepholism, which goes into much greater detail than here and is far more worthy than the coffee table book it resembles.

The images on those covers enabled fans to gain a much richer insight into the music and into the mind of Morrissey and raised their commitment to aesthetics way above anyone else releasing music at that time. You cannot imagine this occurring again in the age of the download and consequently we have truly lost something of great worth.

As Morrissey himself says in Rubber Ring (1985), his love-letter to recorded music, “When you’re dancing and laughing and finally living / hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly”.

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