The Agit Reader

The Smiths
by Nalinee Darmrong

August 8th, 2016  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

The SmithsThough they existed as a band for only five short years, The Smiths created a body of work that continues to endure some 30 years later. In the span of just four studio albums (and a couple dozen singles), Morrissey and Johnny Marr, the band’s principal songwriters, tapped an emotional vein that continues to resonate, and the band’s legacy has only grown with each subsequent generation that discovers their music as they come of age.

Indeed, these days The Smiths’ music is ubiquitous, with the millennial sect having seemingly put the band into heavy rotation on their streaming playlists alongside Kanye, Twenty One Pilots, and whatever else fits their fancy. As such, it’s sometimes hard to remember that when the Manchester foursome’s magnum opus, The Queen Is Dead was released 30 years ago, being a Smiths fan was an awkward badge of honor. Morrissey celebrated life’s outsiders—the shy, the effete, and the genteel—which was a sharp contrast to the bravado of most bands, even those considered “alternative.” Metaphorically pinning their hearts to their sleeves, the legions the Moz inspired were united as misfits. But despite their widespread popularity, The Smiths never gained mainstream success the ways peers like Depeche Mode, The Cure, and New Order did.

In 1986, Nalinee Darmrong was lucky enough to find herself in a lull between high school and college when The Smiths came to the U.S. and Canada to tour in support of The Queen Is Dead. (I was unfortunately young enough that my parents could still tell me that I wasn’t going the 150 miles north to Cleveland to see them.) Damrong ended up spending the summer and fall following the band around the country. Having met Marr and the rest of The Smiths on their previous Stateside stint, Damrong was already friendly with the band, and the burgeoning photographer was given the kind of access most 18-year-olds only dream about. She ended up going to 17 shows in all, photographing the band onstage and off with a Minolta 33mm.

Those photographs, along with additional shots from a trip to the UK, have been collected in The Smiths (Rizzoli). Shot nearly entirely in black and white, these pics reveal the spirit in which they were taken. They show the connection the band had with not only Narmrong, but the audience at large and how these shows weren’t just mere entertainment. The best are when Narmrong shows an intimacy with her subject, in particular the two-page photo of Morrissey singing while crumpled over in a heap between the stage monitors. Elsewhere, those from offstage appear like the snapshots any teen would have from their summer vacation (in the pre-digital age), they just happen to include bassist Andy Rourke or drummer Mike Joyce or Marr. With pics of VIP passes, one of Morrissey’s shirts, and other memorabilia interspersed among the other photos, aside from the intros by Andy Bell (of Ride) and author Marc Spitz, The Smiths comes off like a scrapbook of what no doubt was an incredible summer. Taken before the time when every mundane activity was documented by cell phone pics, Darmrong’s photos convey a sense of wonderment, not just from being in the presence of greatness, but also simply from the blissful nature of being young. Morrissey once sang, “Don’t forget the songs… that saved your life,” and The Smiths is a pictorial reminder of when such things were possible.

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