Can you turn an iPad up to 11? Legendary NME photographer Kevin Cummins is certainly trying. He flicks through some of the breathtaking shots he has taken of Manchester’s most famous bands over the last 30 years, incongruously sipping a glass of fizzy water.
First up are The Smiths, then Joy Division, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses – all of them images that will be familiar to any music fan. “I always want to shoot the best picture of a band that has ever been taken,” he says. “That’s always been my challenge.”
As the Roses are returning for a world tour this summer, Cummins has decided it’s time to bring out the old slides. Publishers had been on the phone asking him to put together a book, but in true indie fashion, the star-snapper didn’t want to sell out. “That felt like it was cashing in,” he says.
Instead he got involved with an exhibition featuring famous images of the Stone Roses taken by himself and fellow snappers Ian Tilton and Paul Slattery, which tell the story of the band’s evolution from young urchins to all-conquering rock heroes. In the early shots, taken when the band were unsigned, singer Ian Brown has his hair slicked back, looking more like a street-fighter than the mystical monkey man he later became. John Squire resembles a goth computer programmer on his day off more than a guitar god to a generation.
Then, only a few months after these early shoots, Cummins captured one of their early gigs in Liverpool, taking a barnstorming shot of Brown in full swing, his microphone pointing skywards whilst he yelled at the crowd. Moptops in place and with sun-sized fire in their bellies, The Stones Roses had arrived.
I wanted to take a picture that would become the picture that defined the band
“You could tell they had a presence because Ian was such a great frontman,” he recalls. “But you can never tell how big a band is going to be. When Ian Curtis died, it only warranted a paragraph on page eight of the Manchester Evening News. Everybody had this idea they were massive at the time, but outside of London and Manchester, you could go to see them at a gig with just 100 people.”
Cummins didn’t find it hard to impress the Roses, having taken some of the most famous photographs of their home city’s biggest bands. His shot of Joy Division on a snow-covered bridge catapulted them to fame and became one of the most familiar photos of the city.
To this day, people still flock to the bridge to mimic the shot. He also took one of the most popular early snaps of Morrissey, lying prone on his back, striking a pose somewhere between come hither and get the hell away.
“What was Morrissey like? There’s a question. Well, he likes being photographed. He always had plenty of ideas and loved the camera, so I enjoyed working with him. That shot was going to be an NME cover and at the last minute the features editor decided they were never going to be big enough for an NME splash. They put Big Country on the front page instead.”
The Stone Roses image he’s most proud of is the famous splatter shot, where he turned the band into a real life version of one of John Squire’s squiggly, Jackson Pollok-inspired paintings. “I wanted to take a picture that would become the picture that defined the band, which I feel I did with the shot of Joy Division on the snowy bridge.”
Cummins had blagged a studio from a fashion photographer in Manchester and spent the best part of a morning lining it with plastic to protect if from all the paint. “I thought John Squire was just going to get a brush out and paint the rest of them. But he just opened up this gallon tin of paint and started throwing it across the room. I thought to myself: if any of this leaks through, we’re in trouble because it will cost a fortune to clean up.”
The band had to wallow in the paint for more than two hours whilst Squire and Cummins built up the image, starting with blue and white because the photographer was a Manchester City fan – although he didn’t tell the band that, because they were United supporters.
“They had to spend hours covered in emulsion, cold and suffering from cramp. It was only afterwards that I told them there weren’t any showers, because I was worried they might not have wanted to do the shoot if they knew that.
They had to spend hours covered in emulsion, cold and suffering from cramp
“But they were delighted when they saw the results. It was used on about 20 magazine covers around the world and six book jackets, too. It’s the picture everybody wants.”
After this came Spike Island in 1990, an almost mythical gig played on a polluted, ex-industrial site outside Liverpool. Whilst Cummins’ photographs helped to create this legend, his stories about the day do much to dispel them.
“That was the days when we were New Musical Excess,” he jokes, “so we went up in a helicopter to get an aerial shot. Then I was on stage and to me, it sounded great. But afterwards people kept coming up and saying the sound was awful, even though the band were buzzing and thought it was amazing. Still, that was the thing about the Roses. They always created an event, even if it wasn’t the best gig.”
Although pretty much everyone at Spike Island had thrown a load of ecstasy down their necks, Cummins didn’t actually see much hedonism from the band who inspired this behaviour. “People always want it to be like the Rolling Stones in the south of France, but it wasn’t like that. They didn’t have the money.”
Come the end of the summer, the Stone Roses are bound to have a good deal more cash. But as with every reunion, the fans are worried their image won’t stay as healthy as their bank balances. So why not just stick to the legend?