Damon Albarn in a facemask: Kevin Cummins' best photograph

‘He wanted to get on a train in Tokyo to see what they were like. He put on a facemask and did a shiver as a joke. Because of Covid-19, it now seems really prescient’

Blur toured Japan in 1992 and I went with them for NME. It was the first time we’d seen Japanese kids wearing facemasks. Damon was intrigued, so he bought one. Normally when you’re away with a band, you don’t get time to see anything of the cities you’re in – and a lot of bands aren’t that interested anyway. But Blur were keen to explore Tokyo. Damon wanted to get on a train and see what that was like. He looks like he’s shivering but I think it was a joke to fit with the face covering. Back then, it was really unusual to see a westerner wearing a mask. Because of Covid-19, the image seems really prescient now.

NME got a lot of letters about the shot. People didn’t understand what was going on. How dare someone show vulnerability? I thought it would make a really good cover, but NME always wanted the cover star to be instantly recognisable and make eye contact, so they ran it inside.

I always got on with Blur. In the beginning, Damon was really relaxed. By the time we got to the Blur v Oasis war, he’d become a different person, very withdrawn. But he was always amenable and great to photograph. We’d talk a lot about football. It probably helped that I wasn’t the one doing the interview, asking questions about everything. Unlike a lot of rock stars, Damon actually carried money around with him and bought drinks. Normally musicians say “What room are you in?” and put everything on that.

It was hard staying alive through that Britpop period. Oasis were by far the most excessive band I’ve ever spent time with – and I’ve been on the road with Metallica. I once stayed at the Marriott hotel in Portsmouth with Oasis. The pool was next to the bar, so Liam threw all the plastic furniture into the water. Noel said: “You fucking dick, where are we going to sit now?” He made him get it all out.

East 17 were drinking in the bar and when they saw us arrive mob-handed, they fled to their rooms. There were about 25 of us and the guy behind the bar couldn’t cope. He announced last orders, so Noel said: “In that case, I’ll have six double gin and tonics, he’ll have six JD and Cokes, and he’ll have six pints of Heineken!” Then, when the barman went on a toilet break, a few people went behind the bar and cleared it out – all the spirits, everything. They blamed it on East 17’s road crew.

The bands were all great to photograph, though. Almost everybody was stylish and image conscious, especially compared with the summer-of-love era that had come before, with all that bad acid-house wear. As a photographer, I liked being able to shape the way a band was perceived.

When I first met Brett Anderson from Suede, he wasn’t confident in front of the camera. I set up mirrors and told him to look in different directions, seeing which ones he felt looked best. With Oasis, you didn’t need to do that – they had loads of swagger and didn’t give a toss. They would have fights in the middle of a photo session. I would be like: “Oh God, what do I do now?” The rest of the band would say: “Don’t worry, it’ll be over in a couple of minutes.”

One time when I was shooting Blur, my eight-year-old daughter Ella came along. Toys R Us had kept a store open for us to shoot in. She really liked Blur and Oasis, but she was trying to be cool in that way kids do. I asked if she wanted a picture with Damon and she said no. Then, a bit later, she said: “If Damon wants his picture taken with me, I’ll be stood over there.” He still thinks that’s funny.

While We Were Getting High: Britpop and the ’90s by Kevin Cummins is published by Cassell Illustrated. Interview by Tim Jonze.

Kevin Cummins’ CV

Kevin Cummins
Kevin Cummins Photograph: Kevin Cummins

Born: Manchester, 1953.

Trained: Salford college.

Influences: Diane Arbus, Jane Bown, Bill Brandt, August Sander.

High point: “Being awarded an honorary doctorate by Manchester Metropolitan University in 2015. It’s lovely to be acknowledged back home.”

Low point: “Working with many hugely talented but troubled young artists who then die too soon.”

Top tip: “Take a book: 90% of the job is spent in hotel lobbies, waiting for musicians to turn up.”

Contributor

Interview by Tim Jonze

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