The Cure
Pornography
Fiction/WEA

Pornography is The Cure’s fourth album, released on 4 May 1982.  It marked a stylistic change for the band, and one that, really, in their long, long career, is rather singular.  This album is post-punk/goth, it is vicious, it is dark, and it is nasty.  I realize that critics tend to see this as one with the goth era of The Cure, along with their first three albums. Maybe. It’s also a sign of massive artistic growth.  It is also the first of what later emerged as a trilogy, at least according to Robert Smith, followed by Disintegration (1989) and Bloodflowers (2000).  Pornography grew out of massive dysfunction in The Cure, with the trio fighting heavy drug use mixed with Smith’s depression.  Bassist Simon Gallup left the band, he could take no more.  He did return in 1984, took a health-related break in 1992, and remains with the the band to this day.  Pornography was also the end of the dark, forbidding Cure, with the band essentially going pop, beginning with the follow-up single, ‘Let’s Go To Bed,’ which eventually segued into ‘Love Cats’ in 1983.

The terror and darkness of this album was hinted by the b-side to the band’s 1981 single, ‘Charlotte Sometimes’;  ‘Splintered in Her Head.’  That b-side is a dirge of percussion, haunting synth and guitar sounds and driving bass guitar, a sort of dress rehearsal for Pornography’s single, ‘The Hanging Gardens.’

Smith was in a very bad place as he wrote this album, in an existential crisis.  He later said that it was either suicide or to write his way out of it.  Taking all his selfish, self-destructive impulses and dropped it into his art.

The band recorded at RAK Studios in London from January to April 1982, dropping shit tonnes of hallucinogens, drinking heavily, and sleeping in their record label’s offices to save money on rent.  Smith’s intention was to create a ‘fuck off record,’ and then kill the band.  The recording sessions were tense, working with producer Phil Thornally.  Thornally replaced Gallup when he left the band, and he is ultimately responsible for ‘Love Cats,’ which is, as far as I’m concerned, a crime against humanity.  When he left, Smith eventually found his way back to Gallup.  The band purposefully created this atmosphere, according to drummer Lol Tolhurst.  And with an advantageous relationship with an off-license up the road, they created a shrine of their empties for reasons no one can quite remember.

The label was unimpressed with the album, both in terms of the music and the title, which it felt was offensive.  And when the album was first released, it was critically panned.  In the long run, Smith won, as this is one of the band’s most beloved, successful albums, and one of its most influential.

I came across this album almost randomly about six years later, at Sam the Record Man in Coquitlam Centre, in suburban Vancouver.  I was digging deeper into music, and my tastes tended towards the more intense, more jagged, experimental as I dug deeper.  I knew this album existed, and by this point, after first getting exposed to The Cure through the video for ‘Hot, Hot, Hot,’ off their 1987 double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, I was intrigued.  By the time i found Pornography, I had found Kiss Me, as well as The Head on the Door (1985) and Faith (1981).  Those days were not like today.  Kiss Me had actually got some mainstream attention, largely due to the gorgeous single, ‘Just Like Heaven,’ but it was not like you’d walk into a record store like Sam’s and find the latest Cure album front and centre.  That didn’t happen until 1992’s Wish, which I still despise 30 years on.  The cover, the title of the album were intriguing.  I bought it.

I popped it into my Walkman on the bus ride home and was immediately caught by the first track, ‘100 Years,’ which is built up around a steady drum beat with tom-rolls, and Smith’s guitar, varying between sounding like a siren and a strangled cat.  It was fast and furious.  I was hooked.

That fed into ‘A Short Term Effect,’ which also borrowed from ‘Splintered in Her Head,’ at least in terms of Gallup’s bass.  The lyrics are a manifestation of depression and drug use:

Scream
As she tries to push him over
Helpless and sick
With teeth of madness
Jump jump dance and sing
Sideways across the desert
A charcoal face
Bites my hand
Time is sweet
Derange and disengage everything
A day without substance
A change of thought
The atmosphere rots with time
Colors that flicker in water
A short term effect.
This was Tolhurst’s last album as the band’s drummer, in large part because he wasn’t a very good drummer, and it was also the first album he played synth, which is the position he moved to until he was kicked out prior to the recording of Disintegration (1989).
‘The Hanging Garden,’ as I noted, the only single from this album, is really the only song on this album that is remotely radio-friendly, and perhaps the only harbinger of what had come from The Cure to this point, as the song could’ve been on Faith or Seventeen Seconds (1980), driven forward as it is by Gallup’s bass, and Tolhurst’s rolling drums.  It is also really the only track where Smith’s voice is front and centre.

 

As bad a drummer as Tolhurst is usually dismissed as, it is actually his drumming that drives Pornography, largely based on rolling, descending tom-toms, steady beats, and a lack of other percussion, the drums on this album are brilliant.  And whilst this is basic drumming, there is nothing spectacular about it, his style here is central to the album.  Oh, the irony.  It is from his drums that Gallup takes his cue on most songs.  I once read an interview with Peter Hook, never one for humility, where he claimed he invented a means of playing bass, and that he ought to sue the likes of Gallup, David J. (Bauhaus/Tones on Tail/Love and Rockets), Adam Clayton (U2) and others for copying him.  I disagree, Gallup doesn’t really ever get his due either as an innovative bass.  He does play in the vein of Hook, but his means of driving a song is very different than what Hook did with Joy Division.  And in the period between 1982 and 1984 when he was not in the band, the Cure’s music suffered.  The legend is that whilst tension between he and Smith had been building for sometime, the end began after a gig in Strasbourg, when he and Smith got into a fist fight over the bar tab.  At a gig a few months later in Brussels, Gary Biddles, their roadie and Gallups’ friend came on stage for a final song, and the band switched instruments.  Smith went behind the drum kit, Tolhurst took the bass, and Gallup the guitar. Biddles sang a song called ‘The Cure is Dead,’ which included a litany of abuse directed at Smith and Tolhurst, including the lyric: ‘Smith is a wanker, Tolhurst is a wanker, only Simon is worth anything in the band! The Cure is dead!’  Smith ended the song with a ‘fuck off’ directed at Biddles, whipping his drum sticks at his head and he and Tolhurst stormed off.
‘The Figurehead,’ the second song on Side 2, continues the theme of Smith’s deep depression.  Over Tolhurst’s rolling drums, Gallup’s forbidding bass, Smith’s guitar is less paranoid, less distorted, as he sings:
Sharp and open
Leave me alone
And sleeping less every night
As the days become heavier and weighted
Waiting in the cold light
A noise a scream tears my clothes as the figurines tighten
With spiders inside them and dust on the lips of a vision of hell
I laughed in the mirror for the first time in a year
A hundred other words blind me with your purity
Like an old painted doll in the throes of dance
I think about tomorrow
Please let me sleep as I slip down the window
Freshly squashed fly
You mean nothing
I can lose myself in Chinese art and American girls
All the time lose me in the dark
Please do it right
Run into the night
I will lose myself tomorrow
Crimson pain
My heart explodes
My memory in a fire
And someone will listen
At least for a short while
I can never say no to anyone but you
Too many secrets
Too many lies
Writhing with hatred
Too many secrets
Please make it good tonight
But the same image haunts me
In sequence
Despair of time
I will never be clean again
Touched her eyes
Pressed my stained face
I will never be clean again
Touched her eyes
Pressed my stained face
I will never be clean again
I will never be clean again
I will never be clean again
I will never be clean again.

 

‘A Strange Day’ follows, perhaps the most straight-ahead rock song, Gallup’s bass, Tolhurst playing a straight ahead 4/4, the synth in place of the guitar.  Smith’s lyrics touch on themes he returned to over and over in the 80s, sand, the beach, drowning, and vision.  When the guitar comes, it’s a welcome distraction.  I’ve never really known what to do with this song, to be honest, as it seems more of a connecting tissue between Seventeen Seconds and Wish, the music, the lyrics, all sound familiar throughout the rest of The Cure’s discography, at least during their classic era from c. 1980-92.
But then the last two tracks of the album.  ‘Cold’ begins with a sick-sounding cello, played by Smith, before Tolhurst’s drums come crashing in and the synthesizers sound both dark and forbidding and haunted at the same time.  Smith’s vocals sound disjointed, singing of embryos, scarring, kisses, and cold.  I remember the first time I heard this song in 1988, the darkness, the depression, and a lot, especially in terms of the synth, that I would hear the following year on Disintegration, still my favourite Cure album.

 

And then the title track ends the album.  Beginning in a haze of TV noise, the BBC, distorted, the synth builds slow and eery, in the background of the noise, and then multiple voices, distorted, maybe in argument, maybe speaking Russian, Tolhurst’s drums emerging out of the haze, getting louder and louder, clanging and banging, the start of this song has always felt like what a migraine feels like.  The heavy synth tamps everything down, we are in a dark, dark place.  Close the blinds, close your eyes.  The guitar sounds like a dying power saw.  Those voices are still there, buried down in the mix.  This sounds like the walls closing in.  The guitars are a post-punk blaring in the ears, over all the cacophony.  The synth just sounds more and more ominous with each passing chord.  And then Smith’s vocals, echoey, like he’s in the closet yelling, drawing on ‘Ring Around the Rosie’:
A hand in my mouth
A life spills into the flowers
We all look so perfect
As we all fall down
In an electric glare
The old man cracks with age
She found his last picture
In the ashes of the fire
An image of the queen
Echoes round the sweating bed
Sour yellow sounds inside my head
In books
And films
And in life
And in heaven
The sound of slaughter
As your body turns
But it’s too late
But it’s too late
One more day like today and I’ll kill you
A desire for flesh
And real blood
And I’ll watch you drown in the shower
Push my life through your open eyes
I must fight this sickness
Find a cure
I must fight this sickness.
The guitar is strangled throughout, battling the drums, the synth, and those BBC voices.  I am not sure The Cure ever recorded a darker, more forbidding song.

 

This is the kind of music that sends shivers down your spine, and has you looking under the bed.  One night, in the early 90s, my then-girlfriend and I were drinking a bottle of wine on the fire escape on a hot night in the Ottawa summer.  We had some ominous music playing, and this song made her sit up straight, a look of terror on her face, it scared her.  That always seemed the appropriate response to this song.  Maybe this whole album.  This is a place I wouldn’t wish anyone to ever visit, the misery of these three men, and Smith’s depression.  And yet, out of that, out of this horrible space, The Cure created great art, and one of the best albums of their 40+ year career.