40 years on from the initial release of The Cure’s landmark fourth album, Pornography, Martin Gray takes an in-depth retrospective look back at how the album has become one of the most influential recordings of all time, which continues to enthrall and thrill fans old and new to this day.
The New Pop Renaissance
1982 was arguably the year of the New Pop Renaissance: filled with brashly audacious technicolour pop acts that dominated the UK charts. In many ways, much of this was a follow on from the previous two years as most of the synth-pop electronic acts who broke through and enjoyed huge success during this period (Duran Duran, Ultravox, Visage, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, etc) also consolidated their hold on the charts with their 1982 releases, whilst elsewhere there was all manner of intriguing new diversions that were starting to make their presence felt on the fringes of the independent scene.
Chief instigators and purveyors of this ‘new perfect pop’ era included ABC, with their wondrously lush orchestrated magnum opus The Lexicon Of Love; The Associates – led by the unique maverick Billy MacKenzie – with their stupendously baroque commercial breakthrough Sulk; and Postcard jangle-poppers Orange Juice, with two albums You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever and Rip It Up.
Elsewhere, creditable debuts from other chart newcomers Yazoo, Haircut One Hundred and Culture Club hit the top of the charts among others. Even relatively older hands Roxy Music had huge success with their super-polished final album Avalon. It has to be noted that Michael Jackson’s global behemoth Thriller also came out this year and then became the biggest selling album by a solo artist ever just 18 months later.
Many of the acts from the immediate aftermath of punk also released albums that were more accessible and richly opulent than before, such as Siouxsie and The Banshees (with the sensuously eclectic neo-psychedelia of A Kiss In The Dreamhouse), XTC (the quirky pastoral pop of English Settlement), The Jam (the more northern soul and funk-influenced The Gift) and The Clash (their Combat Rock album gained them huge new US success). Not forgetting Simple Minds either – whose artistic high watermark New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84) was a shimmering synth-rock masterpiece and effectively their creative peak before stadium-filling came a-calling.
The Cure: outsiders and proud of it
Nevertheless, one band who remained defiantly averse to much of this was The Cure, who chose relative low-key anonymity over the high-falutin’ jinks beloved of so many of their contemporaries, following a trajectory over their previous three albums from sprightly if somewhat geeky post-punkers to consummate doom-merchants, clearly taking some inspiration from one of the bands that supported them in 1979 – Joy Division.
Their 1980 album Seventeen Seconds was a complete volte-face from their 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys: gone were the jerky perky XTC/Wire/Buzzcocks-inspired ‘new wave’ numbers propelled by the adept and elastic basslines of Michael Dempsey, the metronomic stickwork of Lol Tolhurst and Robert Smith’s endearingly disaffected whine.
In its place were cryptically opaque, bleached out and foggy soundscapes built on sparse instrumentation: Dempsey’s replacement Simon Gallup’s simple basslines, new member Matthieu Hartley’s unobtrusive synth drones, and robotic machine-like drumming from Tolhurst, topped with Smith’s distant, almost disembodied vocals and his economical off-kilter guitar.
Breakthrough top 40 hit A Forest (number 31 in March 1980) distilled all of the album’s strongest elements into one near-six minute slice of post-punk perfection. It’s still one of the greatest ’80s singles of all time.
The following year, their sound got yet bleaker. By this time back to a trio of Smith, Tolhurst and Gallup – with Hartley having departed due to the usual musical differences – 1981’s Faith album was ostensibly a journey into even more impenetrable textures and darker lyrical sentiments. This resulted in The Cure being labelled unfairly by the music press as ‘the new young miserablists’ who had apparently taken their obsession with Joy Division (and everything that was grey) to too far an extreme.
Prefaced by the decidedly upbeat single Primary (which was a no. 43 hit but no higher), the remainder of Faith was anything but upbeat. In fact, its eight songs could be viewed as one long suite of inter-related tracks (they ebb and flow into one another with hardly any gaps in between), its stately grandeur and ethereal gloom only broken by the twin uptempo numbers of Primary on side one and the aggressive punkier thrash of Doubt on side two.
The final words: ‘nothing left but faith….’ – sung time-stretched and then left decaying and hanging in mid-air, as the title track decelerates to a close – is as much a statement of ultimate surrender as it is final valediction.
If Seventeen Seconds can be viewed as the ‘white/foggy’ album and Faith similarly viewed as the ‘grey/murky gloomy’ album, simply by taking each album’s respective artwork at face value, then their fourth album, Pornography, which was birthed in exceptionally trying and challenging circumstances, can be seen as the ‘red/purple/black’ album (as evidenced on the LP’s artwork), as that was precisely the kind of mood and collective mindset the band were in whilst they were conceiving and recording it.
Battle-scarred and angry
Arising from a truly tortuous experience in the studio after they had completed their draining European tour of Faith the preceding year (not helped by the fact that Tolhurst’s mother passed whilst they were playing a show in the Netherlands), The Cure by this point were battle-scarred and angry and were set on trying to make a record which was going to justify or validate their whole existence or they would be packing it in. To this end Robert Smith already had a clear idea of where the band was going to be heading sound-wise.
Out went their regular producer Mike Hedges, who helped craft the sonic ambience of their previous two albums, and in came a previously unknown engineer whom Smith decided to hand the reins to – Phil Thornalley. Smith was reportedly impressed with his work as assistant engineer on a Psychedelic Furs album the previous year (Talk Talk Talk), in particular the drum sound, so set to work on consciously writing drum patterns specifically tailored for the new material he was working on that would comprise the new album, which would be less downbeat and far more intense.
Recording sessions were chaotically stop-start, with the band getting ever more immersed in the twin evils of drink and drugs (the most infamous outcome of this ongoing overindulgence was the giant mountain/pyramid of empty beer cans they had assembled in one corner of the studio).
Eventually the end result was a finished recording that sounded for all the world as uncompromisingly brutal as the troubled circumstances which helped bequeath it.
Nihilistic doom and existential angst
Released in May 1982, Pornography bore zero resemblance to anything else that was around at the time. Despite it surprisingly hitting the top ten at number eight and thus their most successful album to date (setting off a chain of consecutive top ten studio albums for the band which only ended in 1996), it was the ultimate party-pooper of a record when placed in direct contrast to everything else around it (mostly exponents from the aforementioned New Pop Renaissance). Its sheer impenetrable sense of nihilistic doom and existential angst immediately set it apart from the rest of their contemporaries.
Many music critics greeted it with lukewarm, even indifferent, reviews. Some mocked and dismissed the album’s overriding sense of sheer unrelenting pessimism and outright misanthropy, one un-named reviewer at the time even saying ‘Ian Curtis, by comparison, was a barrel of laughs’ when faced with the shamelessly (I would even wager comically) overwrought and portentous opening lines from the first track One Hundred Years which reads: ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die / Ambition in the back of a black car’. A classic example of ham-fisted fatalism bordering on dark humour? You bet it is, but all the better for it. What other album anywhere else, ever starts with such a hilariously bleak declaration of intent, with any vestige of subtlety thrown into the wind?
Track by track: The Pornography album
Put simply, One Hundred Years is by far the most thrilling and terrifying opening act of any top 10 album from 1982. It’s probably still for me at least the strongest and most compulsively powerful opener on any Cure album period. There is nothing that comes even a third of the way close to its sheer rancorous claustrophobia, existential despair and sense of absolute ‘end of the world’ dread.
Firstly, the sound, a maelstrom of insistently nagging migraine-like guitar riffs, the unrelenting Boss Dr Rhythm drum machine backbeat (also heard on New Order’s Movement album and Everything’s Gone Green single before it) which sounds like it is pounding through your ribcage, the menacingly-pitched synths, the dolorous distended basslines….
Secondly, the lyrics, a litany of unrelated snapshot horror imagery, line after line of seemingly unrelated scenarios of (social/political/metaphysical) discord and carnage. “Stroking your hair as the patriots are shot / Fighting for freedom on the television / Sharing the world with slaughtered pigs…” and then, apropos of nothing, the author then interjects “Have we got everything?…she struggles to get away…”
By the track’s final verse things get even more graphically violent, almost like a scene from the climax of Brian de Palma’s 1978 gore-fest psychokinesis flick The Fury, “A hundred years of blood / Crimson / The ribbon tightens around my throat / I open my mouth and my head bursts open / A sound like a tiger thrashing in the water / Over and over we die one after the other….” And by this point the guitar coda now is screaming an octave higher, threatening to rip your eardrums apart before the whole song lurches to an end, hanging precariously half tipped over the cliff edge, leaving the listener reeling.
More pounding drums make their monstrous entrance again on the second track A Short Term Effect, so purposefully chaotic you can even hear the tempo sagging and then shifting up and down as the sheer weight of the song’s overladen undercarriage threatens to derail the whole thing at any time. The words are a direct transcription of the surreal nightmare imagery conjured up by the copious amounts of LSD that were ingested at the time of recording, but then this is perfectly encapsulated by the totally discordant vibe of almost everything on this track.
Smith’s slithery eastern sounding guitar is now relegated to textural noises in the background, as his voice becomes the dominant instrument here, with strange descending vocal echo effects at the end of each line he sings adding to the track’s sense of total utter derangement and dislocation. This is the weirdest Cure song by a hefty mile and little wonder it is very rarely performed live.
The Hanging Garden (unusually, released as a single a few weeks after the album) bursts in with its unrelenting tribal drum tattoo, its frantic driving urgency not relenting for one second throughout its four and a half minute duration. Curiously, it shares a similar chord progression, played in the same key as A Short Term Effect before it. As a song, it is slightly more immediate than the previous two tracks, and thus sounding a lot lighter by virtue of its much faster and less leaden tempo. Maybe this was the reason why the record company thought it was the only possible single that could be pulled from the album, as it did make the top 40, albeit peaking at number 34. The influence of Siouxsie and The Banshees, with whom Smith has of course played with can be clearly heard on this number.
Siamese Twins starts at a deliberately slow death march tempo, delivered via another relentless unwavering martial drum beat, which maintains the tradition throughout the whole album of every single track being underpinned by driving percussion that never strays from its set pattern. Divested of the unremitting urgency and claustrophobia of the previous three tracks, it allows a bit of space and light into the proceedings, but only just, as the lyrical concerns still deal with brooding despair and self-loathing, a subject which permeates and cloaks the entire album like a suffocating shroud.
“I chose an eternity of this / Like falling angels, the world disappeared.” The resigned way in which Smith sings these opening lines could be an indication that his disturbed and impaired view of love and/or relationships borders on the outright fatalistic….. Of course, it isn’t helped by the fact that the subsequent imagery in the lyric speaks of “Pushing blades into his hands” and “Worms eating his skin”, and you’re left wondering if these are the musings of somebody who is trying to fend off the advances of a succubus diabolus that has invaded his nightmares or he is simply so repulsed by the ugliness of sex that he is lashing out in self-defence. As with much else on this album, the lyrics are consciously ambiguous and open to all kinds of interpretation.
Alienation and sickness themes continue on The Figurehead which opens side two, driven once more from the very start by yet another colossal (military-sounding this time) drum tattoo upon which rumbles a truly foreboding-sounding bassline. One thing that is notable on this album is that many lyrical themes and tropes are reprised on subsequent, even consecutive tracks. On Siamese Twins for example, Smith takes aim at his (unseen, unnamed) adversary, saying “I scream you’re nothing / I don’t need you any more / You’re nothing!” and later on within the lyric to The Figurehead he repeats similarly “You mean nothing / You mean nothing.”
Whether this is a deliberate or subconscious ploy is not clear but if anything it simply reinforces the fact that this album is meant to be listened to as a whole, in one complete sitting, with all eight songs comprising eight distinct separate movements, each one offering a peek inside the mindset of an individual who is so utterly disenchanted with the grand scheme of things that he is effectively exorcising his demons and voicing his disgust and revulsion at all that is ugly and unpleasant about life, and as such these songs come across as a perfect form of catharsis.
The next number A Strange Day offers, melodically at least, some small respite from the constant ‘sturm and drang‘ of its predecessor. It’s the sole melancholy, almost reflective, sounding track on the entire album, but even here the lyric seems to obsess around the wish to simply disappear without a trace by walking into the sea in the hope of drowning.
It features the jarring opening lines “Give me your eyes that I might see / The blind man kissing my hands.” And then later on the truly cataclysmic couplet “My head falls back and the walls crash down / And the sky and the impossible explode.” making for the most harrowing and violent lyrical scenario yet witnessed on the whole album so far. The drums continue to pound that same unyielding pattern but this time the interplay between guitar, synth and bass is far less disquieting on the ear than the previous tracks.
A distressed sounding cello saws six parabolic notes before a huge monolithic drum clatter** heralds the start of Cold, the most gothic sounding track on the entire album. Aptly titled as well, as the intermittent china cymbal crashes are so massively, absurdly, amplified it brings a shudder and chill to the spine. And this is even before the surging swell of church organ synths kick in, from whence the entire song adheres rigidly to the same repeated six-note motif without once changing tack.
Probably the most satisfyingly listenable song on the whole album and certainly my favourite, Cold is a wonderful stately parable in hopeless betrayal and loss, sounding like it could have come from the previous album Faith (specifically The Funeral Party, which shares the same synths and to a lesser extent part of the drum beat). Even so, it’s still unremittingly dark and ominous and that is what makes this album so majestically doomy throughout. Listening to this song is akin to wandering among a post-Holocaust cathedral ruin as daylight fades, taking stock of the sheer devastation as fallout continues to rain down slowly from above. Cold does exactly what it says on the tin, it is splendidly, goosebump-inducingly icy.
** The drums on the entire album were deliberately recorded this way simply by removing all of the acoustic dividers/partitions from the studio room. This natural ambience thus induced and help create the colossal reverb which translated itself directly onto tape and there was little need for further tweaking.
And so then to the final, title, track. A backwards scramble of undecipherable voices (taped off the TV, actually the BBC TWO closedown message that you hear just before the station shuts down for the night but reversed, overlaid with a taped conversation featuring Germaine Greer and Graham Chapman discussing, what else but? Pornography, plus something taken from a third unknown source) prefaces a synth motif which is, again, repeated with little variation, before the drums start reappearing, this time playing a frantic pattern which is directly inspired by Atrocity Exhibition from Joy Division’s Closer album.
The ominous bass and synth drones continue for several minutes before, amid a growing barrage of caustic guitar, static interference and distortion from all the radio voices, Smith’s ghostly vocal finally appears with a series of venomous declarations which, as with the opening track One Hundred Years – are simply a list of unrelated scenes of desolation, wreckage, and graphic violence. Once again it is not hard to pick out the deranged drug related imagery present in places in this truly nightmarish vortex, “An image of the queen echoes around my sweating bed/Sour yellow sounds inside my head.”
It’s a distinctly uneasy listening experience and certainly not what anybody would consider the sort of composition The Cure could ever have come up with earlier, but taken in this context, its fuzzed out scorched earth delivery and total abandonment of anything approaching melody works in its favour and brings the whole album to a suitably cathartic climax… albeit one which, paradoxically, offers the sole redemptive words uttered by Smith on the whole album. “I must fight this sickness / Find a cure / I must fight this sickness” almost as if realising the fact that, after plunging ever downwards and hitting rock bottom, the only way out now from this emotional wreckage was back up.
Well, to be truthful, in light of what transpired a few weeks later when he took the band out on their Fourteen Explicit Moments tour, he had taken the Cure as far as they could possibly go down that particular road. Because the band self-destructed shortly afterwards after a fight at a bar in Strasbourg when Smith and Simon Gallup came to blows, the pressure of maintaining the sheer intensity of the material by having to perform it and the rigours of touring anyway, having a detrimental effect on the mental health and wellbeing of the entire band and their crew.
Pornography became The Cure’s first epitaph as it were; it literally destroyed the band and a break and a complete rethink was the only way to save Smith’s sanity. So he had no other option but to indeed ‘fight this sickness’ and reconsider his future with the band.
The Dark Trilogy
Sonically, at least, Pornography (the album) sounds like a completely different band from the last two albums, let alone their debut. It is hard to reconcile the sheer heaviness of the sound and the tropes and motifs expressed on this fourth album with the similarly downbeat but appreciably less chaotic lyrical themes on the previous two.
Some would say these three (Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography) constitute the original, ‘definitive’, dark trilogy of early Cure, whilst there exists another school of thought, later perpetuated by Smith himself, which maintains that Pornography was – and still is, actually a key part of two trilogies (the later one being the ‘gloom trilogy’ that takes in this album along with 1989’s majestic and commercial high watermark Disintegration and also 2000’s consciously reflective and retrogressive Bloodflowers).
Indeed, in 2003, The Cure performed all three albums in their entirely, in chronological sequence on a tour, which was later captured film and officially released as the DVD ‘Trilogy’.
The album’s iconic artwork
If any one thing makes the package on this Cure album wholly complete it is the cover art. Previous Cure albums have featured deliberately obtuse and cryptic imagery (remember Robert Smith was depicted as a free standing lamp on the debut album) which nevertheless offered a fair representation of the music contained within.
However, no Cure album before or since has paired its cover imagery with its music as perfectly as Pornography has done.
The blurred and distorted photo (by Michael Kostiff) of the three band members, masked, looking like vaporous ghouls amid a fiery backdrop (actually just ambient studio lighting) has become as iconic over time as any Beatles, Pink Floyd or other classic rock album, to say the least. Left to right on the album, the members are identified as Tolhurst, Gallup and Smith.
A similar concept from the same sessions was then used for The Hanging Garden when it was released as a single. Again, during a year when other acts were showcasing their stylistic opulence and decadence with ever more lavish album covers, the simple but brutally effective photography deployed by the band here has in itself become one of the most defining artistic statements in modern rock.
And yet, during the immediate aftermath of the album’s release, only the post-punk act Killing Joke, with their 1983 album Fire Dances could be argued to have taken a small part of their artistic cue from the cover of Pornography (the brooding red background to the latter’s album is of a similar hue).
Legacy and Influence
Ironically, for a band that prided itself initially on being defiantly anti image, the 1982 Pornography era was effectively the very first time the band actually had an identifiable image to speak of. Unsurprisingly, it soon became their trademark.
With the band – particularly Smith – adopting their now distinctive image of teased out hair, lipstick and black garb, it became a look which, although already extant when the whole Goth scene happened in the early 1980s, was then appropriated by millions of Cure fans the world over, and indeed inspired many other bands around the same time and thereafter to adopt similar sartorial approaches.
Of course, part of this stylistic overhaul could also be down to Smith originally having been clearly inspired by Siouxsie Sioux during their Juju era of 1981 as he has openly stated in many interviews how much ‘in awe’ he was of the sheer power of the Banshees’ sound around that time and thus harboured a desire to make a Cure record that took some of its sonic cues from that epochal Banshees recording and subsequent tour.
Pornography not only spawned and influenced an entire new sub genre, it also set the template for many bands years afterwards to release similarly nihilistic and intensely unrelenting albums with themes of despair, alienation, and dystopian worldviews.
For example, many of the late 1990s and early 2000s alternative rock, ’emo’ and nu metal acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Deftones, Korn, System Of A Down, etc, openly cite The Cure as a major influence on their songwriting and Smith has often been held up in high regard as a sort of godfather to all of these bands by way of his musical associations. It’s no coincidence that it was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails – himself a huge Cure fan – who inducted his heroes into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
Not for nothing did Cure fan and metal supremo Ross Robinson offer to produce one of The Cure’s later albums in 2004, in a conscious effort to get the band to record another similarly ‘angry and intense’ reprisal of his favourite album Pornography. However, the end result was a hugely uneven and disappointingly overwrought album which had none of the immediate devastating potency or claustrophobic intensity that Pornography served up, just somewhat inferior contrived attempts at familiar themes, which just goes to prove the old adage that any band can try and revisit or emulate their previous glories but seldom to the same degree of effectiveness.
The greatest Cure album in the world….ever?
There will always be endless debates about which exactly is everybody’s favourite Cure record. My obsession with the Pornography album did not happen immediately as I was still largely unaware of their music save for the two hit singles that they had prior to this (A Forest and Primary). I was still far too engrossed in buying the records of Siouxsie and The Banshees and a few of the electronic synth pop bands of the time to really take much notice, despite the obvious fact that The Cure was one of their contemporaries.
It wasn’t until late 1983, more than 18 months later, that I picked up the album on cassette around the same time as New Order’s equally magnificent Power, Corruption & Lies, and was knocked backwards by the sheer potency of what I was listening to.
The Cure had just had a couple of major hits by this point, The Walk and The Lovecats, and Robert Smith had also joined up with the Banshees for a second time and they too had a huge hit with a sprightly cover of a dreary Beatles song, and, thus piqued by the Cure’s re-emergence on the chart scene, I decided to go and do a bit of backwards digging of their catalogue.
For me at least, The Cure had always been this unassuming new wave act who had that brilliant first top 40 hit A Forest in the glorious year of 1980 (who were labelmates with The Passions, who had their only hit, I’m In Love With A German Film Star, in 1981) and then abruptly disappeared again…. but I was obviously not paying much attention. Maybe I thought they were just Joy Division copyists?
I didn’t really know then either that they were also initially a more lightweight Buzzcocks/Wire/XTC influenced new wave act with their first album and first few singles Boys Don’t Cry / Killing An Arab / Jumping Someone Else’s Train either, I was that oblivious to them only because, prior to discovering the world of Siouxsie And The Banshees and thus realising that The Cure were one of their support acts in the first place, I was too busy as a 14 year old obsessing over the 2-Tone ska revival bands during 1979!
So when the first track on side one of Pornography grabbed me by the ‘nads, I was utterly gobsmacked by how their sound had changed. From that point onwards I would be playing the album over and over again…. then buying up the vinyl format and other versions… and soon it just snowballed from there.
Pornography in many ways is the consummate Cure ‘dark’ album. A real ‘punch in the gut’. It’s of an ideal length too, just a tad over 40 minutes (43:29 in this case) as all albums originally were meant to be before the advent of the CD age, which means it does not outstay its welcome at all. Besides, being just eight tracks long too, it says everything it needs to say within that concentrated time span and it actually leaves you wanting more, which is always a good thing because what that means is that you can always play it again…and again…and again…and again. Rather like with A Forest in fact.
If I was asked why I would prefer 1982’s Pornography over their other ‘doomy masterpiece’, 1989’s Disintegration, I would say that the latter, though utterly magnificent in its sheer scope and scale, is over-long at 72 minutes, and tries a bit TOO hard to give value for money, a failing which I notice every single Cure album from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me onwards is guilty of indulging in. Indeed, it doesn’t help that every later Cure album from 1987 onwards has its fair share of weaker or filler tracks too, something which the likes of Faith and Pornography (by virtue of their economy) lack completely.
Ultimately, I would cite just two Cure albums as being totally concise and flawless in terms of both their length and their content (based on the criteria of all killer songs with no instrumentals): one would be Pornography, and the other would be their rejuvenated 1985 pop masterwork The Head On The Door. To me, these two records best represent the polar opposites respectively, the dark and light, doom and pop, yang and yin sides of the band, by far the most proficiently without any of the excessive flab and overindulgence which weighs down all of their longer and more ponderous efforts.
Even to this day, very few albums sound like these two. And to be fair, not even The Cure themselves have ever equalled them, let alone surpassed them. But to be honest, they don’t need to. The legacy is completely perfect as it stands.
All words by Martin Gray. Check out his profile here.
Main Header Picture: Pornography LP/CD/cassette/poster montage from
a photograph by Martin Gray (all items from author’s own collection)