If the first lines of albums can be interpreted as statements of intent, the opening words of The Cure’s Pornography (Fiction, 1982) are alarmingly stark and ferocious. Cavernous drums set a relentless pace before hellish, droning guitar and bass enter the fray like a bloated corpse caught twisting and turning on the waves of a scorched river of sound. Finally, lead singer and guitarist Robert Smith brings his oddly winsome vocal whine to bear on the tumult, giving terrible voice to the cacophony: ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die.’ Although the band would touch upon horror imagery again – most notably with ‘Lullaby’ from 1989’s bleakly majestic Disintegration – Pornography, which turns 40 this May, easily stands as their most deliberately horrific record.
While their 1979 debut album Three Imaginary Boys had largely showcased a post-punk pop direction, encapsulating crisp and catchy melodies in punchy three-minute songs, The Cure’s next two records steadily developed their more atmospheric, angular side. 1980’s Seventeen Seconds was swathed in a sense of midnight mystery, beautifully distilled by its lead single ‘A Forest.’ 1981’s Faith pushed things even further into darkness and stately melancholy; songs like ‘Other Voices’ and ‘The Funeral Party’ seemed utterly haunted, drenched in eldritch elegance and ghostly memories. Always a literate band, the tracks ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and ‘The Drowning Man’ drew heavily on Mervyn Peake’s thickly gothic Gormenghast trilogy (1946-59, Eyre & Spottiswoode), while their contemporary non-album single ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ liberally adapted its tale of a haunted schoolgirl from Penelope Farmer’s children’s book of the same name (1969, Chatto & Windus).
However, it was the B-side of ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ that really pointed the way towards the band’s fourth studio album, Pornography. ‘Splintered In Her Head’ abandons the A-side’s crepuscular sorrow in favour of an outright assault. Tumbling drums and grinding bass collide with almost indecipherable vocals, accompanied by indefinable instrumental echoes that sound for all the world like a goose playing a harmonica in a tunnel full of damned souls. The song feels as though the entire band is slowly sliding into a chasm, and is more than a little emotionally unhinged.
This sense of exhausted derangement carried over into the fraught sessions for Pornography. Speaking to The Quietus in May 2017, drummer and keyboardist Laurence Tolhurst recalled: ‘Over a period of about a thousand days, we played a show every other day as well as working on three albums. We were absolutely blasted, really.’ The recording took place at RAK Studios, London, from January to April 1982, with production duties shared by the band and Phil Thornalley. A trio since Faith, the band members (Smith, Tolhurst, and bassist Simon Gallup) apparently slept on the floor of the office of their record label, Fiction, to save money during the sessions. Writing in the sleeve notes for the 2005 deluxe reissue, Smith reflected: ‘I wanted to make the ultimate fuck off record. And then The Cure could stop.’ He almost got his wish, with Gallup leaving during the fractious following tour (eventually returning to the fold a few years later to become one of the stalwarts of The Cure’s ever-fluctuating line-up).
The record’s unnerving artwork, designed by the band with Ben Kelly and photographed by Michael Kostiff, is an appropriate representation of the music contained within. A blurred photograph billows biliously across the cover like a queasy psychedelic nightmare, a bleary burst of unpleasantly fleshy pinks and reds floating nebulously up from the darkness. The three band members are masked, an image picked up again in the video for the album’s only single ‘The Hanging Garden.’ At the lower lefthand side, Tolhurst looks like a demonic child, his eyes empty sockets. Stood in the centre, Gallup resembles the murderous sleepwalker Cesare from the influential silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, Robert Wiene, 1920). On the right, Smith’s is perhaps the most disturbing visage, eerily reminiscent of the mask sported by Edith Scob in the surgical horror Eyes Without a Face (France / Italy, Georges Franju, 1960). His outstretched hand further unbalances the composition, reaching as if to drag the viewer in. Having previously presented a deliberately anonymous front, Pornography saw the foundation of the band’s iconic image, all back-combed big hair and crooked make-up. This new look was initially far more grotesque than in later years, the lipstick around the eyes and mouth intentionally melting to resemble bloody bruises, reflecting the violence of the record’s sound.
Sonically, the album is bathed in the ‘sour yellow sounds’ of the lyrics to the title track. The tone is sulfurous, diseased, and chokingly intense, with an atmosphere described disparagingly if not entirely inaccurately as ‘harrowing to the point of tedium’ in Bob Stanley’s book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. However, this relentlessness, while certainly not to all tastes, is essential to the record’s feverish power. Although it marks his final appearance as drummer for The Cure before moving to keyboards, Tolhurst’s pounding percussion is the cornerstone for all eight songs on Pornography, the limitations of his style turned into an aggressively repetitive strength. Gallup’s driving bass throbs between the drums and the frosty guitar and keyboard lines, the trio locked in step to create a merciless spiral of rage and despair. If the lyrics are occasionally overwrought, with ‘Freshly squashed fly / You mean nothing’ being a particularly silly couplet from the track ‘The Figurehead,’ the performances retain a fierce conviction that can stop a snigger in the throat of even the hardiest cynic.
Smith has frequently acknowledged the influence of Siouxsie & The Banshees on the album’s sound (The Cure having supported them on tour in 1979, with a future stint for Smith himself as guitarist in the band from late 1982 to early 1984). This can often be discerned in the spindly guitar psychedelics and tribal drums. Aspects of Joy Division’s claustrophobically intense gloom also emerge in the frigid synths and melodic bass, leading some harsher critics to unfavourably contrast Smith’s personal sincerity with that of the late Ian Curtis.
While Pornography undeniably shows its influences at times, it maintains a unique potency throughout, quite out of step with most popular music from 1982 or beyond. Its fearsome wall of sound approach was memorably described by Dave Hill in the NME as ‘Phil Spector in Hell.’ Opener ‘One Hundred Years’ is a perfect demonstration of the record’s overall style; by the time the mewling guitar rises an octave for the concluding attack, the song’s effect is overwhelming, not so much persuading the unprepared listener as pulverising them. The bleak lyrics meld the personal (‘Please love me / Meet my Mother’) with the global (‘Stroking your hair as the patriots are shot / Fighting for freedom on the television’) in a way that remains dishearteningly apt. They are also the clearest expression of the concepts behind the record’s confrontational title, as explained by Tolhurst: ‘What the world around us thought of as pornographic, we didn’t…What was pornographic to us was the way people treated each other and how political systems destroyed people.’
The juddering reverb of ‘A Short Term Effect’ offers little relief, interrupted by shards of reversed sound while the echoes of Smith’s voice slow and descend in pitch at the end of each line as though his vocals were immediately decaying on contact with the air. The entire song sounds as though it could crumble at any moment, held together only by the omnipresent thunderous drums.
Although ‘A Strange Day’ initially seems a more likely single with its spiraling guitar riff (though its lyrical references to suicide by drowning are unlikely to inspire enthusiastic karaoke), ‘The Hanging Garden’ was the song chosen to promote the album. Its imagery suggests folk-horror ceremonies (‘Wearing furs and masks’) and ritual sacrifice (‘Cover my face as the animals die’), making its titular garden more a place of execution than a horticultural paradise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it limped to no.32 in the UK singles chart and did not lead to another of the band’s sporadic Top Of The Pops appearances.
While the doom-laden grace of ‘The Figurehead’ and the gorgeously glacial bombast of ‘Cold’ seem concerned with deeply toxic relationships and personal breakdown, ‘Siamese Twins’ is arguably the record’s most intimately harrowing moment. The production is more direct, with less of the reverb and effects that cloak the other tracks, creating an uncomfortably claustrophobic aura around the grim lyric, which appears to relate a particularly sordid and mutually destructive sexual encounter. A picture is painted of exploitative freakshow performance and violent ritual: ‘We writhed under a red light / Voodoo smile / Siamese Twins.’ Ghoulish images abound; ‘The walls and the ceiling move in time’ in a horrifying parody of breathing or of the copulation taking place, while worms eat skin and limbs entangle in murderous, strangling holds. The song’s world is as loveless as the rest of the album, with even physical intimacy infected and poisonous.
The record concludes with the title track, a possessed pandemonium of distorted voices, seemingly sampled from TV broadcasts, propulsive drums, and squalling guitar. The repeating four-note keyboard motif recalls the opening of the traditional requiem mass ‘Dies Irae,’ as quoted in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and famously given a terrifying electronic reworking by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind for the opening credits of The Shining (US/UK, Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The fuzzy, indecipherable background voices of the track recall the uncanny vocal ululations that interrupt Carlos and Elkind’s work, but their presence is now a constant rather than seeping from the edges, as though The Overlook Hotel’s ghosts were entirely in control of the recording this time. Although Smith ends the album bellowing: ‘I must fight this sickness / Find a cure / I must fight this sickness,’ he is drowned out by the demonic background noise, rising to extinguish any final flicker of hope.
Happily, the album was not the end for The Cure, despite its still astonishing bleakness. Rather, time has shown it to be the conclusion of one phase of their long career – their last as a trio, and, understandably given the miseries of its making, their last to be quite so single-mindedly horrific. When the band reunited with producer Thornalley again the following year, the result was the jazzy, sauntering pop of ‘The Love Cats,’ a song diametrically opposed to their previous work. By the end of the 1980s, The Cure were selling out stadiums and entering the popular mainstream, albeit still largely on their own terms. Despite its fraught creation and initially frosty critical reception, Pornography has endured as a cornerstone of The Cure’s career, and remains a remarkable if daunting expression of sheer horror, rage, and alienation.