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Pornography: The Cure’s darkest hour

The deity of darkness, the ghoulish, troubled face of British post-punk, Robert Smith set out in 1973 with Crawley schoolmates to form his first band, Obelisk. This was a short-lived five-piece band with Smith in a surprising role on the piano, his first instrument. He later decided he was to be a guitarist if he was to ever outshine his younger sister, Janet, who was a dab-hand on the ivory. Smith grew competent as a rhythm guitarist through the mid-1970s and began to play in an altered line-up and formation of Obelisk, named Malice, who played mostly covers of David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix hits. By 1977, the band had shifted its roster for the final time before the formation of Easy Cure, who were swiftly – and thankfully – renamed The Cure. 

The core trio of the band consisted of Smith on lead vocals and guitar, Mike Dempsey on bass guitar, and Lol Tolhurst on percussion. They recorded their first studio album, Three Imaginary Boys, in 1979. The album was a disjointed collection of tracks the band had been toying with that showed true potential but lacked consistency. Smith regarded the album as his least favourite Cure LP and has, over time, admitted to not being particularly happy with it even before its release. Much of the direction for the production and release was out of the band’s hands and, instead, the responsibility of producer Michael Dempsey. While the album is a pleasurable listen with highlights like ‘10:15 Saturday Night’, ‘Accuracy’ and a raw soundcheck cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, the collection felt a bit rough around the edges and somewhat precursory.

While Three Imaginary Boys was receiving a mixed response from critics and post-punk enthusiasts, Smith and Co. were hard at work on their second album, Seventeen Seconds. With this 1980 release, The Cure had truly arrived and sculpted their identity; Seventeen Seconds was more coherent and compensated for the lack of consistency that plagued the first album. Followed in 1981 with Faith, the band had made an earnest dent in the post-punk era alongside gothic affiliates Siouxie and the Banshees. With an impressive and growing portfolio of charting singles such as ‘A Forest’, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Primary’ to their name, the band were still not happy. In fact, they were far from it; the darkness portrayed in the music was becoming more of a reality in the lives of the group as they began to embrace the “more sordid side of life” which had “a very detrimental effect on everyone in the group”, as Smith recalls.

In 1982, The Cure released Pornography, the band’s fourth album, and as far as Smith was concerned at the time, it was to be their final LP. Throughout the period spent recording Pornography, the group had been in turmoil. Smith and Gallup had been sparking like crossed wires in the studio, disagreeing at every opportunity over the artistic direction for the album. This struggle for power mixed with Smith’s worsening depression and indulgence in drug and alcohol abuse was ingrained into the tone of the album. The effect of LSD on music in the 1960s is generally associated with images of the joyous, colourful hippies of the British invasion era. Pornography, if viewed as a science experiment, is the result of giving psychedelic drugs to goths instead of hippies. The result is equally beautiful in artistic merit, but something much darker, more introspective and, well, somewhat depressing. 

The intent was to use The Psychedelic Furs’ self-titled first album as a focal point for the instrumentals of the album with an art-of-darkness touch to rival the likes of Bauhaus and Siouxie and the Banshees. Smith recalls, in order to get into the headspace of depravity and gloom, the group had even taken to recording some of the tracks in the toilets instead of the studio for a while, a period he described as “tragic”.

The album was released in May 1982 and was met with criticism of the relentlessly self-deprecating songs covering themes of addiction and pain. In spite of this, the album remained on the charts for nine weeks and was more commercially successful than expected with the only song regarded passable as a single being ‘The Hanging Garden’ with its catchy fast-paced drum rhythm. The album has since been labelled one of the band’s finest and is a perfect example of a group pressing naked and fragile emotion into a 12” piece of plastic – a brave but artistically respectable feat.

Despite managing to finish the album, The Cure were on the verge of collapse. The group were on tour in Europe in June 1982 when Smith and Gallup’s ongoing feud came to a head with words giving way for fists resulting in both leaving Strasburg to return to the UK cutting the tour short. Gallup had departed the band and Smith was on the verge of calling it quits too as he headed to his parent’s home in Sussex to untangle his tormented and depressed mind.

Upon his return home, Smith was confronted by his father, who told him it was his duty to entertain the Europeans who had bought tickets. Smith and Gallup reluctantly returned to their tour, but it wasn’t long before they once again had a clash of opinions resulting in a shambolic performance in Brussels with all three members playing each other’s instruments; Smith on drums, Gallup on guitar and Tolhurst on bass. During the gig, a friend of Gallup ran out onto the stage yelling abuse at Smith through the microphone. Smith responded by throwing his drumsticks at Gallup, concluding an ugly night and an even uglier chapter in the band’s history. 

As we all know, that wasn’t to be the end for The Cure, but it was the end of that particular incarnation of the band. Smith pushed on through the years with various line-up changes releasing, among the inevitable darker content, some happier hits such as ‘Friday I’m in Love’ and ‘Lovecats’ which pleased the charts and hopefully reflected a happier Smith.

During the pandemic last year, I thought of Smith while playing one of my Cure records. I found it hard to picture him at home relaxing in full makeup with a litre of hairspray propping up his impressive black mane. I imagine the hair is down or perhaps in a stylish man bun poised at the ready should he be needed on stage any time soon. I imagine some bright coloured clothes and a look of contentment on his face as he sits with his wife remembering the good and bad times and how without both he may not have had a career to be so proud of. I hope this image is true. 

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