Friday, April 20, 2018

The Album That Changed My Life

There's a meme going round Facebook at the moment to "post 10 album covers that meant a lot to you, don't explain why...." I've been tagged a few times - but, hey, life's too short etc. Also, quite a few people have ignored the last bit. After all, what's the point of being on Desert Island Discs and just playing the records.

I'm currently playing the Cure's 4th album, "Pornography" from 1982. Its the original vinyl copy I had at the time, so remarkably free of scratches given that I must have played this close to 200 times during that period. I had become aware of a music that existed beyond the top 40 the previous year with Joy Division's retrospective "Still", which I'd heard on the John Peel Show. But it was with "Pornography" that I really found a new album that I could love unequivocally.

I must have heard the Cure by that time - though only really "Primary" and "A Forest" had had any sort of success. Yet, I think there was a sense of expectation when "Pornography" came out. We got it home - me and my two friends, Dave and Dan all bought a copy, rather than let one buy it and the others tape it. It was the default record we'd play when we couldn't agree on another (I don't think we ever agreed on another record that we all three liked so unequivocally.)

"Pornography" is a concept album but not in the seventies sense of telling a story - here the concept is all mood. The first line on the album is "It doesn't matter if we all die" and the last line is "I must fight this sickness, find a cure." It's an album about depression and breakdown. The rouge cover with the three faces of the band members morphed into some kind of Munchian abstract; the stark lettering of the band name and title.

The Cure had begun as a punk/new wave band. "Boys Don't Cry" off their debut would be a longstanding indie disco favourite. Early single "Killing an Arab" showed a darker, but more literary side.  Their debut album was sort of Buzzcocks-like - spikey songs, thinly produced, shrill guitars. By "17 Seconds" they'd perfected a certain kind of brooding atmosphere, which was followed by "Faith" and culminated in the apparent dead end of "Pornography."

Goth - the music that dare not speak its name - was emerging out of the new decade - adding different textures to the post-punk and new wave landscape. Spikey hair and black eyeliner was an unavoidable fashion in 1982. Robert Smith had been touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees, but whereas there music would steadily get lighter after debut "The Scream" (Munch again!), the Cure's was still heading into a ditch.

What is astonishing still about "Pornography" is how unlike every other record - including every other record by the Cure - it still sounds. All three members of the band are credited with keyboards which gives the album a texture - but its Laurence Tolhurst's militaristic pounding drums that set the scene for the record's texture. This nihilistic hammering is relentless throughout the album. Smith's guitar meanwhile is as sharp and inventive as ever (he's one of the great underrated guitarists), that does occasionally stray into tropes and styles used by other post-punk and gothic bands. The chiming figures of the guitar swirl around enabling his single tone vocals to glide flatly over the top.

In some ways you can see why the album was critically maligned at the time.  This was the era of new pop, new wave funk, and new romanticism and yet "Pornography" might well be the least funky album ever recorded.  It seems to inhabit a tiny tradition of repetition focused electronica - think Suicide, Silver Apples - but its also relentless morbid. I used to know every line off the poem. Rather than Bowie/Burroughs still cut ups, these seem deliberate non-sequiturs, collections of haikus in every song, mimicing the music's repetition in a new non-linear song poetry.

Is there even a chorus on the whole album? Only "Hanging Garden" made an odd single; perhaps the vaguely melodic "Strange Day" would have made the better choice. Yet its the other tracks which really stand out. Opener "One Hundred Days", "The Figurehead", and particularly "Cold" inhabit a kind of European classical tradition, austere and monumental at the same time. Coming out of a teenager's stereo in the early 1980s, the somewhat simplistic soundscape would drape itself over everything in the room like a thick fog on the Pacific shoreline.

What "Pornography" also does is show that you can make a record that is on the surface totally unadorned with the things that are supposed to make music palatable, and yet still create something that is immediate, timeless and challenging - and more than that - highly successful. It was a top 10 album, and the uncompromising "Hanging Garden" went higher than the previous year's "Charlotte Sometimes", a much more melodic single.

The single tone of "Pornography" is what appealed at the time - we were listening to some dark symphony - when you put it on, apart from turning over at the half way mark - that was it - forty minutes of unadulterated horror and loathing. If ever an album could seem to be instilled with demons its surely this one - whatever was happening with the band at the time, drugs, breakdown, etc. - was played out in its grooves. That so many people of my age not only heard it, but were obsessed with it, makes me wonder at the zeitgeist we were going through. Yet, for the three of us in my band who had copies, and listened to it on rotate, nobody else in our class at school had any kind of interest in it all. It would only be with a lighter version of the Cure - "The Walk", "Lovecats" and In Between Days" - that they'd become a student disco favourite.

I still love this album, every single sonic moment of it. I bought the CD deluxe a few years back, and it benefits sonically from being remastered. Live, these tracks would take on an entirely different grandeur, so that "A Figurehead" or "One Hundred Years" become anthems - a gothic template that Sisters of Mercy would perfect on mock heroic tracks like "This Corrosion."

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