Exploring the Back Catalogue: Pornography – First Impressions & Associations

I finally got around to listening to this album 40 years after its release. Just saying that gives me the bends. It was the year I arrived in Australia and within 12 months pre-teen me was hearing Boys Don’t Cry and Let’s Go To Bed on 96fm in its 1980s relatively independent phase before it was sold to a mainstream entertainment company. Those were the days, say I in a mock creaky voice, because 96fm was a unique station staffed by music buffs who actively educated listeners on music history and kept their playlist both broad and deep, playing 60s, 70s and what was then contemporary 80s music, album cuts as well as singles, and regular live concerts – all of which was relevant in a pre-Internet world, where you were at the mercy of radio stations, your friends, and your own puny budget in what you would end up accessing.

96fm used to play entire sides of albums at 10pm each weeknight, and had a late-night Especially For Headphones show featuring noteworthy sonic experiments, and music with elements of such beauty it deserved undivided listening. Sunday nights were dedicated entirely to new album releases, and talking directly and intelligently to the artists responsible for these releases. Not until after the station was sold and I never heard anything like it again on commercial radio did I realise how unusual 96fm had been. It’s what I grew up with – along with two non-commercial stations, multi-genre RTR-FM and the university station 6UVS-FM, who had shows like Drastic on Plastic, played wildly alternative things and refused to go near anything mainstream altogether except in mockery on request shows, when spoofs of contemporary hits were played.

If any of these played anything off Pornography, I was too young to remember, especially since I didn’t adopt the alternative stations till age 14. Those stations bathed me in Australian then-underground acts like The Church (which became and remains my favourite Antipodean band), The Triffids, Hunters & Collectors, Spy vs Spy, Divinyls, etc. I didn’t like all of what I heard but the strike rate was so much better than for any of the purely commercial stations, like KY-FM which I acidly dubbed KY-Jelly-FM because it was a thoroughly apt description of their playlist focus all day, every day.

So my first distinctive memories of hearing anything by The Cure were in the form of Boys Don’t Cry and Let’s Go To Bed courtesy of 96fm, as a pre-teen and specifically travelling down the Kwinana Freeway in the back seat of the family car, immersed in the unpleasant aroma of eutrophication from the rotting algae in the Swan River. Incidentally, the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me lives in that same association bubble for me, as do the intertwining voices of Hall & Oates on She’s Gone and Maneater, which gave me the distinct impression that the adult world was a strange and dangerous place.

I was young enough to take Let’s Go To Bed at face value, as a sort of updated Humphrey B Bear for parents to play suggestively to their teenagers at 10pm. Goodnight, slightly older boys and girls!    I was old enough to understand that Boys Don’t Cry was a reference to gender stereotyping. But because of those songs, and especially Let’s Go To Bed, Robert Smith became “that singer who sings through his nose” to young me, and that label persisted in the absence of evidence to the contrary, for much longer than it was justified.

For the littlies
For the slightly bigger people. Which one is Humphrey?
And no, this is NOT on Pornography.

So, because of all that, one of my first impressions of the opener to Pornography, One Hundred Years – a song I know very well from live performances – was: Oh, it’s 1982 and he’s not singing through his nose on this track! Not a given, apparently – and probably more like a deliberately adopted inflection for some things, though I’ve said before and will say again that Robert Smith’s singing improved stratospherically through the course of the 80s and beyond, and he became as rich and resonant a vocalist as you’re likely to find in contemporary music, not to mention highly versatile, and I have thoroughly appreciated that on my travels through this band’s back catalogue. There are times when we’re watching live concert footage where I’m actually holding my breath because a note goes on seamlessly for so unbelievably long and he’s not falling over from oxygen deprivation. At our house, we’re both super fond of his low-register experiments, such as with Harold And Joe. I could continue to enumerate the many things I enjoy about Robert Smith’s singing these days, but then I’d be writing a thousand word scenic detour when I primarily want to focus on Pornography and things that arise from its discussion for the rest of this piece.

One Hundred Years to me, especially in the live performances of the last decade or so, is a consummate piece of stream-of-consciousness performance poetry about the claustrophobia and cruelty of life in the modern world, the randomness of people’s fates, the grappling within the self and with trying to live life. Age lends us a rear-vision mirror in which to see those things more clearly, and I really do see very much that on one level we were born and dropped into this nightmare, this without any exaggeration evil machine of our industrial civilisation, with its systemic injustices, wars, greed, lies, bigotry, obliteration of natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures, etc. The little bubbles of our own worlds and personal dramas distract us from that larger reality, as does whatever somas we choose, often unconsciously, for anaesthesia from that reality.

This is good, but the Curætion performance is filmed better

On the other hand too, we can step outside of that malignant collective context into the natural world, or what’s left of it because it’s rapidly shrinking and even what’s left is getting poisoned and, more lately, cooked (and it’s funny, and awful, how 40 years later, One Hundred Years is more relevant than ever before). But from that wider context, human machinations used to be comparatively irrelevant, just this parade of vanity in the background to an enormous and beautifully connected biological web of life, underneath a sky bejewelled with stars which speak of the universe’s infinity and our own puniness, and a beauty we will never be able to destroy even if we do turn the planet that cradled us into a barren cesspit, which we’re well on the road to doing.

And it’s this enormous and beautifully connected biological web of life, and the near-infinity of the universe it’s set in, that were my beacon for the majority of life, my chief way of escaping human madness and seeing myself in the proper perspective of my own smallness compared to that backdrop, in which I exist as a tiny pinprick of light and life between two eternities of velvet blackness and oblivion – but also, to which I am temporarily but intricately connected by being recycled stardust, and by relationship to other life and other stardust.

So you can skip forward 30+ years from One Hundred Years to Underneath The Stars and Step Into The Light, and find similar ideas in those songs, and probably in anyone who has an astronomy hobby. Robert Smith has a telescope, so there’s an indicator – as does an ex-student of mine. My husband’s mother conducts tours of the telescopes at Perth Observatory; I routinely talked to high schoolers about event horizons and spaghettification, my husband does the commentary for the bare-eyes starlit sky night walks we do with visitors to our own place, far away from the light pollution of major cities, which is always a revelation for guests from Europe who can’t get over the clarity. We found that everyone we have met who has a habit of looking at the night sky also seems to have an above-average awareness of the bigger picture, and a less inflated idea of the importance of the human species or the self.

Using fan clip because I REALLY dislike the cover art for this particular album!
Although it’s a bit freaky that the girl seems to be dancing with a skeleton…
This isn’t on Pornography either!

(And just in case any people into astronomy are reading this: Because so few of you will have heard of it, I want to emphatically recommend the best novel with astronomical themes I have ever read – a book whose writing fizzes and sparkles while it takes you on absorbing tours of the universes within and without – Sydney writer Anna Fienberg’s Borrowed Light.)

Thematically and artistically, I tend to prefer the lyrics of later Cure songs to their earlier work, because while dark emotions do require expression, if you do nothing-but it becomes a black hole, as well as unrepresentative of life as a whole. The Cure’s lyrics seemed to me early in their careers to swing from black depression to almost frivolous jollity (e.g. Pornography vs Japanese Whispers), before becoming more balanced and nuanced by the late 80s/early 90s – which is of course what you would expect as people become more mature and have more cumulative experience.

Pornography is relentless, like sitting in a dark well and refusing to look up. I can appreciate it now as an adult, especially knowing the catalogue to follow, but as a teenager this would never have attracted me – nor did Playschool merriment. Neither of them properly represented reality for me. Sort of like theses and antitheses in philosophy (as opposed to syntheses), and this very binary poem:

MANIC depressant

sometimes I’m sad;
SoMeTiMeS i’M HsAaPdPY

Kim Dammers

I was drawn to more balanced work that was thoughtful and preferably poetic, such as offered at the time by e.g. Suzanne Vega, The Church, The Waterboys, U2, Big Country, Jackson Browne and Neil Young; or gritty things like Lou Reed, or quirky things like Talking Heads, or Weird Al Yankovic’s hilarious and totally irreverent re-writes of popular songs. I didn’t think frivolity and sadness were a complete emotional repertoire, or that frivolity was the opposite of sadness – I thought joy was, and I didn’t hear what chimes with me as joy in The Cure until Plainsong.

That’s partly why yours truly was not a Cure fan in the first decade of that band’s existence, nor a New Order fan, nor a Joy Division fan, nor a fan of any other fashionable proponents of pure gloom, or for that matter, of throwaway pop. I wasn’t interested in doing any particular mood to death, I wanted to hear many different perspectives, different ideas, personal stories, bits of history, and possible solutions to problems – as well as an acknowledgement of both darkness and light, and a whole rainbow spectrum of feeling.

Not a New Order fan, but I love this. 🙂

Brett has a theory that if you mix a mood with the corresponding drugs, you get to prolong it artificially and to the exclusion of other reality. So for instance, Pornography is a bit like the sound of alcohol, and Japanese Whispers is a bit like the sound of cocaine, or perhaps a dozen espressos interspersed with a dozen super-sized serves of fairground fairy floss, until you’re sky-high on sugar and caffeine and racing around like a chook with its head cut off. Which is not to say that these albums didn’t contain good songs.

And it’s not that I didn’t confront darkness as a teenager – both for real (I ended up with cPTSD from the violence and deep distress experienced in my childhood home) and in the art I was drawn to – but that growing up I really needed solutions, and fight in response to these things, instead of just laying down and dying. Which, by the way, The Cure emphatically did with the track Fight in 1987. I think that’s a wonderful song, and it would have been added to my list of personal anthems immediately that year if I’d known about it!

Returning to One Hundred Years, I can very much appreciate that song these days, especially in a concert performance where it’s mixed in with a diversity of thematic material and with moods that aren’t all either monochrome or technicolour. I think that’s where it works best, and works brilliantly. It’s my favourite track off Pornography by a long shot, and a gem of a song.

Having only heard this track live before, and frequently preferring this band’s live takes to their studio versions, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the sound of the studio version. It’s different to the live takes – it’s more bare, more stripped-back, more sparse, colder; there is an icicle beauty to it. The live takes in more recent years have more colour and passion in them, and more elaborate and accomplished playing. Choosing between these as audio is a bit like choosing between my favourite interpretations of Tartini’s The Devil’s Trill Sonata or Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor or his Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, or throwing away all but one version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (although the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with their slightly down-shifted tuning and crisp sublime playing would probably narrowly win in that particular case).

Classical and folk music taught me that there is no one, best way to do good music – while the typical attitude to contemporary music amongst teenagers when I was growing up was that the quality of the live performance was about how closely it duplicated the studio version in all respects, sort of like the exact duplication of hamburgers by fast food chains is alleged to be a sign of quality. There is of course a difference between being a band who are studio wonders and then can’t play well live, and being a band that can put it together consistently on stage and choose to play variations of their songs.

Anyway, I don’t like fast food hamburgers – I like slow food made from local ingredients complete with seasonal variation and prepared with a lot of love, and I feel much the same about music. Therefore, for example, I was really taken with the version of Trust performed at the 2014 Teenage Cancer Trust concerts, where a second keyboardist wasn’t in it to play the soaring string-like parts and instead, rather luminous piano variations were performed. Also, I tremendously enjoyed a live gig we attended here on our remote South Coast in 2021 in which Steve Kilbey, frontman and bassist of iconic Australian band The Church, performed that band’s first and third studio albums live with friends including two fabulous string players who at regular intervals completely set the music on fire.

However, while I’m not leaning towards feeling any particular preference between the studio and live audio of One Hundred Years, the concert performance complete with visuals still wins this one for me. The imagery used in the backdrops is fantastically complementary to the music, and a live performance by super-accomplished musicians is always a huge treat. Whether it’s the Australian Chamber Orchestra or The Cure, the chemistry and symbiosis between the people on stage is one of my favourite things about music.

And while we’re on that, I really like the fact that The Cure don’t play up to their audience like a lot of contemporary bands do, but concentrate on their performances and each other. Their concerts feel a bit like they’re letting you sit on the sofa in their living room so you can see how they put their music together, while occasionally chatting to you between songs. To me, that’s the best kind of concert. It’s what the ACO does, it’s what a blues band we went to see in 2019 did, it’s what Steve Kilbey and his friends did.

Some talk more than others – Kilbey is a yarn-around-the-campfire bloke who made all of us laugh with his witty, acid recollections of what various music reviewers had said about various of the songs when they first came out – “unnecessary stoner jam” being one of them! Also he mimed poor vision and hearing loss on stage to ham up being nearly 70, at one point bowing to stage-right in response to applause. But the moment a song began he was all focus and totally in the music, until the last note had been played – and he’s still excellent, not a parody. I like that sort of professionalism.

Do you think this is an unnecessary stoner jam? It was even better with added violin & cello…
…and as these guys are so internationally underrated, I just wanted to include this track which is my personal favourite off Seance – the bass line on this is mesmeric, and always distinctive with The Church. The fact that the main singer plays the bass in this band results in some interesting singing patterns in their music. Seance came out the same year as Japanese Whispers and honestly, to me, The Church are in a totally different league at this point musically. This album is university level compared to the other record’s primary school. This is a band I’ve loved from first hearing them and because they are so prolific I am still filling holes in their back catalogue – and never yet disappointed. Also they completely avoided ever having 80s keyboard sounds despite releasing 5 of their studio 25 albums to date in the 1980s.

And I can’t talk about music without bringing all these things into the discussion! I’m not a music reviewer, I just open-journal on this stuff for my own enjoyment and let in anyone who is interested, which is a very small, very niche audience, some of whom have popped out of the woodwork and been very decent to me (while others, like some on the Cure subreddit, compulsively downvote what I do when I post a link for that small niche audience, while they of course upvote inane things like “Oooh look at Simon’s hair!” and “Oooh I took a photo of my Cure album covers and T-shirts!” – I’ve said for a while that Idiocracy is actually a documentary not fiction).

And so to the second song! I’m not doing lyrics on this reconnaissance trip, that can of worms and other things can be opened at a later date if necessary, and anyway, one of the long-haul Cure fans I got in touch with as a result of this open journal project observed that for him the lyrics were rather secondary to his enjoyment of the music, while for me they often seem to be crucial. So I’m going to take a leaf out of his book and mostly just react to the music first in this preliminary.

I rather like A Short-Term Effect on first impression. I have a tendency, for this album, to like the guitar and bass best, over and above the singing and certainly above the drumming, which to me is the overall low point of this album musically. I don’t care who it is that drums monotonously; I dislike monotony. I’m sure there were cases that could be made for it – monotonous drumming can perhaps be a metaphor for ennui and for the hopelessness of certain aspects of this world – but it’s still monotonous drumming, and ear-ache inducing, and I notice that this has been partly remedied in the live performances of tracks off this album in recent decades.

A Short-Term Effect is the most upbeat track on the album, with a fabulously catchy echoing bass line and really arresting guitar that slides all over the place. Also there’s an interesting effect on the vocal that repeats in descending distorted notes the last word in each line, and kind of makes up for the slightly nasal tone of the singing. The drumming might as we be done by a drum machine though. While the basic pattern sounds fine, it is repeated ad infinitum with no variation and worst of all, the tone is all the same, which I find ear-ache inducing.

The Hanging Garden was probably my least favourite track on first play-through; both musically and because the vocal reverted to whiny for this one. I’ll see if it improves on acquaintance.

Siamese Twins is intriguing; I’ll have to come back to the lyrics another time but it seems to be some kind of complaint about a sexual experience; though why the narrator has “chosen an eternity” of whatever it is doesn’t quite compute with me at this point. The very first sound on it is what I think of as the “glitter effect” – you hear it on a lot of the pop songs, like High or Just Like Heaven; and since this number really isn’t pop, I’m starting to wonder if that glittery sound is some kind of code for, “I’m now singing about something related to females/sex/romance.” On the other hand, from memory, Jupiter Crash doesn’t have this “glitter” and would seem to counter that theory. Or perhaps the ocean sounds starting that track are considered a sufficient stand-in, like an aural version of the film symbol.

The Figurehead is one of the stronger tracks of the album; I still have no idea what it’s about despite hearing it many times on live CDs because I never sat down with the lyrics and thought about it; one of these days I will – although it may end up staying obscure and mysterious anyway, as some of this band’s songs do. A Strange Day is more accessible for me; I’ve heard the Curætion performance quite a few times and have some ideas about that one that I may or may not discuss at a later date.

Cold has a cameo appearance by a cello and is an absolute dirge, with the most woeful feel of any of the tracks on this album, which is definitely an achievement. I’m trying to imagine the kind of songs on the radio at the time of Pornography‘s release. Brett just looked some up for me and the worst of them, from my perspective, include Meatloaf’s Dead Ringer For Love, the J. Geils Band’s Centrefold, Steve Miller Band’s Abracadabra (“I want to reach out and grab ya” – such poetry) , Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, Olivia Newton-John’s Physical and Cliff Richard’s Wired For Sound – pass the bucket. Well, if you had to put up with that on a regular basis, you’d be totally ecstatic to hear Cold. It’s like when I once accidentally spent a term teaching at a fundamentalist Christian school (they’d lied about that in the interview), and when I came home in the afternoons I was possessed by an urge to dance naked to AC/DC records, although I normally don’t even listen to AC/DC. Sometimes context is pretty much everything.

The album closes with the title track – I can’t figure out where the voice samples come from; it sounds taken from TV or radio and has been distorted to the point it’s hard to understand what is being said. Maybe this track provides some clue for the album title. One idea of course could be that an infamous title might get people’s attention, and I actually do believe that a subgroup of people volunteer Pornography as their favourite-all-time-Cure-album-there-will-never-be-anything-better-in-this-universe because of the fuck-you in being able to parade such an album title around in people’s faces. Also I think there’s another group of Pornography diehards who are like, “Any of you who prefer other albums are clearly not on my elevated plane of existence.”

Overall I like this album, but it’s not my favourite Cure album – if we’re going to play favourites, which is quite difficult to do with Cure albums in my personal opinion, and so dependent on mood. I think it’s solid and interesting and different to what was out in the mainstream at the time, and tons more intelligent, and shows a truckload of promise for what would come down the track. I can unequivocally say I prefer it to Japanese Whispers and to The Head On The Door, but also that I like the more mature work later on best of all.

As to why it’s called Pornography, I’ll have another think about that if and when I do a follow-up piece to this one and delve specifically into lyrics, but I am wondering whether partly it’s to do with the stiff-upper-lip, hide-your-feelings-and-don’t-complain thing in the UK, in the context of which, metaphorically, the artists on this album are stripping themselves naked and parading around things which “polite” people ought to leave behind closed doors, etc. Pornography really is the dead opposite of, “Mustn’t grumble, could be worse.”

Meanwhile, I will be watching the Pornography section of Trilogy again this week – I’ve only ever seen that once, and years ago – as I’m now keenly interested in a start-to-finish live performance of this material, 20 years later. How does it come together live, how has the material changed, etc – now that I’ve actually heard the studio album!

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