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Pornography and the Unmaking of The Cure

On Friday 11 June 1982 The Cure appeared at the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in the Belgian city of Brussels to perform what all involved had expected to be their final ever show. It had only been a few short years since the band had formed and yet in that time the three-piece had struggled through extensive tour schedules, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and an egotistical frontman who in many ways viewed the group as a one-man solo project. Their latest offering, the appropriately-titled Pornography, had been an arduous and soul-destroying experience that had pushed each member dangerously close to breaking point and yet even as the sessions had come to an end they still faced the agonising reality of having to spend time together on the road.

Two weeks earlier singer and principal songwriter Robert Smith had stormed out of a French venue following a physical altercation with bassist Simon Gallup and returned home with the intention of splitting up the group. Reluctantly returning to complete the remaining dates of the tour, when Smith stepped onto the stage that fateful June evening he felt that The Cure had finally come to an end and, as the animosity grew between them, their chaotic and hostile encore wold come to be known as The Cure Are Dead. ‘During Pornography the band was falling apart, because of the drinking and drugs,’ Smith would later admit in an interview with Rolling Stone. ‘I was pretty seriously strung-out a lot of the time.’

Pornography had been the fourth album that The Cure had recorded in the space of just three years and since the release of their debut album in 1979 they had gradually evolved from post-punk teenagers to a dark and brooding gothic rock outfit that had taken the melancholy and despair that had been so significant in the music and lyrics of Joy Division and had begun to indulge in the same kind of misery and pain with two increasingly bleak records, starting with their sophomore offering Seventeen Seconds and culminating with its successor Faith. ‘Seventeen Seconds was the most personal record that we’ve ever done, strangely enough,’ claimed Smith to Spin in 1987 while promoting the release of their seventh studio album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

Arguably a precursor to the nightmarish self-abuse the band would endure during the making of Pornography, the recording of Faith would prove to be a troubled affair, with unsuccessful sessions and Smith’s dark mood swings often resulting in incomplete or unusable material. When it was finally released in the spring of 1981 it was met by a confused and disinterested media but as with those albums that came before it would ultimately mark an important transition into the group that they were destined to become. But if the process of creating Faith had driven them close to madness then the excessive and self-destructive nature in which its follow-up would be created almost marked the end for The Cure.

Smith had intended on Pornography being their swan song or, as he had so eloquently phrased it, ‘the ultimate fuck you record.’ No longer finding enjoyment in recording or performing with Gallup and drummer Lol Tolhurst, he had instead acted as a guitarist-for-hire for fellow gothic rock pioneers Siouxsie and the Banshees, having already offered his services a few years earlier. Pornography was designed to be a no-holds-barred assault on the senses, revelling in all manner of sordid debauchery and existential torment in an effort to make the record as uncomfortable and uncompromising as possible. Then, once they had unleashed their depressing masterpiece upon an unsuspecting world they would destroy themselves in spectacular fashion, leaving behind an all-too-brief legacy of intense passion and raw emotional pain, one that would rival or even eclipse that of Joy Division.

Shortly before Christmas 1981 Smith booked himself into Rhino Studios in Surrey where he commenced work on recording a series of demos based around material he had written in the months since the release of Faith. Without the participation of his bandmates he laid out the groundwork for more than ten tracks and with the basic concept of an album forming in his mind he set about bringing it to fruition. While Mike Hedges had helped to nurture the group ever since their early days, initially as an engineer before later progressing to the role of producer, for Pornography Smith wanted a fresh sound that would make the record stand out from its predecessors and so sought a new source of inspiration, eventually finding it with an engineer desperate for his first opportunity to produce.

Nine months younger than Smith, Phil Thornalley had been working at RAK Studios in the St. John’s Wood district of London for the last four years and it would be both his age and fresh approach to producing that the singer would find so appealing. ‘I was, like, twenty-one,’ explained Thornalley on the youthful connection he had to the band. ‘At the time it was just another album, that was really made along with the Psychedelic Furs and Hot Chocolate, but with that one I think because I was at the same age as the guys in The Cure we were more like contemporaries and all the nutty stories you’ve read about the making of the record, they’re all true. It was just over the top.’

Prior to their work on Pornography the facility of choice for The Cure had always been Morgan Studios, a building with a rich musical heritage that had housed such legendary artists as Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart, but following their partnership with Thornalley it was decided that RAK would become their new base of operations. With the band acting as co-producers, sessions would commence in January 1982 but progress would soon be impeded when Smith discovered that he had misplaced the demos he had recorded at Rhino the previous month. With no tapes to showcase his ideas to Gallup or Tolhurst he would instead dictate instructions without showing interest in their opinions.

But it wouldn’t take long before their new studio became a place where the group felt at home. ‘We turned the studio into our own nocturnal world,’ explained Smith on the surreal approach they took to working in the studio. ‘Every night we would bring in more and more found stuff…it was pretty bizarre. We started building rooms out of cans, boxes, newspapers and towels. The place got very strange!’ And without Hedges working as the authority figure to both guide the sessions and maintain a certain level of normality, the process of recording Pornography would result in the freedom to experiment with a naïve producer who had even less experience overseeing the making of an album than the band, along with a penchant for Smith and his cohorts to participate in excessive drug and alcohol consumption without fear of being chastised.

While the relationship between The Cure and Thornalley would be both friendly and productive, there would be certain difference of opinions that at times would threaten to derail the process, most significantly with how the guitars would sound, with Smith preferring a dirty and grunge-like approach while the producer, who had worked as an engineer on the first two albums by the Psychedelic Furs, insisting on something more clean and radio friendly. ‘Phil got stressed with us,’ revealed Smith on the issues they would face. ‘He had ideas of what our music was like but what I wanted wasn’t really like anything we’d had before. I remember there was one particularly long row over a guitar sound that he didn’t like. He thought it was horrible…and couldn’t see that was a good thing.’

The biggest obstacle that Smith would have to face, however, was not a producer with a difference of opinion, nor the tension that had risen among the ranks, but rather his own self-destructive nature that would often manifest through manic depression or drug use. While these had been a factor during the recording of Faith, it would become a major issue throughout the sessions for Pornography and one that would out bring the uglier aspects of his personality. ‘We built this mountain of empties in the corner, a gigantic pile of debris,’ admitted Smith on the amount of empty alcohol bottles and cans that had been discarded around the studio. ‘It just grew and grew. At the time I lost every friend I had, everyone, without exception…I was incredibly obnoxious, appalling, self-centred.’

The increasing despair and isolation that Smith would suffer during this point in his life would inevitably manifest itself through the mood of the music and lyrical themes that he would choose to explore. ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die,’ he croons though the first line of the opening song, setting the tone that would remain throughout the album. While The Cure of the late 1980s could be described as oddly romantic through such uplifting love songs as Just Like Heaven and Pictures of You, The Cure of 1982 were nihilistic and self-obsessed, yet it would be the bleak tone of Pornography that would come to define the gothic rock scene of the 1980s, while Smith’s confessional songs would strike a chord with a generation of lost and lonely teenagers.

‘Years later, when people would try to hold us responsible for someone’s depression or even suicide, it seemed to me that they were missing the point,’ insisted Tolhurst in his memoir Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys. ‘We created these songs to help alleviate those same feelings in ourselves, a horror of the world that we could cope with only by singing and playing our particular music. That in a nutshell is where our English self-loathing and emotional repression really helped create the path forward. I think we were pioneers in that, especially in helping other repressed young men. I have always been both humbled and amazed by the number of people who have expressed that very thought to me over the years.’

The sessions for Pornography would come to an end in April, marking almost three months that The Cure would spend at RAK working alongside Thornalley. And no sooner had they completed the recording the band were forced to head out on the road to promote their upcoming album, which was scheduled for release through Fiction on 4 May. Each night they found themselves performing to half-empty rooms and with each show came more opportunities to drink and take drugs, something that had escalated from a mere distraction to a cancer eating away at the heart of the group. When the album finally saw the light of day it would be greeted by mostly negative reviews from critics who were disappointed at its lack of commercial appeal, particularly after such recent modest hit singles as A Forest.

Pornography had achieved just what Smith had hoped; it had confused, frustrated and even angered those who had listened to it, yet now they had taken this negativity on tour with them. This hostility would reach its nadir on 27 May following their appearance at Hall Tivoli in Strasbourg, France. Shortly after 6am the next morning the band were still enjoying their post-show festivities when tensions between Smith and Gallup finally erupted. ‘I was about to leave when some guy came and told me I hadn’t paid for my drinks,’ claimed Gallup on the catalyst for what would happen next. ‘He thought I was Robert. I was knackered but the bloke took me up to the bar and Robert appeared to see what was going on.’

The events of the morning vary depending on the source but by all accounts while Tolhurst was relaxing with members of their opening act Zerra I, Gallup would strike the first blow. ‘Simon was so wound up no one could talk to him; he was screaming at the barman, this young kid who was nearly in tears,’ recalled Smith. ‘By himself, Simon would have never behaved like that but he was surrounded by the road crew so he was behaving the way he thought a rock and roller ought to behave. He didn’t want to pay for his drinks because he thought I wasn’t paying for mine. I told him to shut up and he punched me. It was the first time he really laid into me; we had an enormous ruck and I said, ‘That’s it,’ walked out and got a cab back to the hotel, got my suitcase, my passport from my tour manager’s room and got on the first flight to London.’

But when Smith returned home prematurely he was not greeted with open arms by his family. When his father discovered that there were still two weeks of dates left on the tour he refused to allow his son into the house and instead proceeded to lecture the singer on responsibility and fulfilling his duties as an entertainer. Despite wanting to turn his back on The Cure he finally returned to his bandmates and, with an air of resentment and bitterness still hanging over, they reluctantly continued to their next show. But on Friday 11 June, as they took to the stage at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, there was a sense of finality to the band.

After performing a set of sixteen songs, many of which were taken from the recently-released Pornography, The Cure retreated backstage where, in a moment of childishness, Smith demanded that he play drums during the encore. Gallup, who was still seething over the incident in Strasbourg, angrily grabbed the guitar and Tolhurst, unsure on what was about to happen, collected the bass. With Smith behind the drum kid it would be one of the roadies, Gary Biddles, who would take the mic. With Zerra I also joining in the impromptu jam, the audience watched on in confusion as insults and drumsticks were thrown back and forth. By the end of the closing number Smith, Gallup and Tolhurst walked backstage and into an uncertain future, each aware that The Cure as they had been no longer existed.

Pornography would be the moment that would break The Cure, with the self-destructive recording sessions followed by a volatile tour tearing the group apart from the inside. ‘When you’re firing on all cylinders it’s okay to keep going, especially when you’re young and enthusiastic,’ reasoned Tolhurst. ‘But we really hadn’t had much of a break in the three years since we’d signed with Fiction. No wonder we were such a frazzled state. Add heavy drinking and drug use and we were a power keg ready to explode.’ And explode they did, as following the conclusion of the tour Gallup would part ways with the band, or temporarily at least.

‘It would be a miracle that The Cure were ever able to continue after the hell that was Pornography. ‘I’m surprised we didn’t kill each other,’ admitted Gallup in 2000. Smith would later recall how soul-destroying the making of the album would be for all involved. ‘I don’t have particularly fond memories of Pornography,’ he confessed. ‘But I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done and it would have never got made if we hadn’t taken things to excess. People have often said, ‘Nothing you’ve done has had the same kind of intensity or passion.’ But I don’t think you can make too many albums like that, because you wouldn’t be alive.’

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