My friends David and Gay have temporarily moved to Milton Keynes. It’s David’s birthday on Monday and I didn’t have their new address so I sent an email. It was hard to think of anything to write (“I’ve taken the dog out. I’ve written a blog” x 300) and the email was rather short so I thought I’d dig out some photos from when we were all younger.
As I was doing that, I cam across some photos from a day trip to Clacton from Netteswell School in Harlow with the whole of the Second Year (Year 8) in 1980. When I took part in the sponsored walk in December, one ex pupil was very generous, donating $250 to Shelter. He occasionally keeps in touch and there were a couple of photos with him in it so I sent them to him and he suggested I post them in a Facebook group for ex pupils. I did this and yesterday evening got a number of lovely messages from pupils that were in my tutor group. These people are in their fifties now. Blimey! It was a brilliant class: there were eight classes in the year but, by chance, ten of the eleven first choices for the football team were in my class. We did very well on Sports Day although the girls, who were demure, charming and compliant, let us down rather. Anyway, I spent some time yesterday thinking about Harlow and what a great place it was to live and work.
I’ve written before (when discussing The Magnetic North’s album “Prospects Of Skelmersdale”) about the similarity between New Towns. Skelmersdale, Milton Keynes, Harlow and Crawley are all New Towns. In my experience, anyone who hasn’t lived in a New Town is pretty scathing, if not snobby, about New Towns. There’s an article about The Cure in this month’s UNCUT and, when describing their home town of Crawley, there is an inevitable reference to the high number of roundabouts in the town. I’ve seen that many times in a description of a New Town – lots of roundabouts. I can reveal that having roundabouts aids traffic flow. T junctions and traffic lights involve stationary cars. Roundabouts encourage cars to keep moving. I could expand on this but maybe not now. It seems typical that people that don’t know about New Towns regard them as sterile. Harlow, like Crawley, is a great place. When I lived there between 1976 and 1992, there were three cricket teams, a football team that got to the 4th round of the FA Cup, some really good pubs (and, admittedly, some terrible pubs), a thriving Arts Cinema/Theatre, lots of neighbourhood shops, several brilliant Indian restaurants (a hot potato pattie, anyone?), a bustling town centre and a huge amount of woodland. There was also a music venue called The Square which I could walk to from my flat. I saw loads of great bands there including Paddy’s band “Johnny Get Angry” as well as local favourites Real By Real with the excellent Murray Torkildsen on lead vocals. I would describe the Harlow music scene as thriving.
The article in UNCUT about The Cure paints a very different picture for Crawley which may or may not be accurate. Possibly Crawley is completely different to Harlow (but I doubt it). There is a description of the town which includes references to Gatwick Airport, the M23, train connections to London and roundabouts. The idea of the article seems to be that it is remarkable that such an inventive and emotionally fulfilling band could emerge from a cultural desert like Crawley. It’s not just Northern towns that suffer from the London-centric snobbery and superiority of music writers.
Memories of living in Harlow and exploration of modern “shoegaze” music as demonstrated by BDRMM led me to thinking about my favourite Cure albums. There are so many to choose from and I’ve already written about “Seventeen Seconds“, and “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me“. In another UNCUT article, this time a review of “Pornography”, Peter Watts writes “in the enveloping, seductive “The Figurehead”, you can hear the kernel of what became shoegazing“.
“Pornography” was The Cure’s fourth album and Robert Smith, the singer and songwriter was looking for a new direction. He decided to try a new producer, Paul Thornalley and a new studio, Rak in St John’s Wood. The studio soon developed a personality of its own as the band got supplies of food and drink in and refused to throw any rubbish out thus ensuring that a pile of empty cans and food containers grew in a corner. The three members of the band, Robert Smith (guitar), Simon Gallup (bass and keyboards) and Lol Tolhurst (drums) were also taking a lot of acid. They slept in the offices of their record label, Fiction, and at one point Robert Smith had such a bad acid trip that he stayed in his makeshift bed for two full days. The intention of the album was to “make the ultimate “fuck off” record.” They had been touring intensely and they planned to make the record, tour and then split up.
The recording sessions were not easy. At one point, Paul Thornalley told Robert Smith that he had to improve the sound because the guitars sounded horrible. The reply was that he should consider that the horrible sound of a guitar was a good thing. Robert Smith is quoted as saying “At the time, I lost every friend I had, everyone, without exception, because I was incredibly obnoxious, appalling, self-centred. I channelled all the self-destructive elements of my personality into doing something”.
The reviews of the album were mixed. David Quantick of the NME described the sound as “Phil Spector in hell” which is pretty accurate. A dense claustrophobia permeates every track and the “wall of sound” has been replaced by a “wall of evil”. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a very easy album to listen to. The sound of the album is great. Despite (or because of) the huge guitar sound, crashing drums and eerie swamping overbearing synthesiser, Robert Smith can’t help but compose a good melody and the album is never dull, being full of a certain type of beauty.
The first song on the album is called “One Hundred Years”. The first line is “Doesn’t matter if we all die“. The lyrical content of the album takes its lead from that bleak statement. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter (to me) that the words describe misery, self loathing, hatred and the pointless of existence. The sleevenotes to the expanded reissue in 2005 describe the words of the songs as “a terrifying self-portrait of an alienated dysfunctional psychopath” .
My favourite track is “A Short Term Effect” which has a huge echo on the vocals, some insistent guitar work mimicking John Cale’s viola work on “Heroin”, a very 80’s drum sound and is genuinely uplifting. In a morose, defeatist way.
The Cure had it in mind to release a single from the album and their idea of appearing on “Top Of The Pops” singing a song with lines such as “Cover my face as the animals die” was doomed to failure although it did reach Number 32 in the Charts. It’s up tempo and the repetitive relentless drumming and slashing guitar make it very likeable.
There’s a great video of The Cure performing “Siamese Twins” while two dancers from The Royal ballet (sort of) act out the lyrics. This is a much slower doom-laden song describing a failed sexual encounter. As the song draws to a conclusion, Robert Smith screams out “Is it always like this?” over and over. Magnificent.
That’s Side One done and dusted. One of my favourite sides of music. Side Two is also very good. “The Figurehead” includes more desperate lyrics and a ringing guitar drowned in a trench of noise. “A Strange Day” manages to sound simultaneously huge and intensely personal. “Cold” includes more lyrics about mirrors, disease, death, eyes and ice. The messy title track finishes the album with a sound montage, reputedly of Graham Chapman and Germaine Greer discussing pornography, recorded from a TV programme.
After the album’s release, the band toured in mainland Europe. Acrimony, fighting and disagreements dominated their relationships at the time and after a fist fight between Robert Smith and Simon Gallup, the band headed for home despite the fact that they had several gigs booked. Robert Smith’s Dad then told them to fulfill their obligations which they did (nice to know that aged 23, he still did what his Dad told him). Their final gig was in Belgium where a roadie sung the lead vocals. After that, they turned towards an acceptable pop sound with a succession of Top 20 singles including “Lets Go To Bed”, “The Walk”, “Caterpillar”, “The Love Cats” and “In Between Days”. It was to be another 7 years before they attempted another album with the same shoegazing sound as “Pornography” – the aptly named “Disintegration”.
The Cure have now released 13 studio albums and 30 singles. their Glastonbury performance in 2019 was sensational. Not bad, considering they came from the sterile, emotionless, culture-free barren wasteland known as Crawley.