James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.

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Cud, Rich And Strange (1992)

Cud-Rich--StrangeSQ

Artist: Cud
Title: Rich And Strange
Description: single; album track, Asquarius
Label: A&M
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Holy Moses, here we go again …

OK, here’s the timeline.

1985 Cud form around various art courses at Leeds Polytechnic
1990 Cud’s second proper album Leggy Mambo, on Imaginary, reaches me at the NME. I love it
16 October 1991 I see Cud live for the first time and meet them afterwards at Manchester International II
27 May 1992 I see Cud for the second time live at Wakefield Rooftop Gardens and sit in for AWOL drummer Steve Godwin for Rich And Strange at the soundcheck (photographic evidence is taken of this momentous occasion)
June 1992 I see Cud live at Glastonbury
July 1992 As features editor of NME, I commission Cud’s first and only NME cover story (but do not write it)
1995 Cud split
2006 Cud re-form
2003-2011 I develop a happy if inaccurate reputation for being the only DJ on 6 Music who plays Cud (although I do play them a lot)
11 November 2012 Cud invite me to sit it on the drums again at Brixton Academy to play Rich And Strange when they support Carter USM and the Neds, this time to an actual audience of fans. It is one of the greatest moments of my life

Now, can I separate my love of this song and this band from my own personal history with both? Yes, is the resounding answer. (And in any case, when was The 143 not personal?) I will state for the record that, as the timeline indicates, I fell for Cud’s crazy, toe-tapping pop-rock music before meeting them as tremendous people. And I’d already identified Rich And Strange as a high watermark of their already prolific canon based on a promo cassette of it, which will have arrived from A&M Records in the NME mailbag in early 1992. They hooked me in with their music, these voluble art-rockers, and then landed me with their personalities. But what is a great band if not the sum of its own members’ personalities? Cud stood out then, and stand out now, because they created their own cool, rather than follow a signposted footpath. In Carl Puttnam, they had a singer who could sing and a frontman who could front, but did neither job as per the standardised job description.

In the more finely-tuned and less accidental third LP Asquarius, with a major label behind them and the marketing and formatting that once came with that pre-digital patronage, Cud skirted briefly with the mainstream, and they had the hooks and the ideas to live there, but they were, and are, a fringe proposition with their comic timing and their awful shirts, and it suits them, as much as the shirts did, or do. That bassist William Potter, the band’s own Boswell and apparent treasurer, is a comic artist, and Puttnam a painter (his daubing forms the sleeve of Rich And Strange), feeds into not just their sleeves but their attitude: pop as art.

Rich And Strange, whose intricately syncopated drum signatures I will now take to my grave, is a tight, bright, almost claustrophobically self-contained glam racket. It creates a kitchen-sink drama in which Puttnam bellows of lonely tigers in a basement and hurtling “flushed and brash” into “some crazy scheme”. In the words of Tom Waits, what’s he building in there? Our protagonist seems to be looking for love (“a kiss is too much”) and wounded by loss (“you must remember when you loved me like a friend”), but remains upbeat (“I’m never fed up”), wearing his self-awareness like a belt buckle: “I’m fat but I know where it’s at.” (If crueler observers ever thought of Carl as “fat” in the early 90s, it just goes to show how goalposts move.) Mike Dunphy’s guitar comes in starbursts during the verse then scales the heights of melodrama come the chorus, while Godwin’s line of duty never falters and Potter’s bass throbs away.

Having learned and played the drums to this song (don’t know if I mentioned it), I can report that it’s never off the splash cymbals, and that may explain the sheer, crashing, underlined joy it exudes. It is deceptively rich, albeit explicitly strange. A rare Top 30 hit during Cud’s commercial purple patch, the charts were a more interesting place with them in them.

Because Cud don’t fit into any movement (at Select, we gamely shoehorned them into what wasn’t called our 1993 Britpop issue, and I rated Puttnam four out of five in a concurrent sidebar rating indie’s frontfolk for “star quality”, stating, “Cud’s affable, frizzy-haired, chest-beating vocal acrobat minted ’70s retro chic and now carries Crimplenist mantle with much elan”), they are oft forgotten when matters epochal are discussed. But these four men lured to Leeds from Essex, Northumberland, Derbyshire and Surrey (all but one still trading as the Cud Band) boot-stomped a significant footnote into history. They’re one of my favourites, hope they’re one of yours.

The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

Artist: The Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Label: Verve
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988

I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.

Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.

What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.

I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?

This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.

When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?

There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.

 

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

NickCaveTenderprey

Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.

The Clash, Groovy Times (1979)

ClashCostofLivingEP

Artist: The Clash
Title: Groovy Times
Description: Track, The Cost Of Living EP
Label: CBS
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

NEW
EXTRA POWER
INTENSIFIED
WAKING UP THE DEAD

I don’t mind being quoted when I cite The Clash as “Britain’s greatest ever rock’n’roll group”. For me, they are. On points, they even see off The Smiths; and their finite output of five studio albums* over six productive, metamorphosing years out-toughs any historic claim by the Rolling Stones. (When, on their B-side to White Riot, they declare, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones … in 1977”, lines are drawn and battle comes down.) How much do I like The Clash? I can even put up with Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!

As established elsewhere, I was too young for punk’s year zero, but this just made the whole scene all the more attractive to me while I fumbled my pubescent way towards its heart of darkness in 1979, making healthy mistakes along the way. I was fascinated by the Clash – their clothes, their songtitles, the stencils, the picture sleeves of their singles. I remember seeing the cover of English Civil War reprinted in Smash Hits, with its still from Animal Farm, and wondering what it sounded like. In May of that year, I took the plunge, purchasing The Cost Of Living EP, figuring it was good pocket money value at four tracks. Although I Fought The Law dominated, I was quickly indoctrinated by the other three songs, originals, which were like no other band I’d heard before.

To this day, I still rate the urgent, “Hello, Cleveland” stomp of Gates Of The West and the expansive, London-centrically exotic Capital Radio (officially Capital Radio Two, as it was a re-recording, although I wasn’t to know at 14) over more iconic Clash sides like Guns Of Brixton, Clash City Rockers, even (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. They were always a sharp singles outfit, but there was something secret about these B-sides, in particular Groovy Times.

There’s content in all of Joe Strummer’s lyrics. But this one beguiled me at first listen. Its “see-through shields”, the dead that had to be picked up “out of the broken glass”, and those lorries bringing “the bacon in” – what vivid dystopian scenes he wove. Who was “the nervous triggerman”? Was he the same man as the “king of early-evening ITV”? (I’ve read since that the latter was Bill Grundy.) And what happens when they put you in “a dog suit” (those words almost barked by a hoarse but in-character Strummer), “like from 1964”? When we learn that “the housewives are all singing”, we feel a sneer against conformity and control. Even the Biblical prediction that these Groovy Times “have come to pass … forever more”, sends shivers down the spine.

As a hardened, cynical, better-read adult I can see my way through the imagery – poetic, questioning, reactionary, blackly comic – but it’s the melodic sweetness of the backing vocals, the rather nifty, treated mouth organ (credited to “Bob Jones” ie. Mick), and the Mamas & The Papas-like chant of the chorus, not to mention the acoustically picked solo, that add a discordant lightness to the dark. It’s odd to pick out such a little-known song to represent the entire output of such a magnificent, hitmaking band, but there’s not much that’s unique about The Clash that isn’t in Groovy Times. For one, I can’t think of a more definitive Strummer vocal performance (“Hey, Groovy!”), those words spat out with such righteous fury and agitated saliva. And Topper Headon is all over that kit, with inventive fills a-go-go. This is not a song, and thus not a band, afraid of sounding palatable. (“Have you seen these charts?” whoops Strummer on Capital Radio.)

The Clash felt dangerous to me in 1979. Theirs was strong meat. While I was comfortable calling in the whole of the Undertones’ catalogue, and that of 999, I never felt fully qualified – perhaps politically? – to allow The Clash into my young life. My friend Craig had London Calling, so I had no need to invest. I purchased it years later on CD, although by then I’d picked up a vinyl copy of Sandinista! at a record fair and weighed it lovingly in my hands, more than ready to go around the world with a band who’d so comprehensively broken out of punk. My appreciation of what they did has strengthened with the years.

I entered discussions with Virgin about writing another music biography after Billy Bragg’s and we put some thoughts together about a definitive tome on The Clash. But I didn’t have the history with them and though my heart was in it, my boots weren’t.

An unplanned meeting during my NME years with Mick Jones in Hamburg was regrettable (he had some beef with the paper that was nothing to do with me but he treated me with a sneer nonetheless.) More fruitfully, I met Strummer in 1999 for Q magazine and he did not disappoint. Proclaiming his insomniac love for the defunct Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club (we were the kings of early-morning ITV!), teasing the security guards at the corporate office where we met with a block of hash and threatening to set off the sprinklers by lighting a roll-up, he insisted we repair to the nearby Irish pub for our chat, where we threw out the plan of him answering readers’ questions and instead jawed about Burma. (He took away the questions so that he could answer them properly, and, true to his word, sent them back to us by post.) He was a year younger then than I am now, but boy did he look good. When he came to pass in 2002, I was so stunned that morning I went into 6 Music just to sit in the same room as Gideon Coe, a bigger Clash fan than I.

A reader from Oslo asked: “Are you still as cool as your photo?”
Strummer replied: “No-one is.”

I had a title for the Clash book I never wrote: The Housewives Are All Singing.

* I don’t include Cut The Crap. Who does?

The Cure, One Hundred Years (1982)

The_Cure_-_Pornography

Artist: The Cure
Title: One Hundred Years
Description: album track, Pornography
Label: Fiction
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

It doesn’t matter if we all die …

I was 17, and on the cusp of agreeing with Robert Smith that it didn’t matter if we all die when I purchased Pornography, The Cure’s fourth studio album. Death seems entirely abstract at that age. Sex, too – or at least, it did to me, something I’m now kind of retrospectively grateful for, in the long run. Pornography, which was not even a word that meant much to me at 17, struck a chord though; a great, big, dirty, clanging cathedral chord. This was a record about sex and death, its themes heralded by an opening track to blow all other opening tracks out of the water (“Sounds like a tiger, thrashing in the water, thrashing in the water”).

Having come in with The Cure at A Forest and worked enthusiastically backwards through Seventeen Seconds and Three Imaginary Boys, I bought literally everything they put out for the next seven years (and some things that they didn’t, such as live bootleg cassettes via mail order or Camden market), after which, as a cub reporter, I was able to get them for free. When in 1989, the NME top brass identified me as a fan and allowed to me to write a full annotated discography of the band across a double-page spread – accompanied by a snapshot of me in my backcombed Goth pomp circa 1984 that Robert Smith mentioned when I finally interviewed him in 1992 – I felt I’d achieved all that I needed to achieve. The Cure had been my favourite band for a decade. I still have a lot of time for them. Work took me to Dallas in ’92 to see them play to a multitude of hyped-up plastic-beer-glass jocks in a football stadium, with Curve in support, one of the most memorable gigs of my life.

The concrete manifestations of my teenage fandom – the haystack hair; the intrepid trip to London to see them at the Hammersmith Odeon with my friend Kevin; the accumulated videotapes of every appearance they made on TV in the 80s; the wallpapered bedroom walls – strictly coalesced during the birth of their “pop” phase circa Let’s Go To Bed, when Smash Hits and Record Mirror started to provide glossy, full-colour pix. Kevin and I embraced their ascent overground, and never once flinched. Why? Because the core of their music remained true: Robert Smith was ultimately still there for the nasty things in life, however hard you tapped a toe. But Pornography had been a landmark in externalised misery. It was The Horror.

Rumbling like a God machine, some out-of-control Wacky Races juggernaut combination of the Creepy Coupe and the Army Surplus Special, One Hundred Years leads off the album in manifesto-striking style at nigh-on seven minutes, with a treated guitar riff that might be a cat wailing or a siren warning, and death-rattling electronic drums that must have pissed drummer Lol Tolhurst off, as such contraptions did to skin-and-timber drummers of the age.

We are dealing in doom and gloom, yes, but unlike the poetic, funereal pain of the previous LP Faith, Pornography replaces its shades of gravestone grey with theatrical black and red, blended to create a Grand Guignol puppet melodrama that took migraine ennui to the level of subversive art. As a boy I had been intoxicated and repelled at the same time by horror movies; and subsequently disaster movies – I was drawn to that which frightened the hell out of me. Instantly reminding me of John Carpenter’s Halloween, I can’t think of an album that sounds this much like its sleeve, or a sleeve that so accurately visualises its contents: the band, blurred and Myers-masked, seem intent on bloody murder*.

The first line we’ve already learned: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” In Smith’s adenoidal cry, set in a permanent echo chamber, this sentiment seems sincere. But it’s when his fevered imagery takes hold that the song moves from the bedroom to the masque. “Ambition in the back of a black car … In a high building there is so much to do.” Already we are into capitalism and mystery, the selling of souls, the industrialisation of pleasure. What post-apocalyptic wasteland is this? “Going home time, a story on the radio …” each line delivered as if Smith is broadcasting from a padded cell in an institute for the all too sane.

I’m listening to it right now. Remember: this magnificent sound was created by three blokes from Sussex, exhausted, drunk, high on drugs and at each others’ throats, imagining they were making their last album, under the aegis of a new producer, Phil Thornalley, who we may assume was neither drunk, nor high, nor at anyone’s throats. If you want to be really brutal: Smith has said that it was either make this album or kill himself. We should give daily thanks for its existence.

As I said, I loved their new, post-Pornographic direction and cherish the pop singles with the comic videos that nobody would have guessed they could make: Catch, Lullaby, Why Can’t I Be You, Just Like Heaven, Inbetween Days, Close To Me … The Cure are one of Britain’s greatest singles bands, right up there with Madness and the Pet Shop Boys and Bananarama and Slade and the Beatles.

But give me their gory years any time. “Something small falls out of your mouth and we laugh … A prayer for something better … Please love me, meet my mother, the fear takes hold …” This is all of my favourite dark art, film and literature in one song: Bacon, King, Dix, Poe, Carpenter, Schwitters, Leigh, Gilliam, Rothko (come on – the colours!), McCarthy, Dickinson, Cummings, Owen, Sutherland, Nash, Steadman, Scarfe, Pinter. When I was an art student, I created a calendar whose imagery was extrapolated from Robert Smith’s lyrics; for “Ambition in the back of a black car,” I stole licks from Ralph Steadman and drew a stretched, hearse-like limousine in chalky pastels, with a pair of female legs akimbo from the passenger windows. My own interpretation may not stand up to the test of time, or taste, but the lyric abides as English literature.

If I ever do curate The 143 albums, Pornography will be one of the first admitted. From this track through to the almost atonal, grumbling title track, via as close as it dares come to a pop tune, Siamese Twins (recently used for a montage in The Americans, and performed live on some Arts Council magazine show in 1983 while two fantastic, whiteface ballet dancers violently entwined themselves to it amid dry ice) and the almost heart-stopping Strange Day (in which “the sky and the impossible explode”), it glows like a nuclear sun on the horizon. One One Hundred Years, the reason we are gathered here today, Fat Bob is “sharing the world with slaughtered pigs.” One year later? “We missed you, hissed the Lovecats.” The boy needed therapy.

*Let’s credit designer Ben Kelly and photographer Michael Kostiff while we’re singing praises.

Colourbox, Just Give ’Em Whiskey (1985)

Colourobox

Artist: Colourbox
Title: Just Give ’em Whiskey
Description: album track from Colourbox
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

My friend Rob Mills and I were 4AD groupies at college, that is, “fans” of an independent record label. On the same Graphic Design and Illustration degree course at Chelsea School Of Art, we were also record collectors, and keen students of sleeve design. We were head over heels with 4AD’s in-house designer, Vaughan Oliver, who traded as 23 Envelope, and wrapped the releases of Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Wolfgang Press, Pixies and Throwing Muses in 12-inch cardboard masterpieces whose attention to aesthetic detail sang of the music within: often ethereal, often operatic, sometimes awkward, always uncompromising. Of the label’s roster, the Cocteaus were our main focus, but we spent our grants on pretty much everything 4AD put out, and handled each purchase with care.

Once onboard, we started gradually working our way backwards through the catalogue whenever funds would allow. (I can also safely say that I bought the first Pixies release Come On Pilgrim without even knowing who the group were; if 4AD had signed ’em, we were in.) Neither of us had heard a note of Colourbox when in 1985 I purchased the 12-inch of Breakdown, released in 1983, whose austere, brutalist sleeve was something of a disappointment, but the music within was a surprise: a languid slice of Depeche Mode-like electronica except with a female soul vocal. Next, I bought Punch, a stuttering explosion of funk, whose typographical sleeve was far more up our street. When the group’s first and only LP arrived in 1985, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. At least this time it wouldn’t be on spec.

Mostly self-produced by brothers Martyn and Steve Young, Colourbox was eclectic stuff, running its own gamut from studio-propelled covers (You Keep Me Hanging On, U-Roy’s Say You) to crooning pop (The Moon Is Blue, Suspicion), piano elegy (Sleepwalker) and curious, sample-led Frankenstein’s monsters, one of which was a 25-second clip of Hale and Pace over a dystopian backing; the other Just Give ’Em Whiskey, a true milestone of sampled invention.

That the Youngs would presently form M/A/R/R/S and go to number one with watershed demonstration disc Pump Up The Volume is the perfect ending to their story. History was theirs. But Whiskey is one for the cinephiles, a rattling, guitar-led sprint through sci-fi thrillers Westworld and The Andromeda Strain, via dialogue lifted wholesale from videotapes and set to modern rock, ricocheting gunshots and soundtrack stings. Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner calls out, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” while a cooing female announcer from future amusement park Delos promises “an unforgettable vacation,” “lifelike robot men and women,” and “the lusty decadent delights of imperial Pompeii.”

For me, the killer punch comes when possibly Richard Benjamin and James Brolin say, “Dinner at seven, breakfast at six thirty. Eat lunch on your own.” “Don’t look like much here, but we have everything.”

I love that line. And it makes me think about Colourbox, whose most pioneering work didn’t look like much – some clips from some old movies, some synthesiser riffs and a bit of guitar and drums – but they had everything. I found this partial catalogue of Colourbox’s samples. It’s worth a look, as I had erroneously thought my favourite piece of dialogue was from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Of course, all this talk of buying records for their sleeves will seem quaint and possibly laughable to younger readers. But art used to matter to everybody.