One of the more notable reviews of Three Imaginary Boys was by Paul Morley in the NME of 12 May 1979, a piece that caused The Cure to publicly respond – on the radio, no less.
By his own admission, Morley was irritated by the record when called upon to review it – an occasion that took place on the night that saw Margaret Thatcher romp to power in the General Election on 3 May. Understandably, Morley was not in the mood for Chris Parry’s cryptic track listing and ponderous artwork.
Morley opens his review with the words: “Aah! More anguished young men chalking up more sanctioned and sanctimonious marks. Do not applaud them.” And that’s just the start.
His main target for criticism is the album sleeve and lack of titles, “packaging this insubstantial froth as if it had some social validity”. He went on: “The lads go rampant on insignificant symbolism and compound this with rude, soulless obliqueness. They are trying to tell us something. They are trying to tell us they do not exist.”
“Nowhere is there anything alarming,” Morley complains. “Nowhere is there anything truly adventurous.” He concludes that The Cure are “absolute conformists to vaguely defined non-convention… Fatigue music. So transparent. Light and – oh, how it nags.”
“I was in a really bad mood – and I took it out somewhat on the album. ” Morley later explained in the documentary Out Of The Woods. “It seemed like a manufactured punk/new wave construct that you couldn’t take seriously. I hated the whole packaging – it seemed to be there was a concentration on trying to market mystery. And at that time, that got up my nose.
“There was something quite fake about the whole thing… the little squiggles and symbols for the song titles seemed annoying and didn’t reflect what they were really interested in. It was interesting that they’d come out of the strange Bowie world of both pop songs and soundscapes. At that time you couldn’t really tell – everything seemed like a desperate need to be interesting, rather than just being as interesting as they actually were, which they slowly developed.” Parry later claimed that Morley’s attempts at creating anonymous “New Pop” with his own studio construction The Art Of Noise on the ZTT label later in the decade actually had a lot in common with the faceless design of The Cure’s debut.
The dense language used by the NME’s writers at this point were full of allusions to political and art theory, making wading your way through the singles reviews akin to digesting an academic thesis. Punk had expanded the vocabulary of music journalism to accommodate the new ideas and the changes in society – but often at the expense of legibility and common empathy with the readership.
The day that the music press was published, The Cure were at the BBC’s studios in Maida Vale, West London (not far from where Smith would have a flat a few years later), recording their second session for the John Peel show. I would bet money that Parry rushed out to get hold of the music papers while the band were in London and hurried them to studio – you can just imagine excitement turning to disappointment to resentment within a matter of minutes.
The Cure’s response to this critical panning was much the same as the fallout out of their beef with Peter Meisel of Hansa: they wrote a song about it. Or, rather, Smith rewrote the lyrics to “Grinding Halt” and re-sang them as a “bonus” track for the session that they were recording that very day. “Desperate Journalist” was an immediate reaction to the review.
Smith’s annoyance wasn’t just about the accusations of hype and the constructed anti-image that was out of his control; the review sits alongside a piece by Ian Penman about the album Word Salad by Fischer-Z, a Berkshire-based New Wave outfit fronted by poet John Watts and signed to major label United Artists. The combination of Morley’s invective and Penman’s baffled and baffling query that wonders if Fischer-Z are “a conceptual exercise in nihilist super-realism” were too much for the Crawley lads.
The claim that The Cure were aiming for “social validity” also rankled with Smith, who was claiming nothing of the sort. He’d just turned 20 and these songs were written for the amusement of local Crawley punks, not for any great statement. Not everyone had to be “important”, like The Clash.
Reading lines from Morley’s review directly off the page, “Desperate Journalist” remains an amusing fit of pique. It’s not the most incisive piece of satire, it’s immature at times and takes the occasional cheap shot – Robert Smith, the Albert Camus fan tries to deflate Morley’s pomposity with the line “Shep The Sheepdog’s my favourite book.” Smith also steps on the ending’s bite by adding “I say” after one of Morley’s most exasperated lines: “It’s just that in 1979 people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with things like this.”
When the session was played out a week later, John Peel opened the show by announcing a second live appearance “from the valuable Cure, whose debut LP occasioned an uncharacteristically violent review from Paul Morley of the NME and lumped the band together with others whose work I really don’t care for.”
Peel followed the Maida Vale version of “Grinding Halt” by saying: “The band were so stung by Paul Morley’s vigorous condemnation of their LP in the New Musical Express that they’ve taken the unusual step of retaliating on the air. This is not something we want to see happen very often.”
After playing out “Desperate Journalist In Ongoing Meaningful Review Situation”, Peel relented: “I rather like that as a concept, we should do more of that.” After playing Masquerade by The Skids, he adds: “I was just sitting here ruminating as to why it’s possible that those NME boys may have taken against the Cure so much. I can’t understand that really. I mean, there are a great many bands who deserve much harder condemnation than that, I think.”
Morley’s NME colleague Nick Kent noted (on 19 May) that following the publication of the review, “Chris Parry was on the blower to Morley, well agitated apparently – and earnestly concerned on enlightening the latter on certain counts, principally that the whole packaging job was his, and not the band’s conceit.”
Kent claimed that “Naturally I disagree with [Morley’s] charges and find that the equation anti-image coyly implemented rings up as instant enigma construction more than a touch specious, especially when issued from the thought-process of a die-hard Howard Devotee like Paul, who is far more obviously guilty of such a charge.”
However, Kent was no stranger to holding a strong opinion himself, adding that that “The Cure, going by the times I’ve encountered them, seem an extremely perceptive bunch of ageing teenagers with a sense of self-effacement and good logic that the Smith riposte translates as immature boo-hooing. It’s almost as if Smith wants to prove our Paul right.”
Next week: let’s break down the lyrics of “Desperate Journalist”