COVER STORY: THE CURE

Q (UK) - - Contents -

It was 40 years ago to­day (give or take) Robert Smith taught the band to play – just the ex­cuse we needed to gather an army of fa­mous fans and Q read­ers to tell us their favourite tracks and help cel­e­brate one of the UK’s great­est bands.

Forty years ago, in 1978, three imag­i­na­tive boys called The Cure from Craw­ley, West Sus­sex, re­leased their first sin­gle, Killing An Arab, to lit­tle fan­fare. They were initially de­rided as a one-trick mis­ery fad. But driven de­ter­minedly by their sin­gle-minded young mas­ter­mind, they grew over the sub­se­quent decades into one of Bri­tain’s most unique, widely-loved and suc­cess­ful acts. Vic­to­ria Se­gal salutes the spooky ge­nius of Robert Smith and his band.

In the tour pro­gramme for 1987’ s The Kiss­ing Tour, the show ac­com­pa­ny­ing sprawl­ing sev­enth al­bum Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, each mem­ber of The Cure filled in a whim­si­cal ques­tion­naire about their favourite things. Bassist Si­mon Gallup’s favourite bird, pos­si­bly also a hairstyling in­flu­ence, was listed as “crow”. Drum­mer turned key­board player Lol Tol­hurst’s favourite tree was “sil­ver birch”. It is singer Robert Smith, though, whose an­swers most clearly cap­ture his band’s aes­thetic. Favourite sound? “Notre Dame cathe­dral bells.” Favourite dream? “To fly and be young again.” Night­mare? “Wak­ing up as some­one else.” And per­fect mo­ment? “When the room swims…” In the 40 years since they re­leased their de­but sin­gle, Killing An Arab, Robert Smith has care­fully cu­rated The Cure’s world, a place as im­mer­sive and self-gov­ern­ing as any superhero uni­verse. There’s no mis­tak­ing a band who have come un­der The Cure’s in­flu­ence (try Mog­wai, Muse, Di­nosaur Jr., Sav­ages, Interpol or Warpaint, for starters), while Smith’s as­pidis­tra hair, lip­stick traces and marsh­mal­low train­ers brand him as strik­ingly as Madonna’s con­i­cal bra, or Prince’s pur­ple frock­coat. Smith, tellingly, once re­fused to al­low a con­tes­tant on Stars In Their Eyes to “be” him be­cause it rep­re­sented “a side of Bri­tish cul­ture that I ab­hor” – not to men­tion the di­lu­tion that kind of fame threat­ens. If any­thing, over the years they have dou­bled down on their es­sen­tial Cure-ness: the al­bum they recorded in 2004 with nu-metal pro­ducer Ross Robin­son was sim­ply called The Cure and de­scribed as be­ing “Cure­heavy”. “Any­one who doesn’t like this, just doesn’t like The Cure,” said Smith, in case the mes­sage didn’t get through. Yet de­spite their bul­let­proof iden­tity, defin­ing The Cure re­mains dif­fi­cult. Goth mu­sic is “in­cred­i­bly dull and mo­not­o­nous, a dirge re­ally,” Smith told Q in 1989, so that’s one obvious touch­stone gone. How can the mourn­ful jan­gle of sec­ond sin­gle Boys Don’t Cry be from the same band be­hind Killing An Arab’s abra­sive thump? What is the com­mon ground be­tween 1982’ s mono­lith­i­cally bleak Pornog­ra­phy – de­signed by Smith to be “the ul­ti­mate fuck-off record” – and the Day-Glo car­toon purr of The Love­cats? Who could mea­sure the opu­lent me­mento mori of 1989’ s Dis­in­te­gra­tion against the mod­ish baggy remixes of 1990’ s Mixed Up, or the starry-eyed pop of Wish, home of Fri­day I’m In Love? It’s even more in­ex­pli­ca­ble that a band known for be­ing so gloomily in­tro­spec­tive could be­come a global cult, fill­ing are­nas, head­lin­ing fes­ti­vals. There is, how­ever, one con­stant.

Robert James Smith was born in Black­pool on 21 April, 1959; when he was seven, his fam­ily moved to Craw­ley, West Sus­sex (Gallup must be pleased its name de­rives from the An­glo-Saxon “Crow lea”). It’s a place Smith has re­mained close to his en­tire life – and not just be­cause it’s con­ve­niently near to Gatwick Air­port. It was where he formed his first bands – the Craw­ley Goat Band with his sib­lings, then Mal­ice, which be­came Easy Cure. It was where he started to play with his clos­est, longest-serv­ing band­mates, Tol­hurst, Porl (now Pearl) Thomp­son and Gallup and where he worked his only “real” job as a Christ­mas re­lief post­man. It was where he met Mary Poole, his fu­ture wife, in a school drama class at the age of 15. For a band who spe­cialised in de­spair and alien­ation, these close, com­fort­ing bonds were vi­tal. One line-up of The Cure even in­cluded three brothers-in­law: Thomp­son was mar­ried to Smith’s sis­ter Janet, while Gallup’s wife was Thomp­son’s sis­ter Carol. From the start, then, Smith’s uni­verse was tightly de­fined, mak­ing grey Sus­sex sub­ur­bia a safe space for ad­ven­tures. No won­der they strike such a deep clang­ing chord

with kids on the out­skirts of ev­ery town and city, from Buenos Aires to Ber­lin: they are both the sound of alien­ation and the means to es­cape it. The sec­ond you hear 10.15 Satur­day Night (“and the tap drips un­der the strip light”), writ­ten when Smith was just 16, you know ex­actly where you are – even if the band them­selves were still find­ing their bear­ings. It was a slow process, es­pe­cially as their small-town Ca­mus chic didn’t al­ways ap­peal to the crit­ics. Paul Mor­ley sav­aged their spindly post-punk de­but Three Imag­i­nary Boys in the NME: “They are try­ing to say ev­ery­thing is empty. They are mak­ing fools of them­selves.” The band re­torted with a Peel Ses­sion ver­sion of their track Grind­ing Halt, reti­tled Des­per­ate Jour­nal­ist. “He uses long words like ‘semi­otics’ and ‘semolina’,” sang Smith, along­side chunks of Mor­ley’s review. Their more pro­found re­sponse, though, was to take the band and drive it straight into the ground, push­ing down harder and darker than ever, test­ing them­selves to de­struc­tion in a post-Joy Di­vi­sion world. The band – then a core of Smith, Tol­hurst and Gallup (orig­i­nal bassist Michael Dempsey hav­ing left) – recorded a tril­ogy of al­bums that ran from bleak ( 1980’ s Seven­teen Sec­onds), to bleaker ( 1981’ s Catholic school­boy melt­down Faith), to bleak­est ( 1982’ s Pornog­ra­phy). The lat­ter would be the turn­ing point for the band: mu­si­cally the dead­est of dead ends, it was dif­fi­cult to see how The Cure could keep fol­low­ing the tra­jec­tory of One Hun­dred Years (“it doesn’t mat­ter if we all die”), or the ti­tle track (“one more day like to­day and I’ll kill you”). Even the sleeve pho­to­graphs were per­verse, Smith telling Smash Hits that they wore white masks and lay on red satin sheets to look like de­com­pos­ing Marilyn Mon­roes. “Frankly, it’s un­healthy,” said Melody Maker – all the more so con­sid­er­ing Smith’s later con­fes­sion that, from what he could re­call of the ses­sions (“I was pretty se­ri­ously strung out a lot of the time”), the band did some record­ing in the dis­gust­ing stu­dio toi­lets to en­hance the de­based grim­ness of the sound. The fol­low­ing Four­teen Ex­plicit Mo­ments tour took an even messier turn, and not just be­cause Smith was wear­ing lip­stick around his eyes to look as if he was suffering from a ter­ri­ble haem­or­rhage. Ten­sions be­tween Smith and Gallup cul­mi­nated in Gallup fly­ing home from a date in Stras­bourg af­ter a ruck in a bar be­tween the pair, with Smith close be­hind. Those beau­ti­fully cold, des­per­ate records ended The Cure’s first phase – there was nowhere darker to go with­out sub­sti­tut­ing the lip­stick for ac­tual blood. “I don’t think you can make too many al­bums like that,” Smith said, “be­cause you wouldn’t be alive.” Af­ter de­com­press­ing in the Lake Dis­trict with Mary for a month, Smith de­cided to ac­cept a chal­lenge is­sued by the head of his record la­bel, Chris Parry: write a pop hit. The re­sult, amaz­ingly within just six months of Pornog­ra­phy’s re­lease, was the stalk­ing synth-pop of Let’s Go To Bed, the first Cure song to fea­ture the un­hinged fair­ground vi­su­als of di­rec­tor Tim Pope. What started as an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise, how­ever, as­sumed a dif­fer­ent slant when it be­came clear this was some­thing they could do well: “We fol­lowed it up with The Walk and Love­cats and I just felt to­tally lib­er­ated,” Smith said in 2000. “With Love­cats, I sug­gested that we were go­ing to do some­thing that’s kind of like a Dis­ney take on jazz, based around The Aris­to­cats. And sud­denly ev­ery­thing we did started to sell.” The Cure had al­ready been on Top Of The Pops, tense, short-haired sub­ur­ban boys twitch­ing through A For­est and Pri­mary in spir­i­tual black-and-white, but they were hardly obvious pop stars at the turn of the ’ 80s. Yet with this rash of sin­gles, The Cure started to trans­form them­selves, split­ting their steel-grey post-punk chrysalis and flut­ter­ing into colour. For Smith, the shift was less dra­matic than peo­ple might have thought. “The fun thing,” he said in 1990, “is some­thing peo­ple al­ways miss out on with us…. even as far back as

“With Love­cats, I sug­gested that we were go­ing to do some­thing that’s kind of like a Dis­ney take on jazz, based around The Aris­to­cats. And sud­denly ev­ery­thing we did started to sell.” Robert Smith

Faith or Pornog­ra­phy we were still hav­ing a good crack. Peo­ple would see me and Si­mon laugh­ing and drink­ing ourselves un­con­scious to­gether and they couldn’t un­der­stand how we could be like that and still be in this angst-rid­den band. But it’s easy to be like that – it’s what be­ing lit­tle, be­ing a child, is all about. When you’re grown-up, you can’t do it cos you think about it too much.” Be­ing lit­tle, be­ing a child: it was here The Cure started to shed the in­tensely ado­les­cent an­guish of Faith and Pornog­ra­phy and regress to an even ear­lier, stranger state. Smith ex­ag­ger­ated his make-up and hair un­til he looked like Jim Henson did his wardrobe – a hit with both boys and girls – in­ter­spers­ing sad songs with win­somely warped pop that bulged and twisted like Sal­vador Dalí bal­loon an­i­mals. In­ter­views would men­tion his love of Hubba Bubba, Star Wars or The Beano, tastes that seemed thrillingly trans­gres­sive for a grown man with a girl­friend. The Love­cats’ plushy eroti­cism was both child-like and deeply sin­is­ter, a real sweet spot (“into the sea, you and me”) while The Cater­pil­lar, the only sin­gle from 1984’ s tran­si­tional The Top, bur­rowed into the charts for seven weeks, a de­cep­tively pretty burst of hot­house ex­ot­ica. For ini­ti­ates, though, there was also a heavy psy­che­delic swag to these songs, en­hanced by Smith’s long as­so­ci­a­tion with Siouxsie And The Ban­shees. He had played on their Top 3 cover of Dear Pru­dence; in 1983 he re­leased the al­bum Blue Sun­shine with The Glove, his side-project with Ban­shee Steve Sev­erin. The band name came from a char­ac­ter in Yellow Sub­ma­rine; the al­bum ti­tle from a film about a killer strain of LSD. “I dust my le­mon lies with pow­der pink and sweet,” sang Smith on The Cater­pil­lar. No doubt about it, he was com­ing out to play.

By 1985’ s The Head On The Door, The Cure had hit their cruis­ing al­ti­tude, able to gen­er­ate im­pec­ca­ble sin­gles In Be­tween Days and Close To Me as well as the dark fla­menco of The Blood or the omi­nous pa­per-lantern flicker of Ky­oto Song. It was an eclec­ti­cism they would push to ex­tremes on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the dou­ble al­bum that would push them into the Amer­i­can al­bum Top 40, thanks to the grave­yard funk of Hot Hot Hot!!! and the full­body swoon of Just Like Heaven. “One of the rea­sons peo­ple like the band is be­cause they’re never quite sure what’s go­ing to hap­pen next,” Smith said in 2004. “If we were pre­dictable, we wouldn’t have re­ally lasted this long.” Yet the re­verse could also be true: it is The Cure’s fun­da­men­tal con­sis­tency that has guar­an­teed them en­dur­ing de­vo­tion and in­flu­ence. The su­perb Dis­in­te­gra­tion, from 1989, was a grown-up ver­sion of Pornog­ra­phy’s night ter­rors, “the spi­der man” al­ter­nat­ing with fear of death to men­ace the just-turned 30 Smith. Wish, from 1992, mean­while, echoed their ’ 80s pop glo­ries with bliss­ful hit Fri­day I’m In Love. “To do some­thing like Fri­day I’m In Love and to have that video and still have peo­ple say, ‘The doom and gloom mer­chants’ – it’s just ir­ri­tat­ing,” Smith said in 1993. “But we’ll al­ways be stuck with it. When we did Dis­in­te­gra­tion, peo­ple said we were go­ing back to our roots, whereas our roots are Boys Don’t Cry and that sort of id­iot pop.” The Cure’s mood swings might be wild, but they are be­tween two clearly de­fined poles – eu­pho­ria and en­nui, dizzi­ness and de­spair. It is all or noth­ing – a mind­set that is both out­ra­geously ado­les­cent and ex­tremely se­duc­tive. It’s hard not to imag­ine Smith as a one-man alt-rock Gil­bert And Ge­orge, al­ways on duty, his life and art in­di­vis­i­ble. When he does break the fourth wall, it comes as a real shock, as on 2001’ s ten­der Cut Here, an extra track on Great­est Hits. A guil­trid­den lament about his late friend, As­so­ciates singer Billy Macken­zie, who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1997, it leaks a raw, art­less emo­tion that makes you re­alise just how care­fully con­trolled The Cure usu­ally are, just how pre­cise Smith is as a song­writer. It is a real talent to rein­vent your­self just enough, to mod­ify with­out de­stroy­ing, to evolve with­out changing into a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal al­to­gether. “The thing about The Cure is we ex­ist in iso­la­tion,” he said in 1989. “We’re not in com­pe­ti­tion with any­one. One day we’ll stop. But we’ll never be re­placed.” As a teenager, Smith went to see David Bowie play at “Earls Court and he played for less than an hour. Now, that ticket cost me an aw­ful lot of money. My friends and I had saved up our din­ner money! In a funny way, that was the biggest legacy I got from Bowie. It taught me to never un­der­es­ti­mate how much this means to the peo­ple that come to see you.” That les­son ex­plains a lot about The Cure: the three-hour long shows, the dou­ble al­bums, the de­sire to give an au­di­ence what they need to make them happy and keep them in The Cure’s world. There has been no new Cure al­bum since 2008’ s 4:13 Dream, but it seems those doors are open­ing slowly once again. Smith’s cu­ra­tion of this year’s South­bank Melt­down fes­ti­val ap­pears to have gal­vanised him: “I’ve sud­denly fallen in love with the idea of writ­ing new songs, so it’s had a re­ally good ef­fect on me,” he said re­cently, ad­mit­ting he had even booked stu­dio time, one kohled eye on get­ting a new al­bum out be­fore the 40th an­niver­sary of Three Imag­i­nary Boys. If his favourite dream is still “to be young and fly again”, his trans­port awaits.

The Cure Mk 1: (from left) Michael Dempsey, Robert Smith and Lol Tol­hurst, 1979.

A last­ing im­pres­sion: The Cure (from left, Ja­son Cooper, Si­mon Gallup, Smith, Roger O’Don­nell, Perry Ba­monte) are in­ducted into the Hol­ly­wood Rock­walk, LA, 2004.

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