COVER STORY: THE CURE
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.