The Cure Three Imaginary Decades
Published Jul 01, 2004Against their wishes, they helped define goth with a series of early, dreary albums, only to subsequently revoke any leadership or responsibility and do the exact opposite of what everyone expected. The Cure has always been recognised for their darker side - the spidery hairdos, the ghostly make-up, and the legions of devoted black-clad worshippers. And yet, that's not what led to their massive success. Robert Smith may look like some incarnation of the bogey man, but he is responsible for some of the greatest, most lovable pop songs of the last two decades. In the band's 28 years, Smith has done everything on his own terms, moving back and forth between happy and sad, without it ever damaging his persona. This year his band is back and bigger than ever with the release of their Ross Robinson-produced album, their twelfth, simply titled The Cure. Also in the books is a travelling festival supported by rock's most exciting bands and expanded reissues of their entire catalogue due in the next 18 months. England's beloved popes of mope are set on making us smile again the way only they can - with a bit of sadness on the side.
1976 to 1978
Robert Smith, a 17-year-old guitarist studying at St. Wilfrid's Middle School in Crawley, England, forms a band with schoolmates Michael Dempsey (bass), Porl Thompson (guitar) and Laurence "Lol" Tolhurst (drums). Under the name Malice, the quartet taps into the spirit of punk that is beginning to take England by storm. They begin playing covers of their idols Bowie, Hendrix, Thin Lizzy and Alex Harvey and change their name to Easy Cure, after one of Tolhurst's songs. After reading an ad with the heading: "Wanna Be A Recording Star?" in Melody Maker, they quickly sign a deal for one thousand pounds with Germany's Hansa Records. A singer named Peter O'Toole (not the actor) joins for a brief period; his departure forces Smith to take over vocal duties. During a gig at the Rocket, they meet Simon Gallup, who will become one of their long-standing members. After Hansa drops them to focus on David Sylvian's Japan, they decide to drop "Easy" and add "The" to their name. The Cure start shopping their demo to the majors and catch the ear of Chris Parry at Polydor, the man responsible for signing the Jam and Siouxsie & the Banshees. He signs them to his own offshoot, Fiction, where they will remain for the next 22 years. They tour the UK with Generation X and release a single, the controversial "Killing An Arab" (based on Albert Camus' The Outsider), on the tiny Small Wonder label. The single sells 15,000 copies in only a couple of weeks with little attention. Smith tells Trouser Press in 1980 that "the good that came from it far outweighed the bad. We came to public attention really quick on the strength of a single that wasn't a hit."
To cash in on buzz and meet demand, Fiction re-releases another batch of the "Killing An Arab" single. Unfortunately, the song is misconstrued by some as a racist anthem. Three months later, the Cure's first album, Three Imaginary Boys, is released with symbols replacing the song titles and one of the ugliest album covers ever, featuring simply a fridge, a vacuum and a lamp. Critics feel the move is a pretentious one, but the band denies having any control over the matter. They admit they hated the artwork, as well as the sound of the album (which includes a piss-poor cover of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady") and blame Parry and engineer Mike Hedges for the results. A brand new, non-album single, "Boys Don't Cry," is released a month later, but fails to make any impact. Smith begins the Dance Fools Dance record label and releases a split single by the Obtainers, two 11-year-olds on pots and pans, and the Magspies, featuring his friend Gallup on bass. A Throbbing Gristle gig at the YMCA introduces Smith to Steve Severin of the Banshees, inaugurating a friendship that quickly turns into a partnership. Severin invites the Cure to support the Banshees on tour, but disaster occurs immediately when two band members quit Siouxsie's band. Smith takes over guitar duties on top of his performances with the Cure, while the Slits' Budgie fills in on drums. Siouxsie returns the favour, recording backing vocals on "I'm Cold," the B-side to the Cure's next single, "Jumping Someone Else's Train." Dempsey leaves the band to join the Associates after losing interest in Smith's darker, melancholic musical direction. Gallup is named the replacement and Mathieu Hartley of the Magspies becomes the band's keyboardist. A side project, the Cult Heroes, is formed and they record a single, "I'm A Cult Hero," featuring their local postman, Frank.
Boys Don't Cry, a U.S. compilation of non-album tracks and Three Imaginary Boys' highlights is released, oft confused in North America as their debut album. The Cult Heroes make their only ever live appearance at the Marquee in London, featuring two stray schoolgirls and a set comprised of their single and a selection of Top Ten hits from 1973. Smith manages to find time to add backing vocals to the Associates' The Affectionate Punch. "A Forest" earns the band their first appearance on Top Of The Pops, but Smith is nursing a thumb injury and plays in pain while the host forgets who they are. The moody, atmospheric second album, Seventeen Seconds, is released, continuing the band's progression into a sound that will turn them into goth heroes. Producer Mike Hedges goes on to tag their sound "songs to hang yourself by." Smith explains his vision to Creem in 1986, claiming, "The voice was supposed to be so you could almost barely hear it. I wanted you to have to, like, get around the drum kit to hear what I was actually singing, because it was that type of record." On a tour to support the new record, the band is arrested in Holland, physically attacked in Germany and tear-gassed in France. The doom and gloom of the band forces another member, Hartley, to quit after a bust up in New Zealand. He later admits to Melody Maker, "I realised the group was heading towards suicidal, sombre music - the sort of thing that didn't interest me at all." Smith, who has become obsessed with death as a theme to the music, takes complete control of the band's songwriting.
For their second appearance on Top Of The Pops, the Cure dresses their instruments in costumes to make a statement about the show's foolish lip-syncing policy. Faith is recorded in one month and released quickly. The grey and murky album cover fittingly captures the essence of the record, which critics pan for its "hackneyed doom-mongering that should have died with Joy Division." Carnage Visors, a film produced by Gallup's brother Rick, is made to screen before their gigs. The soundtrack is included as the second side of the cassette version of Faith. Eventually, the album takes its toll on the band, who begin to feel just how powerful the depressing sound of the music is during their live shows. Some audiences are filled with such animosity that numerous performances end in feuds between the band and patrons.
Smith descends further into a world of violence and misery with Pornography. Part one of a trilogy, the record chronicles the downward spiral the band is heading in. Opening with the words "It doesn't matter if we all die" and closing with "I must fight this sickness, find a cure ," very few records have managed to portray death the way Pornography does. A tour entitled Fourteen Explicit Moments follows, causing perpetual hostility within the band - Gallup punches out Smith at a club in Strasbourg. In 1986, Smith sums up this troublesome period to Creem, saying, "It got worse and worse, darker and darker. The only logical conclusion was for it to all just fall apart, and probably end up swinging from something. I wasn't prepared for that. I mean, [Joy Division's] Ian Curtis was my generation's suicide. I didn't really want to follow in his footsteps." When the tour comes to an end, Gallup quits the band, while Smith and Tolhurst each go off on separate holidays. With the band on hiatus, Smith and Severin record a new song called "Lament" for the Flexipop fanzine. When Tolhurst reconvenes, he announces his move from drums to keyboards. In a desperate attempt to shift the attention away from their reputation, Smith, Tolhurst and session drummer Steve Goulding conceive the disco-fabulous "Let's Go To Bed," their idea of the most "un-Cure-like" record imaginable. The single is not successful as a song, but the video becomes a cult hit and is the dawning of a long-term working relationship with director Tim Pope. Smith finishes off the rollercoaster year joining the Banshees as a guitarist for a tour of Asia.
Smith is approached by the Royal Ballet to write music for Les Enfants Terrible and donates Pornography's "Siamese Twins" to a BBC program to test out the possibility, but the results are disappointing and he desists. As the Cure is temporarily a shelved entity, Smith goes off with Severin to form the Glove, as Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie concentrate on their own side project, the Creatures. Roping in Jeanette Landray to sing (distancing it from sounding like the Cure), the Glove records the psychedelic carnival, Blue Sunshine, in a mere three days. Soon after, Smith rounds up Tolhurst, and newcomers Derek Thompson (bass) and Andy Anderson (drums) for a television gig and decides to record another new single, "The Walk." Phil Thornalley replaces Thompson on bass and after a short U.S. tour, they visit a studio in Paris and record their biggest hit yet, "The Love Cats," inspired by a 1970 animated film called The Aristocats. To shoot the wildly frisky video, Smith dupes a real estate agent out of the keys to a house. Smith joins the Banshees for their recording of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and their performances at the Royal Albert Hall, which are recorded for the album and film, Nocturne. The year ends with the release of Japanese Whispers, a mini-album collecting their three recent singles and B-sides, along with a Top Of The Pops Christmas appearance, where Smith plays songs with both the Cure and the Banshees.
The year begins with Smith recording two albums: Hyaena with the Banshees and The Top, an album that plays like a Robert Smith solo effort (with Dave Allen producing), released under the Cure name. Though The Top is highly regarded as the Cure's least harmonious work, it does produce a hit with "The Caterpillar." Touring with both bands, Smith decides he needs to pick one or the other. He chooses the Banshees. On a much needed vacation, he rummages through concert tapes and decides to release Concert, a live album recorded during The Top tour. Reassembling for another tour, the Cure get so far as Japan, before Anderson wigs out and attacks members of the road crew. He is sacked and Vince Ely from the Psychedelic Furs fills in until ex-Thompson Twins skinsman Boris Williams joins on a permanent basis.
Thompson and Gallup (after Smith tracked him down in a salon) rejoin the band following the departure of Thornalley, who decides to begin a fruitless solo career. With a seemingly steady line-up that will last them the next three years, the Cure gets back on track and delivers the solid The Head On The Door. Featuring the band's two finest pop singles (the first time they release two from one album), "In Between Days" and "Close To Me," the record is the first to make a move out of the dismal world Smith had created on the previous four albums. The record cracks the American charts and Melody Maker votes it Album of the Year. In a strange interview with The Face, Smith tells all, proclaiming Madonna "looks like she stinks," "I'm almost an alcoholic," and the lipstick is "because it's so out of character for me to do something like that."
Smith begins 1986 compiling the band's best moments, partly out of desperation before the record company thinks of the idea and take control. The album, Standing On A Beach: The Singles 1979-86, released simultaneously with the video, Staring At The Sea (which incidentally is the name of the CD version), is a defining moment, earning them cult status and a gold record in the U.S., and a sold out gig at the coveted Radio City Music Hall in New York. A remixed and re-recorded version of "Boys Don't Cry," arguably the band's signature song, becomes the hit it should have been seven years earlier. They become items of fascination in the press - a fan repeatedly stabs himself at their first Los Angeles gig and MTV keeps tabs on Smith's every move, posting hourly bulletins on the status of his iconic tangled hair, which he lops off in disgust.
1987 to 1988
Dressed as crows, bumble bees, polar bears and Humpty Dumpty, the band dances with uncharacteristic glee in the video to the effervescent single, "Why Can't I Be You," while Tim Pope's concert film, The Cure In Orange, opens to mixed reactions. The Cure performs "Catch" and "Hot Hot Hot" on the last-ever episode of The Tube one month before their ubiquitous double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, is released to open arms. Four hit singles, including the American Top 40 hit, "Just Like Heaven," are lifted from the diverse record that spans everything from '70s funk, dewy love songs, classic Cure dejection and their newfound knack for first-class pop songs. They temporarily recruit Williams' friend, Roger O'Donnell, former keyboardist for the Psychedelic Furs, to beef up the sound for their world tour. In time for Christmas, Ten Imaginary Years, an autobiography written by Smith, Lydie Barbarian and NME's Steve Sutherland is published. 1988 is a quiet year for the band, their first since they formed. Smith marries his girlfriend of 14 years, Mary Poole and appears on the BBC series That Was Then, This Is Now documenting the band's history. In an interview with Spin, he goes into great detail about his plans to record a "mostly acoustic" solo album in the summer, but nothing comes of it. When the band gets together to record the next album in December, they narrowly avoid tragedy when producer Dave Allen rescues Smith's lyrics from a fire in one of the studio's bedrooms.
Tolhurst, the only other founding member of the Cure, is canned and replaced by O'Donnell. In response, he files a lawsuit claiming joint ownership of the band name. The band releases "Lullaby" as a single, accompanying the song with their most visually stunning video, in which Smith is swallowed whole by a gigantic spider. When they perform the song on Top Of The Pops, the cameraman is instructed not to shoot close-ups as Smith's make-up is considered too sinister for the younger viewers. Disintegration is the second chapter in what will become the band's trilogy. In keeping with the unpredictability they bring with each new release, the album is a considered a step backward, embracing the brooding dream worlds of Faith and Pornography, yet with a much more uplifting sensation. Nevertheless, the album proves to be their most celebrated, even to this day, balancing haunting themes with sublime production and perfect ethereal pop. Discussing the album's biggest hit single, "Love Song" in an interview with MuchMusic, Smith admits, "I couldn't think of what to give [Mary] for a wedding present, so I wrote her that song. Cheap and cheerful. She would've preferred diamonds, I think, but I dunno, she might look back and be glad that I gave her that." Disintegration earns the Cure their second Album of the Year honour from Melody Maker.
1990 to 1991
1990 brings more changes as the Cure taps into the dance market and release Mixed Up, a collection of their popular tunes jazzed into dance songs, along with a brand new single, "Never Enough." Fans scratch their heads over this unexpected direction and Smith appeals to them to give it a couple of listens before passing judgment. His plea fails. For the 40th anniversary of Elektra, their U.S. record label, the band records a mediocre cover of the Doors' "Hello I Love You" for the Rubyiat compilation. O'Donnell decides to check out and the band's roadie, Perry Bamonte, checks in to play keyboards. Entreat, their second live album, is sold with copies of their back catalogue, though the plan backfires when long-time fans get upset for the exclusivity. Eventually it is sold separately without any promotion.
1992 to 1993
Their ninth studio album is originally planned as a double album that would include a disc of instrumentals, but the idea is shelved after the band admittedly gets too lazy to finish. The result, Wish, keeps true to their formula, shifting their music into another direction while taking the band to its peak in popularity. "Friday I'm In Love" is a major crossover success as a result of its uncharacteristic glee. Smith tells Spin, "It's so out of character - very optimistic and really out there in happy land. It's nice to get that counterbalance." Details runs an article entitled "Ten Frightening Facts About Robert Smith," in which he confesses "his hairdo is achieved by a quick five minute application of L'Oreal Studio Line Gel and Alberto VO5 Gel," "his mum knitted him ten pairs of socks for him to take on tour" and "his two unrealised desires are to fly to the moon and to have an identical twin with whom he could share a single woman." The Cure receives a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music album, but deservedly lose out to Tom Waits. Show, a concert recorded in Detroit on the Wish tour is released as both a film and a live record, along with another live album, Paris. Proceeds from both are donated to the International Red Cross. The band contributes a cover of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" for the tribute album, Stone Free. Thompson leaves to join Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their reunion tour, making way for Bamonte to pick up guitar duties and O'Donnell to rejoin as keyboardist.
1994 to 1995
As the band prepares to record their next record, Williams quits, forcing the band to advertise in UK music papers for a replacement. Tolhurst's loses his longstanding suit against the band after five years. Jason Cooper is hired as the band's new drummer and they go on to record 25 songs for their new album, only to scrap them soon after because "it wasn't working." The entire band (and more) move into the home of actress Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) and give recording another chance. They submit a new song, "Dredd Song," to the dodgy Sylvester Stallone film, Judge Dredd, a habit that will recur in coming years.
Wild Mood Swings is released and suffers from the effect of the Britpop movement. It is the first Cure album not to outsell its predecessor, large in part to the shoddy song selection and the large gap between albums. In an interview, Smith unknowingly admits why the album didn't work, saying, "On this record, I felt it would diminish the record if I kind of just wrote about the same things. So I tried to write about things that I wouldn't normally sit down and write about." The band plays the poorly organised Eden Musicfest at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. Smith caters the crowd appearing in a Maple Leafs jersey, for which he receives rapturous applause.
Along with Frank Black, Sonic Youth, Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters and Lou Reed, Smith joins in on the festivities at Madison Square Garden for David Bowie's 50th birthday bash. He performs "The Last Thing You Should Do" and "Quicksand" with the Thin White Duke. Smith appears in Details again, on a panel with Siouxsie and other goth luminaries for the article entitled "The Beautiful People." He admits the link between the Cure and goth culture was always misunderstood: "The Banshees used to give me so much grief about how I looked in the Cure - we were a raincoat band, but we were never goth. A lot of the photos of me wearing a rosary or a crucifix or something is exclusive to the 18-month period that I was playing with the Banshees, because they determined that I should wear their uniform, which I had to go along with because it wasn't my group." The Cure releases Galore: The Singles 1987-97, the companion to Standing On The Beach. Featuring a brand new single, the weak "Wrong Number," the collection isn't as smooth as their previous one, revealing just how manic their sound has become in their second decade.
1998 to 1999
Smith is immortalised in construction paper on the popular animated comedy South Park. Instantaneously, it becomes the show's highest rated episode, as Smith saves the town from the evil Mecha-Streisand, a robotic monster based on Barbra. He works with Trey Parker again on his film, Orgazmo, joining his drummer Cooper and Bowie's guitarist, Reeves Gabrels, to record "A Sign From God" under the pseudonym COGASM. The rest of 1998 sees the band in very little action. The band contributes a brand new song, "More Than This," for the soundtrack to The X-Files film, while Smith records a cover of "World In My Eyes" by himself for the Depeche Mode tribute album, For The Masses. Massive Attack uses a sample of the Cure's first B-side, "10:15 Saturday Night" on their song, "Man Next Door," from their Mezzanine album. Mark Perry, a fan of the Cure, is rewarded $75,000 in a lawsuit against the band, for a 1996 incident in which a bodyguard attacked him when he tried to get in close for an autograph. The judge rules against the band when they fail to respond to the charges.
After many years of gossip surrounding the end of the Cure, they release Bloodflowers on Valentine's Day. This final trilogy instalment is far removed from their previous album, focusing more on a downcast mood. Smith describes it as "not the kind of album that'll be played a lot on radio. They're not verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs." During promotion for the record, he is constantly giving hints that it will be the band's final album together. Speaking with Exclaim!, he reveals, "Part of me, now that we've done something really good, feels that we should continue, but a bigger part of me thinks it would be very honest of me just to stop, having made a final record." During their Dream Tour, a policeman commits suicide in the middle of the band's concert in Prague. The incident occurs unnoticed in the restroom.
2001 to 2003
Once again, the Cure is nominated for a Best Alternative Music album Grammy, losing out this time to Radiohead. Their contract with Fiction expires and after 23 years, they decide not to re-sign with the label. They release Greatest Hits as their final Fiction album in November, with two new songs, "Cut Here" and "Just Say Yes," and a limited run of double discs including re-recorded acoustic versions of the album's songs. Oddly enough, the album will mysteriously re-enter the UK charts two years later in September 2003 without any explanation. In 2002, the Cure becomes the band to namedrop as a musical influence, sparking rejuvenation for their career. Artists such as Deftones, Mogwai, Tricky and Thursday praise the band and stress their influence, while others like Hot Hot Heat and the Rapture receive constant comparisons. Ad execs jump on the bandwagon and license "In Between Days" for the Fiat Punto and "Pictures Of You" for Hewlett Packard's Photo Imaging. The band performs the entirety of their "trilogy" (Pornography, Disintegration and Bloodflowers) over two nights in Berlin in November 2002, which is released simply as Trilogy on DVD the following year. Smith begins a long line of ill-advised collaborations with dance acts like Junkie XL, Blank & Jones and Tweaker, as well as prankster punks Blink-182. The Cure closes off 2003 by stunning fans with the announcement that they have signed to nu-metal guru Ross Robinson's I Am label and that Robinson himself will produce their twelfth studio album. Smith defends the decision, saying, "The reason I've developed a relationship with Ross has to do with his love of music and his love for the Cure. Some of the stuff he's worked on I don't like, but some is genius sonically."
The Cure begins the year in fine form, joining '80s peers like Morrissey, the Pixies and Mission Of Burma as one of the year's important acts to re-emerge. A charity gig in London has fans paying $4,000 (CDN) for a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness the Cure play the tiny, 200-capacity Camden Barfly. Rhino releases Join The Dots: B-sides & Rarities 1978-2001, a four-disc retrospective of every non-album track released during the Fiction years. They headline the final night at the massive Coachella festival in California on a weekend that also features the likes of Pixies, Kraftwerk and Radiohead. The Cure is released on June 29, their first album recorded as a full band since Seventeen Seconds. Smith tells Rolling Stone, "It's actually the antithesis of the nu-metal assault, which is all about piling things on. It's going back to the Faith period, but making the sounds themselves a lot heavier and more savage." A travelling summer festival, aptly titled Curiosa, is organised for the months of July and August throughout North America. Handpicking the bands himself, Smith chooses acts the Cure has profoundly influenced: Interpol, the Rapture, Mogwai, Muse, Auf der Maur, Thursday, the Cooper Temple Clause, Head Automatica and Cursive. In August, Rhino will release the first batch expanded two-CD reissues - Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography - with the rest of their catalogue to follow next year.
The Essential Cure
Pornography (1982, Fiction/Elektra)
Too miserable even for the funeral of a hated archenemy, the first part of their trilogy is an exquisitely innovative record that persuaded one critic to deem it "Phil Spector in hell." The title track remains to be one of the most evil-spirited arrangements ever written. Even though acts like Siouxsie & the Banshees and Bauhaus were releasing material before it, Pornography is where goth began.
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987, Fiction/Elektra)
Following the quirky eccentricity of The Head On The Door, Smith explored his wide range of songwriting styles even further on this double. The severe contrasting throughout the entire record sums up the band's career as a whole, from the zippity doo-dah dance of "Why Can't I Be You" to the slit-your-wrists demeanour of "Like Cockatoos," it is a beautiful mess and the finest example of the band's diversity.
Disintegration (1989, Fiction/Elektra)
If there is one Cure album that is fundamental, it is Disintegration. With the help of David Allen, Smith achieved his masterpiece by delivering a record that was the complete opposite of Kiss Me. If you allow yourself to be swept up in its majestic soundscapes, you'll discover a musical realm that is seductive and celestial. A landmark album, Disintegration will always be the best music to fall asleep to.