Join the Dots: B-Sides and Rarities 1978-2001: The Fiction Years
Robert Smith’s creative longevity and restlessness have earned his band a unique reputation, as quite possibly the most divisive pop act since the arrival of the synthesizer. For twenty-five jealously guarded years, millions of Cure fans (of varying rabidity) have believed, secretly and not so, that Robert Smith is singing directly to them. Critics have railed against bouts of apparent disingenuousness, self-absorption and the singer’s lupine cries of a last chapter. The story’s gone on so long that even the black-sweatered brigades, who spent their teenage years cowering in the shadow of that almighty KMS A-bomb, are shaking their heads. And it would seem Robert Smith is saying, “Shake, dog, shake.”
Dalliance and regret have been Smith’s bread, butter, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and though his fluctuating weight and hairstyle invite nearly as much press as his music, one constant in his life since the late 1980s is economic largess. This love cat is loaded. You can chide a few moments of barrel-rolling in The Cure’s past, but apart from the flat 1986 rehash of Smith’s precocious power-pop masterstroke “Boys Don’t Cry”, few could be construed as avaricious. Still, it’s an irresistible coincidence that the artwork for the “New Voice New Mix” of “Boys Don’t Cry”– the most memorable image of their career, from one of their most questionable releases– is being appropriated as the cover of a B-sides and rarities box that dramatically underscores The Cure’s downhill slide.
Whatever you think of them, there’s a lighter side to The Cure’s often marginalized story, and that’s primarily what this sprawling four-disc box set aims to celebrate. On the pointed club crossover 12-inch in question, Smith balanced out its somewhat grotesque ambition by lampooning their early days: Included on the flipside were the slinking, original 1979 track “Plastic Passion”, the faltering pop/punk stab “Pillbox Tales”, and an in-studio disco joke, “Do the Hansa”. Recorded under the name Easy Cure in 1978, the last two tunes were leftovers from the group’s first big break, a contract with Germany’s then-largest independent label, Hansa, whose interest in the band proved superficial. After being pressured to record covers of Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Great Airplane Strike” and the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” (which, by that time, The Clash were already well known for), Easy Cure took their £1000, their tapes and their pride home with them, then recorded “Do the Hansa”, an embittered shot at the suits.
To include it on a begging club remix 12-inch seven years later betrays Smith’s careerist awareness of his catalog, which he has been increasingly candid about over the last few years. He knows the halcyon days are over, and that because he used image as such a weapon, critics will always nail him to that cross; having spent a rough ten years refusing to accept that, he’s now comfortable with looking at The Cure in the past tense, and ready to open the vaults.
Unlike most digitally remastered packages, where simple volume normalization so often destroys space and low-end, the few widely available cuts reprised for Join the Dots are remarkably improved. “10.15 Saturday Night”, debuted as the B-side to their first single, “Killing an Arab”, was featured on the ensuing LP Three Imaginary Boys (in addition to the hits packages Boys Don’t Cry and Staring at the Sea). It’s a song every Cure fan is familiar with, yet even to trained ears it’s shocking to hear the clarity and punch added to this time-tested classic; Smith’s shredding Woolworth’s Top 20 guitar solo never sounded so abrasive, not even in concert.
With a solid groundswell of London hype surrounding their first album and a new bassist (self-confessed “funkster” Michael Dempsey was replaced by the now-familiar Simon Gallup by 1980’s Seventeen Seconds), The Cure laid into the record-tour-record-tour cycle for three years straight. As songwriting time grew harder to come by, their B-side output was proportionately more economic. Between 1979 and 1982, they released only a handful of studio flipsides, and two were instrumentals: “Another Journey by Train”, the punchy, bass-driven rejoinder to Dempsey’s technical superiority, shadowed “A Forest”, while the aimless bass duet “Descent” badly weighed down 1981’s “Primary” 12-inch. The tribal cacophony and craven echoes of “Splintered in Her Head”, which prefaced their 1982 drum-machine wrist-slitter Pornography, benefits from remastering more than any other cut on Join the Dots; pulling back the tape-hiss curtain, a delicately equalized guitar line rings out from its core, lifting the song beyond its repetitive percussion.
After a row with Simon Gallup during the abysmal Fourteen Explicit Moments tour in support of Pornography, Smith went decidedly mental for two full years. Within 18 months, he’d recorded two danceable synth hits (“The Walk” and “Let’s Go to Bed”), their biggest-ever UK hit (the Parisian jazz-pop lark “The Lovecats”), an acid-soaked full-length album called Blue Sunshine with Steve Severin of Siouxsie & The Banshees (under the name The Glove), as well as The Cure’s worst album to that point (1984’s world-weary drug disaster The Top). On the sly, he was in Siouxsie & The Banshees the entire time, for their psychedelic 1984 album Hyæna and the overwrought double-live LP that prefaced it, 1983’s Nocturne. You’d expect nothing from the B-sides of such a chaotic time, but as it happens, a few of them are among Smith’s finest moments.
The spiraling “Just One Kiss” (flipside, “Let’s Go to Bed”) is a gorgeous bridge between the grating, unrestrained dirges of Pornography and Smith’s nihilistic decision to record ridiculous sequenced pop, but foremost among this set’s 70 cuts, “Lament” is considered one of the best Cure tracks on record by many fans (and, as it turns out, by Smith himself). A rolling drum-machine daydream, it’s the most sunswept, nostalgic piece of yearning he’d put to tape up to 1983, though in its first incarnation (as a giveaway packaged with Flexipop magazine), it was much… “foggier.” Charitably, Smith includes that intoxicated version, which fans have treasured for its incoherent mumbling, squealing guitar and harsh flute blasts. The more polished and poignant recording from The Walk EP appears a few tracks later, its distance a wise sequencing decision.
These highlights buttress a spate of throwaways and also-rans: bland synth twins “The Upstairs Room” and “The Dream”, and three drunken romps from the sessions that spawned “The Lovecats” and The Top (“Speak My Language”, “Mr. Pink Eyes” and the absolute nadir of Smith’s dance itch, the incoherent “Throw Your Foot”). What’s worse, most of these cuts aren’t exactly “rarities,” as the Japanese Whispers compilation– legally intended for Europe, but licensed and repressed ad infinitum beyond The Cure’s control– is still in print.
In the set’s liner notes, Smith considers 1984’s overdone, underwritten “Happy the Man” indicative of how badly drugs had damaged his creativity, but if anything underscores how far gone he was, it’s the inhuman gasp that closes the horrifying “New Day”, which in this set makes for a clean break with the mid-80s indulgences that could have ended his career.
Rebuilding the group around an old Crawley mate (Porl Thompson) and Thompson Twins drummer Boris Williams, who stepped in during the ugly The Top tour, Smith next reconciled with Simon Gallup over Christmas 1984. His joy is audible on what was originally slated to be the title track for their 1985 comeback album, “The Exploding Boy”. The first signature Cure song of their halcyon days (1985-1993), it’s built around hammering acoustic guitars and squealing saxophones, but was deemed too similar to “In Between Days” to include on the subsequent album, The Head on the Door. Smith finally cleaned out the back of his anti-disco closet with two of this era’s flipsides, the keyboard-dominated “Stop Dead” and “A Man Inside My Mouth”, less finessed versions of the funk impulse perfected in the searing album cut “The Baby Screams”.
The second disc of this set begins with a carafe of B-sides and rarities overflowing from the protracted Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me sessions, which, thanks to unbridled creativity, drink, and the gorgeous backdrop of Miraval, France, ran on for months. Only available on long out-of-print vinyl and impossible-to-find European CD singles, these are the real gems on Join the Dots. From The Cure’s most undeniably goth moments (“A Chain of Flowers”, “Breathe”) to their most carefree (the percussion madhouse “A Japanese Dream” and an excellent extended mix of the explosive “Hey You!!!”), the sessions in Miraval had it all. Unfortunately, the first three tracks gain nothing from remastering, and seem to have been taken from vinyl, if the incessant digital clipping heard throughout is any indication. Of particular interest here are the supremely rare “To the Sky”– a twinkling, mid-tempo summary of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’s palette, available only on a small-run Fiction records sampler– and the vastly superior alternate mix of “Icing Sugar”, which isolates Boris Williams’ frantic tom rolls to accents, adding immeasurably to the stellar bassline’s tension and pulse.
Of course, the aptly-titled 1989 opus Disintegration still stands as the weathered stone monolith marking the end of The Cure’s meteoric rise, and remains a must-own for fans of alternative music. But with seven, eight and nine-minute tracks to construct, only a few B-sides came out of the sessions: the stadium-rocking psychedelia of “Babble” and “Out of Mind”– both deliciously clarified and augmented by remastering– and the long-adored fan favorites “Fear of Ghosts” and “2 Late” (both from the “Lovesong” single, the band’s biggest-ever U.S. hit). With improved punch on the drums, added focus to its background subtleties, and a technical slip tightened up, the definitively cavernous “Fear of Ghosts” (written by keyboardist Roger O’Donnell) hits much harder.
It’s here, about halfway through this four-disc set, that most people will turn off Join the Dots. And, excepting the phenomenally adorable ecstasy tribute “Harold and Joe” and the wondrous, gothic glimmer of “This Twilight Garden” and “Play” (both from the “High” single), they will miss very little. Awful, instantly dated remixes of “Just Like Heaven”, “A Forest” and Bloodflowers’ fine “Out of This World” stumble over sterilely sequenced compilation tracks, a bevy of exhaustingly identical B-sides from the regrettable Wild Mood Swings, and alternate mixes of recent singles that never did much. A drugged-out dance cover of “Purple Haze” from the long-forgotten Stone Free Hendrix tribute makes a welcome appearance– one of very few interesting Cure tracks recorded since 1992’s Wish– but from the ghastly theme song for Judge Dredd through the half-time finale of the unrecognizably vanilla “Signal to Noise”, it’s obvious Robert Smith has been writing for his audience the last ten years, which is a creative kiss of death on par with heroin.
For twenty years, a constant tick-tock of playful pop hits and commercial suicides kept people guessing about Crawley’s biggest celebrity since John George Haigh; as long ago as 1986, Kurt Loder squirmed through hourly MTV bulletins when Smith cut his hair down to an inch. Though his commercial profile diminished dramatically after Wish, Robert Smith ranked 47th in a 1998 Q Magazine tally of the richest British rock stars, just above the seemingly bottomless coffers of the Gallagher Brothers.
With almost twenty-two million albums sold to date, Robert Smith is not a curiosity: He is more successful and enduringly popular than all but a select class of musicians. An endless parade of artists from 1990 onward have cited The Cure as an influence, and Smith’s own heroes, from Roger Daltry to David Bowie, welcome him as a peer. The brilliance of his big hair, makeup and millions is that, apart from a few stuffy critics, no one ever held it against him, even in times when ostentation was considered gauche. All the more astonishing is how Smith’s atrocious output during the last ten years has been consistently forgiven, but there’s no stronger evidence of just how good The Cure were in the 1980s, so beautiful and strange.
February 29, 2004
© Chris Ott & Pitchfork