Time seems to have frozen around Robert Smith, whose spiky-haired, eyelinered appearance now is exactly the same as it was two decades ago. Perhaps it has something to do with ignoring his contemporaries and listening to disco and the Dubliners
Along with leading the Cure, one of the most influential bands of all time, Robert Smith appears to have unlocked the secret of freezing time. For a few years in the 80s you could go to any town in England and find at least one sullen youth with spiky black hair wearing a black mohair jumper, oversized trainers, eyeliner and a dash of lipstick.
Those boys have since grown up, thinned out on top and filled out in the middle, but the man who inspired them still looks exactly the same. The hair, makeup, black clothes and big trainers are all there, and Robert Smith doesn’t even look any older. Bognor, where Smith lives, is one English town that still has its own spiky-haired youth.
The Cure are going strong, too. In November 2002 the band played three of their most acclaimed albums – Pornography (1982), Disintegration (1989), and Bloodflowers (2000) – in their entirety at the Berlin Tempodrom, and the film of that concert is now being released on DVD.
“Pornography and Disintegration are always the fans’ top two albums, and mine as well,” says Smith. “I wanted Bloodflowers to be the third part of a trilogy. The first two records had something that was there by virtue of the intensity we put into the studio, and they both resulted in putting me into a delayed state of shock. With Bloodflowers, because of my age, I can’t recreate that intensity, but I think it has a lyricism that makes it compare favourably to the other two.”
Pornography, the darkest of all Cure albums, was intended as a swansong. “My attitude was: it’s all rubbish, we’re rubbish, so let’s go out with a bang,” says Smith. “I wrote all the songs in a windmill over one weekend. We slept very little during the recording, there was a lot of drugs involved, and the stage shows that followed were just brawls between us and the audience. It’s strange because that’s not my nature at all, and it wasn’t even fun. In fact it was really, really awful.”
Smith has aimed for the intensity that all his favourite music has. The first record that touched him was Help! by the Beatles, which came out when he was five. “My sister used to play it in her bedroom, and I would sit on the stairs, listening to it through the door,” he says. “It made me realise that there was another world going on beyond my immediate environment. The melodies on these tunes are so fantastic, and the imagination that goes into these songs is just unreal. It’s so perfect it makes me weep. I listen to Help! and I’m filled with hope that the world could be a better place.”
Smith’s original idea for the Cure was to play perfect three-minute pop songs, despite coming out of the aggression and chaos of punk. “I was enamoured by the melody of the Buzzcocks and Elvis Costello, not the anarchy of the Sex Pistols,” he says. “Living in Crawley, you really didn’t have to go out of your way to get beaten up so I couldn’t see the point in putting a safety pin through my nose. But Costello always seemed that bit cleverer. I bought my first guitar, a Jazz Master, just because he looked so cool with his. Ever since then I’ve bought guitars based on what they look like.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? is Smith’s favourite hippy-era album. “Hendrix was the first person I had come across who seemed completely free, and when you’re nine or 10, your life is entirely dominated by adults. So he represented this thing that I wanted to be. Hendrix was the first person who made me think it might be good to be a singer and a guitarist – before that I wanted to be a footballer.”
While Hendrix had planted the seed, Smith recognised Bowie as his first kindred spirit pop star. “I felt that his records had been made with me in mind,” he says. “He was blatantly different, and everyone of my age remembers the time he played Starman on Top of the Pops. The school was divided between those who thought he was a queer and those who thought he was a genius. Immediately, I thought: this is it. This is the man I’ve been waiting for. He showed that you could do things on your own terms; that you could define your own genre and not worry about what anyone else is doing, which is I think the definition of a true artist.”
The only problem with Bowie was that his total difference made him a very distant ideal, while Alex Harvey’s brand of pop stardom offered up a much more attainable dream. “Alex Harvey was the physical manifestation of what I thought I could be. I was 14 when I first went to see him, and then I followed him around to all the shows. He never really got anywhere, even though he had something so magical when he performed – he had the persona of a victim, and you just sided with him against all that was going wrong. I would have died to have had Alex Harvey as an uncle.”
For most of the 1980s, Smith avoided listening to his contemporaries. “I would be more familiar with Janet Jackson than I was with the Teardrop Explodes or Joy Division, because I didn’t want to listen to my competitors for fear of nicking ideas off them,” he says. “On the tour bus, it would either be disco, or Irish bands like the Dubliners.”
A change came when Smith heard My Bloody Valentine for the first time. “It was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us, and their album Loveless is certainly one of my all-time three favourite records. It’s the sound of someone [guitarist/leader Kevin Shields] who is so driven that they’re demented. And the fact that they spent so much time and money on it is so excellent.”
© Will Hodgkinson