Graded on a Curve: Cult Hero, “I’m a Cult Hero” b/w “I Dig You”

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Some call it an inspired gag, others dismiss it as a mediocre lark and a few select oddballs are downright determined to overpraise it to the rafters, but one thing’s certain; “I’m a Cult Hero” b/w “I Dig You” is a true curiosity. Perhaps that should read Cure-iosity, for Cult Hero was a brief early digression for UK Goth titans The Cure, featuring the band with a handful of added help, most notably a pub-haunting postman named Frank Bell on lead vocals. While it’s not really well-suited to accompany the midday mope of a cardigan-clad sad sack as they sip from a cup of lukewarm Earl Grey tea, the appealingly minor charms of the 45 are surely worthy of a retrospective salute.

Back in the second half of the ‘80s, as part of a small group of post-punk acts that managed to hang around long enough and grow in stature to become one of the initial bands in the first wave of the marketing-based non-genre known as Alternative music, The Cure came to be esteemed by quite a few as underdog survivors. But simultaneously, the outfit was on the receiving end of an uncommonly high level of flack.

They were reliably disparaged for such miscalculations as horrid dress sense, ludicrous hairstyles, overzealous and poorly applied makeup, banal subject matter, trite lyrics, ham-fisted song construction, and brazen music-video clowning. And these assessments were often spouted from folks who actually professed to like the band.

Observers who did not enjoy or even downright hated The Cure could frequently be found seething over the very existence of the group, deriding them as an affront to the cherished modes of acceptable rock and roll behavior. The derision of these bitter sorts reliably focused upon bands of the Alternative persuasion (to say nothing of newfangled Rap music), but The Cure seemed to catch a little extra opprobrium, many because they seemed to have no problem with being perceived as ridiculous.

In retrospect, that lack of inhibition over being seen as occasionally goofy and sometimes just overly obvious in striving for effect has become, at least for this writer, one of the more endearing traits from a pretty likeable group. But my thinking wasn’t always such. No, as a much younger listener during their Head on the Door/ Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me/ Disintegration US heyday, the musical flame they were throwing off didn’t really set my hibachi ablaze.

Not that I held them in particularly low regard. Even then it was plainly apparent that The Cure had some good to great ideas that were expressed at times through highly successful song-craft (I never really agreed with the assessment of their tunes as being all that clumsy). But they were so well-loved by assorted friends and acquaintances that I heard them at a rate far disproportionate to my personal estimation of their actual worth.

Every so often I’d raise a polite objection and get temporary control of the stereo, but that regularly just brought disappointment upon discovering my associates lacking in a similar high regard for the foul-mouthed grandeur of the Angry Samoans’ Back from Samoa or the lovely form-extension of Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance (I knew better than to subject my cohorts’ ears to Throbbing Gristle). These were hard lessons in the never-ending reality of different strokes for different folks.

Happily, some slightly older cats came along and turned me on to the group’s earlier material, and that stuff stroked my lobes pretty darned well. Yes, some of that stuff was already easily absorbable via the ’86 comp Staring at the Sea – The Singles, and sponge that record up I most certainly did. But getting to hear in full their ‘79 full-length debut Three Imaginary Boys (and its partial US equivalent Boys Don’t Cry), ‘80’s follow-up Seventeen Seconds and ‘81’s third LP Faith assisted greatly in bringing the early motions of The Cure into much sharper focus.

While those records aren’t perfect, they did land in the racks at a rather quick clip and they essay in very listenable fashion the band’s progression from melodic, edgy post-punk to a smoother yet more developed and yes, darker version of the same as they headed toward their destiny as commercially viable merchants of Gothic vibes.

Exactly where does Cult Hero figure into all this? In a nutshell, that 45 marks the end of the Michael Dempsey-era and the beginning of Simon Gallup’s long tenure. Except for a two-year departure from ’82-’84, Gallup’s involvement continues right up to the present (his short-lived exit was mainly due to the clashing of hefty egos with vocalist Robert Smith, but it also concerned the singer’s reputation for being a severe cheapskate; the pair rowed over the paying of a bar-tab).

Bassist Dempsey had been a member of the group from way back before the beginning, when he, Smith, and drummer Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst were tinkering around under the moniker of The Obelisk. Eventually they became Easy Cure, their handle taken from a tune written by Tolhurst. They never issued anything under that name while extant, but some very cool demos and live cuts were apparently bootlegged and they eventually got chucked onto the bonus disc of the 2004 Deluxe Edition of Three Imaginary Boys.

Dempsey figures on The Cure’s first three singles, all of which stand the test of time exceptionally well. That’s especially true of the debut “Killing an Arab” b/w “10:15 Saturday Night,” with the a-side’s blatant crib from Albert Camus’ The Stranger remaining one of their most instantly recognizable tracks. Interestingly, of the songs from the three 45s (a group that includes the terrific “I’m Cold,” which features guest vocals from Goth priestess Siouxsie Sioux) only the b-side of the first is included on Three Imaginary Boys.

However, Boys Don’t Cry does hold five of the six tunes from those 7-inches, with only “I’m Cold” getting strangely excluded. So, it’s no shock that many prefer it to the UK LP that preceded it by roughly a year. Due to the appearance of the title cut, “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and both sides of that first single, Boys Don’t Cry does hold a considerably bigger bang for the buck than Three Imaginary Boys (not to mention that for years the US album was the easiest place to hear the nifty B-side “Plastic Passion”).

I’ve always dug the rather unrepresentative front cover of the UK disc though, even if Smith is understandably on record as despising it (the photo was chosen by producer Chris Parry). The LP also holds the likeably different if ultimately no-big-deal Dempsey-sung version of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” And Smith is also on record as not caring for that tune; it’s one that got the heave-ho for Boys Don’t Cry’s track-list.

If it sounds like Smith wasn’t the easiest chap to get along with, well yeah. But the story is that he and Dempsey were never very close at all, and by ’79 the distance between them had increased significantly. Smith was looking for a way to bring Gallup, his weekend pub-mate in the town of Horley, into The Cure’s lineup as bassist. Not a bit shocking, since by this point Dempsey and Smith reportedly had no substantial interactions outside of the group.

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Gallup first met Smith when Easy Cure played gigs with his band Lockjaw, an outfit that while somewhat slight, are nonetheless foot-notable in punk lore as a part of the Raw Records stable. They released two singles on that label, and their best song is a rocked up version of “The Young Ones” by Cliff Richard and the Shadows.

Lockjaw morphed into The Magazine Spies, later alternately known as the Mag/Spys, a marginally better post-punk act whose sole output with Gallup was two songs from a split single issued as the opening salvo on Smith and Simon’s bro Ric Gallup’s venture into record-label moguldom, Dance Fools Dance. The disc effectively comprises one half of the short-lived imprint’s discography.

If you’ve never glimpsed a copy of this record then please join the club, for only 100 were pressed. And it’s not likely to be rereleased, for the a-side holds the only known recordings from The Obtainers, a pre-teen duo that split duties between singing and banging on household objects.

This might all seem a bit strange coming from the guy who sang “Just like Heaven” and “Friday I’m in Love,” and Cult Hero ain’t far behind. If accurately assessed as a maneuver in nudging Dempsey out of the Cure fold, it remains an eccentrically entertaining bit of business, predominantly for its vocalist Frank Bell. A hail fellow well met in the pubs frequented by Smith and Gallup, he indeed did make his living delivering the Horley mail, and he’s aptly described as a colorful character.

The band’s name came from a t-shirt Bell sometimes wore that sported that very phrase for all to see. Legend has that one night, while no doubt in his cups, Smith had the inspiration to secure Bell into the studio and write a disco song around the suavity of the dude’s talents. When told, the postman found the idea to be simply gangbusters. Naturally.

But with a listen to a-side “I’m a Cult Hero,” two things quickly become apparent; these guys couldn’t concoct a serviceable approximation of disco if their pale hides depended on it, and Frank Bell was far less of a trad lead-singer and much more of a no-frills enunciator in the mode of one Ian Dury. Instead of disco, the tune’s wavelength sounds quite a bit like the ol’ Blockhead doing double-duty as front-man for an early incarnation of Madness, with some wonky guitar and splattering gobs of synth-like keyboard integrated into the scheme.

The Cult Hero single also holds a high level of participation, and not just Smith, Gallup, Tolhurst, Dempsey (here relegated to keyboards, one foot already out the door), guitarist Porl Thompson, and additional key-tinkler Matthieu Hartley, a very high ratio of early Cure members all in one place at the same time. It also features Smith’s sisters Janet and Margaret (the latter an auxiliary keyboardist), those randy Obtainers’ kids, a bunch of supplementary Horley residents, and of course, the Cult Hero himself, Mr. Bell.

What they came up with isn’t really a great song, but that’s not really its goal. It works much better as raw documentation of an enormously pleasurable studio experience, and the results translate extremely well across the decades. Same goes for flip side “I Dig You,” with Bell again remindful of Dury. No, he doesn’t exactly possess great range.

But this time what he’s fronting comes closer to chunky, riffy mid-tempo pub rock. It’s loaded to the gizzards with guitar moxie, and the words Bell speaks have caused me to break out in laughter many times. And I’m not laughing at him, but instead making-merry with him, dig? As such, it serves as a truly swank b-side.

These cuts eventually found a home on the extra disc of the Deluxe Edition of Seventeen Seconds, along with live versions from the only gig Cult Hero ever played, recorded at London’s Marquee Club, with a high level of audience input. Shortly thereafter Dempsey made his exit, joining The Associates as bass player.

The Cult Hero single did receive a few different pressings, so if interested it shouldn’t be that hard to locate on vinyl. The easiest place to check is probably Canada, where the record sold 35,000 copies as a “novelty” hit. That’s a truly fine example of Northern taste. And that level of success vindicates this 45 as something substantially greater than just an ephemeral oddity. In the moment a very good time was clearly had by all, and it still connects that way today.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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© Joseph Neff & The Vinyl District

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