If any rock millionaire other than Robert Smith claimed not to know the chart position of his latest single, it would be impossible to believe.The record in question, “Lullaby”, is at number five,the highest position ever achieved by his group, The Cure, yet he says, “We only knew it was out because the local record shop has it on sale.” Surrounded by standard fodder about love and dancing, Smith’s allegory of being eaten alive by a spider-man looks like an open wound in a kindergarten.
Over 13 years his hypnotic chord progressions, his distressed voice, his lyric obsessions (religion, bleak dreams, lost love, fading memories) and not least his electrified crow’s nest hairstyle have lifted The Cure from cult obscurity to the point where their last album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), quietly sold two million copies around the world. So quietly that taxi drivers still have no idea who he is, even after he tells them the name of his group. “I sit in the back thinking ‘This is perfect’.”
Smith, 30 this week, has long been unconventional. At 11 he turned up at school in Crawley wearing his mother’s black velvet dress. “I really don’t know why. I thought I looked good. My teachers were so liberal they tried hard not to notice, but on the way home I was beaten up.”
Three years later he was expelled from another school. “They said I was disruptive, but it was a personal thing. I hated the headmaster and he hated me.” He is not so very far from rock-and-roll orthodoxy.
Smith spent some time on the dole, then formed The Cure in 1976. The group was loved by the critics and ignored by the public. Album cover artwork never featured the faces of the group a policy record companies still consider foolhardy, despite its having been employed by such notable successes as Yes, Led Zeppelin and The Smiths.If fans can’t see the group, how can they identify with them? “I’ve never been comfortable with the way we look,” Smith offers in explanation. “Our records were exactly what I wanted them to be. It would have spoiled them to put us on the front.”
This deliberate absence of image was maintained until the video era made it impossible.Cure videos, however, are hardly tailor-made for Top of the Pops. The “Lullaby” video is three minutes of surreal nightmare, an exquisitely frightening homage to the film Poltergeist, unlikely to be suitable for early evening viewing.
“We didn’t want to release ‘Lullaby’. I actually want to get rid of some of the people who bought the last album,” Smith insists,but he conceded to Polydor Records that a single be released to promote the new album, Disintegration (out next Tuesday). “‘Lullaby’ is my least favourite track, but I suppose it’s a sensible choice because it sounds very Cure-like.”
Radio One evidently shared Smith’s dislike of “Lullaby”, because it wasn’t playlisted in its week of release,despite which it entered the charts at number 11, the group’s highest new entry.
“If I’d tried to be successful, if I’d listened to the advice the record company had given me over the years, I’m sure we wouldn’t be making music now.The way I behave only seems strange if you assume success has been my prime motivation.”
He still drives the same ageing Lada, lives in a spartan Maida Vale flat, and supports the same charities (Greenpeace, CND, Mencap) but mentions them only when asked. “It goes back to things like Morrissey not eating meat. I was a vegetarian for three years, but I didn’t feel a need to champion it as a cause. If people despise us as much as I despise Morrissey, and I say Greenpeace is wonderful, they’re likely to firebomb the Rainbow Warrior.”
Smith’s logic may not make sense out here in the real world but, within the microcosm of The Cure, he has remained faithful to his ideals. He professes to have little idea of why he is successful, but, when pressed, it becomes clear that he understands the phenomenon very well. “I suppose our music fulfils a need some people feel. It communicates, but nothing specific, just the desire not to feel isolated.”
This sort of communication takes longer to establish than a dance craze, but Smith knows that once a fan is hooked, he (and it is usually he) tends to stay hooked. Given the group’s success, Smith is justified in thinking he must be doing something right. Disintegration features his most intense and agonized work for several years,but it looks set to double the sales of Kiss Me.
“It has to stop,” he says quietly. “After Kiss Me it all got so big, I felt it was happening to some other band, but here I am doing it again.In some weird way, I suppose I must have become,” and he pronounces the word with evident dismay, “a performer.”
© Johnny Black & The Times