Back in the Eighties, no one would have believed that goth rock would be thriving 25 years later. As The Cure prepare to play Wembley tonight, Andrew Perry explains their enduring appeal
On paper, it was not a musical subgenre destined for longevity.
Gothic rock, or “goth”, emerged as an aftershock of punk in the late 1970s, created by young men dressed like zombies, who sang in morbid tones, often about death itself. It is, however, an underdog cult that just keeps on growing.
Tonight, The Cure, who arguably invented the whole goth aesthetic, and are beyond question its most successful exponents, return for their first UK gig in two years at Wembley Arena – a comparatively bijou venue, by the band’s stadium-filling standards.
In recent weeks, a number of their peers have been back in action. Both Siouxsie Sioux, and The Cult, featuring Ian Astbury, followed up excellent new albums with sold-out UK tours. Bauhaus, too, released a spirited reunion album. Meanwhile, last Monday, Nick Cave, who once self-mockingly crowned himself the Black Crow King in a song, referring to his unbidden goth audience, hit the album charts at number four – his highest ever chart position.
If, in 1982, some fool had suggested that this motley gang of doom-mongers would be thriving in the 21st century, he would have been laughed out of court. With their deathly pallor and often narcotic lifestyles, these were not tomorrow’s survivors-in-waiting. All now pushing 50, they each represent an ongoing refusal of the shiny-happy generalities upon which mainstream pop is founded.
Robert Smith, The Cure’s driving force, who is 49 next month, is goth’s chief architect. Raised in Crawley, he was 16 when he first heard punk’s early rumblings and formed a band called Malice, which soon morphed into the Easy Cure and then, simply, The Cure.
Early on, his plan was to match the pop melodies of the Buzzcocks, with the darker sensibilities of Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose singer had elevated her own unique way with make-up and hair to a new art form. The Cure’s debut single, 1978’s Killing an Arab, pitted lyrics based on Albert Camus’s existentialist novel, L’Étranger, against a catchy pop-punk tune, but Smith gradually steered the band’s sound towards more enigmatic and challenging territory.
Inspired by David Bowie’s Low, as well as his own daily consumption of LSD, Smith made the fourth Cure album, Pornography, as if it were his last – a harsh and uncompromising expression of human destructive urges; an act of career suicide. The excruciating, dirge-like song, One Hundred Years, began with the line, “It’s doesn’t matter if we all die,” before doling out images of slaughtered pigs and paternal bereavement. And that was just the opening number.
On its release in 1982, the NME memorably described the album as “Phil Spector in Hell”, but it duly went straight into the Top Ten thanks to the Cure’s gathering fanbase. On their subsequent tour, the band wore white-face on stage, with red eyes, so that, when they sweated under the lights, it appeared as if they were crying blood.
Later that year, Smith came back with a regrouped Cure, putting out a run of singles which at least outwardly shunned the macabre, nihilistic sound of old. [Let’s Go To Bed], [The Walk] and, most alluringly, [The Love Cats] established him as one of the Eighties’s most reliable hit-makers.
Where the likes of Siouxsie, Cave and the Cult often angrily dissociated themselves from their uncool goth audience, Smith embraced it. With his abomination of black hair, sloppily-applied make-up and shapeless black clothes, he became their icon.
Amongst the youth tribes that existed in the wake of punk (skinheads, mods, headbangers, New Romantics, etc), the goths were regarded by all as absolute losers, bereft of style, muscle, intelligence and social ability.
As those cults faded one by one, goth somehow prevailed, its fashions and idea system entirely unchanged. It provided a constant, a comfort – a cocooned, apolitical retreat from the worries of the real world. Its popularity spread worldwide, from Germany to Japan, and its sinister tenets infected other subgenres, such as industrial, heavy metal and emo.
For that reason, and other more personal ones, Smith has resolutely stuck by his vision. I once saw him in Regent Street, as he and his wife, Mary Poole, shopped in the Christmas sales. His hair looked like a fire had wrecked it, the middle of his face was splattered with lipstick, and he sported a gigantic pair of white trainers, as he did in all his videos at the time. He wasn’t exactly sneaking around incognito.
He often confesses that he perseveres with that look, because that’s how his wife loves him. His fans, of course, would be equally horrified if he were to renège, even when he’s seventy. In the quarter-century since [The Love Cats], his records have veered between the opposite poles of [Pornography]-style angst (see 1989’s [Disintegration]), and out-and-out pop (hits like [Friday I’m in Love], [Lullaby], [In Between Days], etc).
And so, despite numerous boozy bust-ups, and personnel crises arising from Smith’s despotic leadership, the Cure still rule, darkly. [Pornography] is now revered as a benchmark of musical extremism.
However, Smith, like all the aforementioned goth-associated performers, has not been content to sit back and milk his past. It’s as if that negating, black-clad energy which drove them all to begin with, was ferocious enough to propel them right through, artistically, into later life.
In the new millennium, as goth fashions invade the catwalks, the Cure’s relevance only seems to multiply. With 2004’s [The Cure] album, Smith teamed up with nu-metal producer, Ross Robinson, and scaled greater commercial heights in America. There, Smith is seen as a demigod of alternative culture.
When I met Arcade Fire’s Win Butler a few years ago, he was wearing an old Cure T-shirt, and enthused for some minutes about Smith. “As a kid,” he said, “he showed me that there was music out there that wasn’t being presented to me through the mainstream”.
Two years ago, I saw Smith’s latest line-up play a humdinger of a Teenage Cancer Trust show at the Albert Hall. It lasted for three hours, taking in both the depths of [Pornography], the highs of [The Love Cats] – all ages of the Cure, from [Killing an Arab] through to a healthy smattering of new material.
Reports from the current European tour suggest that tonight’s show at Wembley will be much the same: a full-blown Last Night of the Proms for the black-eyeliner brigade. No-one with the faintest goth leanings should miss it.
© The Telegraph