Robert Smith of the Cure is not your ordinary front man. Get this: the band is on-stage at Hurrah, struggling to present its sober, rather demanding music to a restive crowd. One loudmouth keeps shouting incoherently as if he’d expected Bruce Springsteen. Most “stars” would respond with a boot to the obnoxious one’s face, or at least a counterattack of verbal abuse. Not singer/guitarist Smith, a seemingly imperturbable chap. He leans forward, cocks his head, and politely asks the guy what he said! Highly irregular.
“He kept repeating this sentence I didn’t understand,” Smith recalls a few days later. “It was an Americanism. I got a bit irate, but he came back afterwards and said that he meant he thought we were good.”
The offending remark?
“‘Piss over Portobello Road,’ or something.” That’s an Americanism?
Perched on twin beds in their New York hotel room, Smith and drummer Lol Tolhurst couldn’t be more dissimilar. The soft-spoken Smith, dressed all in black, projects an air of cautious gravity unusual for a 20-year-old; he is, to borrow from Hard Day’s Night, “very clean.” In contrast, Tolhurst, 21, comes across like Joe Normal with his infectious smile and young-McCartney looks.
The Cure is one of those surprising British bands that rework rock into something intriguing and off-center. Where most groups pour out a torrent of sound, Smith and company deal in carefully-selected dabs that insinuate rather than overwhelm. Comparisons with Wire and Talking Heads are natural at first listen; on further inspection Smith’s morosely urgent vocals and clever, restrained guitar indicate a band of daring originality. The Cure is not for every taste, but people who care for this sort of thing regard the band as something very special.
They don’t generally appeal to rough and tumble crowds. Tolhurst describes their English audience as “mixed.” There’s no hard-core following. We don’t have Cure clones.” The band has been so low-key about extra-musical aspects that an American press release refers to them as “anti-image,” a term that provokes pained looks from Smith and Tolhurst. “When we started out,” the latter says, “people couldn’t find a little hole to put us in. They said, ‘You haven’t got an image so we’ll give you one: no image.’ It’s a bit pathetic, really. There was no conscious effort on our part to go out and pretend to be nothing.”
“We don’t want to look like rock ‘n’ rollers,” Smith adds. “It’s a bit jaded and stale.” While he concedes there’s “nothing new” in rejecting what he calls “the mythology of the rock ‘n’ roll star,” he stresses that the role is “so accepted in the music business that before you realize it you’re being sucked in. You have to make a conscious effort to stay clear.”
What would the Cure substitute for the usual heroics? Smith doesn’t feel anything is needed. “I wouldn’t want to think people doted on us, hung on every word, or wanted to look like us. The whole new wave/punk thing started with the idea of stopping all that, with everyone forming their own fashions, music, ideas. Now it’s gone full circle, with everybody saying, ‘Let’s do it like the Clash.’ It’s really stupid. I’m not saying that if a band wants to pose it’s a bad thing as such, just that it’s not really new.
“None of us are natural performers apart from maybe Simon [Gallup] the bass player. I’m not at ease on a stage — don’t like talking into a microphone. I’m never tempted to do a twirling arm movement on the guitar because I’d miss! I’ve never practiced in front of a mirror.”
In the Cure’s short existence, Smith and Tolhurst have become astute observers of the trend-obsessed British pop scene. Smith cites Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image as bands he admires for doing things a bit differently; he theorizes that the current mod revival is due to record companies passing off the same bands they couldn’t sell as “power pop.” The Specials, he says, have become unwilling prisoners of a “grossly out of hand” 2 Tone craze, when all they sincerely wanted was to play ska. All this may make Smith sound a bit self-righteous or dour, but that’s not really the case; he speculates lightly, with more amusement than disapproval.
Perhaps naively, Smith dismisses any likelihood of the same Pyrrhic success befalling the Cure. “How could people do that to us? There’s nothing to market. We’ve all got different haircuts.
“As we build up a following touring around England, people don’t come to expect a certain style of music. They’re always anticipating the next record since they don’t know what’s on it. I would have hated it if Boys Don’t Cry had become a big hit, because people would have expected more songs like it, which we’re moving away from.” At home the band stopped performing Killing An Arab, their first single (inspired by Camus’ The Stranger), because it was becoming a millstone.
Does Smith regret having done “Arab” now? “No, because the good that came from it far outweighed the bad. We came to public attention really quick on the strength of a single that wasn’t a hit.”
That pretty much epitomizes the easy time they’ve had of it so far. The Cure began in 1976 as a casual five-piece in Crawley, a small town 30 miles south of London; at first there was no greater aspiration than to play Bowie and Stones songs in the local pub. The original singer and a second guitarist eventually dropped out, leaving Smith, Tolhurst and bassist Michael Dempsey. A demo reached Chris Parry, starting Fiction Records at the time, and the label released Killing An Arab in early 1979. An LP (Three Imaginary Boys) followed; a revised version, adding the singles Jumping Someone Else’s Train and Boys Don’t Cry came out here recently as Boys Don’t Cry. Along the way the band replaced Dempsey with Gallup and added keyboard player Matthieu Hartley. Smith sat in with the Banshees for some live gigs last fall but only because they’d lost their guitarist; his heart belongs to the Cure.
A lot of fine bands falter on their second album, but it’s been a breakthrough for the Cure. Both Seventeen Seconds and its single, A Forest, are enjoying chart action in England. Perhaps more important to Smith, who admits he wants complete control, is that he got to co-produce. “It was great,” he says with a quiet smile. “Producing’s easy.” He characterizes the album’s sound as “more moody, not as upfront” as the first. On Seventeen Seconds the band consistently understates without any loss of power, and displays a stunning mastery of texture. In less skilled hands such overtly serious music results in dull, dry art and unendurable preciousness; from the Cure it’s simply exciting.
“People draw a line between experimental and acceptable music. I don’t see why you can’t combine the two,” Smith says. The Cure is doing just that.
© Jon Young & Trouser Press