The phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ has rarely applied more aptly to a group than with The Cure. Over the past near forty years Robert Smith and his band of black clad misfits have helped craft Post-punk, Goth, pushed the boundaries of psychedelic pop, all the while becoming unlikely stadium fillers in the process.
Despite huge successes over the years the group have never received some of the cred showered on their peers – too odd for some, too soppy at times for others – but for the initiated the band has created a twilight realm filled with love, loss, cats and an underlying sense of wonder. Simply put there’s only one Cure. With new songs currently being debuted on a sell-out tour and another headlining slot at Bestival approaching we thought it time to re-enter the forest.
Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
“Slipping through the door / Hear my heart beats in the doorway…”
Made of mates Lol Tolhurst, Robert Smith and Michael Dempsey, The Cure (formerly Easy Cure) emerged from Crawley with a spiky and tellingly slightly peculiar debut. Numbers such ‘Fire In Cairo’ and ‘Grinding Halt’ treaded confidently between post and pop punk while showcasing Demsey’s impressive bass work and Smith’s knack for creating distinctive riffs
Take a closer look though and you’ve the spooky claustrophobia of debut single ’10:15 Saturday Night’ and the delay-drenched finale of the titular track hinting at what was to come. The guitar solo on the latter may be pure punk simplicity and snarl but with its maundering pace and talk of empty feelings it was obvious that these boys had more on their minds than anarchy and fist fights.
The US market got the real treat however with the next year seeing the release of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, a reworked version of the debut which trimmed the fat and included classics such as ‘Killing An Arab’, ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ and the of course the title number.
Seventeen Seconds (1980)
“Hello image / Sing me a line from your favourite song…”
Now intent on complete creative control Smith pushed the band into the void for their second album and in doing so not only produced the first true Cure record but also a genre defining statement and one of the greatest albums ever made.
With the frontman now eager to incorporate simplicity and space into their sound Dempsey’s elaborate playing no longer fit the group allowing for right hand-man Simon Gallup to join on bass duties, as well as Matthieu Hartley to add some synthy textures. The result was akin to 35-minute walk through a haunted dream, lost keys emerging from the never-realm, cymbal crashes coated in so much reverb they’re still playing to this day, all thanks to the less is more approach of producer Mike Hedges.
The album’s eerie tone still stands up to repeated listens today and with the likes of live favourites ‘M’ ‘Play For Today’ and ‘A Forest’ (arguably one the ultimate bass riffs ever written) being present the album still had plenty to hook the listener in. Here The Cure went from interesting oddities to cult concern.
“And stand lost forever / Lost forever in a happy crowd…”
‘Faith’ does not represent as drastic a leap in style than its predecessor but more a refinement. The lyrics got moodier, the textures thicker, the hair bigger. Minimalism held hands with the morbid as the dreaded goth term began to truly rear its head…but hell, with titles like ‘The Funeral Party’ they were helping soundtrack this new subculture.
Stripped to the trio of Smith, Gallup and Tolhurst, the band set about perfecting their craft and in the process created moments of sorrowful beauty such as ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and the Mervyn Peake inspired ‘The Drowning Man’. One could argue that if ‘Seventeen Seconds’ was a ‘guitar record’ The Cure’s third album is driven, if very slowly, by Gallup’s economic but noteworthy bass work.
As a whole things don’t really go above a coma-pace apart from on the chugging excellence of ‘Primary’ and the spiteful frenzy of ‘Doubt’. However if this was a stylistic choice or more to do with the amount of coke these young men were consuming is up to the listener to decide.
“Your name like ice / Into my heart…”
The end of the road. The final part in a dark trilogy the drove the band to a legendary breaking point. By consuming heaps of drugs, pushing away all his friends and with thoughts permanently focused on death and the pointlessness of it all, Smith and the gang ended up producing an album that makes any of Joy Division’s output sound like a lullaby…and it is first rate!
Often-named Darkest Album Ever Made it is admittedly a tough listen, but it’s an incredibly cathartic experience for those who persist, not to mention one of the bands finest moments. Eight tracks of pure acid soaked despair, rage and insanity honestly captured for the ages. As true a ‘goth’ record you’ll likely to find (ever or in their back catalogue) ‘Pornography’ sees Tolhurt’s drums reached new tribal simplicity while Smith’s pained vocals mix with guitar work that jumps between chiming arpeggios and nightmarish wails.
Touring behind it the band quickly disintegrated under the emotional toll, fist fights, verbal abuse and bizarre concerts where they switched instruments spelling the end of The Cure as it was. With lyrical content covering embryos, blind men and slaughtered pigs its fair to say you won’t be playing this at your next dinner party.
The Top (1984)
“I keep her dark thoughts deep inside/ As black as stone / And mad as birds…”
With the band’s future looking very unlikely indeed, manager Chris Parry dared the exhausted frontman to write a pop number if he really didn’t care what happened to The Cure. Returning from a month detox Smith deliberately made the antithesis of what people would expect from the lords of shadow and produced ‘’Let’s Go To Bed’, ‘The Walk’ and ‘The Lovecats’ in quick succession. Turned out he was a bit of a pop genius.
Come 1983/4, and with a firm Cure line up still missing, the then 24 year old Smith busied his days recording guitar for Siouxsie & The Banshee’s ‘Hyaena’ album before heading to another studio to drink magic mushroom tea and record ‘The Top’ essentially solo. Afterward he’d finally head to Camden to drop acid with Banshee founding member Steve Severin and watch B-Movies, sleep and repeat.
The result of such a lifestyle was an eastern flavoured and predictably very unusual set of songs. Some of the psychedelic fury of ‘Pornography’ remains but now with a childlike charm becoming apparent, especially on sole single ‘The Caterpillar’ and the Spanish themed ‘Birdmad Girl’. Saxophone, panpipes and violin added new textures to Smith’s demented world while his new pop chops were seen on the bouncy groove of ‘Dressing Up’ amongst others.
Despite some glimmers of sunlight a sense of loss and madness still prevails, especially on the titular final number with the lost cult star howling “Please come back… all of you.” Time to get the band back together, properly.
The Head On The Door (1985)
“Pleasure fills up my dreams / And I love it…”
After a good old spell of drug induced chronic blood poisoning/mental breakdown it was time for The Cure Phase II (and MK V’ish if you bothered counting members). Written in an incredible burst of creativity from Smith, ‘The Head On The Door’ perfectly melded The Cure’s new pop sensibilities with its raw emotional core and introspection. With things patched up with Gallup, and Tolhurst now on keyboard duties, Smith expanded the fold by adding drummer extraordinaire Boris Williams and original on/off again guitarist Porl Thompson to create the groups most musically accomplished incarnation yet.
From the opening burst of ‘Inbetween Days’ it’s clear that the listener is encountering a new beast, an exuberant, re-charged monster and with some heady tricks up its sleeve. Smith’s fascination with Eastern instrumentation continues on the dreamy ‘Kyoto Song’ while ‘Six Different Ways’ jaunty piano and high-pitched vocals saw him embody the loveable, backcombed man-child image that had begun to fill many an outsider’s bedroom wall. ‘Push’s blistering dual guitar work has the group attempt (and succeed) in pulling off a stadium worthy rocker while ‘Close To Me’s unusual breath filled production creates one of the more crazed alternative-hits of the 80s.
A resounding success filled in equal part with, experimentation, catchy hooks and a little dash on joyous mania.
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
“Daylight licked me into shape / I must have been asleep for days…”
With their last album pushing The Cure to new heights and audiences the quintet retired to France to produce its follow up, happily losing themselves in a wine fueled haze before emerging with 74mins of sun-kissed gold. ‘Kiss Me…’ could be best described as bi-polar odyssey, an album dealing with the dizzying highs of love and the frenzied lows of lust, jealously and hate.
The way the Hendrix-indebted doom of opener ‘The Kiss’ jumps to the sweet and gentle following ‘Catch’ could simply be one biggest tonal shifts ever found on tape. Elsewhere we have the infectious funk of ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ and ‘Hot Hot Hot!!!’ sitting next to the Euro-tinged melancholy of ‘How Beautiful You Are’ and the stomping guitar led ‘All I Want’ – It’s all rather topsy turvy.
Still, on a whole the light beats the dark and the band’s seventh album still stands as their happiest, in no part thanks to the blissful perfection of ‘Just Like Heaven’ and the sickly sweet ‘Perfect Girl’. Grand, mad and in awe of the beauty of it all.
“The strangest twist upon you lips / And we shall be together…”
With the pressures of fame building and the big THREE-O looming Smith soon re-entered a depression, isolating himself from the group as he worked on this, their opus. Akin to being gently smothered by a pillow of tear inducing introspection, ‘Disintegration’ stands as a gorgeously textured record and the best example of what The Cure evolved to be. From the spine-tingling opening chords of ‘Plainsong’ to the gentle fade of ‘Untitled’, the twelve tracks beautifully compliment one another creating a stronger whole.
Despite this foggy thread holding the album together one quick look and you’ll still see all the Smith staples present. Exotic promise is seen on the spider filled ‘Lullaby’, groove led rock is represented by ‘Fascination Street’ while ‘Lovesong’ (a wedding gift to his childhood sweetheart) manages to be both great pop and emotionally disarming due to its lyrical simplicity. Plainly put ‘Disintegration’ is an absolute behemoth of feeling. Dramatic? Sure. But when was love and life not? May our emotions forever be sound tracked by a pale man wielding a six-string bass in a sea of dry ice.
“And the hands on my shoulders don’t have names / And they won’t go away…”
Many fans argue to this day if this is truly the last ‘great’ Cure record or if indeed its predecessor marked a high water point there was no point matching. Facts are ‘Wish’ stands as the group’s commercial peak as well as a damn fine album filled with many a live favourite. Not sure to either match the intensity of their darker periods or go full on dreamy bastards mode, the bands ninth release ended up becoming something in between.
‘Friday I’m In Love’ and ‘High’ stand as the most straight forward single fodder the band’s ever released, while the bookending duo of ‘Open’ and ‘End’ are near seven minute rants against fame and its trappings. With keyboardist Roger O’Donnel no longer in the frame, replaced by one time roadie Perry Bamonte on third guitar and keys, the ‘Wish’ session birthed the most frenetic and forceful elements of The Cure.
Especially noteworthy is the mixture of Thompson’s crazed wah washed axe work and William’s powerhouse drumming on ‘Cut’ and ‘Wendy Time’, proving that this wasn’t just a band for the wall flowers.
Wild Mood Swings (1996)
“Wake up feeling green / Sick as a dog and six times as mean…”
An apt title for the group’s most unfocused and often unloved record. With even the trippy ‘The Top’ having the fact it was a continuously batshit going for it, The Cure’s tenth album tries to tackle Mariachi, Swing, alt-rock and acoustic misery all while often treading old ground. ‘Club America’ is (thankfully) one of the few truly bad songs Smith has penned while the manic pop of ‘Return’ of ‘Round, Round, Round’ feel a little like numbers that weren’t quite good enough for ‘Wish’.
Still, ‘Wild Mood Swings’ is far from a bad record; opener ‘Want’ still sees them passionately raging against the dying light, ‘Gone!’ and ‘The 13th!’ may be love/hate affairs but still shows a band happy to experiment and play with conventions. Single ‘Mint Car’ is a classic post ‘Kiss Me…’ Cure pop number while the combo of ‘Treasure’ and ‘Bare’ are fine tearjerkers if oddly placed. The real tragedy is how the B-sides from this period stand as some of The Cure’s finest, if used this could have been a mature, string-led beauty.
“We always have to go / I realise…”
With their star starting to wane on home shores, and nearly twenty-five years in the biz under their belts, the group greeted the 21st century with what was supposed to be their swansong. Sold as the completion of a trilogy (completed by ‘Disintegration’ and ‘Pornography’) ‘Bloodflowers’ would have made a splendid and fitting finale. Rich on melody, tone and filled with a tangible sense of nostalgia, the nine tracks presented are almost a perfect example of ‘The Cure ‘sound’ for any outsider.
The iconic Fender VI baritone licks weave between washes of synth and confident bass work as Smith looks back at forty years of dreams and hopes. The one small fault to the album is due to its all prevailing mood the whole package doesn’t really own a clear standout track, and no commercial singles were released. It’s a small gripe however, and if anything the ethereal and haunting stage it creates makes the perfect way to watch the cult icons drift away into happy memory.
The Cure (2004)
“Tell me it’s the same world / whirling through the same space…”
Can you kill what is already dead? Can the children of the night live without a leader? Who’s hair will now fill stadiums? Perhaps with these questions in mind nu-metal wunder producer Rick Robinson managed to tempt Smith from a short-lived / not really retirement. Allowing someone to take the sonic reins for the first time since their debut, Robinson to his credit made the band sound more urgent and fiery than they had in a decade.
Hands down their most ‘in your face’ release and oft lacking in some of the sweet subtleties that had become their trade, the album more importantly got the public and critics truly interested again. ‘The End of the World’ and ‘alt.end’ made for fine and contemporary indie fair while ‘Going Nowhere’ gave something for the fans of old to hold to their breast.
There’s a lack of some real knockout numbers, but instead you’re given a fine example of the band’s live potency and passion. In their absence many a new outfit had paid tribute to the icons and now they’d returned to reap the rewards.
4:13 Dream (2008)
“We’re on the edge of a beautiful thing she said/ Come on lets stay here for a while…”
Comfortably back in the saddle, and with guitarist Porl Thompson returning for a new four man configuration, the band set about writing a new double album. That never appeared. Between delays, record label issues and Smith deciding he needed to re-do some words, it was decided to split the release in two – a dark and light side representing The Cure’s dual nature. Eight years later we’re still waiting for the dark release ‘4:13 Scream’ (*always give Cure fans their dusky deserts first).
Still ‘4:13 ‘Dream’ sees some of the more loveable groove back on the bonkers ‘Freakshow’ and swaggering ‘The Real Snow White’. Opener ‘Underneath The Stars’ is one of the most emotive and outstanding songs the band has released while some fresh sounding ground is still tread on ‘It’s Over’. As with ‘Wild Mood Swings’ there are some bizarre choices on what made the B-Sides and what ended up on the final product, and the whole thing is badly damaged by some awful over compression on the mix. Coming from the band that released ‘Disintegration’ this is a crime.
With an album worth of material recorded, whispers of a new release in the air, and currently performing some of the best received gigs of their career, it’s safe to say these beautiful oddities will be around a little longer…
© Clash Magazine & Sam Walker-Smart