I was a slightly odd teenager. I know, not a big shock. Fairly sheltered, I didn’t go to friends’ houses nor did they come to mine (they lived too far away, we had no car) and I spent the weekends with my grandparents, and from 1990 onwards just gran, who really raised me as much as my parents did. I didn’t go out partying until I was nearly 17 (which I turned in October 1993); gran would visit London and I’d be left to my own devices in her flat, where adult merriment was had. Before then, in the more innocent late 80s and very early 90s, I’d spend time watching old movies and mountains of music videos. Pop promos were the big thing in those days; they actually mattered to a career and defined bands and their songs. I taped the videos for new singles onto VHS and played them until they wore out and watched the more niche clips on TV shows (like ITV’s Raw Power) that ran well after midnight. I remember staying up late to watch the premieres of Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on Channel 4: a new pop promo was a huge deal in those days and warranted great fanfare. I didn’t have MTV, so I would tape hours of it when I went down to London to visit my aunt and uncle and their little ones. The MTV rock show Headbangers Ball was a fave, I was really into metal in those days. Anything slightly weird and/or outside of the charts caught my eye and ear, functioning alongside the musical education I was receiving from my parents. I haven’t watched MTV in years but I don’t think they put much music on now, and the videos they do put on are simple – pedestrian pop music with ladies in various states of undress. Anyway, one night I was watching 120 Minutes, their flagship alternative/indie show. It was late 1990, I was shortly about to turn 14, and this video came on.
I had never seen anything like it. It looked like what would now pass for an episode of American Horror Story. A band with big backcombed hair (and not in a Motley Crüe kind of way) and plenty of poorly applied foundation and red lipstick (men in make-up had been my thing since childhood; as I said: odd kid). It was a big dark pop tune, with an unusual voice selling it to me. The video told a tale of a carny sideshow. I had never seen anything like it. Last night, I got to hear that song, Never Enough, 24 years after I fell in love with that pop group, The Cure. I got the ticket by chance. With the closure of the essential Scarlet Mist, a face value ticket exchange, which I have benefitted from so very many times, I’ve been on the lookout for a new ticketing marketplace in order to avoid being ripped off by touts if my admittedly famed ticket-getting karma fails me. The most reliable source now is Twickets, an app (no use to me, my phone purposely has no online access) and Twitter feed. For no particular reason I was browsing my feed and a post popped up offering a ticket to see The Cure at the Hammersmith Apollo. Less than a minute had passed and I was the first to reply. I had no time to think, I just did it. Be ready to take your chances, I always say. A lovely Scouse girl had a spare, and was coming down for the show. Several excitable texts later and the ticket was mine. I met a friend at the venue and tried to prepare, for I had been warned by friends, you see, to steel myself. I already knew that they play long shows. I mean, Springsteen long. The night before they’d done a 40-song setlist. Forty songs. Ok, this is not The Grateful Dead, and their 15+ minutes of meandering solos. These are short, sharp, perfect pop songs. But still, that equated to quite the marathon, and I ain’t as young as I used to be, so my standing ticket was going to be a bit of a challenge. Wisely, I suggested we go over to one side, just behind the disabled section (where a fight nearly broke out later, due to a drunken idiot, but that’s another story) and perch by the wall, so we could lean on something. Very smart move, it turned out. For I was to get 40 songs too, and the longest gig I’ve ever seen by a single band (the previous record was Bowie, in the same venue in 2002: 33 songs and 2½ hours or so).
The support act was terrible, though the hardcore at the front seemed to like them. I didn’t realise there were still lead singers who took themselves that seriously. A bit of Ian Curtis crossed with Jim Morrison and the talent and presence of neither. A bit shoegaze-y and a bit goth, you could see why they’d been chosen. Interminable though. I remembered there’s a reason why I usually spend the minutes leading up to the headliner in the pub. They were called And Also The Trees and, as it turns out, having just researched them (they’re The Cure’s pet project, I’m unsurprised to learn), they’re ancient. That makes it worse somehow. A new band being so derivatively naïve you wouldn’t mind, you’d think it was almost sweet. Now I see they’ve been around for 30+ years – get a new act. Please. You don’t do gloomy torch songs well, move on.
The crowd seemed arranged by age: young sweet alt kids at the front; in the middle, the fans in their 20s, out of university and letting their hipster flag and luminescent hair fly. Then, in the good standing spots, the rest of us in our 30s and 40s, being sensible and not wishing to get pushed around. I’ve been each one of those groups; now and then I dip in and turn the clock back but mostly I’m the one near the bar these days, nodding and singing along; mentally, and subconsciously, noting everything. I know as much about The Cure as I do any other band from the 80s and 90s I’ve loved for years, because even though I’m certain they make new albums, I don’t pay attention to them. I’m not sure anyone outside their fanbase does. But I knew they had an august reputation as a live band, because I have a couple of friends who adore them. Strangely, I’m scooping up all the classic bands at the moment, not entirely accidentally or on purpose, and this felt like another one to tick off. See ‘em before they pop off, Leah said to me a couple of years ago, after we saw some ancient pop star I forget the name of. She’s right. It sounds a bit doomy but we’re living in an age where nearly all the great rock stars of the 50s are gone (Fats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Chuck are clinging on, that’s it really) and the ones of the 60s and 70s are about to start dropping like flies (the brilliant Joe Cocker left us as I was travelling to this gig). In the next decade we will lose people that… well, let’s just say I’m glad my mother won’t be here to see it. There’s a reason Lou going hit so hard, the great unspeakable truth of it is too much to contemplate… Those parts of your life since youth, those artists and iconic figures – they taught you, you made yourself out of them. They won’t be here forever.
Of course, Robert Smith is 55 and his lifelong bandmate Simon Gallup (as always, a hot tattooed quiffed rockabilly goth) is 54 so I don’t refer to them. I mention it because in 2015 I’ll be seeing a bunch of old geezers do their thing. Queen (and the terrifically entertaining Adam Lambert) in January, a band I’ve waited for a quarter of a century to properly see. The first band I loved. In March, The Who. In June, Fleetwood Mac (waited 18 years for that one). Then, ridiculously, Bette Midler in July (which will be a highly entertaining old school vaudeville throwback). Then Santana, the week after. Of all people! Rock history, right there, dad has persuaded me I must see him. In between all that, yes, I’ll see Tune-Yards and Flying Lotus and FKA Twigs and who knows who else, but I’m going on a 2015 tour of rock history (including two acts who played Woodstock, for goodness sake). So in that spirit, The Cure, as one of the favourite bands of my teen years, found themselves on that bucket list of bands to see.
And I have to say, it was one of the great pop concerts I have ever seen. Most gigs follow patterns, delineated by the material – new, old and/or obscure (deep cuts, B-sides, remember those?). The flow of a concert will be consistent with a new artist (like the aforementioned FKA Twigs, say), as everyone’s there to hear the new album. Someone with a few records under their belt (like Arcade Fire) will play half new/half old setlists, with the temperature hovering around a simmer, going up to a boil for the songs everyone loves. The Cure somehow managed to keep it at a consistent boil throughout with the occasional wild mad energy jump for the biggest hits. Even the songs of theirs I didn’t know, and there were plenty, felt familiar and were a joy to hear.
As a writer, Robert Smith knows well enough how to work incredibly hard and make it look easy. He’s so gifted as a creator of pop music; the songs are just unutterably pleasant to listen to even if they’re strangers to you. You manage to forget exactly how many, for want of a better word, ‘famous’ songs he’s written. With the exception of one of the great 90s pop tunes, Friday, I’m In Love, and Let’s Go To Bed they played everything any gig-goer could have wanted. The show was so compelling, so brilliantly executed, I forgot what hadn’t been played yet and the third and fourth encores were a blizzard of hits that genuinely surprised me. It was a special night. I made a quick exit as they played their last song and that was as the show ticked over to the three hours and ten minutes mark. I had so many moments where my brain went ‘Aw, wow, I forgot about this one!’ Like when they started the gorgeous Pictures Of You. I had simply forgotten it existed, so rapt was I by the performance. Every part of each song was delivered with care: not a note was wasted. Propulsive drumming (Jason Cooper, magnificent, drove the whole show), flawless keyboard parts (Roger O’Donnell, who has been in and out of The Cure for 27 years), Gallup’s winding, sonorous bass played like a lead guitar, and Smith’s voice sounding just like the records, strong and slightly whiny, but charming. No backing vocalists – it was all just him, though I admit I couldn’t hear a word of his between-song mumbling, though I could gather he was content and happy to be there. The chemistry between Smith and Gallup is always such a pleasure to watch, those two old stagers doing their thing for the 38th year in a row.
I also derived some amusement from the guitarist recently drafted in – our old friend Reeves Gabrels (note: their current absent long-term guitarist Porl Thompson is now a trans woman called Pearl, how wonderful). A lifetime, a century, ago (1999) he was fired by Bowie because of his coke habit. He’s obviously sorted his life out and it was quite nice to see him back, looking well, with Doc Brown-esque plug socket hair, and adding a great new sonic palate to another bunch of classic songs. Admittedly, he doesn’t seem stretched (jokes aside, he’s a gifted musician) but he’s a creditable addition, fits in nicely and kept the ridiculous guitar solos to a tolerable minimum. He gets to play legendary pop songs night after night; it’s not a bad job to have. Those songs, those towering songs… they just kept coming. They were judiciously dotted around the first 2 ½ hours of the set like gemstones sparkling at the bottom of a pool. A Night Like This,Lovesong, In Between Days, Just Like Heaven (which has one of my favourite first verses, what great writing), The Walk, A Forest, Three Imaginary Boys, Charlotte Sometimes and on and on.
It felt so good. Like a piece of my teenage years had come to meet me as I push 40 over here. I was obsessed with Lullaby in my youth. I listened to it over and over and transcribed the lyrics (with a pencil!) from the cassette tape, just because I wanted to read them (ah, the pre-internet universe!) The band were as tight as a drum, and it was a pleasure to see musicians enjoying themselves. They set about their task with great determination, stamina and style, for I can’t think of which other artist does shows like this, with such a wide scope of song choice and devotion to their audience. I suppose Springsteen is the closest, as he also plays marathons and plucks out album track obscurities for the delight of the hardcore fans and his own amusement. All pop/rock gigs are ‘a bit of what I want to play/a bit of what you want to hear’ but this one felt different, most likely because of the sheer length of the show. You felt like everyone was on this journey together, through our lives and theirs, and it built and built. People are used to 90-minute shows then schlepping home and worrying about getting up for work in the morning. Everyone just utterly lost themselves at this gig. A few filtered out, as they had trains to catch, but 99% stayed and revelled and hoped it would never end. And those songs, they kept on coming – Lullaby was extraordinary, greeted with such love. Fascination Street. Why Can’t I Be You? The Lovecats, Close To Me (incidentally, haven’t their videos aged incredibly well?!)… And of course, an oddly slowed down, but no less powerful, Boys Don’t Cry. Everything was spent, delivered, given to us. We gave our hearts back.
1. Shake Dog Shake
2. Piggy in the Mirror
3. A Night Like This
5. In Between Days
6. Just Like Heaven
8. The Caterpillar
9. The Walk
10. A Man Inside My Mouth
11. Wailing Wall
12. Three Imaginary Boys
13. Never Enough
14. Wrong Number
15. Birdmad Girl
17. Like Cockatoos
18. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
19. Kyoto Song
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. One Hundred Years
24. Give Me It
25. The Top
26. The Empty World
27. Charlotte Sometimes
30. Play for Today
31. A Forest
32. Pictures of You
34. Fascination Street
35. Dressing Up
36. The Lovecats
37. Close to Me
38. Why Can’t I Be You?
39. Boys Don’t Cry
40. Hey You!
© Liz tray & Sylvia
Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull reviews an evening spent watching The Cure at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, complete with lipstick, dry ice and spinning tops galore.
Gigs that are organised by Robert Smith are not for the faint hearted. Some more senior lead singers are happy with bashing out a few greatest hits, departing as fast as they can from the stage clutching a wad of money and leaving a crowd dissatisfied.
But The Cure are no such band. Despite being an entity for nearly forty years, their setlists have only ever grown. And the first of their three night residency at the Hammersmith Apollo is no exception. The band clearly cares about their fans. Yes, they played hits. ‘Lullaby’ was hypnotising as ever. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ prompts the usual vocal imitation of the bands trademark guitar riff . ‘Pictures of You’, no matter how many times I’ve seen it performed, is always beautiful and tear jerking. But this mammoth forty song, three-and-a-bit hour set is packed with rarities galore. Casual and dire-hard fans are appeased alike and neither can complain that they don’t get their sixty quid worths of live music. ‘A Man Inside My Mouth’ makes its first funky-synth live debut ever at the Hammersmith. “It’s nice to play some different stuff”, Smith quips in a brief remark to the crowd as he takes a brief break from his adorable teddy-bear like dancing. The Cure have toured pretty much constantly since 2011, but it’s so refreshing to see a classic band not rattling through the same set gig after gig. For once, there is an element of surprise for an audience used to being able to check setlists with a swish and a flick of a Smartphone.
There’s something here for everyone, songs from every album of their career appearing at some point in the set. I mean, with four encores, how could their not be at least one of your favourites played at some point? As a lover of their earlier work, it was great to hear ‘M’ and ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ finally make their way back into their set after a lengthy and unjust absence. Likewise, 1981’s standalone single ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ sounded sublime, oozing with gothic delight as the stage fills with dry ice and the dirge-like synth kicks in.
However, admittedly, listening to The Top played in full was not quite as enjoyable. The band have always steered clear of playing the majority of the album live since it was released. “We haven’t played this one since we last played here in 1984”, remarks Smith before breaking into yet another such track. And as ‘Give Me It’ closes the main set, I understand why. The album has some great songs, performed to a tee on the night. ‘The Caterpillar’, with it’s chaotic piano is heart-warming, whilst ‘Shake Dog Shake’ works great as a wickedly sleazy opener to the night. But playing the whole thing in one night? A bit too far I thought at the time.
But then Smith comes back on stage wielding a child’s spinning top. I thought I’d tripped out momentarily or died and gone to a Cure themed heaven. I mean, seeing any fifty-something year old man bearing a child’s toy is a somewhat odd sight, let alone when it is brandished by a lipstick-wearing musical genius on the stage of the Hammersmith Apollo. He holds it to the mic, cranks it up and the haunting desolation of ‘The Top’ begins to unfurl before us. The song is lament of desertion, of isolation in a barren and empty world. I’ve waited years to hear it live. Not only do I finally understand the pun in the title now, but I realise that someone else must feel the same way about other songs I don’t particularly like myself. As well as clearly enjoying themselves throughout the entire set, the band make a huge effort so that everyone there enjoys themselves. Yes, the set was eclectic and bizarre in places, but so well preformed I could have happily stood there for another two hours and basked in their blissful musical beauty. Although, please, please don’t shout ‘Lovesong’ next time, Rob. It’s a romantic number, not a football chant.
© Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull & Bourgol Photography
Christmas came early for The Cure fans across the United Kingdom as the goth maestros end their three night stay at London’s Hammersmith Apollo with an insane 41 song set. Not many bands can delve into a back catalogue as rich as The Cure’s and play a magical set which went as far back as 1979. This was The Cure’s last show of 2014 and they did not disappoint. As the clock ticked past eight o’clock, The Cure emerged on stage through a fog of dry ice to a greeting of roaring cheers from the audience. Just the group’s presence alone was enough to get the audience excited.
They entered the setlist with commitment and intensity beginning with ‘Shake Dog Shake’ and from then on Robert Smith and Co didn’t look back. The combination of a driving beat, deep shimmering bass and guitars treated with effects and Smith’s quivery vocals which haven’t altered at all since The Cure’s first album, he still sounds as good as he did back then. These elements lead to a performance which encapsulated The Cure’s entire musical career in one night, treating the crowd to their well-known singles such as ‘Friday I’m in love’, ‘Just Like Heaven’ and ‘Lovesong’, as well as obscure tracks including ‘Wailing Wall’ a song which the band hadn’t played live since 1984, and they also played a live debut of ‘A Man Inside my Mouth’ which everyone in the audience enjoyed with glistening eyes.
After blitzing through twenty three songs in just under two hours, The Cure retired back stage and then suddenly reappeared for the first of four encores. The first of which included songs from Faith and The Top. And then showing absolutely no signs of tiredness, the second encore began. When playing live, The Cure have such a powerful and unique sound which creates an almost hypnotic feel which keeps the audience on edge and leaves them hanging on Smith’s every action. The next two encores are filled with more mesmerising hits including ‘Play for Today’ and the mysterious ‘A Forest’ which gets everyone clapping along and as The Cure are bathed in neon green lights, they leave the stage and return for the fourth and final encore which was full of hits which left the audience thrilled and in admiration of The Cure who have definitely earned a place in British music history.
© Tom Staniszewski