Robert Smith – circa 1983
“I’ve waited hours for this / I’ve made myself so sick” – ‘Close To Me’ (Robert Smith)
The little boy tosses uneasily in his bed. Beads of sweat break out on his forehead. He is ill. He knew this was going to happen. During the night, he experienced a nightmare. He saw his own detached head stuck to his bedroom door. It had happened before. Just as on those previous occasions, the dream is the herald of a bout of sickness. Now it is happening again and young Robert Smith is helpless to do anything about it.
In 1976, Robert Smith (born 21 April 1959) forms a group called The Easy Cure with his schoolmates Michael Dempsey (bass) and Lol Tolhurst (drums) (born Laurence Tolhurst, 3 February 1959). Robert Smith is lead vocalist and guitarist in the group. The trio makes a demo tape that lands on the desk of Chris Parry of Polydor Records. Impressed, he seeks out the group and finds they have shortened their name to The Cure.
A brand of ‘nervy guitar pop’ is served up by The Cure. At this stage, they could be classified as a punk rock group or, perhaps more accurately, a new wave group, the post-punk style of the late 1970s. However, over the course of their lengthy career, the British band outlives a variety of labels. Robert Smith wearily testifies that “I’ve been everything – punk, goth, psychedelic, pop. It was really great showing that The Cure could make pop singles.”
The song from The Cure’s demo tape that particularly appeals to Chris Parry is ‘Killing An Arab’. Parry arranges for it to be released on the independent label Small Wonder in December 1978. Early in 1979, Parry leaves Polydor Records to start Fiction Records, a boutique label distributed by WEA. The Cure is one of the first acts signed to Fiction. ‘Killing An Arab’ is re-released on Fiction in February 1979. The song is based on the Albert Camus story ‘The Stranger’. Over an appropriately arabesque guitar line and simple, yet effective, bass and drums, Robert Smith sings, “Standing on the beach with gun in my hand / Staring at the sea, staring at the sand / Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground / The sea is in my mouth but I hear no sound / I’m alive [a ringing guitar chord] / And I’m dead [clamped flatline] / And the stranger / Killing an Arab.” The song gains some airplay in the U.S.A. but is often wilfully misconstrued. Its literary roots ignored, it is adopted as a xenophobic anthem for bigots with a grudge against those of Middle Eastern origin.
At this stage, The Cure’s compositions are democratically credited to the whole band. This situation persists until around 1983 when Robert Smith is shown as the songwriter. Without detracting from the contributions of others in The Cure, it has always seemed pretty clear that Smith is the band’s creative engine and leader.
The Cure’s debut album, ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ (1979) (UK no. 44), is released in May ‘to good reviews in the British music press’.
In June, a new single, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (AUS no. 99), is issued. A more hook-laden effort, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ has Robert Smith yelping “I’m would say I’m sorry if I thought that it would change your mind / But I know that this time I have said too much, been too unkind / I tried to laugh about it / Hiding the tears in my eyes / ‘Cos boys don’t cry.” His desperation escalating, Smith blurts out, ‘Misjudged your limit / Pushed you too far / Took you for granted / Thought that you needed me more.”
The rattling ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’, a broadside against copycats, follows in October.
In the United States and some other foreign territories, ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ is issued as ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, including the singles released after the British debut and with a somewhat different track listing. The Cure’s music remains ingenious: ‘You wait for a guitar solo and get a club-footed bass line instead’.
Touring to promote the album, The Cure share a billing with Siouxsie And The Banshees. When John McKay leaves the latter outfit, Robert Smith pulls double duty, playing guitar with The Banshees too. Burning the candle at both ends, Smith continues to divide his time between the two groups for the next few years. It eventually gets to be too much and Robert Smith devotes himself to The Cure.
Late in 1979 Michael Dempsey leaves The Cure. He is replaced on bass by Simon Gallup (born 1 June 1960). A fourth member, keyboardist Matthieu Hartley, is added around the same time.
The new four-piece version of The Cure release the album ‘Seventeen Seconds’ (1980) (UK no. 20, AUS no. 39). This is a more atmospheric, less directly engaging work. Despite this, The Cure’s fanbase is growing and ‘A Forest’ (UK no. 31) proves to be a surprisingly successful single. Matthieu Hartley’s keyboard tones conjure up the oppressive greenery. A compelling, hypnotic, pulse-quickening thrust to the song frames Robert Smith’s exhortations of heading “into the trees”. To showcase ‘Seventeen Seconds’, The Cure begin their first world tour. However, after the Australian leg, Matthieu Hartley departs. Reduced to a trio again, this is, arguably, The Cure’s best-known line-up: Robert Smith (vocals, guitar), Simon Gallup (bass) and Lol Tolhurst (drums).
‘Faith’ (1981) (UK no. 14, AUS no. 38) is the title of the third album by The Cure. “’Faith’ was the sound of extreme desolation because that’s how we felt at the time,” says Robert Smith. It includes their finest song, ‘Primary’ (UK no. 43), a song about “the innocence of sleeping children” that claims, “The more we know / The less we show.” Simon Gallup’s chugging bass carries most of the musical weight. At the drumkit, Lol Tolhurst seems to be in a race to be the first to reach the end of the song. Robert Smith’s guitar spirals outwards like a corkscrew. The overall effect is akin to rushing through a tunnel at high speed – and offers just as many thrills. This album is also home to the creepy ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ (UK no. 44).
Despite the lurid title, ‘Pornography’ (1982) (UK no. 8, AUS no. 39) is actually a ‘doom-laden introspective’ album. It houses the pounding beats of ‘The Hanging Garden’ where Robert Smith cocks an ear “as the animals scream.” Following this album, Simon Gallup leaves the band. In an unusual move, Lol Tolhurst remains with the group but changes his role from drummer to keyboards player.
At the end of 1982, The Cure release the single ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ (UK no. 44, AUS no. 15). Surprisingly, this is a ‘dance-tinged’ number. Following a funky introduction, Robert Smith pleads, “Let me take your hands / I’m shaking like milk”. The sexual politics build to a point where he says “I don’t care if you don’t / And I don’t feel if you don’t / And I don’t want it if you don’t / [voice cracking] And I won’t say it if you won’t say it first.” Smith follows this with the acknowledgement that “It’s a stupid game.”
The 1983 model of The Cure consists of Robert Smith (vocals, guitar), Lol Tolhurst (keyboards), Phil Thornally (bass) and Andy Anderson (drums). If The Cure was expected to follow the dance-orientation of ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, nobody seems to have told Robert Smith. Instead, he offers the bizarrely catchy ‘The Lovecats’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 6). “We should have each other to tea / We should have each other with cream,” he purrs. A tune “so wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully pretty” is put across with an upright double bass, a ragtime piano and a strummed guitar.
Around this time, Robert Smith’s appearance begins to become more exaggerated. Habitually dressed all in black, his bird’s nest hairdo expands to a sort of exploded mushroom of dark tendrils hair-sprayed into place. He takes to wearing thick, chalk-white make-up, dark eyeliner, and bright red smeared lipstick. Smith explains the latter affectation this way: “I started wearing it because it made me feel confident and more attractive. I’m completely featureless without it. But on stage I always used to lean my mouth on the mike and shut my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see people. And at the end, I’d come off with the lipstick smeared all over my face, so I thought I might as well go on with it like that and make it look intentional.”
The Cure’s next album, ‘The Top’ (1984) (UK no. 10, US no. 180, AUS no. 55), offers the quirky song ‘The Caterpillar’ (UK no. 14, AUS no. 51), featuring Robert Smith scraping away at a violin. Despite the single, the album is considered ‘a return to the bleak soundscapes of ‘Pornography’’.
During the world tour to support ‘The Top’, drummer Andy Anderson is fired. In early 1985, Phil Thornalley also departs, necessitating another line-up shuffle. Simon Gallup is brought back on bass, Boris Williams takes over on drums and a fifth member, guitarist Porl Thompson, is added. Thompson helped out the band in the early days (1976-1978) but his official status now gives Robert Smith the flexibility to just be the vocalist on stage, without always having to play guitar. Smith’s increasingly outré public image actually makes him a more effective frontman.
This version of The Cure puts together their best album, ‘The Head On The Door’ (1985) (UK no. 7, US no. 60, AUS no. 6). The title is derived from the nightmare vision that plagued Robert Smith’s childhood. It is also referenced in the single ‘Close To Me’ (UK no. 24, AUS no. 7): “If only I was sure, that my head on the door was a dream.” Lol Tolhurst picks out a plink-plonk keyboard sound. Flute-like keyboard trills grow into bumptious horns. The video for the song is also memorable, featuring the members of The Cure crammed together into what seems to be an over-sized steamer trunk…that falls over a cliff. This ‘concise and pop-oriented record’ also offers ‘In Between Days’ (UK no. 15, US no. 99, AUS no. 16), a fast-paced blend of toy piano, throaty organ, rhythm guitar and explosive drums: “Yesterday I got so old / I felt like I could die / Yesterday I got so old / It made me want to cry.”
Encouraged by the popularity of ‘The Head On The Door’, The Cure hazard a double-album, ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’ (1987) (UK no. 6, US no. 35, AUS no. 9). The ‘eclectic’ project includes the pleading wannabe anthem ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ (UK no. 21, US no. 54, AUS no. 16) as well as ‘Catch’ (UK no. 27, AUS no. 77), ‘Just Like Heaven’ (UK no. 29, US no. 40, AUS no. 89) and ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ (UK no. 45, US no. 68).
In early 1988 Lol Tolhurst is fired. He doesn’t take it well. A lawsuit is filed in which Tolhurst claims ‘that his role in the band was greater than stated in his contract and, consequently, he deserved more money’. In the meantime, Roger O’Donnell is hired as the group’s new keyboards player.
On 13 August 1988, Robert Smith marries Mary Poole, whom he had known since he was 14. He nicknames her ‘May’. The couple remain childless by choice. Long-serving bassist Simon Gallup is best man at the wedding ceremony.
The Cure’s next album is ‘Disintegration’ (1989) (UK no. 3, US no. 12, AUS no. 9). ‘Lullaby’ (UK no. 5, US no. 74, AUS no. 28) comes from this album as does ‘Lovesong’ (UK no. 18, US no. 2, AUS no. 60). It is easy to imagine ‘Lovesong’ as being dedicated to Robert Smith’s new spouse: “Whenever I’m alone with you / You make me feel like I am home again…However far away / I will always love you.” Despite such sentiments, the overall mood remains dark, as suggested by the album’s title. ‘According to many depressive 1980s-minded kids, it’s the only album ever made’.
Following the tour to support ‘Disintegration’, Roger O’Donnell leaves The Cure. One of the group’s roadies, Perry Bamonte, is promoted to handle keyboard duties in The Cure.
‘Wish’ (1992) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 1) is the title of the next album. The mesmeric ‘High’ (UK no. 8, US no. 42, AUS no. 5) and the sharp pop of ‘Friday I’m In Love’ (UK no. 6, US no. 18, AUS no. 34) are included on this disc.
The following year brings more membership changes. Guitarist Porl Thompson leaves in 1993 and Perry Bamonte switches over to guitar to replace him, while Bamonte’s predecessor, Roger O’Donnell, returns on keyboards.
Lol Tolhurst’s lawsuit against The Cure is resolved in 1994 with a ‘settlement in the band’s favour’.
Before the group can return to the recording studio, drummer Boris Williams hands in his resignation.
Jason Cooper joins The Cure in 1995 and the new drummer debuts on the album ‘Wild Mood Swings’ (1996) (UK no. 9, US no. 12, AUS no. 5). ‘Bloodflowers’ (2000) (UK no. 14, US no. 16, AUS no. 11) is the imaginative name of the following album. After the self-titled ‘The Cure’ (2004), Perry Bamonte departs in 2005.
Robert Smith handles all the guitarwork himself on ‘4:13 Dream’ (2008) (UK no. 33, US no. 16, AUS no. 30), but Reeves Gabrels is recruited as an additional guitarist in 2012.
The Cure wandered through new wave to goth rock but two central truths remained present throughout their career. These two characteristics may seem contradictory but perhaps the inherent tension between them powered the band. First, The Cure wallowed in an atmosphere of darkness and sad drama. Secondly, The Cure were a great pop group, finding catchy melodies within the shadows. Accepting and embracing these polar qualities is key to understanding The Cure. The band were ‘charming pop cynics; college-age fans loved singer Robert Smith for the way he mated Kafka with Sylvia Plath; absurdist, absurdly romantic gloom’. The Cure were ‘notorious for their slow, gloomy dirges and Smith’s ghoulish appearance. But the public image often hid the diversity of The Cure’s music.’
- allmusic.com, ‘The Cure’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 23 August 2001
- thequietus.com (6 May 2010)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 65, 71
- ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) (guardian.co.uk – 10 September 2012)
- wikipedia.org as at 24 December 2012
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p. 584
Song lyrics copyright Mushroom Music
Last revised 12 August 2014