June 2018

Arts & Letters

The Cure’s permanent twilight

By Anwen Crawford

The Cure in Brazil, 1987. © Michael Putland / Getty Images

Robert Smith and co. are celebrating 40 years of the band. Why do they still inspire such love?

Sometimes I think that if you shook me out you wouldn’t find much at the bottom of the bag apart from tea leaves and bits of songs by The Cure. That lounge-act bassline in “The Love Cats”, for instance, so upholstered and smug. “10:15 Saturday Night” and its housebound tedium of drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. Robert Smith singing “It’s just the way I smile / You said” in “Plainsong”, which, musically speaking, resembles a wedding march, all romance and bells, but then you listen to the words and it turns out to be about two people who will never know each other no matter how close they are standing. Perhaps the truest sort of wedding song.

The Cure turn 40 this year. I’m not convinced that pop groups should stay in business for 40 years, not even the ones whom I suspect might have saved my life a few times while also permanently screwing it up. Strange how popular music, an art form fuelled by the energy of youth, is more and more becoming a playpen for the superannuated. The Rolling Stones, who won’t pack it in until they’re six feet under and probably not even then. Fleetwood Mac, still busting up all over the place. The Cure haven’t released new material in a decade and their last great song is nearly 25 years old. (“Burn”, in case you’re wondering, from the soundtrack to ’90s goth B-movie The Crow.) So what the fuck are they doing, still hanging about, and why do I still care?

Have you ever dreamt about Robert Smith? Last time I dreamt about Robert Smith – The Cure’s singer, songwriter and sole constant member – we were on the train that I used to take to school. It was full of moths and wintry cold, apropos for The Cure. I should clarify that the train was also mothy in waking life, being a type of train manufactured between 1957 and 1960 (as the internet informs me), and so, coincidentally, as old as Robert Smith (born 1959, as memory serves me), but still in service on Sydney’s outer-suburban train network circa 1993, clackety-clacking me to school with my bag full of tapes full of songs by The Cure. I dreamt that Robert Smith was my friend.

This month, at London’s Southbank Centre, Smith will curate the 25th Meltdown festival – an annual event that has previously been helmed by musicians including David Bowie, Yoko Ono and Ornette Coleman. In a recent interview, Smith told BBC Radio that he had restricted himself to “alternative popular music” in his choice of acts for Meltdown, which is politic, insofar as The Cure helped to invent the very notion of “alternative” pop. The Cure have sold tens of millions of records without ever being entirely mainstream; of their 13 studio albums, only one, Wish (1992), has made it to the top of the charts. Their catalogue is a chequerboard of well-known singles (“In Between Days”, “Friday I’m in Love”) and cultish, influential albums (Seventeen Seconds, Disintegration).

The Meltdown line-up, then, is a mixture of The Cure’s alternative pop peers (The Psychedelic Furs, Kristin Hersh) and heirs (My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, Placebo), alongside a few more left-field choices. But it also seems a missed opportunity for Smith to have contextualised his work with The Cure in a richer, stranger light, for The Cure are, once you stop to contemplate them, quite an odd proposition: dour yet outlandish, gothic while psychedelic, bookish but not intellectual, perpetual adolescents now becoming old men.

Punk, boredom, Catholicism, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, suburbia, LSD, synthesisers, eyeliner, Jimi Hendrix, Ziggy Stardust, cocaine, chorus pedals, The Bell Jar, alcohol, hairspray, Joy Division, Emily Dickinson, “Eleanor Rigby”, Emily Brontë, mental illness, Mary Poppins, existentialism, Orientalism, lipstick. That’s my incomplete list of the things that have gone into making The Cure. They’re not so much an institution as an atmosphere, and one that manifests in all sorts of places. On the soundtrack to HBO’s Westworld, for instance. In the gothic mood and look of pretty much every film ever directed by Tim Burton. On Adele’s bazillion-selling album 21, which features her cover of “Lovesong”. (That must have been quite the royalty cheque for Smith.) In the title of Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don’t Cry, named after one of The Cure’s most enduring songs. Wherever and whenever “Boys Don’t Cry” or another such Cure song pops up, on the radio, or in a shop, or six tracks into the mixtape that someone made for you decades ago now. In the work of countless musicians who have borrowed a little of The Cure’s magic and melancholy for themselves.

In July, 40 years to the month since their first gig as The Cure, the group will play a sold-out concert in London’s Hyde Park, which goes to show that they can still draw a crowd upon command, which makes me grateful that they don’t exercise that power more often, if only because it rankles to be reminded of how easily pleased I am with the completely familiar. Of course I’d be there if I could! Are you kidding me? I hope they open with “Plainsong” and finish with “A Forest”. “A Forest” is a song that boasts the greatest guitar solo of all time, because it dissolves the guitar solo into a dampness of delay and effects that sounds as if Smith’s guitar were the trees, multiplying and spookily identical, inside the forest where the song itself is trapped. “A Forest” is haunted by a feminine wraith, but, in destroying the dick-swinging gesture of a guitar solo from the inside, the song implies that it’s better anyway to be a girl, or a ghost, and forever.

I think the secret to The Cure’s longevity, and the reason I can never quite consign them to the pile of has-beens, is that early on they began creating their own universe, a Cureverse, and have dwelt there ever since. Whenever you listen to them, you enter this place, where everything, including time, is unchanging. A sensation both eerie and seductive. “It’s always the same,” whispers Smith, at the end of “10:15 Saturday Night”. Isn’t it just. “Again and again and again and again and again,” he wails in “A Forest”, a song so brilliantly monotonous that it could go on for as long as someone was standing upright to play it, and, judging by the myriad live versions to be found, sometimes does. Smith’s wail is the sound of a nervous system on the melt. And for those of us enthralled by Cureverse, the feeling of being endlessly the same old limited self, and just about to break down because of it, resonates.

Perhaps, so as not to lose us in The Cure’s perpetual present, a timeline is in order, some broader statements of fact. The Cure are not New Order, though they have sometimes been accused of sounding like it. There, got that one out of the way. The Cure formed in Crawley, a town south of London, close to Gatwick airport. Smith once characterised it as “grey and uninspiring, with an undercurrent of violence”, which sounds like every suburb in the world. In coming from nowhere, The Cure have appealed everywhere, from the hinterlands of Sydney to Rio de Janeiro to Milwaukee.

The group’s three original members – drummer Lol Tolhurst, bassist Michael Dempsey and Smith – all attended Catholic school. Remnant Catholicism runs rampant through The Cure’s songs. Their third and, in my view, greatest album, released in 1981, is called Faith. Smith favours words like “stain” and “clean”, suggesting a worldview informed by the notion of ineradicable guilt and hell to pay for it.

Catholicism has also shaped the role that sex plays in their songs, or rather doesn’t play, because, truly, The Cure are one of the coyest bands ever. Coyness is, of course, a part of their self-renewing appeal to generations of young teenagers: the songs cut away just when things threaten to get real. As you age, it can irritate. There’s something unedifying about a grown man sublimating desire in endless metaphors of commingling waters or, as Smith sings in “High”, “The way you fur / The how you purr / It makes me want to paw you all”.

Then again, Smith can be suggestively sublime, as on “Just Like Heaven”, from the double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987). It’s one of The Cure’s most beloved songs, and deservedly so. “Show me, show me, show me / How you do that trick / The one that makes me scream, she said,” Smith sings in the opening verse, and if that isn’t about making someone come I don’t know what is. I think that the song as a whole might also be about taking a load of acid and preparing to jump off a cliff. What can I say? Things get ticklish in Cureverse. More importantly than whatever “Just Like Heaven” is about is the way it feels, which, with its cascading guitar melody and keyboard trills and bright, cushiony synthesisers, is much like going down a slippery dip, landing in a puddle of sunshine and then bursting into tears.

But back to the timeline. The Cure’s first single, released in late 1978, was “Killing an Arab”, a two-minute, 21-second rewrite of Albert Camus’ existentialist novel The Stranger, deadpan but propulsive, with a faux-Eastern riff circling through it. From the start, the song was misunderstood, and often wilfully, including by members of the National Front, who would stand and sieg heil at The Cure’s early shows. “It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence,” read a sticker appended to copies of The Cure’s first and best singles collection, Standing on a Beach (1986), named after the opening line of “Killing an Arab”. “The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feeling.” They rarely play it anymore.

The song didn’t appear on The Cure’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979), but the flip side, “10:15 Saturday Night”, did. (They still play that one.) Three Imaginary Boys was not entirely successful, stranded for the most part somewhere between a drunken joke and an impotent communiqué, though the title track did give notice of dreamier Cure moods to come. “Insubstantial froth … more artificial than most,” sniffed Paul Morley in a negative review of the album for the NME.

Neither their literary enthusiasms nor suburban disaffection stood The Cure in good stead with the partisans of the British music press, who tended to find them, in a word, pretentious. Retrospectively, it seems an odd charge, given that the late ’70s was teeming with paperback-toting, Nietzsche-quoting post-punk bands, only too ready to share their half-arsed theories on alienation with the nearest ambitious scribe. But something about The Cure rubbed critics the wrong way – perhaps the group’s lingering sense of naivety, which said critics were young enough to have only recently cast aside.

Nor did critical opinion improve when The Cure’s following run of albums – Seventeen Seconds (1980), Faith (1981) and Pornography (1982) – plunged the group and their listeners into darkness, founding the genre of goth rock along the way. Though I prefer the term “goth pop”, because The Cure are a pop band at heart, not a rock band, and I could give you several reasons why, including the fact that they don’t really go in for playing chords. It’s melody-counterpoint-melody, which hasn’t meant that it’s always been delicate. Pornography, for example, is fiendishly blunt, all pummelling drum lines and acrid, bilious guitar parts, the whole made even less palatable by sounding as if it were recorded in a concrete bunker while the assembled personnel twisted in the throes of cocaine psychosis. “Musical crap,” declared an unimpressed Dave McCullough in Sounds, made for a “grammar school, studenty crowd”.

When I was a studenty 13 years old, or even younger, I would fall asleep nearly every night listening to Pornography. I have searched my heart for a long time and cannot say now whether The Cure so consumed me during my early and indeed pre-adolescence because I was sad and troubled, and needed a sound that echoed the way I felt, or whether listening to The Cure made me sad, and then sadder, and then sadder. The fact that I kept on feeling this way long after my Cure infatuation had faded suggests that the former is more likely. But maybe The Cure exacerbated it. Perhaps they even started it. It would fly in the face of everything I know to be true about music to deny that its power can be disproportionate and its hold irrational. But I also want to recognise that things, especially art, that we are too young to handle can enlighten us as much as damage. Or enlighten by damaging.

I have a memory of lying on my back in the grass behind my school and looking at the sky while listening to “All Cats Are Grey”, from the album Faith. And wanting very much to shuffle off the burden of consciousness for good. It is one of The Cure’s most beautiful songs: soft like a watercolour, but painted in monochrome. “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman,” wrote Camus, “and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.” Have you ever wanted to be only a stone in a field?

The Cure taught me Camus and Sartre and Plath, when I was way too young to be reading books like The Myth of Sisyphus but did so regardless, not knowing how young I really was, which is the blessing and the curse of youth. I found a list that Smith had compiled of his favourite books, and worked through them, and these became my favourites, too. How many bands have ever written a song based on the work of Patrick White? The Cure did, in “Like Cockatoos”. Duly I swam through The Tree of Man. Pretentious? Maybe. But what lessons these were.

One other lesson was internal to the songs. “No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes,” Smith sings on “All Cats Are Grey”. “And no flags wave me home.” Even so. Though sadness endures, one endures it. Cureverse can be the sanctuary as well as the storm.

Having said all of this, I’m suspicious of people who take The Cure more seriously than they appear to take themselves. Because what did The Cure do after Pornography but turn around and make the outrageous New Order rip-off “The Walk”? And the lamentably silly “Let’s Go to Bed”? And the lost Disney theme song of “The Love Cats”? (Which may also have been inspired by Patrick White.) Becoming bona fide pop stars in the process. Smith has been saying pretty much from the start that whatever The Cure do or don’t do, even doing nothing, it doesn’t matter, it’s all equally absurd. I think he means it. It seems appropriate to mention at this point that my favourite member of The Cure is perhaps not even Robert Smith, but Smith’s best friend and the group’s second longest serving member, bassist Simon Gallup, who replaced Michael Dempsey in late 1979. Gallup has spent the best part of 40 years playing the root notes of the chords that the rest of the band don’t play – in harmonic terms, the most basic thing that a bass player can do. Indolence raised to an art form: now that’s what I call living!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, in an attempt to pull off the impossible, elephants-into-a-car task of covering The Cure’s history between the mid ’80s and the early ’90s, I will place two songs before you. The first is well known. The second is a relative obscurity.

“Close to Me”, from the album The Head on the Door (1985), is not only one of The Cure’s great pop moments but comes with an ever-charming video, directed by their then frequent collaborator Tim Pope. By now they had expanded from a trio to a quintet, and these were The Cure’s clip-show years: kittens and cobwebs, socks and puppets, the hair getting taller and more frivolous, though the day you can toss out a pop song as casually perfect as “Close to Me”, you earn the right to look as dizzy as the spirit takes you, or so I say. The song goes clickety-click, bomp-bomp-bomp – that’s Gallup – clickety-click, bomp, etc. A lot of people over the years have managed to find “Close to Me” quite sexy, maybe because the loudest sound in it is Smith breathing in little hiccups, though this has always put me more in mind of panic attacks than bedroom antics. The two may go together, I concede. Anyway, watch the video! The Cure drown inside a wardrobe! It’s like C.S. Lewis with self-destructive undertones.

Secondly: a song that I once identified within seconds when I heard it playing in a record store, causing my companion and erstwhile date to look at me askance, as if I had just revealed a little too much about myself, which I no doubt had. Remember what happens if you shake out my bag. The song is called “This Twilight Garden”, and it’s the B-side to “High”, a single from The Cure’s most commercially successful album, Wish. We’re talking 1992 now, and even though they’re top of the pops, number one on the charts, for the first and only time, the zeitgeist is about to slip away from The Cure. Grunge, with its chords, chords, chords, is fast closing in, as is dance music, in Britain, and hip-hop, in America. Since Wish, The Cure have only released four albums, which, with the possible exception of Bloodflowers (2000), it might be best to draw a veil over. You don’t need to hear them.

I think, then, of “This Twilight Garden” as something close to The Cure’s swan song. What I love about it is how quintessentially The Cure it sounds. Plangent and swooning and melodies intertwining like ribbons. The Cure never had a better drummer than the drummer they had during these years, Boris Williams, who made everything on Disintegration (1989) feel silvery and dancing, even when the mood was otherwise dark as midnight. Here, too, he excels, with a judicious touch. “Your dreaming face and dreaming smile / You’re dreaming worlds for me,” Smith sighs. Yet another Cure song about an overwhelming love, which implies, when the days run out, an overwhelming loss. And, so, inside the song, this day will never end, and how beautiful it is. If Cureverse has hold music, this must be it.

Precisely because The Cure are so much about the hold and the pause, it is more than possible to grow right out of them, and then, eventually, to return, to find them in the place where they always were. Like a few of their early critics, I spent most of my early adulthood disavowing The Cure, because they reminded me too much of where I’d come from, and how ordinary it was, both my life and my love for them. How gauche and obvious, to have loved The Cure. Then I began to realise that plenty of musicians with an aura of cool about them had also loved The Cure, or still did. White musicians, mostly – there’s no denying that The Cure attract a majority white audience. Though not entirely. Tricky once called them “the last great pop band”. Massive Attack, the black-white soul-pop-hip-hop collective to which Tricky was once a contributor, cannily sampled “10:15 Saturday Night” in their version of the reggae standard “Man Next Door”, from the album Mezzanine (1998). This had the effect of bracketing The Cure’s early song within the sonic spaciousness of dub and reggae; the elements of reggae that filtered into punk are exactly how white British musicians of Smith’s generation learnt about less-is-more to begin with.

You can draw a line, then, from The Cure, through Massive Attack, to someone like Burial, one of the most influential musicians of the past decade or so, and one, like The Cure, who inspires an unusual degree of devotion in listeners, as if the music were speaking to your own solitude entirely, and, more uncannily, had perhaps always existed, simply waiting for you to hear it. I don’t blame The Cure for anything, in the end. The lonely will seek out the lonely, and find comfort in that paradox. It’s not all tears, either. Take another listen to Rihanna’s worldwide hit “S&M” (2011), and you’ll hear it: the unmistakable melody of “Let’s Go to Bed” surfacing halfway through.

I still hope that The Cure have one great album left in them, as David Bowie turned out to have with Blackstar, and that Smith will, like Bowie did, confront therein his own ageing and mortality, without flinching. The Cure have always been obsessed with time, but halted time. It is permanently twilight in their garden. Really I think it would be something for their sun to set. I wonder what that might sound like.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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