What happened to The Cure?
They started out as a relatively, deliberately, monochrome outfit, trying to find their place in a post-punk hierarchy that had yet to settle. They had pop sensibilities from the start (‘Boys Don’t Cry’) and as their early albums dipped into darkness there were usually gleaming lights to attract the gaze, from the propulsive slouch of ‘A Forest’ on the way in to the wiggling weirdness of ‘The Caterpillar’ on the way out.
Then almost without warning, in the second half of the 1980s they went through a dizzying period of convulsive musical transmogrification that was hard to keep up with at times. The three albums they released between 1985 and 1989 are as wild and inventive as any stretch put together by a seriously big-selling rock band, before or since. Almost tripping over themselves in their rush to throw shapes and styles and colours around, they managed hit a seam of creativity and productivity wherein everything they put out went gold and yet almost every song that came along felt like another cocoon being split, another fantastic creature emerging from the body of the one that preceded it.
Perhaps there was something in the water into which Tim Pope shoved the wardrobe for the ‘Close To Me’ video. It does seem in hindsight that the way the band were presented in support of the two singles from this, the first of the three albums, seemed catalytic in some way. Dayglo smears, visceral lipstick, high-top trainers and Robert Smith’s giddy, sexy smile were all a part of their tumble into a truly novel and intoxicating dark psychedelia.
‘The Head On The Door’ kicked it off, and is itself kicked off by one of the finest pop songs of this or any decade. ‘In Between Days’ leads out the record, and is good enough to stand beside any piece you would care to name. It lodged itself on the radio where it has been for the last 30 years, and it still sounds just as heady all 30 years later. It captured what The Cure were able to tap into throughout their purple patch: a screwed-tight musical drivetrain rattling along at the hands of a sloppy, kittenish, fright wig pilot. For all the group were seen as slouchy, gloomy or doomy, what comes through loud and clear on these records, no more so than this, is just what committed, pulsating and perfectly proportioned rock and pop music these Basildon boys were producing by this stage in their career. ‘In Between Days’ is the perfect embodiment, particularly when taken with that simple yet delirious promo video. What both remind us is that when your base hues may be black and grey, dashes of colour used judiciously can be dazzling.
The rest of the album is as vibrant and succinct. ’The Blood’ smashes jangle pop into flamenco, ’Six Different Ways’ skips about like a tricksy fairy, while ‘Push’ is a driving rock song with a real tang. ‘A Night Like This’ stomps and swings with overwhelming confidence and closer ‘Sinking’ prefigures where they would end their run four years later, in the massive, drifting waters of ‘Disintegration’.
Throughout the album the songs are focused, punchy and bold. The production, by Robert Smith and David Allen, stands up wonderfully and even though there are some strong eighties signifiers (hello gated snare, we’ve been avoiding you) the overall sound is still fresh and undated.
‘Head on the Door’ broke the whole world open for The Cure. ‘In Between Days’ and ‘Close To Me’ became staples from Radio 2 to indie club nights and their record sales began to accelerate. The singles compilation ‘Standing on a Beach’ came out the year after and sold even more copies, closing with these two tracks, most likely the only two that most listeners had heard to that point, and in doing so rounded off the story of the the band’s metamorphosis. Listening back to that collection, you can hear it happening. It’s not as sudden as I may be implying here, but nonetheless, by the time they had wrapped ‘The Head on the Door’ and got it into the hands of hundreds of thousands of listeners, The Cure had flourished into a completely new prospect.
Two years later they made good on the promise, using their newly felt freedom to make ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’, a genuinely sprawling double album that tripped and slipped between styles with gleeful abandon, from the swirling miasma of the opening, near title, track ‘The Kiss’ to the pure ambrosia of ‘Catch’ and on to more head rush pop (‘Just Like Heaven’), more Spanish inflections (‘Hot Hot Hot!!!’) and, well, just more of almost everything. This was the sound of a band saying, we can do all these things, and then tipping the toy box up over their heads.
The record that completed the trilogy, ‘Disintegration’, had them pulling all this back towards the centre, combining the confidence and ambition they had been building and testing with a cohesive, unifying mood. It may be their masterpiece, but that’s not to say it’s their most ambitious, their most fun or their most focused. All three of these records were, and remain, remarkable in their own various ways. They are emblematic of a band at the absolute peak of their powers doing stuff no-one else was doing and winning hearts and minds as they went. It all starts with ‘The Head on the Door’, a daub of lipstick, and the first ringing chords of ‘In Between Days’.
Tom listened: I’m sure I’ve written about this before (probably when Graham brought Bob Marley’s swansong Uprising to one of our previous get togethers) but the presence of a multi-million selling singles compilation in an artist’s discography can be a double edged sword.
Alongside Legend and Complete Madness, Standing on a Beach is one of those greatest hits albums that completely overshadows the rest of the band’s output..and mighty fine it is too. Unfortunately, however, its ubiquity has meant that I have not really felt the need to to explore any further – The Cure have become a ‘singles band’ to me and, prejudicially, I have always assumed that albums by them contain either a couple of doomy gems and a bunch of sludgy filler or a couple of gleaming diamonds and a bunch of poppy filler. And maybe that’s reflected in the fact that received wisdom suggests that their masterwork is Disintegration – an album that missed the Standing on a Beach cut by a couple of years and didn’t spawn a hit on the scale of Love Cats, Boys Don’t Cry, A Forest…or In Between Days or Close To Me. Sure, Love Song, Pictures of You and Lullaby are all fine tracks…but they haven’t entered the national consciousness in the same way as the aforementioned cuts.
I thoroughly enjoyed Head On The Door, but I love those two singles so much (they are probably my two favourite Cure songs) that I found it incredibly hard to see past them. The rest of the album sounded fine and I’m sure greater familiarity would bring big rewards but, on the night, it was a bit like meeting up with two of your best and oldest buddies having just made small talk with some strangers for 40 minutes.