History: History of The Cure - Pt 1

Text by Steve Sutherland

They almost blew it before they began. In April 1977, a group of recent school leavers from the Crawley area saw an advert in Melody Maker - Hansa Records, Germany's largest independent label, were seeking new bands. "Wanna Be A Recording Star?" it said. Easy Cure did. In one form or another they'd already been Obelisk, a way out of religious education at Notre Dame Middle School, and Malice, a punkier thing at St. Wilfrid's Middle School. But Easy Cure were writing their own songs so guitarist Robert Smith gathered novice drummer Laurence Tolhurst, Michael Dempsey, a remarkably eloquent young bass player, Porl Thompson, a local superstar guitarist, and singer Peter O'Toole, a Bowie worshipper, into his parents dinning room. There they made a rough tape for Hansa.

Within a month they'd auditioned in London and signed for one thousand pounds which they immediately spent on equipment, enabling them to play their ram- shackle pop at local venues like The Rocket in Crawley, where the band began to pick up a vociferous following despite O'Toole quitting to join a kibbutz. Smith took over on vocals.

During October and November they made two trips to London's SAV studios to record their first demos, but Hansa hated them and pressurised the band to tackle some cover versions. Smith refused and Easy Cure were dropped in March the next year with nothing released. It seems Hansa couldn't stand the song the band wanted as their first single, a spiky precis of Camus' existentialist novel, "The Outsider". The song was called "Killing An Arab".

So the band were back in the ranks of the unemployed - broke, down-hearted but not defeated. Thompson left, at odds with Smith's more minimal style, and they continued as a trio, Dempsey working as a porter in a mental hospital while Tolhurst took a job in a chemical lab. Smith did nothing but dream of not working and, on a whim he changed the name of the band to The Cure because it sounded less hippy. In a matter of months, they managed to scrounge 50 quid off a friend to record four original tracks - "Boys Don't Cry", "Fire In Cairo", "It's Not You" and "10.15" - in Chestnut Studios in Sussex and they sent a tape to all the major record companies.

By July they'd been rejected by everyone except Chris Parry, an A&R man at Polydor who'd signed and produced The Jam and who'd been instrumental in signing Siouxsie And The Banshees. He was looking for bands to form his own Fiction label and heard something naggingly awkwardly commercial in The Cure's early efforts.

He met the band, liked their attitude, despite their dogged lack of dress sense, and signed them, putting them into Morgan Studios in September and sending them out on what he called "toughening up" gigs where they began to accrue a wider following despite being heaved off a Gen X tour after Tolhurst caught Billy Idol in flagrante with a young lady in the bogs. By December they were in the papers - NME called them, "an abrasive light metal trio" and "a triumph of impulse and spontaneity" while the Parry produced "Killing An Arab"/"10.15" was released on Small Wonder, an independent label chosen when it was evident that Polydor, through whom Fiction were licensed were too inflexible to market any Cure product before Christmas. The band were in effect, sublet for 15,000 copies which, if they sold, would make enough to finance a further 15,000 on Fiction.

In an almost unprecedented display of good taste, the music papers unanimously made it single of the week, praising its "Moorish flavoured guitar pattern" and salivating over Smith's fashionably bleak outlook - "I'm alive, I'm dead...". Sounds were the first to grant them a front cover in January 1979 noting their "direction through indirection" and the band gained further notoriety in February when the National Front turned up at a gig at The Nashville and caused a ruck, convinced "Killing An Arab" was a racist anthem. The Cure have been talking that one down in interviews ever since.

The single was featured on "20 Of A Different Kind", a cash-in Polydor compilation album of Post-Punk greats including 999, The Jam and The Skids (The Banshees, wisely, refused to donate "Hong Kong Garden") and a month's residency of Sunday night gigs at The Marquee preceded the release, in April, of "Three Imaginary Boys", The Cure's debut LP, it immediately caused controversy because there were no song titles, just symbols, and its cover featured nothing but a fridge, a hoover and a lampshade. The critics just didn't know what to make of it, NME's Paul Morley lambasting the band for what he considered half-cocked pretentiousness. "Here was a band without an image but with strong music," says Chris Parry, "so I thought, 'Let's make it completely without an image, completely dispassionate. Let's pick the three most mundane things we can possibly find'."

The Cure, who had no say in the cover, hated it, just as they loathed the album which they thought Parry and engineer Mike Hedges had made too varied and poppy, completely at odds with the darker intent behind their skeletal version of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the spirit of boredom which found Smith reading a special offer for a cake icing and food decorating set off the back of a sugar packet for the lyrics to "So What".

While Melody Maker praised the album and claimed "The Eighties Start Here", the band toyed with the idea of releasing "Grinding Halt" as the next single but radio reaction to the white labels was negative so they settled for playing it on a Peel session and changing the words to parody Paul Morley's prose style.

In June, "Boys Don't Cry"/"Plastic Passion" was released as The Cure's second single but, despite ecstatic reviews - Record Mirror called it "John Lennon at 12 or 13" - its rousing romanticism failed to make the expected impact on the charts and Smith took time out to start a small label called Dance Fools Dance. His first release was "Yeah Yeah Yeah" by The Obtainers, two 11 year olds who banged pots and pans, with a band called The Magspies on the B-side featuring one of his mates, Simon Gallup, on bass. Gallup had been in Lockjaw and had played a lot of the same early venues as The Cure, releasing one wretched single on Raw Records: "Radio Call Sign"/"The Young Ones". When Smith decided to record Frank Bell, a local postman, he called Gallup in for the bass parts and "Cult Hero" was born.

In August, The Cure played the Reading Festival and Smith met Steve Severin of The Banshees at a Throbbing Gristle concert at the YMCA. The pair got on and The Cure were invited to support The Banshees on a national tour in September. Hours before the Aberdeen date, John McKay and Kenny Morris quit The Banshees, claiming their ideals had been betrayed, and The Cure were forced to play an elongated set, Sioux and Severin joining them at the end for an impromptu "Lord's Prayer".

The tour was interrupted as The Banshees sought replacements. Budgie joined on drums from The Slits but they couldn't find a suitable guitarist and Smith was asked to join. He agreed so long as The Cure remained the support band and they resumed on September 18 at Leicester De Montford Hall with Smith playing both sets.

Naturally, resentment at Smith's new superstar status began to course rifts within The Cure, Dempsey and Smith drawing further and further apart and, after the release of "Jumping Someone Else's Train" (a rampant anti-fashion tirade aimed at the nouveau mods) /"I'm Cold" (with Sioux on backing vocals), Dempsey left for Fiction labelmates The Associates, to be replaced immediately by Gallup who, crucially, shared Smith's passion for curries.

In order that he didn't feel too out of place, Magspies' keyboard player and part-time hairdresser, Matthieu Hartley, was also asked to join and the new fourpiece Cure made a chaotic debut at Liverpool's Eric's in November, playing until the end of the year with The Associates and The Passions on the Future Pastimes Tour.

The Cure spent early 1980 recording their second LP, "Seventeen Seconds", with Mike Hedges producing. Inspired by Bowie's "Low" and Nick Drake, Smith was after a morose, atmospheric, hollow album to suit the lyrics he'd written while on tour with The Banshees. As Cult Hero, The Cure supported The Passions at The Marquee in March, playing a Top 10 from 1973 which they'd taped off Jimmy Saville's Sunday radio show and, in April, Smith added backing vocals to The Associates' album and took part in a benefit gig at The Rainbow for Hugh Cornwell, The Stranglers' guitarist who'd been jailed for possession of illicit substances.

"A Forest"/"Another Journey By Train" was released from the album sessions and, although Julie Burchill accused them of, "trying to stretch a sketchy living out of moaning more meaningfully than man has ever moaned before", the moody dream-like single was a hit and The Cure appeared on "Top Of The Pops"; a disastrous debut during which the DJ forgot who they were. Smith sported a huge bandage on his thumb after getting drunk and smashing it under a hubcap trying to mend a puncture on a brief American tour they'd recently undertaken. The single immediately crashed back down the charts.

"Seventeen Seconds" was released in the spring, the band's photos blurred unrecognisably on the cover, the songs all sad or angry because, says Smith, "We were all realising that we were no longer young". Touring Europe, they were arrested in Holland, attacked in Germany and tear-gassed in France and, by the time the band reached New Zealand, they were jaded, Smith and Hartley particularly on edge with one another. "At the beginning," says Smith, "we were supposed to be a democracy but it was often me who took the decisions."

"I realised the group was heading towards suicidal, sombre music," says Hartley, "the sort of thing that didn't interest me at all."

The differences exploded into a furniture-wrecking fight in a hotel which made the Antipodean press and, when the band returned from 24 gruelling club dates down under, Hartley quit.

"From here on," says Parry, "it just got more and more intense. It was bad - no one was gonna get inside that triangle. That was Robert being as incestuous and tight and mean-spirited as I've ever seen him."

Hartley was right about the direction in which Smith was taking The Cure. "I used to think about death a lot," Smith says of that time. "I used to think how easy it was to consider it something abstract until it turns up on your doorstep."

He took to visiting churches, watching the congregation praying for eternity, by turns pitying and envying their blind belief in an afterlife. "All of a sudden, I realised I had no faith at all and I was scared," he says, and his confusion, along with the fact that Tolhurst's mother was terminally ill, determined that the album the band began to record in February was fraught with difficulties.

"Most of the songs are songs to hang yourself by," said producer Mike Hedges, while Parry considers it, "Superb, the most streamlined and stylish of albums".

"We laid down the tracks in a completely disinterested way, as if someone else was doing it," explains Smith, who was influenced by the hypnotic repetition of Benedictine chants and Indian mantras. "But, whenever I started to sing, the atmosphere went black."

In March the wistful "Primary"/"Descent" single was released in a cover by Porl Thompson's newly formed graphic design company, Parched Art, and The Cure appeared on "Top Of The Pops" with their instruments dressed in costumes as a comment on the idiocy of miming.

The "Faith" album came out in another Parched Art sleeve which much to the record company's disgust, featured a hazy photo of Bolton Abbey, a childhood haunt of Smith's. Almost universally lambastered by the critics - Record Mirror called it "Hollow, shallow, pretentious, self-important and bereft of any real heart and soul; hackneyed doom-mongering that should have died with Joy Division" - the album achieved exactly what Smith desired - a feeling of defeated inertia - and it was with no little horror that it gradually dawned on the band what a strain it would be to tour this melancholy.

"The songs had a downward spiral effect on us," says Smith. "The more we played them, the more despondent and desolate we became. Most of the time I left the stage crying."

The critics likened the Faith Tour to a religious ceremony and the sombre atmosphere was enhanced by using a minimalist film by Gallup's brother Ric instead of a support band. "Carnage Visors" - an antonym for rose- coloured spectacles - featured a drunken Cure soundtrack which was made available on the B-side of the cassette version of "Faith". Audiences were further baffled when the band took to touring Holland in a circus tent to try to break from the depressing gig circuit.

On June 24, during a gig in Sittard, Tolhurst learned that his mother had died. The band flew back to England and the tape of the show was played at her funeral. Deciding work was the best remedy for his grief, Tolhurst insisted the band continue touring and the consecutive American dates are widely regarded as The Cure's worst ever, the band succumbing to a numbing drug intake that found Smith arriving to play in Australia without a clue where he was.

The crowds were largely hostile to the "Faith" material, gigs often disintegrating into fights between the band and the audience, and it was with some relief that The Cure returned to Britain and recorded the schizophrenic "Charlotte Sometimes"/"Splintered In Her Head" single, again with Hedges producing. It didn't do well but it gave the band their first experience of video, Mike Mansfield - who'd been responsible for Adam And The Ants' mini-pantos - fashioning an hilariously inappropriate ghost story from Smith's psychological chiller.

In late November, The Cure toured Britain again before retiring to The Windmill in Surrey to demo an album that Smith was determined would be called "Pornography", an ugly, angry, aggressive swipe at moral hypocrisy. Many of the lyrics were conceived on chemical vacations in the company of Steve Severin and early in 1982, Smith decided to dissolve the partnership with Hedges and plumped for Phil Thornalley to produce the LP at RAK studios.

The recording was even more tempestuous than the "Faith" sessions, Smith incapable of explaining his ideas, excluding the group from his schemes, growing impatient with their good-natured larking about (they built a mountain of beer cans in the studio) as he dug deep to drag the essence of horror from inside himself. More often than not out of his head but still fighting for control, he was reaching for dangerous extremes, sleeping rough on the floor of the Fiction offices, pushing himself further and further.

"I couldn't remember what I'd done or where I'd been," he says, "I really lost touch with what was real for a couple of months."

When the album was released, Parry thought it "a mess" and the press recoiled with phrases such as "Ian Curtis, by comparison, was a bundle of laughs", "Phil Spector in hell" and "An icy, tuneless road". And if the Faith Tour was tricky, the Fourteen Explicit Moments Tour which began in April was a nightmare, the atmosphere so heavy that even Smith and Gallup, previously the best of friends, were at each other's throats.

"It was like a rerun of the worst movies you've ever seen," says Smith. "We were more like a rugby tour than a Cure tour."

Tempers finally snapped in Strasbourg on May 27 when Gallup thumped Smith in a club and, although they resumed after three days cooling off and the doomy "Hanging Garden"/"Killing An Arab (Live)" single was released, when the tour was over, Gallup was out.

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