Oi! Britpop

June 1996
Barbara Ellen

Bob' your uncle!

. . . and don't think we don't mean it. Yes, Robert Smith, arch survivor and Girthfather of Britpop, has returned. He's round, he's staying round, and he'll be around forever! VOX raises a decanter to The Cure as they unveil their latest trawl into all things macabre, sexual and downright perverse, 'Wild Mood Swings'.

The following document is a record of actual events, based on the interview tape (singular) of the night VOX journalist Barbera Ellen met popular musical band The Cure. Also included are eye-witness accounts of said evening, contributed by the Cure's anonymous manservant 'X', and an extract from a supplementary conversation with singer Robert Smith on the phone. As Miss Ellen was unwell during the first interview, she would like to stress that many of the opinions she is heard expressing are not her own.

The Morning After

Waking up the morning after The Cure interview somewhat the worse for wear, it is clear that I'm residing in the 'haunted room' at St Catherine's Court, the vast Jane Seymour-owned manor in Bath currently used as a home and work-base by The Cure. What is not clear is why, after five hours of 'interviewing' the previous evening, I have only got one tape to show for it. There is also the small matter of the Thai spring roll found stuffed up my coat sleeve.

Staggering, skidding and sliding along smooth stone floors and down polished wooden staircases, I make my way to the kitchen. There's no one there - The Cure rarely get up before three in the afternoon, but there is a note on the table from Robert Smith. He seems to think that the interview lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. At the bottom of the note there's a PS, reading: "That royalty/class stuff was bollocks."

For the first time, alarm bells start ringing... what royalty/class stuff?

The Night Before: X's Eyewitness Account (One)

"To be honest, Ellen already looked a bit pissed when she got out of the cab. Next thing we knew, she was kneeling under the kitchen table, playing with the cat and dropping heavy hints about how 'thirsty' she was. When Robert came in, she told him some cock and bull story about how the tape they'd sent her had been damaged and he took her upstairs to listen to another one.

"Robert deposited Ellen in the sitting room with a bottle of wine and an ashtray to listen to the album. I was in there, putting logs on the fire, and she kept swaying about the room, glugging back wine, docking ash everywhere. by the time Robert came back to do the interview, she was well gone..."

Some Stuff You Need To KNow About The Cure

The Cure have a new album out called Wild Mood Swings, a title Smith originally intended for a solo project. The last two Cure albums the moody, intense, funny 'Disintegration' and the funny, intense, moody 'Wish' - were huge hits in America Smith, a bolshie sort when roused, has little patience with people who express surprise at their Stateside success, stating emphatically: "When people say 'How did The Cure crack America?', we say we did it because of our songs. If you haven't got good songs, the rest of it is rubbish."

Their first album in four years 'Wild Mood Swings', is The Cure at their funny, moody, intense best; a poppy, throbbing punch in the eye for their myriad detractors. The Cure are the first to admit that. regardless of massive sales, they have never been a 'fashionable' band. Indeed, there are those who make a point of wilfully ignoring them. To these people, The Cure are simply an anachronism; decrepit goths in tatty black pullovers who have somehow evaded incarceration for crimes against music.

If, over the years, The Cure have received unwarranted flak, they have only Smith to blame. In short, it's a question of appearances. Sucking your thumb and showing off your fillings in videos is one thing; applying your lipstick by glueing the container on to the wall, then shaking your head in front of it vigorously, quite another. On the plus side, few have come close to rivalling Smith The Video Star for impertinence, joie de vivre and silly dance-steps. Nor has anyone looked cuter trapped in a wardrobe, or sulking on the floor in small boy's pyjamas.

Musically, the most prevalent criticism of The Cure is that they dwell too much on the limiting topic of being eaten by spiders. This can only be a reference to 'Lullaby', the sole song in The Cure's extensive oeuvre which features a giant arachnid trying to gobble Smith up. But there's always been a thin line between fantasy and delusion, and The Cure are not the only popsters to lose their bearings occasionally. Why not carp instead about rappers pretending to be 'gangstas', U2 pretending to be 'relevant', or Menswear.. simply pretending?

Why, I ask Smith, are The Cure widely dismissed as dodgy old goths? "Who knows? Some people probably just wonder how come we're still being successful and getting away with it, doing what we want and not giving a fuck!"

Could it be that the themes you often deal with - melancholia, paranoia, death - are too heavy, too indigestible for most tastes?

"I don't know. Sometimes I realise that I've alienated people to a certain extent When you enter these areas. you run a risk of becoming this idiot pastiche of someone who's upset. All that 'Oh I don't care any more, I want to give up ' You think. well, if you really think that things are that bad, then don't sing about it, give up, chuck yourself off a bridge Please NOW! That sort of thing does put people off, I realise that."

You complain about people missing the comedic side of The Cure, but can you really blame them? It's not as if you signpost it.

"Oh come on, if you listen to 'Wild Mood Swings', to the whole thing, you don't come away thinking, 'What a gothic album!' That idea of The Cure being a quintessentially goth band is something we'll never escape from, certainly in England. It's frustrating sometimes, but if people are going to be lazy and think: 'Oh yeah, The Cure - big hair red lips, gloom', then they probably wouldn't get it anyway. Unless the humour is signposted and rammed down their throats, they aren t going to realise it's funny."

Could it be that flouncing about between musical styles has given The Cure a reputation for taking the piss. For not being serious enough? Smith cackles, malevolently, "I hope so."

Later he amends this, "I am not ironic and I'd hate to be considered so. Irony is something people hide behind when they're doing something they really want to, but can't actually admit it, even to themselves. So they put on glitter suits and wraparound shades and do the ironic bit. The fact is, I love making music. As long as I'm creating, I can cope with anything."

X's Eyewitness Account (Two)

When Robert came to do the interview, he realised that he'd have to go and fetch a new bottle of wine, as Ellen obviously had no intention of sharing the first one. In the end, it made no difference She ended up drinking the second bottle of wine on her own, too. And the third.

"Simon Gallup and Jason the new drummer also turned up to do the interview, if you could call it that Ellen's first question (to Robert) was: 'Are you scared of drinking yourself to death?'; her last (to Jason): 'Do you enjoy being an Aquarian?' And those were the best ones

"The stuff in between was diabolical, like listening to a one-woman Troggs Tape, starring an English Courtney Love. At one point, Ellen started ranting on in a high, screechy voice about royalty and class At another, she was shouting about Lol Tolhurst, the founder member of The Cure who was chucked out for being a lazy git and ended up launching and losing a court case against them. She also accused Robert of being a 'manipulative bastard'. The band could hardly get a word in edgeways. Whenever the tape finished, she just turned it over, slapped it back into her machine and used it again. It was surreal."

More Stuff You Need To Know About the Cure

'Wild Mood Swings' is both quintessential Cure and something of a departure. Certainly, it lives up to its title, with Smith and the band splashing about in the deep waters of Iyrical and musical schizophrenia without so much as a rubber ring between them. The result is a mad, demanding, hot-headed pop album that alternates between intemperate, bleakly passionate misery and crazed, pants-down euphoria For The Cure, 'the middle ground' has always been something to avoid at all costs, but this is another, mercilessly intense, league altogether. Their attitude seems to be: if you can't stand the heat. . go and buy Michael Bolton's new album.

If it's an instrument namecheck you're after, 'Wild Mood Swings' incorporates the usual seething keyboards, migraine drums and poprock guitars, but there's also a new sound orchestral strings, most notably on the beautiful 'This Is A Lie'. Smith confides that the cellists et al that were brought in were appallingly behaved: "The most uncultured bunch I've ever come across, right hooligan toffs." But, then, he may have just been saying that to make me feel better.

The real surprise is the Iyrics. They deal unflinchingly with the slow mental death that comes from settling for 'less' on all levels, but mostly sexual. In short, Smith is a complete tart on this album, drooling wolfishly over women he despises in nightclubs ('Club America'), blowing metaphysical raspberries at a nagging lover in Trap', telling another to sod-off-then-if-you don't-like-it in 'Bare', pooh-poohing the concept of monogamy on 'This Is A Lie', and seducing being seduced by an exotic dancer while tripping ("Acid?" says Smith, coyly. "What's acid?") on the first single off the album, 'The Thirteenth'. What's going on? Isn't Smith supposed to be the happiest married man in pop? This LP has more pornography on it than .. well, Pornography

It's a very sexual album, isn't it?

"Yes," agrees Smith "I noticed that when I was looking through the Iyrics. It's got this really strange undercurrent and...", he pauses, mockworriedly, "I can't help feeling that I've given too much away" On 'This Is A Lie' you say, "Why each of us must choose/l ve never understood/One special friend/One true love/Why each of us must lose everyone else in the world" Aren't these strange sentiments for you to express? After all. you've been with the same woman (his wife, Mary) for about 3,000 years?

"Yeah, well, that particular song came out of this ongoing discussion in the band about various ways to live. Monogamy and so on. Within the group, there's a point of view that it's much more satisfying to have several relationships and within those, give and take what you want and what they want. I represent the other extreme, because I'm with one person So, in effect, those particular Iyrics aren't my point of view I'm talking from the perspective of other people to broaden my writing."

Isn't that Iyrical cowardice?

"No, just the opposite. It's the first thing I've written that Mary came and asked what I meant by it. She's always given me a huge amount of leeway, creatively speaking. . but because it was so anti-monogamy, she came up and said: 'Is this what you really think?' It was much worse before. The original Iyric to 'This Is A Lie' actually had as its final line: 'Travel a long road in chains ."


"Exactly," he laughs. "That was her word charming. But I do think that I've got the security to explore that area in my writing. I would hope that I'm in a relationship strong enough to transcend me writing a dumb song " Don't the Iyrics of 'Club America' verge on the misogynistic? "No! 'Club America' is about a person in a club It's just that I'm far more likely to be interacting in that environment with a woman rather than a man."

Why is that?

"It's my preference." he says, simply. "The song is about a tawdry seduction and I've never been attracted to gay men. When I was with the Banshees, they used to go to gay clubs all the time and I'd always be left as the wallflower...

"Actually," he continues, "on a couple of songs I was toying with the idea of writing from the point of view of a woman, but I realised that it would be accepted that I was writing from a gay perspective. It would be like: 'Oh look, I'm pretending to be gay!' It's fake, it wouldn't work After all these years, I have a persona out there and suddenly trying to be something else would be just too unlikely. too unbelievable."

The persona Robert Smith is talking about was born out of the late-'70s/early-'80s punk/ post-punk era. At one exhausting point, he found himself featuring in first one, then two, then three bands - The Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and The Glove. Smith only joined the Banshees in the first place to avoid a joint tour being nixed. He and Severin got on so well, they decided to embark on The Glove project... but the less said about that the better.

"It's a good album actually. You should listen to it," chides Gallup supportively.

This is a habit he shares with Smith. They'll shrug and laugh if you say something rude to them specifically, get riled if you have a pop at the other one. It's a strange phenomenon rarely seen in the music biz. What's its name again? Oh yes, loyalty. Smith and Gallup have known each other so long, one can't help feeling sorry for the third interviewee Jason, especially when I accuse him of being an American ("I'm from Bath, actually", Jason was chosen as The Cure's new drummer after a long search for that Special Someone with talent, stamina and no interest in sleeping at night. He says he's enjoying being in The Cure immensely, but he's not quite sure what he feels about being an Aquarian:, "Hmmm.. Let me get back to you on that one." We alight on the subject of age. The Cure seem somewhat bored with being asked to produce pithy soundbites on such topics as 'How Long We ve Been Around', 'Hey, We're So Old' and We Had To Make Their Own Entertainment When We Were...'

"Why do people always go on about it? I never used to care that musicians were older than me," says Smith, mystified "Everyone's older when you're 13 or 14, but you don't think 'Crumbs, they're old!' They weren't old like teachers are old We had younger teachers than Marc Bolan, but it wasn't the same kind of world.

"It is weird, though," he adds," Because we were of that generation where your parents didn't really understand what you were doing. Now the parental generation is still part of what's going on. I mean, I could be a parent, I could be Supergrass dad! A terrifying thought."

Do you still see people from the old days', like Siouxsie?

"No. She's probably very nice now, but the shit I was given then for having a girlfriend fucking hell! She thought that was a very middleclass thing to do. Now look at her - comfortably married and living in the south of France. I'm sure she's a lot nicer person for having discovered that love isn't a thing that has to be tucked into a corner."

She gave you crap for being surburban?

Smith shakes his head: "She gave me crap for being in love.

"Being in the Banshees and playing music with them was really, really excellent," he says, "and I was very friendly with Severin. But we lost touch after we did The Glove. When you lose that communication of working together, you lose that friendship. It doesn't exist afterwards With Sioux, it was different. She didn't really like having me around. She liked being in control and I liked being in control too, so," he smiles stiffly, "...a brittleness occurred."

X's Eyewitness Account (Three)

"They'd just finished talking about Siouxsie Sioux, when, suddenly, Ellen lost it. She started babbling at Robert about him being some kind of power-crazed control freak, or, as she would have it: "A king of his own castle who pushes people around like so many pawns on the great, like, y'know, chessboard of life." She'd cooked up this whole theory on the basis that Smith had always been the omnipresent lynchpin of the band, while others had come and gone. It was just bollocks. Robert was in stitches, but Simon was a bit cheesed off."

Bacl To The Interview

Me (pointing and shouting at Smith): YOU ARE THE BIG MANIPULATOR IN THE CURE!

"No, I'm not. You're just painting a picture I'm totally upfront and honest with everybody around me."

Don't you get a perverse pleasure out of watching people, particularly your own band members fall apart?

"No I don't, I hate it. It's just that if it happens, it happens. I don't try to glue it all back together",

"Robert does not manipulate people," insists Gallup.

Me (pointing and shouting at Gallup): "ISN'T IT THE CASE THAT YOU HAD SOME KIND OF BREAKDOWN DURING THE 'WISH' TOUR AND HE DIDN'T HELP YOU?!?" Gallup sighs heavily "To clear this up... The reason I got ill on that tour was to do with the way I was brought up. Thinking that you can't get divorced. I tried to do the right thing but it didn t help me. I stopped eating because I was, well, missing someone. Then I started to drink too much and after a while your body starts to collapse, doesn't it? You become, I dunno this pathetic character.

He stares at me pointedly, as I sit swaying on the floor, trying to light my cigarette with a biro.

"It's a very, very complex scenario," continues Smith, "The only reason those rumours arose, and I heard them too, is that when everything came to a head and Simon actually had to go home for a short period, the tour wasn't cancelled. But it would have been the dumbest thing in the world to have put that pressure on Simon, like it's his 'fault' the tour was cancelled. What people don't know is that I actually asked him if he wanted me to cancel the tour. If he'd have wanted me to, I would have done." Well, that's cleared that up then. The 'Wish' tour wasn't the first time Gallup went AWOL, anyway. He and Smith had a huge bust-up, way back, just after the making of 'Pornography'.

"It was our age, really,' says Gallup, "We were drugged out of our heads and we had a fight, I can't even remember what about..."

The Cure weren't drugged out of their heads the night I got to interview them. but, rumour has it, they've had their moments in the past. Furthermore, 'Numb', one of the most intense songs on the new album, is about a smack addict. The Iyrics go: "He's in love with a drug/One that makes him feel numb/One that stops him feeling at all". It's all very mysterious. Why has Smith written a song about heroin?

"It's sort of personal," he says "It's a song about the effects of heroin on someone you care about. I've never seen or known anyone who's taken heroin and not been destroyed by it. Heroin is the ultimate pointless drug, and it's getting back its reputation as this cool drug that makes you forget the world. It's becoming re-glamorised, which really does my head in."

Another problem with drugs, so I hear, is that they rarely do what they're supposed to. If dealers should be done for anything, it should be false advertising.

"I don't know about that," muses Smith. "The really strong hallucinogenics are alright, a summer holiday all on their own sometimes.. apparently." The Cure used to be quietly notorious for their binges. Does that still happen? Smith considers: "Yeah, but much less frequently. When you're younger you can say that you're experimenting, but there comes a time when you can't pretend that any more."

Bearing all this in mind, it's not hard to work out what Gallup means when he says that the period preceding his crazed, 18-month resignation from the band was one of "particularly intense experimentation".

"It all just went off," he remembers, amiably, "Robert left me this note the morning after the fight - 'I used to be able to laugh with you'. And looking back, that was very true."

You're mates again now, I take it.

Smith shakes his head sarcastically: "Simon and me? No. This is the first time we've been in the same room together for ages."

"Yeah," says Gallup. "He's a selfish old tart and I hate him."

Gallup fixes me with a stare:"That was a really weird question."

WHY? I shout, going off on one again, Lol Tolhurst was a MATE and a founder member. He was cast out! FOREVER! Like a leper from the magic kingdom a Judas in the wilderness!

After a moment's silence, Smith enquires mildly: Who in the wilderness?"

Judas - the righteous one!

"Judas wasn't the righteous one, he was the one that sold Jesus down the river. It was a good Freudian slip, though, because you're right Lol was a Judas in the wilderness." Hang on - I meant John The Baptist "Of course. John The Baptist in the wilderness, the chapter that didn't get written..." Smith shudders and laughs at the same time "Lol's head on a plate - I can't think of a worse image.

"I wasn't horrible to Lol," he adds, speaking very slowly as if to a small, slightly retarded child, "I carried him through life for 15 years. And he took me to court, not the other way round."

"That's right," says Gallup, "Robert kept him in the group long after everybody else wanted to. I would have kicked him out long before." "He was a pretty horrible person," says Smith, "His friends were city people who drove silver Porsches. When he had enough money to compete on that level, that's who he went off with.

"He didn't know why we pretended we were still the same, but we weren't pretending. Why would you want to be seen dead in a silver Porsche? l'd rather hang myself than drive something like that."

Indeed, Smith seems to be a man of simple desires:

"What do I want from life? Somewhere nice to live, a nice bike that isn't going to break down. A few pairs of leggings. Two pairs of boots, one warm coat, a series of jumpers and enough money to buy beer from Monday through to Sunday lunchtime and a couple of decent curries at the end of the week." At this point, somewhere nice to live might be a huge house in the country (surreally, with what appears to be a mere inch of lawn attached to it), but watching The Cure rattle round it in their baggy leggings, casually dumping wine bottles on the sideboards, it's obvious that they're not fussed about how 'posh' their environment is.Why they live there all together, like a modern-day, all male Partridge Family is another question entirely. Boringly, it transpires that most of them have got nowhere else to live.

This rather scuppers my lovingly crafted theory about The Cure's 'accommodation situation' being a metaphor for isolation (ma-aaan!). Or does it? The Cure do have a reputation for holing themselves up and going stark raving mad. Like all true pop children, they just seem to want to run away from the boring adult world and play, play, play...

Indeed, Smith is always talking about 'being a child' in a way that suggests he idealises that all-too-brief state of being completely irresponsible and free from the cares of the world.

"Yeah, well," he laughs, "I suppose that's where being surrounded by friends and drinking too much comes from. That's pretty much a childlike world - there's nothing threatening, but you don't really know what's occurring."

Should pop stars behave like spoilt brats? Is that their job?

For the first time, Smith's voice takes on an edge of menace:

"Are you calling me a pop star?"

What Smith and the rest of The Cure don't want from life is even less complex. They are probably the only band in the world right now who would run a mile from being turned into musical icons. Not that many people are offering, but, as Smith points out, even The Cure have to be quick off the mark to avoid being placed on the 'rock legends' pedestal.

"We've been asked to do things like that thing in Cleveland, the Rock'N'Roll Hall Of Fame... 'Can we have a waxwork of you?' And we're like: 'No, we still exist, we're making a new record, we're a living band'. All those other bands, that stuff is all behind them, they're revelling in past glories. We're not. The best we've ever done is this record and for us to be cited as something to do with the '80s, as a band that has influenced other bands, I'd fucking hate that."

Isn't it possible to have both at once? Look at Paul Weller.

Gallup snorts violently: "Paul Weller is a contemptible character. He revels in his Englishness and he's surrounded by a music industry that, at the moment, wants everything that's British, so he's seen as some kind of icon."

Is it Weller's fault that people have latched onto him for the wrong reasons? "Well," says Smith, choosing his words carefully. "I don't have the same problem with Paul that Simon does. He's written some really good songs. It's what he's being made into that's the problem. "It's just a shame he didn't reject it. He's made a choice, he doesn't mind being this figure. If he'd turned around and said, 'This is bollocks, I don't want to be this person', I'd have more respect for him. If we were put in that position, I'd say FUCK OFF!"

Perhaps you're just jealous. Perhaps you feel cheated of what you feel should be yours by rights?

Smith laughs: "What - true respect? Yeah, right!"

What's wrong with a bit of respect?

"It's not at all important, especially not at that price... I mean, that thing at Abbey Road... Regardless of what was going on there (the War Child project), it was like - Big Rock History! Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher carrying on this great tradition. That sort of thing either makes you go 'urrgh!', or it makes you go 'oh great!' And in this instance, unless it makes you go 'urrgh!', there's something wrong with you." "I agree with Robert," says Gallup, "It's procreating that myth that people in groups are all great mates and every Friday night, they meet up, put fags in the corners of their mouths and jam along to some old classic. That's the sort of thing I hated when I was 16 and someone who should be good like Paul Weller is carrying on that myth."

It could happen to you. In five years' time you could be rediscovered, turned into iconoclasts. And I bet you'd lap it up

"Do you reckon?"

"It won't happen to us," says Smith. "I just can't see it. We've always been outside of all that, we've never been accepted into that kind of world, or feted in that way. We'll always be more of a footnote, which is fine by me.

"If it ever happens, and I don't think it will, it'll be when we've stopped, and then I don't care. They can redefine and re-sell us as much as they like.It won't matter to us."

Isn't The Cure a lifelong thing?

He shrugs: "Even if it is, it still has to stop sometime. We're not immortal."

The interview draws to a close. There follows a Thai meal, after which I send myself to bed in disgrace. Never mind the 'haunted room', I could have been visited by all six wives of Henry VIII that night and wouldn't have noticed. In contrast, members of The Cure stay up into the early hours, tinkering with songs.

A little later, Smith rings for that 'supplementary chat'. He's a bit peeved because he's just been done by the police for speeding without lights on the motorway. He admits to speeding 'just a bit, like you do', but claims that his lights failed just as he passed the police. Smith felt totally hard done by, persecuted, 'framed' as it were by fate. Indeed, it quite made his day.

During the course of the conversation, he talks about what The Cure might mean or represent: "I suppose some people want us to exist because we represent something, some kind of 'fuck you' attitude. And it's exactly the same for me. If The Cure didn't exist, I'd want them to. I don't believe in that thing about the 'Best Band In The World', but if I was going to say it was anybody, I'd say it was us, both with my tongue in my cheek and seriously... When we do a good concert or make an album like this, I truly feel that we are the best band in the world. If I thought it was any other band, I'd be in them... wouldn't I?"

Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 14:59:59 CDT

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