The Cure: 17 Years

If a little bit of history is the problem,
what's the Cure?
Boston Globe
June 30, 1996
Jim Sullivan

It's been a while since the Cure, the moody English pop band fronted by Robert Smith, has shown up on our shores. Four years, in fact - an eternity in today's quick-hit pop scene.

And in the interim, Smith, who is 37 and a veteran of 17 years with the Cure, sometimes found himself wondering: Will anyone care anymore?

At other points, he knew they'd care. Over the years, the band has sold some 28 million albums.

Without the albums, we wouldn't have a platform, Smith says candidly, on the phone from London before a US tour that starts in Worcester on Tuesday. We'd have to fight, struggle to make people take notice of us.

That is, if you listened blindly to the Cure's latest album, Wild Mood Swings, you'd not be hearing the sound of swinging London today. Smith may be an icon of sorts, but the Cure has no connection to today's Brit-pack - Oasis, Blur, Pulp.

We're not part of that world, Smith says of these younger acts. And it has really taken hold at the moment. If you don't wear the right trousers here, you can't walk into the room. We seem to have been drawn into that kind of conflict and set up to bad-mouth them, but I'm just not interested. It doesn't matter to me.

We make no attempt to concede to trends and fashions, Smith continues. We've always been out of step and always will be. I'm aware of what's going on and I really like a lot of this contemporary stuff. I just don't want to play it. I don't have to explain it to myself, what the Cure plays. It's what I enjoy doing. I think people see the Cure as having an attitude and like us because of that even if they don't like a lot of what we do. They respect the idea that we're doing it for our own reasons. We're not doing it to try and be something that we're not. Of course, without the songs it would be meaningless because no one would want to listen to it.

The Cure came out of the post-punk era of the late '70s and early '80s, a period that spawned U2, Magazine, Joy Division, Echo &theBunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and Psychedelic Furs. Thus, the Cure has a legacy. In a way the name, the Cure, helps because we start off a little higher up the ladder, says Smith. The disadvantage is that we have a little bit of history. If people don't like the history, then it's very difficult to convince them they are going to like what we do this time around.

Two sides of the same coin.

The English, especially members of the rock press, tend not to enjoy two things. One is watching their pop stars grow up (and older) in what's perceived to be a young man's medium. The other is watching success attained in that field, or perhaps any other, since it seems to display untoward and un-English ambition. (As ex-Smiths vocalist Morrissey sang so bittersweetly: We hate it when our friends become successful.)

The Cure dings the bell on both counts. And the group has had the audacity to succeed in America big-time. Along with Depeche Mode and the Smiths, the Cure was among the mid-'80s British groups that proved moody, post-punk rock could be played in big American arenas and amphitheaters, despite a paucity of airplay on commercial radio. They were there when the alternative-rock wave first broke, preceding the tidal wave that came with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and others in 1991.

The new album is the band's 16th, and in England, Smith says, every single review, without exception, every review and criticism has been of the Cure and not the album. It's like an apologetic postscript: The album's pretty good. We have to admit that. We can't say it's a bad album. But the entire thing is based on the Cure as anachronism.

Writers delight in calling Smith Fat Bob. Indeed, he does not sport the lithe build of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker. But Smith points out that contrary to their pallid, unhealthy image, he and the boys in the band play mini-soccer and tennis while on tour to keep in shape - and they really party hard only on Fridays.

But the press can bite. One of the reviews mentioned us as not being a '90s band, as us not looking the part, says Smith. Can you imagine if we tried to look the part? Another said the audience was out of time, full of Goths, that we were trying to drag them into the '90s through playing more current stuff. This is so insane. We're either one or the other; we can't be both.

But in some way, they are. They came out of the gates as a semi-peppy art/pop band with Boys Don't Cry. They soon moved on to explore the terrain of sadness and despair with Seventeen Seconds and Faith. The best punk rock was an explosion of anger and celebration. The Cure was resigned, dreamy in a Pink Floyd sort of way. The Cure's sound was minor-key melodic and resolutely melancholic - the sound of things falling apart, ever so gracefully, with chiming three-note guitar licks and whooshing synthesizer lines. Smith's voice was a moan, a sigh. Hope was an idea that had passed.

Smith - who favored a shock of teased black hair, eyeliner and lipstick - helped (along with pal Siouxie Sioux of the Banshees) usher in the campy Goth look that lingers on the fringes of the alt-rock scene to this day. Today, he says, his relationship with makeup is pretty much the same as it's always been. I've been wearing it onstage and that's part of how I do what I do onstage. It would be impossible to be onstage without it. It's a mental crutch. It's the only ritual I've got in my life. There's a certain tediousness to it, if you ask the others. But if I take that away I don't feel like me. Offstage, I can take it or leave it.

He does offer that when the Cure played on Saturday Night Live last month, fellow guest Dennis Rodman - the flamboyant Chicago Bulls star - was more than complimentary about Smith's visage.

During the '80s the Cure grew away from quiet despair and into harshness, dissonance and anger (on Pornography). The group later re-established its pop credentials with such new wave hits as the cynical Let's Go to Bed, The Love Cats, Just Like Heaven, Friday, I'm in Love and In Between Days. It seemed that the Cure was creating a body of work that, yes, might be described as wild mood swings.

Smith recalls being continually nagged to define himself and his band. In the mid-'80s, he says, we were asked: `Are we Goth or are we gloom 'n' doom?' ... I want both. I want to play emotion, powerful things, and I want to be a pop band as well. Let me be both! I'm very aware that people have tried to place the Cure in the '80s because [breakthrough hit album] Disintegration was in the '80s and only Mixed Up and Wish were in the '90s. ... We played a festival a couple of weeks back, and during an MTV interview they asked, `How do you feel to be 37 and still playing at a festival?' I burst out laughing because Iggy [Pop, who's 48] was on the bill. There was only one band out of seven on the bill that had an average age below us. I seem to be in the only group in pop music that does get older as each year goes by. Everybody else seems to reach an age and they stick with it.

Iggy Pop of course jumps about the stage as if connected to an electrical current. Smith stands immobile and stoic, often immersed in chemical smoke. I started off with that advantage, he says, with a laugh. In other words, he's as wacky now as he's ever been.

Details magazine evaluates Smith's persona on Wild Mood Swings as being like the big sister you never had, a well-fed princess pouring out his heart and soul into decadent but harmless fantasies. ... Call him a camp dinosaur if you like, but Smith has fun being ridiculous. Yes, there is an over-the-top sensibility, evidenced especially in the current single/video Mint Car. There's also an up-down-turnaround romantic arc, and the inevitable question must be posed: Is Smith, ever the doomed romantic onstage, in a personal ditch?

I'm the only person I know - I'm in the only couple I know that's still together, says Smith of himself and wife Mary, who've been married eight years and have known each other forever. The trauma Smith writes about comes from observation. This album isn't autobiographical. There are several things it's about, and an ongoing on/off breakup that I had the misfortune to be the witness to is one of them.

Spin magazine, in a generally positive review, accuses the Cure of being drunk and high all the time and having a mid-life crisis. Well, they do drink, but that's as far as it goes, Smith says. Been there, done that. No drugs. You have to kind of grow up. There's a sense when you're younger that you're immortal. Unfortunately, the effects of certain drugs in particular won't let you. I've been lucky, and I've known close friends who haven't. We try to limit our highs. Our tradition is to celebrate on Friday night and we try to limit our binges to end on Monday.

The key thing to Smith is how partying affects the band. If you're feeling tired or hung over or just feeble, you can't enjoy it, he says. You just want to crawl away to somewhere dark, where your life just disappears. You become so physically and mentally debilitated that you cease functioning. It's good fun getting there, though.

Excessive drinking did claim Cure founder Lol Tolhurst, who was fired in 1989 and later brought suit against Smith. Longtime drummer Boris Williams also left before the Wild Mood Swings sessions and was replaced by Jason Cooper. These changes gave Smith the usual opportunity to mull over the dissolution of the band. (The Cure has threatened retirement as often as David Bowie, Elton John or the Who - must be an English thing.) I kind of thought this looks like it, says Smith. It gave me an opportunity to just walk away from the group, the whole thing. For about a whole year, I lived a normal life. But ultimately I reached the point where I just wanted to do it again.

Long-termers Simon Gallup (on bass), Roger O'Donnell (on keyboards) and Perry Bamonte (guitar) round out the lineup. Smith insists the Cure is not just him plus sidemen. Obviously, it wouldn't carry on without me, he says, but I'm not the Cure and the Cure isn't a solo artiste.

The Cure's impending tour has not been an immediate sellout - though certain pockets, like Los Angeles, went clean in 20 minutes and the Meadowlands show is also sold out. Tickets do remain for the Worcester show, and also for the date at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine, on Saturday. The new album has sold about 220,000 copies. Fair, but not blockbuster numbers.

The Cure has been playing European dates, and Smith feels the magic is there. We leave the stage absolutely shattered, he says. And love the feeling of just collapsing in the dressing room. It makes it the whole point of the day. ... I don't have any kind of agenda. I'm just basically trying to communicate and hopefully move people, give them some experience and add to it.


100 songs and no set list

The show? Expect two-plus hours and no opening act. The members of the Cure are capable of doing any of 80 songs at present; they hope to work that number up to 100 by the time the tour starts, so Smith can pull out of the hat whatever 25 or so he feels appropriate to the mood and crowd. (Smith says he has penned about 250 songs.) There's no set list. But expect about eight songs from Wild Mood Swings, another eight popular faves and the rest spur-of-the-moment choices from the catalog. Why is this at the Worcester Centrum and not, like virtually every other big show this summer, at Great Woods? Lighting and atmosphere, the desire to create 3-D illusions. We wanted to create an atmosphere in the venues with a bit of ambient light and projection, says Smith, just to build the atmosphere. It ended up being a Coney Island kind of look - something that looks like it was built for pleasure, but sort of crumbled so it looks quite dangerous. Very subtle. The overtones of the artwork are, well, not suitable for children.

Want to reach the Cure on line? A spokesman says the band has set up a house page - not a home page - because it will be graphically based on the old mansions they recorded the album in. The site should be up Friday, the same day the band plays on ``The Late Show With David Letterman.'' You can reach 'em at

Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 14:59:58 CDT

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