1/18/2000 Record Mart
Style Merchants Every issue we choose an artist/band and examine het music and style that makes them what they are. Look upon it as a 'recipe' that goes to make the band, it's intimate components… It also acts as a buying guide to build a catalog according to a buyer's taste. In this issue Nick Hamlyn takes a look at the influences musical and otherwise of The Cure whose new album 'Bloodflowers' is due out in mid-february via Fiction Records.
In 1999, Robert Smith, the lead singer and chief song-writer of The Cure, and the only member of that group to feature on every one of its many recordings, had cause to make a double celebration. In April, it was his 40th birthday. Then, in August, came the 21st anniversary of the very first Cure record release, the single 'Killing an Arab', issued on the independent Small Wonder label. That single fitted naturally into the new wave style of the time. But its intellectual subject matter, based on a story by the French writer Albert Camus, immediately marked The Cure as a band likely to go its own way in the long run. And in the very long run of The Cure's subsequent career, Robert Smith had indeed very much gone his own way. The purpose of this article is to identify his influences, but the fact is that for the most part, Smith has shown himself to be remarkably free from influence of other musicians. As he said himself, 'The longer we go on, the less similarities there are between what we are doing and what anyone else has ever done.'
He has been compared to Syd Barrett and to Nick Drake -both song-writers with an intensely personal view of their own art. Such comparisons, however, do Robert Smith few favours. With a musical intelligence ranging far wider than either of these two, Smith has not only produced a much more substantial body of work, but he has also proved to be vastly more succesful. Over and over again he has shown himself to be an enormously talented song-writer. But he is also a true original, whose ability to find interesting ideas from within his own imagination had made The Cure into one of the most important groups of our time.
Of course, notwithstanding all of this, The Cure did not exactly spring fully formed from nowhere. Robert Smith had been silent on the tricky question of the records making up his parens' collection although we can guess at some of the names that must have been included there. As a teenager, he may well have missed out on the progressive rock albums of the time, but he would doubtless have heard the glam rock groups. A little rooting around does indeed reveal a few definite names who made some kind of mark on Robert Smith's formative years. These, then, are the influeces on the Cure sound.
In so far as the Beatles set the standard for melodic song-based rock music, they have proved to be an enormous influence on anyone interested in the same basic approach to song-writing. Robert Smith is no exception. Apart from his explicit mention in an interview of the 'old-fashion Beatles craft of the perfect pop song' (which reference to his own song 'Boys don't cry' and 'Friday I'm in Love'), there are numerous Beatlisms scattered throughout the Cure's music. Most blatant is the choice of the name for the Robert Smith-Steve Severin collaboration, 'The Glove', which was inspired by sequences within the 'Yellow Submarine' cartoon film, and, indeed, the recording of the Beatles song 'Dear Prudence' during Smith's tenure with Siouxsie and the Banshees. 'I saw her standing there' was one of the songs recorded as a demo for the Hansa label in late 1977, although this Beatles cover has never been officialy released. During a promotional radio broadcast of 'Cure FM' in 1990, in which the Cure's members at the time chose their favourite reocrds, it was, however, Porl Thompsons who elected to play a Beatles track.
Sensational Alex Harvey Band
Alex Harvey led one of the most hardworking and dynamix R&B bands of the '60s but without ever managing to translate his considerable club success into healthy record sales. In 1972, however he adopted as his own the group Teargas, already veterans of two albums. As the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the new line-up quickly established itself as a must-see live act, achieving as a bonus a run of six chart albums and three hit singles. Robert Smith was a keen fan of the group and he would travel considerable distances from his home town of Crawley in order to see them play. Alex Harvey used a highly theatrical approach to his music, in which elements of the glam rock style (most notably guitarist Zal Cleminson's trademark clown make-up) were welded to a free-wheeling hard rock sound and topped up with Harvey's own declamatory vocals. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band interpretation of the Tom Jones song, 'Delilah', was a particular favourite, especially for al those who saw the group perform it on television, with the guitarists camping it up like mad behind the singer, who was busy delivering the lyrics in an extravagantly dramatic manner. The lesson that rock music could be treated as a variety of theaterHar was not lost on Robert Smith.
Like every other young group starting out during the second half of the '70s, the Cure were fired by te explosive arrival of punk. Given Robert Smith's liking for melody, however, it was the power pop of the Buzzcocks that appealed to him rather more than the speed metal onslaught of the Sex Pistols. Private cassettes exists of demos recorded in 1977, when the group was still calling itself the Easy Cure, and the resemblance of these songs to those of the Buzzcocks is quite strond. Over a year later, when the Cure ere recording their first album, 'Three Imaginary Boys', another precedent had become available. Elvis Costello's 'My Aim is True' had distinctive tunes, but was also coloured by a bargain basement production quality that Robert Smith maintained was exactly the sound he wanted for The Cure.
Robert Smith's naturally mournful voice tends to give even the most upbeat Cure material a depressive edge but for much of the time the music is quite deliberately sombre in mood. There is therefor a natural kinship betwee the Cur's music and that of Joy Division -the other group to make an art form out of the dirge. The latter group's first album release came in between the relatively bright pop of 'Three Imaginary Boy's' and the severely melancholic second album 'Seventeen Seconds'. Singer Ian Curtis always sounded as though he was fleeing from a pack of personal demons -his eventual suicide rather seeming to confirm this fact. The thrusting bass riffs and minimal guitar figurtes in which the group specialised provided an ideal framework for Curtis' rants, with the resulting music having a darkly magisterial quality that has proved to be enormously influential. Tracks like 'A Forest' and 'Primary' are quite close to the Joy Division concept albeit filtered through the Cure sensibility, while the slightly later 'In Between Days' is a deliberate reproduction of the definitive Jos Division sound. Arguably, Robert Smith has found angst rock to be a far more fertile source of inspiration than Joy Division themselves -for since the transition to New Order, that group has move rapidly towards rather brighter sounding material.
Robert Smith's interest in the theatrical potential of rock music had found its clearest expression int he various videos mad to accompany the Cure's many hit singles. From 'Let's go to bed' onwards, these have been the work of director Tim Pope, who could therefor claim, with some justification, to be a prime mover within The Cure, second only to Robert Smith himself. Apart from any other consideration, the continual public exposure throough video has enabled Robert Smith to develop his scarecrow meets Baby Jane character into an instantly recognisable trademark. At the same time, the knowledge that the music is going to have an extra visual dimension has enabled Smith to give free reign to his imagination when creating Cure songs. Pope made one stab at pop song creation himself, though without any real intention of carrying it any further. His single 'I want to be a tree', was intended as a joke, although he did play one gig -supporing the Psychedelic Furs- to promote it. All the music on the single is actually played by Robert Smith, making the record into one of the most obscure objects of desire for the Cure collector.
There is little indication that the Doors are a particular influence on the Cure's music as such, but the group did record a version of 'Hello I Love You' for Elektra's anniversary album 'Rubaiyat' -both groups having been signed to the label in the US.
The synthesiser pop music of Depeche Mode is an even less likely influence on the Cure than of the Doors, although with the chart careers of the two modern groups proceeding along closely parallel lines, the Cure could hardly fail to be aware of Depeche Mode's contributions to eighties and nineties rock. When a Depeche Mode tribute album, 'For The Masses' was put together in 1998, the Cure was one of the groups asked to paricipate. They delivered a characteristically individual version of 'World In My Eyes'.
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees were not so much an influence on the Cure, but were rather a symbiotic relationship with the group, due to Robert Smith's presence within both line-ups. Both bands were initially signed by Polydor A&R manager Chris Parry (the founder of Fiction Records) and during the latter part of 1979 they were scheduled to complete an extensive UK tour together. Siouxsie Sioux contributed backing vocals to the Cure's third single B-side 'I'm cold', and when, just two dates into the tour, the Banshees disintegrated, Robert Smith was drafted in as a replacement guitarist. The tour was therefor completed with Smith playing for two different bands. He found the experience to be enjoyable, but the inevitable stress involved were directly responsible for the dark mood of the 'Seventeen Seconds' album whose songs Smith wrote immediatly after the end of the tour. Robert Smith developed a close friendship with the Banshees' bass player Steve Severin, leading eventually to the 'Blue Sunshine' album that the pair recorded in 1983 as the Glove. And indeed the previous year, the song 'Lament' credited to the Cure when included on a Flexipop magazine freebie, was actually the work of Smith and Severin. For some 18 months, starting in the late autumn 1982, Robert Smith was the guitarist with Siouxsie and the Banshees, touring and recording with the group. Despite fears that this would mean an end to the Cure, Smith succeeded in honouring both sets of commitment. He had indeed become desillusioned with the Cure at the start of this period but ultimately found that what was effectively the role of session guitarist was not for him. The extent to which the whole experience served to clear Smith's head, however, can be gauged by the fact that the album made by the Cure folowwing Sith's full-time return to the group, 'The Head On The Door', is one of their most cheerful recordings.
With a year's start on the Cure, Wire's arty approach to punk made them one of the pioneers of the succeeding new wave genre, with a pair of acclaimed albums to their credit -'Pink Flag' and 'Chairs Missing' (soon the be followed by a third, '154'). During the recording of 'Three Imaginary Boys', the Cure were trying to hone their playing skills by performing as many live gigs as they could manage. One of these found the Cure playing support act to Wire and the lack of experience of Smith and co was rather shown up by the more established group. Like Alex Harvey before, Wire had the knack of turning their set into an event, rather than merely a simple sequence of songs. Robert Smith resolved there and then to attempt a move in that direction himself.
In the earliest days of the Cure, when gigging under the name of Malice, Bowie's 'Sufragette City' was on the set list. In recent years, Robert Smith has been outspoken about his distain of Bowie's later work, but the fact remains that he was a considerable fan at one time. 'Rebel Rebel' was another cover version chosen for the Hansa recordings and even in 1990, Smith selected a Bowie track to play on the Cure FM broadcast. Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' material, of course, had the same kind of theatrical quality as the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. In January 1997, Robert Smith was one of the artists invited by David Bowie to take part in his 50th birthday concert. He must either have forgiven Smith for referring to himas an 'old tosser' or else not taken the remark seriously -for it certainly seems to be the case that Smith like to make such disparaging comments for the sake of their dramatic effect! The two singers duetted on an acoustic version of 'Quicksand', which was generally acclaimed as a highlight of the evening. Later the same year, Bowie's guitarist Reeves Gabrels made a guest performance on the Cure single 'Wrong Number'. This particular collaboration was repeated in 1998, when the track 'A Sign From God' was included to the film 'Orgazme'. Credited tot Cogasm, the group comprised Robert Smith and Reeves Gabrels alongside the current Cure drummer Jason Cooper.
Robert Smith's other Cure FM choice was the Only Ones. The group's 'Another girl, another planet' was one of the most exciting new wave blasts of all, even if much of the other material favoured by the Only Ones had far more in common with the likes of Bruce Springsteen then with punk. Smith was a keen follower of John Peel's late night program on Radio One and remembers being inspired by the sound of 'Another girl, another planet' played live by the Only Ones in one of the sessions recorded specially for the show. As he told an interviewer later, 'I just thought -this is what I want to do'. It might be worth mentioning that at this point what the other Cure FM choices were. Simon Gallup favoured the contrasting sounds of the Pixies and Tom Jones; drummer Boris Williams played the Sundays and the Chi-lites; while Perry Bamonte made perhaps the least surprising selections with the Sisters Of Mercy and Echo and the Bunnymen. Whether any of these names can be considered as influences on the Cure sound is another matter altogether. Recently Robert Smith asserted that he was spending a lot of time listening to traditional folk music of the more 'jolly' kind. Any influence in the new Cure album that he might have gained from this can only have been a negative reaction!
Hendrix's 'Foxy Lady' is a highly improbable cover included on the 'Three Imaginary Boys' LP, although it gets a treatment that is best described as eccentric. It remains the only non-Cure original to be included on any of the group's albums. The group has actually been playing the song for a while -it was part of the Malice set. There was, of course, little scope for guitar histrionics in the Cure's own early music and it was Porl Thompson's fondness for imposing guitar solos on the material that led to his first expulsion from the group, before the recording of 'Three Imaginary Boys'. When Thompson rejoined in the mid-'80s, the musical climate has changed. 'The Kiss', first track on the album 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me', that many people, including it seems Robert Smith himself, consider to be the Cure's finest, is introduced by a lenghty ecstatic wa-wa guitar solo. Presumably deliverd by Porl Thompson, this is pure Jimi Hendrix -and a very fine piece of playing too. Just before Thompson's second departure from the band in 1993, the Cure recorded a version of 'Purple Haze' for broadcast on Virgin Radio's first program. This was subsequently included on the various artists tribute album to Jimi Hendrix, 'Stone Free'. Given Thompson's love of guitar music -Robert Smith admitted that much of his soloing during recording sessions was left out at the mixing stage- his next venture as a member of the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page band was not at all the surprising departure that it may have seemed to some.
In early summer 1998, the Cure recorded demo versions of 17 songs, with the intention of selecting tracks for a new album from them. Remarkably, given the frequent changes in group personnel over the years, the line-up this time is the same as that on the previous 'Wild Mood Swings', issued in 1996.
Robert Smith continues to work with Simon Gallup -keyboards player with the Cure since the second album, bar a couple of years in the mid-'80s- although these days he plays bass (…i don't know where he got this from… robbertc). Alongside these two there is Perry Bamonte, the former Cure roadie who has played keyboards and guitar with the group since 1989, Roger 'O Donnel, once the keyboard player with the Psychedelic Furs but a Cure member during 1988-1989 and again since 1993 and the relative newcomer, drummer Jason Cooper. Cooper joined in time for 'Wild Mood Swings' through the unusual route of a successful reply to an advertisement placed by Robert Smith in the New Musical Express.
Althought the group members were keen to begin the recording proper immediately after completing the demos, Smith decided that their playing abilities would be improved by performing at a few of the summer festivals. Returning to the studios in the autumn, the Cure found that progress was very slow at first, mainly due to their decision to employ the latest available, but unfamiliar, computer recording technology.
Nevertheless, 15 songs had been completed by the late spring of 1999 and in May the final mixing and track selection was done. The album was originally scheduled for autumn release, but Robert Smith decided that he would prefer to avoid becoming associated with the end of year millennium fuss and insisted on holding it back until the new year.
'Bloodflowers' is now set for release on Valentine's day (the day after in the US and Japan), though not for romantic reasons. With music that is described as quintessential Cure in style -gloomy, in other words- the album is apparently intended to complete a notional trilogy whose first parts comprise the albums 'Pornography' (from 1982) and 'Disintegration' (from 1989). As Robert Smith explained in an interview printed in Alternative Press: "It sounds like old-fashioned Cure. The kind of obsessive listener who was into those albums will like it. Lyrically the songs are about despair, loss, lack of faith -those subjects. It's almost like I'm winding up and going over the subjects that have interested me over the years, trying to distill what I've always wanted to say and how I feel about things at this point in my life."
The suggestion is that this may indeed be the last Cure album, although Smith has said before during previous phases of the band's career.
Out of this world (6:43)
There is no if (3:43)
Watching me fall (11:13)
The loudest sound (5:09)
Where the birds always sing (5:43)
Maybe Someday (5:06)
The last day of summer (5:36)
Robert Smith would prefer there to be no single issues from the album, although it seems that the record company's choice would be an edited version of 'Out Of This World'. We will have to wait and see what happens!