Bad Medicine They emerged out of the debris of punk to become one of the planet’s biggest attractions – less a band, more a lifestyle choice for their black-clad devotees. With their best album in over ten years due for release, Robert Smith tells the story of THE CURE from success to suicide and beyond.
In two decades, the Cure have watched the rise and fall of punk, grunge, acid house and Britpop from their own separate bubble. During that period, they’ve lurched from one turbulent extent to another, crawling from the wreckage of self-destruction in 1982 to become one of the biggest bands in the world 10 years later. It’s hard to think of many groups who’ve imposed themselves on successive generations in quite the same way.
At the centre of it all has been Robert Smith – an iconic presence at the centre of British music since 1978 – and a man whose perpetual reinventions rank, if not alongside, then certainly in the same league as David Bowie’s. Like his hero, Smith’s musical output has been characterised by sharp about-turns and frequent bouts of perversity, but has always retained a defiantly populist edge. Smith is now 40, but gazing out from his suite in a Richmond hotel, he looks much the same as ever – his hair is still a riot of backcombed hairspray, his mouth perpetually on the verge of a grin. He’s here today to tell the story of how a brittle punk band from Crawley in Sussex became arguably the most successful group of their generation. He starts talking at 3pm. He doesn’t stop for 8 hours. If you ever wanted to know the story of The Cure, here it is.
It begins with a band called Malice in the summer of ’76. In the assembly hall of St. Wilfred’s school, Crawley, a 17-year-old Robert Smith is onstage for the first time, surrounded by his close friends – Lol Tolhurst (drums), Porl Thomson (guitar) and Michael Dempsey (bass) – and a forgotten singer in a crash helmet and Man Utd scarf. The five of them are grinding through Thin Lizzy covers, and being pelted with cups and bottles. It’s not a great start.
Born on April 21st 1959, Smith had been playing in groups since the age of 13, but had been bombarded with the music of his older brother and sister from a far earlier age. By 1976, the first whispers of punk had begun to reach the suburbs and Smith was intrigued and hopeful that this would be his opportunity.
That year, he left school, persuading his parents that he needed to take a year out before taking up a course at Sussex University. He promptly went on the dole and – having stripped the band down to a three piece with the departure of Porl and the singer – turned Malice into The Easy Cure.
“The two groups that I aspired to be like were the Banshees and the Buzzcocks,” he recalls. “I really liked the Buzzcocks’ melodies, while the great thing about the Banshees was that they had this great wall of noise which I’d never heard before. My ambition was to try to marry the two.”
By mid-’77, Smith had written a batch of songs that included “Killing an Arab” and “10:15 Saturday Night”. These appeared on the demo that the band sent off in reply to an advert in Melody Maker. The Hansa-Ariola label was running a competition to win a record deal. The Cure (having dumped the Easy) made it to the last five, and – after a showdown with the other four groups at Morgan Studios in North London – were signed and given £1,000 in cash.
“Hansa wanted to sign us on the basis of what we looked like,” says Smith “They were the label with Boney M and Donna Summer and they wanted to get in on the punk thing. They weren’t a cutting edge label, I was aware of that, but I thought that once we got in the studio and recorded our songs they’d just have to release them.”
Hansa, of course, were under no such obligation. The Cure re-recorded “Killing an Arab” – their three-minute précis of French novelist Camus’ key existentialist work, L’Etranger – and it was rejected for being racist. Four sessions and six months of further wrangling later, The Cure were finally released from their contract, retaining all rights to the songs they’d recorded. They immediately began bombarding record companies with new demos. Stiff, United Artists and Chris Parry at Polydor were all interested, but Parry was the only one to make it to Crawley to see them. Two days later, he offered to sign them, not to Polydor, but to his new Fiction imprint. Although initially reluctant, Parry’s track record (he’d signed The Jam and the Banshees) persuaded the group to go along with him. A week later they were back in Morgan studios working on their debut album.
The Jam were also there finishing their second album, and after they’d finished for the day, The Cure would slip in and use their gear to record with. In three nights the band recorded 26 songs, 12 of which made it onto Three Imaginary Boys. The album was preceded at the end of ’78 by “Killing an Arab” – a single which was immediately seized upon by the music press.
“People picked up on it, because it sounded very different to from anything else at the time,” argues Smith. “The whole LP did. Because Lol couldn’t drum very well, we had to keep everything very, very simple. Our sound was forced on us to a certain extent.”
Three Imaginary Boys was released in May 1979 to generally positive reviews, the one exception being Paul Morley in NME, who savaged the band for being anti-image pseuds. His ire had been aroused as much by the packaging of the album (its lurid pink sleeve containing no song titles and no information) as by its sparse, brittle sound. Although the review incensed Smith – the next week the band did a Peel session where Smith sang Morley’s review back at him – he also partly agreed with it.
“I thought the artwork was a bag of shite, too,” he declares. “It was all Parry’s idea, he had this vision of the group that I reluctantly went along with. He even chose which songs should go on the LP. By the time it came out, I’d already written “M” and “Play For Today” [from 1980’s Seventeen Seconds], so I’d mentally divorced myself from it anyway. I thought what were doing was soulless.”
Smith’s dissatisfaction with Three Imaginary Boys was compounded by growing tension within the band. Strained by a heavy touring schedule, his relationship with bassist Michael Dempsey began to deteriorate. Musically, their tastes were poles apart, but more seriously Dempsey didn’t drink, meaning he was the one who had to drive the band back after every gig.
Matters came to a head in September. Smith had become friends with Steve Severin, the Banshees’ guitarist, and The Cure had been offered the support slot on their forthcoming tour. After a couple of dates, the Banshees’ guitarist John McKay quit along with original drummer Kenny Morris. Smith volunteered to fill in for McKay, and Budgie from The Slits came in on drums.
“For the rest of that tour,” he recalls, “The Cure part of the show was always uncommunicative and teeth gritted. As soon as I got in the Banshees’ van, it was all over. I think the final straw came when I played Michael the demos for the next album and he hated them. He wanted us to be XTC part 2, and – if anything – I wanted us to be the Banshees part 2. So he left.
His final act before he departed to join The Associates was to meet his replacement Simon Gallup (a long-term friend of Smiths’ and a bassist in the Surrey punk band, Lockjaw) at the recording of a novelty single called “I’m A Cult Hero”. Designed as an exercise to break Gallup into the band, it featured Smith’s postman on vocals as well as his sister on backing vocals and Porl Thomson on guitar. Released in November 1979 under the name Cult Heroes, it went into the Top 10 in Canada, and sank without trace everywhere else. It marked the end of the first phase of The Cure.
At the start of 1980, the Cure returned to Morgan Studios, augmented by keyboard player Matthieu Hartley, to record Seventeen Seconds. Finished in just 13 days, it dismantled The Cure’s punk sound and replaced it with something far more introspective, blank and bleak.
“I was listening to Bowie’s Low, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Jimi Hendrix’s Isle of Wight and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks,” says Smith. “I wanted The Cure to become some weird hybrid of the four. The fact that people hadn’t gone for Three Imaginary Boys pleased me in a strange way, because it set me up to do something different.”
In March 1980 “A Forest” was released as a single. A detached wall of sound, it became The Cure’s first Top 40 hit, and they found themselves on Top of the Pops for the first time. When the album followed a month later, however, the reaction was not so favourable. Despite being a hit elsewhere (it went to number one in Holland and New Zealand, and Top 10 in France) in Britain The Cure were derided as faceless, apolitical and melancholy without due cause.
Part of the problem was that Joy Division’s ascendancy was such that they dwarfed other bands by comparison. When Ian Curtis committed suicide less than a month after Seventeen Seconds was released, it only confirmed in the minds of most British music critics that The Cure were just faking it – even when they weren’t.
“I was 21,” explains Smith, “but I felt really old. I actually felt older than I do now. I had absolutely no hope for the future. I felt life was pointless. I had no faith in anything. I just didn’t see there was much point in continuing with life.
In the next two years, I genuinely felt that I wasn’t going to be alive for much longer. I tried particularly hard to make sure I wasn’t.”
Much of the year was taken up with touring. Smith and Gallup got into the habit of not sleeping and permanently listening to Walkmans, and would spend much of the time in an introverted, silent state. Live, the band began to extend their songs, playing the same chords over and over again. And at the end of the year, Hartley quit.
This downward spiral was hastened at the start of 1981. In the space of a few weeks, both Tolhurst’ s mother and Smith’s grandmother died. The subsequent rush of grief led to Faith. Recorded across 10 studios in London, it pushed the group closer to collapse.
“I was taking a lot of coke during the making of that album,” admits Smith, “and it was a very difficult and cranky atmosphere. Everything we did was wrong. I was permanently red-eyed and bitter and Faith didn’t turn out how I wanted it to at all. I remember finishing the vocals off at Abbey Road and just feeling incredibly empty.
“The whole thing was reinforced by the fact that Ian Curtis had killed himself. I knew that The Cure were considered fake in comparison, and it suddenly dawned on me that to make this album convincing I would have to kill myself. If I wanted people to accept what we were doing, I was going to have to take the ultimate step.”
After they finished it, the group went to Australia and New Zealand, and then to America. Back home, the single (“Primary”) wasn’t a hit – and the album was once again dismissed by the media. Violence slowly began to creep into the band’s shows, with Smith and Gallup often leaping into the crows to quieten fans. Their frustrations were beginning to get out of control.
By Christmas 1981 Smith had already started work on Pornography. Sick of his portrayal in the UK press and sick of the claustrophobic nature of their gigs, he started taking acid every day in a concerted effort “to derange myself”. He became obsessed with The Psychedelic Furs’ drum sound and convinced himself he had to ape it on his new record.
Recorded in RAK studios over a period of four weeks, Pornography was recorded in a blizzard of drugs and alcohol. The band – who, by now, were sleeping on the floor of the Fiction offices- would wake up, take acid, go to the pub and drink until the hallucinations were under control, then record for two hours. In the midst of this, producer Phil Thornalley desperately tried to keep control.
“I thought he was making it too nice,” insists Smith. “I wanted it to be completely unlistenable. I thought it was the culmination of everything I’d done since I left school. I thought it was my grand moment and in the course of making it I was going to die. “
He didn’t, but the result was still one of the most ferociously ugly LPs ever recorded. Its release, in April 1982 was greeted with bafflement and disgust. The group responded by going out on a bruising tour. They took to smearing lipstick around their eyes, so that when they sweated it looked like their eyes were bleeding. Backstage the intensity continued to grow, and, after a show in Germany and yet another fight with Gallup, Smith decided he’d had enough. He flew home, and split up the group.
Back in Britain, Smith suffered a nervous breakdown. He returned to his parents’ home in Crawley, and refused to speak for two weeks. In that period, he also dried out and began to take stock of his situation.
“I’d seen the ugly side of my own nature,” he admits. “I’d seem how vile I could become, but at the same time I realised ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ So I decided to bring out some music that would destroy the whole myth of The Cure, and alienate the audience who had come to surround us.”
In autumn, 1982, Smith holed himself up in the Strongroom Studios on Goldhawk Road and wrote a cheeseball pop song called “Let’s Go To Bed”. It was accompanied by an inane video designed to completely obliterate his persona. At the same time, he also accepted an offer to rejoin the Banshees.
Released in November, “Let’s Go To Bed” met with the incomprehension Smith had craved. In America, it inexplicably became a hit. On the West Coast especially, Smith was transformed into a pop star. It became the first of a trio of singles that - to the astonishment of everyone – reinvented The Cure as a quirky and surreal pop group. For Smith, though, it led to a new set of problems.
By the middle of 1983, his workload was such that he was starting to fray at the edges. During the day, he was working on the Banshees’ album, Hyena. In the evenings, he commuted to Reading to work on a new Cure album, The Top, with Phil Thornalley (bass), Andy Anderson (drums) and Lol (keyboards). At the weekends, the worked on The Glove project with Severin – a group designed by the two of them solely to be “big in Japan”.
Despite his best intentions, Smith had not cleaned up – and once again, his behaviour began to get excessive. The Cure were living above a pub while they made their record, and fuelled by a combination of that and Anderson’s magic mushroom tea, Smith had started listening to Captain Beefheart and was putting together The Top in a series of spaced-out, chaotic jams.
Disoriented – and increasingly confused about which guitar part was for which group – Smith also found himself under mounting pressure to quit The Cure and join the Banshees full time. They were growing angry that what they considered joke records (“The Walk” and “The Lovecats” in particular), far from destroying The Cure, were actually making them more popular than the Banshees.
The debilitating effects of all this friction were felt in the six months running from August 1983 to April 1984. In that period, Smith released five singles and and three LP's under three separate band names. No wonder he cracked.
"When The Top came out, I suffered my only serious breakdown," he whispers. "I went on tour with The Cure and realised that the day it finished I had to go off with the Banshees. I just thought, 'Fuck, I can't do this.' I was shaking all the time - and couldn't feel my legs when I went onstage."
The tour was stressful enough anyway. Anderson began to suffer from psychotic attacks. In Tokyo, he flipped out completely and destroyed his hotel room. Despite being eventually calmed, it was the final straw, and before the band went to America, he was replaced by Boris Williams - a former Thompson Twins.
It was at this point that Smith quit the Banshees. In October, The Cure released their first live album (Concert), and in November, Thornalley departed to be replaced once again by Simon Gallup. After the upheaval of the previous two years, Smith and The Cure were now poised to make a direct assault on the mainstream.
AT THE START OF 1985, SMITH SAT DOWN AND WROTE THE CURE'S next album, Head On The Door in two weeks flat. A crystallisation of the pop sensibility that he's been nurturing since "Let's Go To Bed", it spawned the two hit singles - "In Between Days" and "Close To Me" - that paved the way for the group's subsequent huge success.
"I think The Cure really started again at this point," decides Smith, draining his beer. "There was a real sense of being in a band for the first time since Seventeen Seconds. It felt like being in The Beatles - and I wanted to make substantial 'Strawberry Fields'-style pop music. I wanted everything to be really catchy."
The album was released in August, and went Top 10 here, but in France pushed the band to stadium level. Also, aided by two more magnificent Tim Pope videos, The Cure suddenly found themselves regulars on MTV and on the brink of breaking America. This success was cemented the following year, when they released a singles compilation, Standing On A Beach, and made the live film, The Cure In Orange, while recording the Kiss Me, Miss Me, Miss Me album in the south of France. "Standing On A Beach was a huge commercial success", agrees Smith. "Suddenly we were being sold in garages. Everything I'd ever dreamed of doing was coming to fruition. I suddenly realised that there were an infinite amount of things I could do with the band. Doing Kiss Me was probably the happiest time I've ever had."
Throughout the summer of 1986, The Cure holed up at Miraval vineyard/studio in the south of France, and enjoyed what Smith describes now as "a huge outpouring of creativity". With a double album that showcased every facet of The Cure's sound, and with "Just Like Heaven" one of the most sublime pop songs Smith had ever written, Kiss Me set them up finally to conquer America.
Despite the general air of contentment, however, there was a darker undertow to proceedings. Tolhurst's alcoholism had now accelerated to an alarming degree. Since Gallup had rejoined the band and re-established himself as Smith's confidant, he had become increasingly sullen and peripheral, as well as the outlet for most of the band's frustration. Although he retained his place for the subsequent tour, the writing was on the wall.
The album was released in May, 1987, and immediately became a massive success, especially in the States. Augmented by Roger O'Donnell on keyboards, The Cure were now flying around the world on private jets and playing to enormous crowds every night. No one in the group was prepared for just how successful they'd become in the five short years since the nadir of Pornography. Smith, in particular, found it very difficult to cope with.
"It was like dropping coloured ink in water. I became public property and I wasn't prepared for the level that we'd reached. It was fanatical. Suddenly I was recognised everywhere I went in America, and when I got back to London, there would be 30 or 40 people camped outside my flat. By the end of that tour, my personality had changed a lot, I'd become really conceited, not just pretending to be a pop star, but living in it, and I realised that things couldn't go on like that."
On the back of this success, The Cure also signed a new contract. The pressure was beginning to mount.
SMITH'S IMMEDIATE RESPONSE WAS TO TAKE A BREAK IN MID-1988. This was also the year leading up to his 30th birthday, and the date had started to assume a mythical significance for him. Smith was convinced that he was fast approaching a cut-off point of old age - and his reaction was once again to withdraw into himself.
He recorded the demos for Disintegration on his own, and starting taking acid again. The rest of the band couldn't understand what was going on - and during the recording at Hook End Manor in Reading, Smith became ever more determinated to sabotage the group.
"I became very isolated and went into one of my non-talking modes", he remembers. "The others thought I'd lost the plot. They were still caught up with the idea that we were becoming a really famous band, and they weren't grasping that the music I wanted to make was incredibly morose and downbeat."
With Smith virtually working on the LP alone, the Lol-baiting reached breaking point. The group issued Smith with an ultimatum: kick him out or else. In March, 1988, Smith did just that, and Tolhurst contacted his lawyers. Meanwhile, the band unveiled the finished Disintegration to their record company.
"The atmosphere at the end was incredible", shudders Smith. "It was so bad. They all thought it was commercial suicide. This was one of my blackest moments. I thought it was my masterpiece, and they thought it was shit. They'd turned up expecting Kiss Me Part 2, and they got Pornography Part 2."
Not for the first time, though, the record companies were wrong. Its combination of epic melancholy and sweeping melodrama meant that it topped even Kiss Me. The Cure got off the QE2 in America and found that they were playing shows to 70,000 people. Far from stymieing the band's success, Smith had actually increased it. The Cure were now one of the biggest band in the world.
In many ways, Disintegration - Melody Maker's Album Of The Year - marked the band's creative peak. It was followed in 1990 by the Mixed Up project. The band's response to the acid house phenomenon, it featured remixes from the likes of Paul Oakenfold and William Orbit, and - despite Smith's protestations to the contrary - was largely spurned by their fans.
The momentum of Disintegration, though, carried them through, and in 1991 they were honoured at the Brits with the Best British Band award. During this period - with keyboard player Roger O'Donnell having been replaced by guitarist and ex-roadie, Perry Bamonte - work also began on Wish at the Manor in Oxford. Another eclectic Kiss Me-style LP, it provided the band with their first Number One in Britain, but also sowed the seeds of their mid-nineties demise.
The record itself was patchy, and failed to capitalise on the creative flow evinced on Disintagration. Second, it was also the final Cure LP to feature the classic line-up (both guitarist Porl Thompson and drummer Boris Williams made it clear that they would be leaving after the Wish tour). The situation was made worse when, during that tour, Gallup also had to quit due to health problems. Although he eventually rejoined, it temporarily tore the heart out of the group - and for about six months Smith thought that The Cure were finished.
The process of treading water continued into '93, with two live albums (Show and Paris) and a live film designed to commemorate the end of the line-up. By the time Smith had composed himself and readied the songs for Wild Modd Swings, he found himself in court for the start of a supremely bitter eight-month legal battle with Tolhurst over the rights to The Cure's name, by the end of which his former friend had lost everything.
The court case disenchanted Smith to such an extent that he took another break for six months, during 1994. The gap between albums was lengthening, and the group still had no drummer. When a replacement was eventually found for Williams in the shape of Jason Cooper, Wild Mood Swings took another nine months to complete at St Catherine's Court in Bath. By the time it was ready for release in 1996 - four years after Wish, and with all the momentum of the previous eight years dissipated - the advent of Britpop suddenly left The Cure looking out-of-date and irrelevant.
"In the UK, Britpop did kill us," admits Smith reluctantly. "For the first time, the NME and Melody Maker were right in their view of how the public perceived us. It was the first album in The Cure's history that didn't do better than the last one, but it still sold over a million copies and in anyone's terms that was pretty good."
The tour that followed was also a disappointment. Booked into the same arenas they'd easily filled for Wish, they found themselves playing to half-full venues with little or no record company support. The situation was compounded in 1998, when a second singles collection - Galore - was released to similarly dismal commercial returns. After 10 years of ever increasing success, The Cure found themselves plummeting fast.
MOST BANDS WOULD HAVE TAKEN THIS AS THEIR CUE TO EXIT stage right, not so The Cure. With one album remaining in their contract, Smith was determined to make a record that proved The Cure still mattered. The result is Bloodflowers - a sprawling and viscerally intense 60-minutes mesh of sound that is easily their best record of the past 10 years. Written on the cusp of turning 40, it is shot through with an air of doomed finality, and an epic determination to go out on top. Smith openly admits parts of it are indebted to new groups, such as Mogwai.
"The first time I heard Young Team [Mogwai's 1997 debut], I thought I'd really like to do something that's got this power in it. I think Mogwai are quite openly indebted to what The Cure have done over the years and I'm indebted to them for reawakening the idea of what you can do if you take a simple idea to an extreme."
Like every album since Disintegration, Bloodflowers is designed to be the last ever Cure record. This time, though, it might be true. Whatever its success, the next album Smith releases will definitely be a solo one, but in the meantime, he's hoping this one will re-establish his - and the group's - reputation.
"This is one of three classic Cure albums," he concludes with a confident smile. "I accept now that The Cure have a sound, and this album is the sound of The Cure. The difference is, now I like the idea, I like the fact that you know it's The Cure within 30 seconds of it starting. It's a testament to what we've achieved."
He gets to his feet and stretches. It's now 11pm - and, for now, that's the end of the story. By combining the melodies of The Buzzcocks and the noise of the Banshees, Robert Smith did make The Cure biggest band in the world. And for a long time, he made them one of the best as well. If Bloodflowers really is their last LP, at least he's ensured that's how they'll be remembered.
Bloodflowers will be released by Ficiton on February 14
- James Oldham