7/1/1980 Trouser Press
Art For Pop's Sake
Robert Smith of the Cure is not your ordinary front man. Get this: the band
is on-stage at Hurrah, struggling to present its sober, rather demanding
music to a restive crowd. One loudmouth keeps shouting incoherently as if
he'd expected Bruce Springsteen. Most "stars" would respond with a boot to
the obnoxious one's face, or at least a counterattack of verbal abuse. Not
singer/guitarist Smith, a seemingly imperturbable chap. He leans forward,
cocks his head, and politely asks the guy what he said! Highly irregular.
"He kept repeating this sentence I didn't understand," Smith recalls a few
days later. "It was an Americanism. I got a bit irate, but he came back
afterwards and said that he meant he thought we were good."
The offending remark?
"'Piss over Portobello Road,' or something." That's an Americanism?
Perched on twin beds in their New York hotel room, Smith and drummer Lol
Tolhurst couldn't be more dissimilar. The soft-spoken Smith, dressed all in
black, projects an air of cautious gravity unusual for a 20-year-old; he
is, to borrow from Hard Day's Night, "very clean." In contrast, Tolhurst,
21, comes across like Joe Normal with his infectious smile and
The Cure is one of those surprising British bands that rework rock into
something intriguing and off-center. Where most groups pour out a torrent
of sound, Smith and company deal in carefully-selected dabs that insinuate
rather than overwhelm. Comparisons with Wire and Talking Heads are natural
at first listen; on further inspection Smith's morosely urgent vocals and
clever, restrained guitar indicate a band of daring originality. The Cure
is not for every taste, but people who care for this sort of thing regard
the band as something very special.
They don't generally appeal to rough and tumble crowds. Tolhurst describes
their English audience as "mixed." There's no hard-core following. We don't
have Cure clones." The band has been so low-key about extra-musical aspects
that an American press release refers to them as "anti-image," a term that
provokes pained looks from Smith and Tolhurst. "When we started out," the
latter says, "people couldn't find a little hole to put us in. They said,
'You haven't got an image so we'll give you one: no image.' It's a bit
pathetic, really. There was no conscious effort on our part to go out and
pretend to be nothing."
"We don't want to look like rock 'n' rollers," Smith adds. "It's a bit
jaded and stale." While he concedes there's "nothing new" in rejecting what
he calls "the mythology of the rock 'n' roll star," he stresses that the
role is "so accepted in the music business that before you realize it
you're being sucked in. You have to make a conscious effort to stay clear."
What would the Cure substitute for the usual heroics? Smith doesn't feel
anything is needed. "I wouldn't want to think people doted on us, hung on
every word, or wanted to look like us. The whole new wave/punk thing
started with the idea of stopping all that, with everyone forming their own
fashions, music, ideas. Now it's gone full circle, with everybody saying,
'Let's do it like the Clash.' It's really stupid. I'm not saying that if a
band wants to pose it's a bad thing as such, just that it's not really new.
"None of us are natural performers apart from maybe Simon [Gallup] the bass
player. I'm not at ease on a stage - don't like talking into a microphone.
I'm never tempted to do a twirling arm movement on the guitar because I'd
miss! I've never practiced in front of a mirror."
In the Cure's short existence, Smith and Tolhurst have become astute
observers of the trend-obsessed British pop scene. Smith cites Siouxsie and
the Banshees and Public Image as bands he admires for doing things a bit
differently; he theorizes that the current mod revival is due to record
companies passing off the same bands they couldn't sell as "power pop." The
Specials, he says, have become unwilling prisoners of a "grossly out of
hand" 2 Tone craze, when all they sincerely wanted was to play ska. All
this may make Smith sound a bit self-righteous or dour, but that's not
really the case; he speculates lightly, with more amusement than
Perhaps naively, Smith dismisses any likelihood of the same Pyrrhic success
befalling the Cure. "How could people do that to us? There's nothing to
market. We've all got different haircuts.
"As we build up a following touring around England, people don't come to
expect a certain style of music. They're always anticipating the next
record since they don't know what's on it. I would have hated it if "Boys
Don't Cry" had become a big hit, because people would have expected more
songs like it, which we're moving away from." At home the band stopped
performing "Killing An Arab", their first single (inspired by Camus' The
Stranger), because it was becoming a millstone.
Does Smith regret having done "Arab" now? "No, because the good that came
from it far outweighed the bad. We came to public attention really quick on
the strength of a single that wasn't a hit."
That pretty much epitomizes the easy time they've had of it so far. The
Cure began in 1976 as a casual five-piece in Crawley, a small town 30 miles
south of London; at first there was no greater aspiration than to play
Bowie and Stones songs in the local pub. The original singer and a second
guitarist eventually dropped out, leaving Smith, Tolhurst and bassist
Michael Dempsey. A demo reached Chris Parry, starting Fiction Records at
the time, and the label released "Killing An Arab" in early 1979. An LP
(Three Imaginary Boys) followed; a revised version, adding the singles
"Jumping Someone Else's Train" and "Boys Don't Cry" came out here recently as
Boys Don't Cry. Along the way the band replaced Dempsey with Gallup and
added keyboard player Matthieu Hartley. Smith sat in with the Banshees for
some live gigs last fall but only because they'd lost their guitarist; his
heart belongs to the Cure.
A lot of fine bands falter on their second album, but it's been a
breakthrough for the Cure. Both Seventeen Seconds and its single, "A Forest",
are enjoying chart action in England. Perhaps more important to Smith, who
admits he wants complete control, is that he got to co-produce. "It was
great," he says with a quiet smile. "Producing's easy." He characterizes
the album's sound as "more moody, not as upfront" as the first. On
Seventeen Seconds the band consistently understates without any loss of
power, and displays a stunning mastery of texture. In less skilled hands
such overtly serious music results in dull, dry art and unendurable
preciousness; from the Cure it's simply exciting.
"People draw a line between experimental and acceptable music. I don't see
why you can't combine the two," Smith says. The Cure is doing just that.