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10/16/2000  The Sydney Morning Herald
Lipstick & lovecats

Robert Smith ... two decades of The Cure may be ending. Perhaps, it will also ease the anguish he was apparently feeling (below) during the 1984 tour of Australia. Twenty years on, is The Cure still working for Robert Smith? Sacha Molitorisz reports.

Robert Smith has been staying up all night again. So, Robert, what's bugging you this time? Ghosts? Nightmares about spiders? Having trouble finding a rhyme for "cemetery"? "I've been marvelling at the Thorpedo," he laughs into the phone. "It's weird when the Olympics come round. At first you think, I won't really bother with it, and then I find I'm up all night watching it. It's bizarre."

It's more than bizarre. It's downright creepy. Here's the world's foremost purveyor of moody, melancholy, charcoal-flavoured rock, and he's ... an Olympics fan? Sorry, but Smith just doesn't come across as a "faster, higher, stronger" kind of guy.

Smith is a man whose face - tousle-haired and lipstick-smeared - is an instantly recognisable symbol of gothic subculture; a man who has stuck by the one dark look for 20 years.

And pretty much the one style of music, too. Through 13 studio albums - not to mention all the compilations and live recordings - Smith and The Cure have delivered two variations on the one gothic theme: the quirky pop (the songs Boys Don't Cry, In Between Days, The Lovecats) and the dark musings (the albums Seventeen Seconds, Disintegration, Bloodflowers).

Lured in by the poppy singles, the world became caught in Smith's spiderweb. Since the album Three Imaginary Boys was released in 1979, The Cure have sold 27 million albums worldwide, signalling a rare success and an even rarer longevity.

"I promised myself when I turned 30 that if I got to 40 and I was still doing this that I'd stop and do something else," Smith says. "But I've got to 41 now, and I'm still doing it. And the weird thing is that I actually feel a lot happier these days, even if musically I seem to be favouring the more downbeat style of writing."

Indeed, there's not a pop hit in sight on The Cure's latest album, this year's Bloodflowers. We're deep in dark musings territory. Smith has been quoted as saying it marks the final instalment of a trilogy that started in 1982 with Pornography and continued in 1989 with Disintegration.

"They're certainly my three favourite Cure albums. When I was making Pornography, I wasn't exactly thinking of starting a trilogy, but on a personal level those three albums marked turning points in my life.

"And with Bloodflowers we seem to have absolved ourselves of all the sins of the past."

The sins of the past? Smith is referring in part to Mixed Up (1990) on which Paul Oakenfold, William Orbit and their knob-twiddling cohorts pulled apart and completely reconfigured a dozen Cure classics. It's the one Cure album that doesn't consist of quirky pop and/or dark musings. Perhaps that's why both critics and fans panned it.

"It's a weird, hard-core audience we've got. They're often zealously over-protective of what they feel we should be like."

Mixed Up reveals the wilfulness behind Smith's curious career. His idiosyncratic looks and sound would have been enough to damn most people to Stereotype Hell, but somehow Smith has emerged as a symbol of self-expression and individualism. Maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that he enjoyed the Olympics.

His wilfulness is there too in his love-hate relationship with the whole pop thing. Deep in the '80s, on the heels of one jaunty hit single after another, Smith suddenly looked as if he might graduate from the periphery of pop stardom to its very epicentre, to a blow-dried, big-haired inner circle beside Wham!, Duran Duran and Nik Kershaw.

"Although we've been a popular band, we've never really achieved that kind of top level. I've always shied away from it, because there were times when it was crying out for the next step, but there's certain things that we've never done to become overly commercial, because it was horrifying me.

"I would hate to wake up one morning and think, 'God, I hate what this band's become.' I look around at other big bands and think, it is pretty dire. I mean, it's just selling stuff, it's not really to do with what I want to be in a band for.

"I think overall the pop side of the band has certainly helped with our longevity, and it's brought in new audiences and allowed us to do other things, and I think it's been a pretty integral part of The Cure. Anyone who thinks we're just a doom-and-gloom band and disregards the pop side is really missing the point. But I think it's become less important as we've all grown older."

If Smith's relationship with pop is uneasy, his relationship with his band-mates has been, at times, even testier. In 1994, long-time drummer and keyboardist Laurence Tolhurst unsuccessfully sued Smith and The Cure's label, Fiction Records.

It wasn't the band's first flare-up. In 1982, Smith and Simon Gallup had a brawl during the Pornography tour. Once the tour was over, Gallup quit, only to rejoin in 1984. He's still playing bass.

"I think it's pretty much fluctuated around the idea that it's me that drives the band and occasionally it becomes more collective. I think Pornography, Disintegration and Bloodflowers are about as solo as it gets in a lot of respects, because I know exactly what I want and I tell everyone what they're doing. The others really don't like making those sorts of albums. They love how they end up, but hate the process.

"With Wish [1992] and Wild Mood Swings [1996] we were much more, 'right, everyone gets to play whatever they want'. And for me those albums end up slightly unfocused. Though there's some really good stuff on them, as albums they don't have that magic something.

"And I guess it's a mixture of luck and belligerence that the others do trust me. If I say, 'this will work', it can be a four-to-one vote, but if I'm the one then I usually get my own way. Except when it comes to stage-wear," he laughs.

Speaking of the stage, Smith says he hated the band's last tour in 1996 for Wild Mood Swings. But he is thoroughly enjoying the Bloodflowers tour, even if it is still a "juggernaut" complete with semitrailers, grandiose sets and epic light show.

"I've been enjoying it more than any other tour I've ever done with the band. Rather than jumping around doing pop songs, it's a pretty intense sort of show. We play a two-and-a-half-hour set, the whole of Bloodflowers and another 15 songs from the back catalogue.

"We decided early on to scrap the idea of doing a sort of Greatest Hits set and dusted off some really old-style Cure songs instead. And I think I'm enjoying it because it's the last time I'm doing it, so I'm putting everything into it."

What's that? The last-ever tour? Does that make Bloodflowers the band's final album?

"I think that within the band everyone's pretty convinced that this will be the last major tour that we do. I'm not sure that we won't do festivals, or one-off shows, but I know personally I was half-dreading this year, because gradually I've notched touring down from the list of ways I'd like to spend half a year.

"And with Bloodflowers, I set out intending it to be the last Cure album, but since the shows we've been playing this year, I'm pretty determined that we should go in and at least try and record some more stuff. This line-up I think is playing better now than any other line-up, and I'd like to try and capture that."

Even if he has to stay up all night.

The Cure-all

Three Imaginary Boys (1979): Though Smith hated the artwork (right), this edgy goldmine marks an auspicious debut, bristling with post-punk guitar and attitude. It sounds like it was recorded in the fridge on the cover, which perfectly suits the jagged energy of 10.15 Saturday Night, Fire In Cairo and So What - the song inspired by a packet of icing sugar. Re-released for the US as Boys Don't Cry, with the addition of the indispensable title track and Killing An Arab. Aggressive, taut, delightful.

Seventeen Seconds (1980): Moody, evocative, spacious - nearly everything Three Imaginary Boys isn't, apart from delightful. Rich with instrumentals and driving basslines (especially in A Forest), it's the pared-back soundtrack to a slightly disturbing surrealist daydream.

The Head On The Door (1985): Aah, the cupboard and the comb in Tim Pope's video for Close To Me. As for the music, THOTD revealed an impressive spreading of wings. Apart from the twin pop peaks of In Between Days and Close To Me (one fast and frantic, the other quiet and kooky), the band also dabbled with epic orchestration and Eastern influences. Of course, the gloomy mood remained.

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987): A double album (he is wilful, isn't he?) with gorgeous cover art (on vinyl, that is), Kiss Me ... mixes dark intensity (The Kiss) with an abundance of polished pop, including Catch, The Perfect Girl and the best song Smith and co. ever wrote, Just Like Heaven. There's even brass on Why Can't I Be You? A decent effort as a double, it would have been just like heaven as a single LP.

Disintegration (1989): Featuring the sublime, melancholy sweep of Plainsong and Pictures Of You, Disintegration is something of an epiphany. "Disintegration was hugely popular," says Smith. "People forget it also had Lullaby and Lovesong, which was our biggest ever hit in America. It appears to be a really difficult, dark album, but it was, strangely, a lot more upbeat than people seem to remember."

Bloodflowers (2000): "When we look back on it all as I know we will ..." That's the opening lyric to the latest, and possibly last, Cure album. And, yes, there is an undercurrent of the grand parting statement. One of Smith's faves, it's a sibling of Pornography and Disintegration, with the same creeping sense of menace and regret. If you're after pop, you won't find it, as these tracks average more than six minutes.

- Sacha Molitorisz


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