The Cure Melts Down: Spin’s 1989 Feature
Their concerts have inspired full-scale riots and onstage suicide attempts. They represent a youth culture as vital as heavy metal or hip-hop. They wear better makeup than you. And at the height of their success, they say this might be the end.
This story originally appeared in the July 1989 issue of Spin. We’re republishing it in honor of Disintegration’s 30-year-anniversary.
When the Cure performed in Argentina and Brazil two years ago, thousands of fans who could not get tickets began rioting in the streets. The turmoil spread into the stadiums, until the military had to be called in to quell the unrest. “Bodies were carried out by the hundreds,” says leader Robert Smith, “but the survivors still chanted madly for more. The crowd surged forward and despite the high barricades and higher police the battle began. By halfway through the set in Brazil there were several uniformed men on fire and most people took cover from the ceaseless and merciless rain of coins, seats, stones and glass aimed at the authorities. I couldn’t wait to get away. Half the stadium was ablaze. Outside, the ground looked like downtown Beirut and at one point I thought it unlikely we’d escape unscathed.”
The Cure are the most unlikely pop band of the Eighties. With little radio play, even in England, they have collected a string of hit singles. They rarely tour the US, but last time managed to sell out Madison Square Garden. They . have never espoused any political stance, yet President Mitterand recently invited them to Paris. They are, in their own words, “a willfully obscure band” that has nevertheless sold over eight million records. Now, at the height of their popularity, they are threatening to call it quits.
After 13 years and 11 albums, the Cure have discovered immense popularity despite themselves. They just don’t belong. The band, like Robert Smith, are a mass of contradictions. He can act with the malice of the Great Dictator, yet wants to be Mary Poppins. He’s been called the last of the doomed poets, yet leads an incredibly mundane life, in which the highlights include soap operas, snooker, watching football and eating curry. He’s never believed in Santa Claus, yet still cries when Dumbo’s mother gets imprisoned.
So who the hell does Robert Smith think he is?
“I’m not who other people think I am,” Smith says. “I’m not a miserable bastard. I’m a clown, sometimes. Sometimes I’m serious. Deadly serious.”
Who does he want to be?
“Robert Smith—the last man to pass through the star gate in 2001 and the first man to arrive on the other side.”
To further confuse the issue, the singer is also a self-confessed liar. Can anyone believe what he says?
“Yes,” he says, meaning no. “I do trick people, and myself sometimes. But through experience, people that like the group know that we’re not going to let them down—for example, by doing things that are crass. As a kid, I can remember liking people like David Bowie and feeling really let down when they cocked things up and did something really stupid. Even now I still feel that. I’m convinced that if your whole attitude is right then you’ll start to appeal to people on a deeper level than just musically. People now trust us.
* * *
Like most English acts, the band formed in 1976, the same year the Sex Pistols changed modern music with the single, “Anarchy in the UK.” Straight out of high school, they called themselves the Easy Cure, which they quickly shortened. “We arrived in an era of negatively named bands,” says Smith, “and the name the Cure was a positive statement. We wanted to provide some hope for people by seeing us in the charts. People think, ‘If they can do it like that, with music that doesn’t conform, then we can do it like we want to.’ Part of the motive in forming the band was to present an alternative. We used to go off on tour with the sole intention of upsetting as many people in the shortest time possible. We’ve inspired a lot of groups that have nothing musically in common. The success of 17 Seconds [their second album, released May 1980] allowed the band to reinvest in the group, meaning they would be self-sufficient and not owe the record company money, which gives them power of you.
“The money that we’ve earned has bought us freedom. It took a long time, but now we can even support ourselves. We don’t have to pander to anyone.”
The Cure are one of the previous few bands who’ve achieved their success without compromise or embarrassment, who’ve refused to conform to expectation or acquiesce to the dictates of the time. Like New Order, the band has always been in control of its record company and refuses to be led into blind alleys.
“New Order were always the most obvious parallel with us, although they trade on their reputation a little more than we do because they’ve been blessed with legendary status through the death of Ian Curtis.
“It’s a very difficult position to get in and stay in. The Bunnymen almost did it and the Banshees should have done it. The difference between us and these two groups is that the only thing the Cure take seriously is what’s brought out on record or when we perform for the two hours we’re onstage. Everything else is treated with a certain amount of disrespect—even each other. There’ve been several things we’ve done where we’ve looked ridiculous and people could have thought, ‘Oh God, the Cure, what a desperately unhip group.’ In fact it’s worked the opposite way and everyone thought, ‘How brilliant that they care so little about what they look like.’ Our videos have reinforced our appeal and meant no one could accuse us of being precious about what we look like. A group like the Banshees would find it very difficult to do anything like that.”
Tim Pope, the quixotic video director behind all the Cure videos since 1984, describes the band as the most stupid and most intelligent he’s ever worked with. Pope has always tried to undermine the gloomy Cure myth. For the “Lovecats” video, Pope got the keys to a deserted house on the auspices of buying the place. The band began an all-night party and shot the video when they were too drunk to care and returned the keys to the estate agent the next morning. For “Why Can’t I Be You” he had Smith dressed in a polar bear suit.
“When we started doing wacky videos,” recalls Smith, “the Bunnymen and New Order saw that it didn’t do us any harm and decided to follow our lead, although they’d be reluctant to admit as much. Especially after ‘Lovecats,’ groups realized that the audience welcomed that sense of humor. We love cultivating that gloomy goth image, but it’s hard to stop smiling.”
On their last British TV appearance, three months ago, Smith arrived on stage with smudged lipstick and eye makeup that made him look like a panda. The show’s producers refused to allow the band to play until the offending powder and paste was removed. Smith wouldn’t compromise and after hours of argument, the executives finally relented. Another guest on the show, Diana Ross, was distinctly unimpressed, but the Cure had a Top 5 single and once again the establishment was forced to swallow hard.
“The Robert Smith on TV or video isn’t the real Robert Smith. We go on TV and look completely out of place and scare everyone and take the piss. Outsiders think it’s really strange, but our fans know what’s going on. It’s not pantomime. It’s not me.”
In England these antics have made the Cure an institution, but in America they remain an enigma: a band that gets little radio play but managed to sell a million copies of their last album. Like Depeche Mode, who drew 68,000 people to the Pasadena Rose Bowl football stadium to celebrate publicly some very private music, the Cure and its supporters are one of America’s more obvious secrets, a youth culture as substantial and central to people’s lives as heavy metal’s or hip-hop’s. They are an obsession. The last time the Cure played in San Francisco, on July 27, 1986, a member of the audience climbed up onstage and stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest. The crowd of 18,000, thinking this to be part of the entertainment, cheered wildly.
“We find Americans a little obsessive and sinister,” says Smith.
* * *
“In America,” Smith says, “we’re known as a wacky kind of pop band. I think that’ll change with the new album.”
After Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the album that finally broke the band in America, and that Smith now dismisses as having been “too easy to make,” Smith decided not to pursue this success. “I think that we are, in an old-fashioned sense, an albums band, even though we’ve had a string of hit pop singles. Everyone wanted us to carry on down the road of singles like ‘Why Can’t I Be You’ and ‘Hot Hot Hot,’ but we didn’t. That is the beauty of your willfully obscure band. I didn’t want to get locked into another round of Star Hits interviews and decided to do something with a little bit more substance.
The result is Disintegration, which abandons the deranged hedonism of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and the fragments of dreams and ghoulish nightmares that rippled through 1985’s Head On The Door. Instead Smith has reverted back to his main themes of love, desperation, desolation and self-deprecation.
“I think it harks back to Faith and the period of ’80-’81. The last album, Kiss Me was more of a party record. Before we even started rehearsing, I had the title ‘Disintegration’ and I wanted the album’s end to convey an actual feeling of disintegration. Originally I was going to take perverse satisfaction in making a depressing album. There were these suicides in New Zealand which made the front page of the newspapers over there. These two boys had been listening to us when they killed themselves and the headline read something like ‘Gothic Cult Suicide.’ We had this stuck on the wall. I know it’s tragic, but at the same time it’s grimly funny because it obviously had nothing to do with us. We were just singled out. Everyone was joking about it being suicidal music and how I upset people with the words. This album was supposed to fulfill what was expected, but it hasn’t worked out that way. They’re certainly not uplifting, but there’s a satisfaction that comes from listening to something that you know a lot’s gone into. You can tell there are people involved and that those people care. I care a lot.
“The only trouble with being that committed to the album is that I’ve taken everything to a ludicrous perfectionist point where I’m fixated by it. So much has gone into it I just can’t let it go. I’ll be an unbearable perfectionist for a certain amount of time, then it all falls apart and I couldn’t give a shit about anything. I don’t ever seem to be able to enjoy a happy medium. I get obsessive about things, and then take a step back and realize that none of it’s important. In my scheme of things this record means nothing to me sometimes, and other times it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Smith wanted to produce an album of over an hour’s music—a CD album that would be listed from end to end without vinyl’s Side One and Two. “It’s our old idea of producing a thematic album, so you sit down and listen to it end to end on your own. This gave us the time to draw out sections and underplay sections. Rather than having to make the point in three or four minutes, we’ve allowed ourselves seven minutes. In that sense, the minimal way of recording, it goes back to our earliest stuff, rather than Top or Head or On The Door, where we tried to cram everything in. Those albums were good and they worked, but this is supposed to be a bigger-sounding record.
“I’ve never done it before, but on this album I was trying to image people listening to it. I had various imaginary and non-imaginary people who listened to the record and I found out what they’d feel listening to the songs. I was also singing to this audience I dreamt up inside my head. Some of them were critical and some accepted everything. They were all in different rooms in this hotel. No room service. I was trying to take them aback with the intensity I was trying to produce.”
The most intense moment on the album is the title track, “Disintegration.” On every Cure album there is one Robert Smith song that is a ferocious attack on Robert Smith. He seems to have a cathartic need to assault his own body and soul. “I’m desperately uncomfortable with my body,” he admits. “I have been ever since I’ve left school. I look at myself and think, ‘This can’t be me. Why am I inhabiting this body?’ I’ve always considered myself separate from my body. I’ve always thought it would be nice to have your entire self in a little metal sphere, that you could drop into an empty body of your choice. I’ve got an above-average body temperature, which I now realize is the root of a lot of my problems.”
Robert Smith is two degrees above normal.
“There’s always this sudden surge of horror at my being and it all comes out. A lot of bitterness came out about the Kiss Me tour and instead of going to confession, because I don’t believe in absolution, I write songs and try and find a point to things. It now exists as a song and the hatred has left me. I wanted to sing it all in one go and it was devastating trying to do it. I spent five nights getting it right. I had the lights off, waiting until I felt ready, did it, and then disappeared out the back door. You can’t fake vocals, especially with my voice, which just becomes transparent. I was having to put myself into these frames of mind in order to produce the required emotions.”
Smith only feels this effort is necessary because he still wants to affect people, to move people, transport them from one swirling kaleidoscope to another. “I’ve become more aware of that role. The fame side of things is through default really. It’s flattering, but it’s really an intrusion. When we were doing 17 Seconds and Faith and even Pornography, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been released, because we didn’t think anyone would listen to it. If this album wasn’t released it would matter because it’s partly been made for people to listen to.
“We do affect people, but hopefully in a good way, like I’m affected by a good record or a good book. I can accept it as natural now. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. In my mind there’s a little part of me with Cure songs in it, and it’s got ‘Siamese Twins,’ ‘Faith,’ ‘Figurehead,’ ’17 Seconds,’ and now this new track, ‘The Same Deep Water As You,’ has gone straight into that part of me. Even if this album fails, it doesn’t matter. It’s been worth it.”
* * *
Since the very start of the Cure, Smith has been prophesying the band’s imminent end. Perhaps this was to satisfy his need for an escape route. Perhaps he used the threat to test his own conviction in the Cure. Once again Smith has been heralding the group’s demise, this time with more vehemence. His scenes have been numbed by years of extreme sensations and bizarre experiences, making writing almost impossible.
“I’ve experience such extremes both in the band and in my personal life, feelings that last for just a few seconds at a time, that it’s like a drug. After a while, when they’re not there you notice the absence of it and nothing seems real anymore and nothing’s quite sharp enough or focused enough.
“I just can’t feel anything as keenly as I used to—pleasure or pain. I hold up the whole process of making Cure albums because I can’t write anymore. The Cure could produce two or three albums a year if I didn’t have to write the words. Everyone in the group takes the piss out of me because of my reality attacks. I’m sure you get it more as you get older and you realize the futility of days that go by when you don’t feel you need to experience anything. Unfortunately, in the past that’s led me into self-indulgence and excess, driving the group onwards … onwards and downwards to ever-greater feats of excess. Your emotional, physical and mental tolerance levels keep going up so it’s almost impossible to be surprised or delighted or shocked in a childlike way anymore.
“When you do recapture that feeling, it makes it even more painful, because you realize that it’s still there and unattainable. When I was singing a song off the new album, ‘The Same Deep Water As You,’ in the studio I was completely overcome for about 15 minutes. I was amazed I could still feel like this about something, which made it more disappointing when I woke up the next day and I didn’t feel anything at all.
“The logical end to this is that I stop writing, which I probably will. Whenever I write songs, I can never conceive of a next time. There has to be a need to write songs. There’s no financial need and no need for glory. If I don’t want to go through another three months agonizing over a record and exhausting myself then I won’t. The need has to outweigh the distress it causes. I’m glad that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do. If it stops, then that’s O.K. There’s a point to my life. That’s the one consistent thing about the Cure—this constant search for a point.”
Is the Cure a career?
“No, a trial! Longevity was never planned for. I always equated initial success with a short lifespan, so we deliberately went about not being successful to begin with. What I wanted to achieve for the Cure, I can never achieve. I wanted it to be perfect, the perfect group, so I’m never satisfied.”
What do you want?
“I’ve always wanted to get away with murder,” he replies. “A real murder. Or perhaps now I’ll finally do my solo album. I’ve got all these songs that never seemed right for the Cure to do. Before this album I was joking that the Cure would make an instrumental album, but now I definitely think that if we do make another record, it’ll be instrumental. It would be a more filmic way of writing, which I think would be really good fun.
“No, come to think of it, I don’t think the Cure will end, but I can make up an ending if you want me to.”