This article originally appeared in the July 1987 issue of SPIN.
It was the very last edition of The Tube, the most interesting pop show on British TV. After five eventful years, the program had finally succumbed to political pressure and maybe simple fatigue. Between tearful farewells and regretful retrospectives, The Cure took the stage to soothe and excite the studio audience.
Presenter Paula Yates had a point when she said there was something about The Cure that made you want to dress up in a teddy bear suit and snuggle up beside them. Robert Smith didn’t comment. Instead, he sang, “Why Can’t I Be You,” wriggling at the microphone in a shapeless suit and training shoes, rolling his eyes and pouting coyly through his bright pink lipstick.
Looking at this androgynous figure, who might have been on temporary release from some sort of institution for disturbed children, it would be easy to conclude that Robert is a very strange boy. Actually, he’s very shrewd, and in his own silent way rather ruthless. Consequently, have proved more resilient than The Tube.
“I’ve always been horribly overconfident in anything I’ve done, almost to the point of arrogance,” he’d admitted earlier. “I’ve always been naturally quiet, but even when I was starting and I was quite shy, I was always very arrogant with regards to what I was doing. But quietly arrogant, not an Ian McCulloch sort of arrogant or a Morrissey arrogant.”
“But I think now I’ve reached a point where I’ve been vindicated over certain things. Listening to our records like Pornography and Faith, I still think they’re good. They weren’t just the whims of this brat, even though they were horribly slandered. It’s good that there’s been very little I would change. That gives you confidence. It’s better to have done something you’re happy with than to wake up and discover you’re actually Nik Kershaw.”
Smith sits across the table from me on a train rollicking up towards Newcastle, home of The Tube. He looks like he’s spent the night up a tree, but he’s cheerful and talks enthusiastically. As he does, one notices the lipstick stains left over from the night before, clinging to the corners of his mouth. “It’s just force of habit now,” he casually explains. “I keep a stick of lipstick on a string by the mirror and just daub some on when I go out.”
Back in 1979 there was no sign of the lipstick, or Smith’s ambition, or the false clues and curious digressions he would employ to fulfill it. Thin, pale, and withdrawn, he launched The Cure with the minimalist pop of Three Imaginary Boys. In real life, the boys were Smith, bassist Michael Dempsey, and drummer Lol Tolhurst—three school friends from Crawley, a countrified, middle-class suburb of London.
They had started out two years earlier as Easy Cure, been signed briefly by Hansa Records, and made some demo tapes that caught the attention of Chris Parry, a resourceful A&R man who signed the band to his fledgling Fiction label.
Parry is a lean, bright-eyed New Zealander who soon lets you know if he thinks you’re talking bullshit. “I suppose it’s been a process of the band reducing things down to the bare essentials, and they never got to the point where they thought they could reduce me out of it,” he reflects.
Despite Parry’s involvement, The Cure manage themselves (which mostly means Robert) while Parry looks after Fiction and its relationship with its relevant major label partners—PolyGram in most territories, Elektra in the States.
“Chris deals with the idiots that I would otherwise have to deal with,” says Smith. “He loves it, he treats it as a game. He actually likes that side of it, the side that I despise, the wheeling and dealing. We’ve got on with him for nine years, so I don’t suppose we’ll bother splitting up now. He knows what I want and he knows how far he can go. Same with The Cure.”
The first album was nervy and novel, produced by Parry with a crisp mathematical skill. Though The Cure’s music had been galvanized by the attitude of the punks, Smith was never truly one of them. He was always too clever, too proud, too superior to want to sound like Sid Vicious or David Vanian, let alone look like them. Conceptually, he was light years ahead.
“I remember we supported Wire very soon after their first album came out, and I was very taken with the power they had onstage,” he recalls. “They were very stark, very minimal, though that was a very overused word at the time. I wanted to strip everything down. Three Imaginary Boys was a very basic record, but it was from a different angle. It was like taking conventional pop songs and reinterpreting them.”
With hindsight, that debut album now sounds airless and alienated to an impossible, almost comical degree. The band members remained obstinately hidden, their places taken on the LP sleeve by a fridge, a standard lamp, and a vacuum cleaner. There wouldn’t have even been a track listing if somebody hadn’t managed to get a sticker put on the front, since there were no titles on the label, only maddeningly oblique symbols.
There was also no trace of the dole-queue rage and bondage-trousered spleen of the punk rabble. It was more like the petulance of spoiled middle-class kids, bored with comfortable suburban life and hell-bent on getting on a stage to prove how pissed off they were. If people paid to hear their whining, so much the better.
“I was very angst-ridden, very dislocated,” Smith confesses, beaming pleasantly. “I don’t think there’s any sense of emotion on that first album at all. A lot of it was very superficial—I didn’t even like it at the time. There were criticisms made that it was very lightweight, and I thought they were justified. Even when we’d make it, I wanted to do something I though had more substance to it.”
It was a start, but a misleading one. Without warning, Smith embarked on a sequence of metamorphoses that would become ever more distressing. First came 17 Seconds, on which The Cure consciously put distance between themselves and their debut album. A balance might have been struck between its opulent instrumental gloom and the pop knack that Smith seemed determined to disown, but he was apparently locked into the dark side.
And it got worse before it got better. Faith was released in 1981, though its mood of grim foreboding was at least leavened by the single “Primary.” But it was followed a year later by Pornography, possible the most dismal long-player of the decade so far.
“Seventeen Seconds was the most personal record that we’ve ever done, strangely enough,” Smith murmurs now, “lyrically, content-wise. Pornography is just a very odd record that was made by a very odd group. I don’t think I would recognize myself around that time. I was undergoing a lot of mental stress. But it had nothing to do with the group, it just had to to do with what I was like, my age and things. I think I got to my worst round about Pornography. Looking back and getting other people’s opinions of what went on, I was a pretty monstrous sort of person at that time.”
Smith’s mood swings were counterpointed by regular personal changes within The Cure. Michael Dempsey was replaced by Simon Gallup after the first album. Gallup himself left after Pornography, following in the footsteps of temporary keyboard player Matthieu Hartley. The Cure was thus reduced to Smith and the ever-loyal Lol Tolhurst. Then when Smith joined Siouxsie and the Banshees as guitarist, it looked like the end.
Anybody who’d backed The Cure in the beginning had reason to feel cheated. Many critics had sensed a kindred spirit in the increasingly lugubrious Smith, who offered an ideal pretext for turgid analysis, but he was slipping away from them. He toured the world with the Banshees, but, determined to keep some semblance of The Cure in the public eye, managed to find a bassist, a drummer (Tolhurst had now switched to keyboards), and a spot of spare time to record “The Lovecats.” The song was jive-tinged, commercial, and shockingly playful, entirely atypical of Smith’s previous work.
It was a trailblazer for the pop wackiness that would transform the band over the next couple of years, and it was handsomely assisted by a ludicrous promo clip directed by Tim Pope. For the first time, people saw the cute and kittenish side of The Cure, and they liked it.
“I think that side of them was always there, but was never brought out,” Pope says. “It hasn’t really been imposed on them. Robert tends to put out silly singles that don’t really represent the whole thing of The Cure, so it’s easy to make silly films of silly songs.”
Pope’s natural influence on The Cure has been nourished by a natural sympathy between himself and Smith. They’ve hit upon very similar ideas for promos without exchanging a word. In 1985 he packed The Cure into a wardrobe for “Close To Me”; he’s dressed them as polar bears and big-game hunters for the new “Why Can’t I Be You?”; and he’s currently dreaming up possibilities for “Catch,” which will be shot near Nice in a house uncannily reminiscent of the mansion in Sunset Boulevard. It’s occupied by a 91-year-old woman who writes jazz songs about vicars and prostitutes.
“The Cure are not afraid to do anything, and Robert doesn’t particularly want to look cool,” Pope adds. “Because of that, you can make great films with them. There’s none of this pop star pretension with him at all.”
But in 1984, few people would have bet on The Cure’s artistic resonance, as Smith’s double life began to take its toll. Drink and hallucinogens prompted weird behavior in embarrassingly public places, and rumors started to fly. He was “Mad Bob,” the “Fat Boy,” the schizophrenic who recorded The Top with The Cure during the day, then drove at high speed through the British countryside to make the Hyaena album with Siouxsie and the Banshees at night. There’s a photo of him on the Hyaena sleeve in which he looks ready to be whisked off the face of earth at any second. Smith was rattling downhill without any breaks.
“I was sleeping an average of two hours a night for about a month and drinking all the time. I just went completely mental again, which is what had happened around Pornography. You suddenly just snap and really lose touch with what’s going on. I became really ugly, mentally ugly. It got to the point where I woke up one morning and thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve got to stop this.’ At that point The Cure were on tour. I phoned the Banshees the same day and said, ‘I can’t cope, I’ve just got to go on holiday.’ Which I did for six weeks, and if I hadn’t, I would have suffered some serious mental damage.”
“So I have limits and I know what they are. I think the rock ‘n’ roll myth of living on the edge is a pile of crap That should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of intelligence, that you can’t be a drunk and do anything. You can’t walk about in an alcoholic stupor and make records. Actually, that’s not quite true—the Birthday Party made a fucking good stab at it. Generally you can’t.”
By the middle of 1985, a rejuvenated Smith had built a new Cure, with Pool Thompson on guitar, Boris Williams on drums, and the prodigal Simon Gallup reinstated on bass. Smith and Gallup had known each other for years and had both friends and pubs in common. Smith finally healed the rift by tracking down Gallup in a local saloon and celebrating in the accustomed manner. By the end of the year, the band had released the hit singles “In-Between Days” and “Close to Me” and a fine album, The Head on the Door.
The new double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, represents some kind of new start. Last year The Cure cleared the decks by releasing the Standing on a Beach singles collection, with accompanying video cassette. In Smith’s view, Kiss Me is “like an end to what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years. It seemed to be like the singles album—literally a retrospective album. This one is taking bits from everything we’ve done, all the bits that I’ve liked. But there’s a single album’s worth of that and a single album’s worth of stuff we’ve never really attempted before.”
The idea, apparently, is to provide something for everyone, especially the hitherto hesitant Americans. The band will tour the U.S. in July, when the’ll be augmented by synth player Roger O’Donnell, stolen from the Psychedelic Furs.
“We have a resistance on AOR radio,” Chris Parry points out. “The Cure isn’t the way radio programmers see AOR radio going in North America. I think that’s a load of shit, but that’s the way it is.”
Still, American listeners bought 600,000 copies of Standing on a Beach, which has to be a start. But its success was accompanied by a tide of awkward publicity, generated by the inclusion of “Killing an Arab,” the band’s first UK single. The album was released shortly after the Tripoli air raids, and the song was used as a propaganda tool on some radio stations, prompting complaints from the American Arab League. They petitioned Elektra to have the track withdrawn.
“I issued an enormous press statement explaining it all,” Smith reflects, “and I said that Elektra could delete the album but I wouldn’t allow them to take the song off it. They’re two different types of enforced censorship, but one seemed more artistically acceptable than the other. I also wrote a sticker for the front cover, saying what the song was about. We’ve had it withdrawn from all airplay in America, then a couple of months ago it started in Canada, so we had to do exactly the same there.”
Oddly, the song passed more or less unnoticed in England. “We played at Aston University and there was a three-person demonstration against the song. So we went onstage and introduced it as ‘Killing an Englishman,’ and sang ‘Killing an Englishman’ all the way through. It made the point. From then on we never had any problems until this.”
Smith remains relaxed about The Cure’s American prospects. Even if American radio remains perplexed by whatever it is The Cure have got, the group’s U.S. audience is far from meager. And they sell records and concert tickets on an improbably Beatles-like scale in France, enjoy healthy sales throughout the rest of Europe, and recently caused riots in Argentina and Brazil. In other words, the rent gets paid.
“I’m not very materially minded,” Smith says. “The first thing I bought when I had any money was a bed. I bought the biggest bed I could find. Then I bought a jeep, and after there was nothing else that I wanted. As long as I’ve got enough money to buy books and eat, I’m not really bothered. I don’t know how much money I have in that sense. I know how much money The Cure earn, I keep tabs on that. Otherwise someone would start stealing it.”
(Question to Chris Parry: Does Robert have a good business brain? Parry: “Yeah, yeah. Fine. Next question.”)
Apart from anything else, master plans and marketing decisions simply aren’t Smith’s style. “When anything in The Cure camp is planned, inevitably it goes wrong,” he says. “If we’ve reached a certain point that most people aspire to, we’ve got there by default.”
Smith’s quixotic stubbornness has a curious appeal. Nobody quite understands why The Cure are so massive in France, including the French, who keep asking Robert why it is. Perhaps it’s because French people like to think of themselves as being logical while The Cure are completely the opposite. “It’s a reaction by the young people against what they’re supposed to be like,” Robert thinks. “They like us because we’re odd.”
And the Americans seem to think you’re gay, Robert. “Do they?” he says, faintly but genuinely surprised. “That’s because no one ever sees Mary. We’ve been going together for 13 years—13 years of gayness! She hates having her photograph taken. She hates being associated with me. She thinks of me as her boyfriend, not as her being my girlfriend. I prefer having a girlfriend to having a wife. Mary’s never asked me to marry her, anyway.”
Smith chuckles secretively, possibly realizing this is a relationship nobody else has the faintest chance of understanding. “And people probably think I’m gay because I’m very close to Simon [Gallup]. We’re not worried about being seen with our arms round each other in public. In fact, none of the group is, really. It’s a very tight-knit community.”
“I actually think it’s that we’re not growing up, we’re growing down. It comes from everyone liking each other much more than in any other format of the group. There’s never been a line-up that could run about holding hands and wearing dresses on national television like this group does.”