The Cure at 40: How Robert Smith became an enduring, unlikely rock star

Lyndsey Parker
Yahoo Music

The Cure, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week with a mega-concert in London’s Hyde Park, was “alternative” before some marketing think-thank coined that term — truly alternative, in the genuine sense of the term. And yet, despite releasing many willfully anti-commercial albums, group leader Robert Smith has become one of music’s most enduring, if unlikely, rock stars, earning the undying loyalty of an ’80s generation that found salvation in his anguished elegies over the past four decades.

The Cure’s ascendance from moody post-punks to bona fide stadium rockers may seem like one of rock ‘n’ roll most strangest success stories, but in this never-seen 2005 interview with Smith, longtime bassist Simon Gallup, and current drummer Jason Cooper, Smith explains it was all part of a great masterplan — launched by 1982’s uncharacteristically synthy Eurodisco single, “Let’s Go to Bed.”

“I think after the Pornography album, we went sort of pop-weird for a while,” Smith chuckles, acknowledging that the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography trilogy “cemented our reputation, I suppose, for being ‘dismal, doomy, and gloomy.’” But the band had already demonstrated their pop chops on their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, which — contrary to Smith’s claim that that era featured “the worst stuff” in the Cure discography — included future classics and setlist staples like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” and “Fire in Cairo.”

Says Smith: “That’s the weird misconception about the group, is that we went from being kind of dark and gloomy to being a pop group in the ‘80s. But… there was a tradition already in place for me of like wanting to have that pop side. I didn’t want to let it go, but it came to the fore again after we did Pornography, because it wasn’t really anywhere else to go with that lineup. … I thought the Cure should become something else.”

It was then that the Cure temporarily reinvented itself as the new wave duo of Smith and band co-founder Lol Tolhurst (“There was this short period when the Cure was me and this funny-looking bloke who used to dance around behind me”), and Smith set his sights on world domination.

“The only way that I could get Cure music played on the radio was to make something that was radio-friendly. So ‘Let’s Go to Bed’ was entirely designed [to do that]. It was the only time we’ve ever done it, to get us played on the radio, particularly in America. And it worked!”

And so, just as that catchy single’s “through the right doorway” line prophesied, “Suddenly the door opened a chink, and we put our big feet into it and pulled it open,” Smith confesses. “The good side of it was that we didn’t go into it thinking, ‘We’re going to be a really successful pop group!’ The B-sides were always really dark, and we used [‘Let’s Go to Bed’] to introduce people to the other side of the band. So, there was a kind of plan in place.”

The Cure dramatically reversed course again with the malevolent psychedelia of 1984’s The Top, before toying with MTV (or at least 120 Minutes) success again with 1985’s The Head on the Door and its double-album follow-up, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Ironically, when the band released its epic eighth studio effort, 1989’s magnificently melancholy magnum opus Disintegration, Smith considered it an unofficial companion to the dark and brutal Pornography and a concerted effort to return to the more claustrophobically depressing — and presumably less commercial — sound of the Cure’s earlier material. And yet Disintegration yielded the band’s first and only U.S. top 10 single, “Lovesong,” which was later covered by Adele, 311, and American Idol winner Candice Glover. Kyle from South Park even rightfully declared DisintegrationTHE BEST ALBUM EVER!” The Cure have been headlining amphitheaters and arenas ever since — even though they haven’t released a studio album since 2008’s 4:13 Dream — without ever really “selling out.”

And yet, despite the band’s many stylistic switch-ups throughout the years, the Cure is still primarily known as the godfathers of Goth. Smith balks at that label. “We were never really part of the Goth scene,” he insists. “It emerged around about the time of Pornography, possibly just before 1981, 1982. I used to go to a place called the Bat Cave in London, with bands like Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend — they started the Goth scene, and the Banshees, I suppose. But we weren’t ever part of it. We didn’t look the part. If you look back at pictures of us around that time, we never looked like Goths! It used to really bug me, like I wanted nothing to do with it, but obviously we were embraced to a degree and have been down the years by a certain part of the Goth scene. We’re sort of part of the culture. But we’re tolerated, I think, more than embraced most of the time, because we dare to do other things. It’s always a problem if you step outside of a genre — then you’re kind of like barred. You’re not allowed to be a member of that club, which has never really interested us.”

“At one point we were also the ‘godfathers of shoegazing,’ which was another sort of quick trend that went,” Gallup adds.

“When that comes back, we will reclaim our rightful place,” Smith jokes, adding more seriously: “When we’re pigeonholed to any kind of genre, we don’t really pay that much attention to it, because Cure fans do like a lot of different styles of music. I mean, predominantly they wear dark-colored clothes, but that’s kind of it. There is a part of the audience which is a very hardcore kind of Goth crowd, but we would never have been as successful as we’ve been if we’d stuck to this narrow idea of what we should be doing. So, it’s really been driven by the desire to do whatever we want. In a funny way, it’s a very selfish sort of reason as to why we’re still going.”

The “Gothic” tag has probably stuck over the years thank to Smith’s lyrics – this is a man, after all, who proclaimed “It doesn’t matter if we all die” on Pornography’s “One Hundred Years,” and has penned songs with titles “The Funeral Party,” “Torture,” and “Piggy in the Mirror,” to name but a few.

“It has been difficult, the fact that I’m still around and that I do enjoy what I do so much — it does sit uneasily at times with some of the words I write. I’m very aware of that,” Smith says. “But the fact remains that I do struggle with the futility of existence. It’s as bald a fact as that. Because I don’t have faith in anything other. And so, from time to time, that is overwhelming.

“It’s angst, basically, and it’s always qualified with teenage angst in that some way, as if magically when you get to 20, it becomes ‘What was I worried about? Life means this!’” says Smith, who was 46 years old at the time of this interview, and is now nearing 60. “But in my darker hours, I still am kind of haunted by the same things: It’s that sense of hopelessness and not ever actually achieving anything, and just kind of drifting through space and time. So, there is that weird dichotomy and paradox between the fact that I’m going out and really enjoying [performing], but I’m singing very downbeat songs. But I think people understand. People get it. I think the people who don’t get it aren’t going to get what we do.”

Smith has been the Cure’s only constant member (“There have been different bands called the Cure… four-and-a half lineups,” he says), with a dozen other musicians rotating in and out since 1978. And Smith seems to prefer it that way. “There are one or two bands who have been around as long as us who’ve kept basically the same lineup, and I find that weird — unimaginable, actually,” he admits. “I couldn’t bear it. … There can be too much shared experience. You get like older married couples who just eat in silence. That’s how I imagine [bands] who have been together for too long. So, it’s actually a much healthier thing to kind of evolve.”

“Don’t you think it shouldn’t be considered such an odd thing that we have done different types of music and not kept to one style?” muses Gallup, who’s lasted the longest in the lineup, playing from 1979 to 1982 and then permanently rejoining in 1985. “If you think about it, it’s more odd that so many bands have pigeonholed themselves to one style and won’t ever move out of that. I mean, that’s a really, really self-confining thing. I think that’s stranger.”

“In part, the lineup changes over the years have been driven by that desire to get a different dynamic and a different set of people playing a different kind of music,” Smith elaborates. “Thankfully, most of them have left the band voluntarily. No, wait. I wish I hadn’t said that! They haven’t, actually.”

Smith is clearly referring to Tolhurst — initially the Cure’s drummer, before moving to keyboards — who was fired from the during the making of Disintegration and later unsuccessfully sued Smith for royalties. “It’s funny, because we were talking about Lol earlier, and I actually really admired his playing when I was younger, listening to those records. I liked the fact it was a very minimal sort of sound,” says Cooper. “But as I’ve learned subsequently, that minimalism came from a disinterest to play the more complicated beats.”

“An inability,” Smith clarifies. “Looking back at the time, it got very frustrating when we got to the Pornography album — which in fact, me and Simon used to play a lot of the drums of Pornography. We used to stand there in front of Lol and bully him, and we’d take a drum each. It was very much a collaborative effort, just the drumming, but there was a really strong sense of frustration that grew through those albums at the time with how Lol couldn’t kind of step beyond. He would always do things in the same way. But again, looking back, it really saved us, the fact that he couldn’t be flamboyant, that he couldn’t throw in drum fills and that we actually stayed with a very minimal sound. Everyone was like, ‘That’s very clever!’ People thought it was like postmodern and everything. It was just based on the fact that Lol couldn’t play any better.”

Tolhurst and Smith eventually repaired their friendship, and Tolhurst did reunite with the Cure in 2011 when the band performed their first three minimal albums in their entirety at the “Reflections” concerts in Sydney, London, New York, and Los Angeles. But he won’t be there for this week’s Hyde Park celebration, nor will other past Cure members.

“There’s not really a great desire for us to do that ‘Let’s all get back together and hold hands and join in a rendition of “A Forest,”’ however marvelous it would be,” Smiths quips. “I did toy with the idea. … I thought it might be quite sweet to get everyone together. And then I started to think about the reality of it and what it would actually look and sound like onstage, and I started to sweat. So, I thought, ‘No, it’s best just left to everyone’s imagination.’ We could do some kind of puppet show or a really bad cartoon of it to commemorate it, but in real life, I don’t think it would work.”

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