The Cure - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
For the past 30 years, The Cure have specialized in the juxtaposition of paranoid gloom and infectious alternative pop. World-renowned as the vehicle for Robert Smith’s introspective songwriting and profound eclecticism, The Cure began as one of many English post-punk bands of the late ’70s, but quickly became the supreme voice of sensitive, disenfranchised teenagers. The band has survived numerous line-up changes, massive commercial highs and lows, nervous breakdowns, and inter-band turmoil. Along with his smeared lipstick and wild hair, Smith’s heavily accented vocal wail has become a part of pop-iconography. By the end of the ’80s, The Cure was arguably the biggest alternative group in the world, but a prolonged lawsuit combined with lengthy periods of inactivity slowed the group down in the 1990s. Yet in the mid-2000’s, Smith and company made a significant comeback, releasing albums as profound and iconic as their ’80s material. The Cure’s never-ending road to ruin is littered with the some of the most bewitching bipolar rock music ever conceived, and after three decades, the band’s wild mood swings are as prolific as ever.
The Cure gained prominence in the 1980’s as kings of the alternative movement, yet their roots stretch all the way back to the dawn of punk in the mid-1970s. When Robert Smith formed the band in Crawley, Sussex, England in 1976, they were heavily influenced by the DIY punk aesthetic. The earliest incarnation of the The Cure included drummer Laurence Tolhurst and Michael Dempsey on bass, with Smith on lead guitar and vocals. In the beginning the band played loud lo-fi power-punk under various monikers before settling on Easy Cure in 1977. After a botched deal with Hansa Records, the band shortened their name to The Cure and recorded a demo tape that found its way into the hands of Chris Parry, president of the fledgling Fiction Records label. Parry arranged for the band’s debut single, “Killing An Arab,” to be released on the small independent label Small Wonder in the winter of 1978. Middle Eastern hooks and post-punk bravado garnered “Killing An Arab” a warm critical reception although accusations of racism soon followed. Contrary to the popular belief of the time, “Killing An Arab” was actually written as homage to the Albert Camus novella, The Stranger.
Subsequent pressings of the single in 1979 were adorned with a sticker denying any racist connotations, and Parry signed The Cure to Fiction that same year. The band released their debut full-length, Three Imaginary Boys (Fiction) in early summer 1979 to positive reviews, although Smith was dissatisfied with the flat production of the album. He would and blame the problem on their limited experience in the studio later on. That same year, the group released the classic singles, “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping on Someone Else’s Train,” which quickly became underground hits throughout England and Europe.
The Cure embarked on a tour opening for Siouxsie and the Banshees across the British Isles, with Smith filling in for John McKay after the guitarist quit the Banshees halfway through. Smith’s association with Siouxsie and the Banshees would continue throughout the 1980s, and he eventually became an unofficial member of the group.
At the dawn of the ’80s, The Cure released the compilation, Boys Don’t Cry (1980 Fiction), which culled their non-album singles along with a few new tracks. The album was released in order to increase their visibility in overseas markets.
After recruiting a fourth member—keyboardist Mathieu Hartley—the band began work on their proper sophomore album. Seventeen Seconds (1980 Fiction) found The Cure mining darker soundscapes with moodier introspective lyrics from Smith, and it spawned the fan favorite single, “A Forest.” With Michael Dempsey being replaced by Simon Gallup, the songs were more focused and the album received higher critical praise than its predecessor.
The band subsequently embarked on their first worldwide tour, which found Hartley abruptly quitting the group after the Australian leg. The Cure’s third full-length, Faith (Fiction) followed in the Fall of 1981, and the effort continued to mine the semi-gothic vein opened on Seventeen Seconds. Adding heavier atmospherics and an even more foreboding sound, the oft-times funereal vibe of Faith was vintage Cure. The album was once again critically praised and the single “Primary” became the highest charting single up to the point, peaking at #25.
The non-album single, “Charlotte Sometimes,” was released during the winter of ’81 and further explored the band’s gothic tendencies. Around this time The Cure began ignoring requests at shows to play older material with Smith falling deeper into a prolonged depression that would rear its ugly head during the making of their next record.
Pornography (1982 Fiction) is still considered a classic Cure album and remains a fan favorite. Unlike the snotty post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys and the moody atmospherics of Faith, the album continuously erupts in layers of violent guitar distortion with Smith often screaming at the top of his lungs. The ferocity of Pornography directly reflects Smith’s plunge into the depths of a nihilistic depression that nearly broke the band up. The album didn’t contain any radio-friendly singles except for “The Hanging Garden,” which had to be remixed to make it suitable for radio play. Despite its brutal tonalities, Pornography broke the UK Top 10 and became The Cure’s first hit album. Yet the tension between the individual members that began in the studio only escalated on the ensuing Fourteen Explicit Moments Tour, and Gallop quit the group shortly after. The tour remains notable, however, as it marked the first time the band adopted their notorious gothic appearance of smeared lipstick and showers of teased black hair, which Smith still sports to this day.
After Gallop’s departure, the future of the band went into serious doubt and Smith put The Cure on hiatus in order to play with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Concerned about the future of his label’s crown jewel, Parry convinced the group to reconvene and consider abandoning their gothic aesthetic for a more pop-friendly sound. The members of The Cure conceded and released the playfully erotic pop single, “Let’s Go To Bed” at the end of 1982. Smith returned to Siouxsie and the Banshees throughout the first half of 1983 as the guitarist for the recording of Hyaena (1984 Geffen) and accompanied the group on their support tour.
By the summer of ‘83 however, The Cure were back at work on their fourth full-length album with a new line-up featuring Andy Anderson on drums and Phil Thornalley on bass, with Tolhurst moving to keyboards. The Top (1984 Fiction) is largely a transitional album with the band attempting to mix their new-found alternative pop personality with the gloomy psychedelic goth rock of Pornography. The result is an album equally divided into the two genres with varying results. Only the jazz-flavored pop single, “The Caterpillar,” would be a moderate hit, and The Cure decided it had to evolve to keep the band relevant.
The world tour for The Top was an unmitigated disaster, as the band suffered from inertia and its performances became dispirited. A postmortem led to the dismissal of the newest members, Anderson and Thornalley. Former bassist Simon Gallop, long the key figure and soundboard to the songwriter in Smith, returned to the fold in early 1985 and served as a much needed shot in the arm for the band. The Cure also added drummer Boris Williams and solidified the line-up with a second guitarist, Porl Thompson. This iteration would endure through the remainder of the 1980s.
The Head on the Door (1985 Fiction) would become The Cure’s first successful attempt at melding their melodic pop sensibilities with the gothic persona—a wholly original song formula that would catapult them to worldwide fame. The album broke the UK Top 10 and the U.S. Top 100 on the strength of the ’80s pop standard, “In-Between Days,” and the smash hit, “Close to Me.” The Head on the Door was a complete shift from the bleak album, The Top, and established The Cure as kingpins of the ’80s alternative movement.
The following year the band released their first best of compilation, The Cure: Staring at the Sea (1986 Elektra), which contained all their album and non-album singles. The release only served to fuel their popularity, particularly in the United States where the band was quickly garnering a diehard cult following.
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987 Fiction) was the largest undertaking of the group’s career up that point. Focusing on their gothic-pop persona, the immense double-album boasted the funked-up hit “Hot Hot Hot,” the manic party track “Why Can’t I Be You?” and the unrequited love song “Just Like Heaven.” For the support tour, the band was headlining and selling out arena-sized venues throughout the world. However, the road would again bring to a head tumult within the band—as the tour wore on the relationship between founding member Laurence Tolhurst and the rest of the band fell apart. By tour’s end, Tolhurst’s increasing drug and alcohol intake had become a monkey on the back of the entire band. When the band reconvened in 1988 to begin work on their eighth full-length album, the other members of The Cure gave Smith an ultimatum: either Tolhurst went or they did. Smith chose the former option and fired Tolhurst, recruiting former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Roger O’Donnell to take his place.
Disintegration (1989 Fiction) boiled down all The Cure’s previous sonic incarnations into a flawless thick miasma that oozed slow melancholic beauty. The album shot The Cure into the mainstream on the strength of huge hit singles like the sinister “Fascination Street,” the heart on sleeve “Love Song,” the epic elegance of “Pictures of You,” and the mischievously lurid “Lullaby.” By the end of 1989, The Cure was officially one of the biggest bands in the world. The following year they released their first remix album, Mixed Up (1990 Elektra) featuring another hit single with the psychedelic rocker “Never Enough.”
The worldwide tour for Disintegration went on for more than a year and at its conclusion O’Donnell left the group and was replaced by long-time roadie, Perry Bamonte. After 13 years and eight albums, The Cure took a break from recording and touring. They would return in 1992 with Wish (1992 Fiction), another massively successful album. The album was divided into pristine radio-friendly pop songs and violent psychedelic tracks, a dichotomy that worked well. Critical reviews were mixed, but the album debuted at #1 on the UK charts and #2 in the U.S. Jubilant pop singles “Friday I’m In Love” and “High” quickly became huge radio hits, and again The Cure embarked on a year-long tour.
Concerts in Detroit and Paris were recorded and released as the live albums Show (Elektra) and Paris (Elektra) in 1993. Once again, success was followed by turmoil. Former member Tolhurst slapped a lawsuit on Smith and Fiction Records for ownership of the name “The Cure” and disputed royalties, all of which derailed the band’s progress on the Wish follow-up. The courts eventually sided with Smith and Fiction Records, but by the time the Robert Smith was ready to get back to work, both drummer Boris Williams and multi-instrumentalist Porl Thompson had left the band. Smith recruited drummer Jason Cooper and invited keyboardist Roger O’Donnell back into the fold, and The Cure began work on their long overdue tenth LP.
Although the sound of Wild Mood Swings (1996 Elektra) isn’t that far removed from Wish, the three-year gap between albums caused The Cure to lose much of their mainstream momentum. Singles like the poppy “Mint Car” and “The 13th” were moderate hits but the album didn’t come near the success of their two previous efforts, and Wild Mood Swings quickly slipped off the charts.
Hoping to regain some of their lost commercial success, the band released their second greatest hits compilation, Galore (1997 Elektra). The album featured the new track, “Wrong Number,” but it didn’t sustain any chart success. Galore quickly fell off the charts, leaving the commercial fate of The Cure in dire straits.
By the dawn of the millennium, The Cure had been together for 24 years and achieved success beyond their wildest dreams. But with the decline of album sales and waning popularity and still one album left on their contract with Elektra, Robert Smith began to seriously consider retiring the band. Sensing the end was near, Smith decided to make The Cure’s eleventh full-length the band’s last fully-realized artistic statement. Billed by Smith as the third and final installment of the “gothic trilogy”—Pornography and Disintegration being the first two—Bloodflowers (2000 Fiction) delivered The Cure’s stately hallmark melancholy in spades, even garnering the group a Grammy nomination. Although the album didn’t deliver any successful mainstream singles as previous efforts, the band’s diehard fanbase broadened yet again and The Cure set out on the Dream Tour. It was wildly successful, being attended by over one million people all over the world.
The following year the band issued their third greatest hits album, Greatest Hits (2001, Elektra), complete with a companion DVD of all their music videos. With their contract with Fiction officially expired, The Cure signed to Geffen in 2003. The first Cure box set, Join the Dots: B-Sides and Rarities, 1978-2001 The Fiction Years (Fiction/Rhino) was released in 2004. That same year the band released their twelfth full-length album, the eponymous The Cure (2004 Geffen), which again embraced the band’s signature pop-meets-Goth aesthetic. Although critics painted the album as Cure-by-numbers, it did produce the moderate hit single, “The End of the World,” and for the first time Smith conceded that band was not going to retire but continue to make records as long as there was an audience for them.
The Cure headlined the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2004 before embarking on their traveling Curiosa Festival Tour, featuring notable up-and-coming bands like Interpol and Muse. By 2005, however, the band underwent more line-up changes when both O’Donnell and Bamonte left the group. The Cure continued as a trio for a short time before former member Porl Thompson rejoined the ranks.
In 2008, The Cure released their thirteenth studio album, 4:13 Dream (Geffen), which was a return to 1992’s poppier Wish. The album peaked at #16 on the Billboard 200.