The Cure, “Strange Days: an expression of sounds”, part one 1977-1979

1472848488_smallIf you are familiar with the Porl Thompson post over here you will be aware of the encyclopaedic knowledge of Craig through his comments.

I asked Craig if he fancied writing an article or two and he has responded with the following opus – the first of ten part on the evolution of the Cure, starting here with their humble beginnings…  Thank you Craig – I really enjoyed this…

The Cure, “Strange Days: an expression of sounds”, part one 1977-1979

1980480803_small_1It has been said that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ and this exercise is proving the rule.  I’ve broken The Cure’s history up into ten different parts and for the most part each dovetails nicely into the next, apart from the somewhat uncertain period of 1982/3/4.  You can consider that era a dovetail that’s missing a few feathers.

The first era, 1977-79, was probably the most difficult as there is so little surviving evidence of just exactly what occurred at the beginning.  It’s a bit like the ‘big bang’ theory; we all know where we are now but no one saw how it started.  The second disc of the ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ deluxe edition is all we have.

There were numerous line-up changes during the 1977-79 period and most of the performances (and even the names of some of the participants) have been lost to time.  This is not one of those instances where forty years later we’re all bemoaning the fact that all those ‘priceless’ recordings and gigs did not survive.  What we do have shows that the early stuff was not even proto-Cure but almost pre-proto-Cure; they were still a few steps away from even being recognizable.  The participants hadn’t developed their distinctive ‘sounds’ at that point and much of it sounds pretty derivative.  The ‘plaintive wail’ we all know and love was nowhere in sight.  Keeping in mind that the punk rock explosion (another ‘big bang’ but very well documented) had occurred not even 12 months beforehand, it’s only natural that a new band with a limited pallette would want to draw some color from what was exciting and happening all around them…and they did.

77-easycure-5The early live material shows a band that has something to say but hasn’t figured out yet how to say it.  Not an auspicious start but only a very small percentage of bands come out of the gate fully formed.  It finally came down to Robert Smith, Michael Dempsey, Lol (Lawrence) Tolhurst and Paul (Porl) Thompson.  Some of the surviving photographs show a 20-ish Thompson looking not unlike Johnny Thunders, bare chested and with enormous hair.  The four (at that time) members to this day have been pretty tight-lipped as to their early influences; either no one has asked the question or, if asked, the question has gone unanswered.  RS has mentioned David Bowie as the ‘greatest thing’ he’d ever seen when describing a short-but-very-sweet 1975 gig.  He’s also mentioned the Rolling Stones and even Elton John but was very careful to add that he was not and is not a big Elton John fan.  Porl’s playing gives some insight; the New York Dolls’ performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and as opening act to The Faces at Wembley were still very fresh in many young(-ish) minds.

The song ‘Heroin Face’ is particularly interesting.  Heroin had been around since 1874 and most everyone beyond a certain age had at least a rough idea what it was.  Ex-Dolls Thunders and Jerry Nolan (drums) along with Walter Lure (lead/rhythm guitar) and Billy Rath (bass), known collectively as The Heartbreakers, were invited by Sex Pistols (mis-)manager Malcolm McLaren to fly to the U.K. and be third on the bill for the ill-fated ‘Anarchy Tour’ in December 1976.  Good old Nancy, groupie junkie prostitute that she was (bless her heart), followed them over as her sights were set on Jerry Nolan.  He would have nothing to do with her so she tried to latch on to Johnny Rotten.  Same result, ‘no thank you, next please’.  She glommed on to Sid and he was shooting heroin shortly thereafter; he having been an intravenous speed user for a couple of years already.  The punks had great respect and admiration for the two ex-Dolls and also Rath/Lure by association.  They were junkies and we wanna be like them, so…  The junkie pied-pipers traveled throughout the U.K. sowing the seeds that would, in short order, completely destroy the burgeoning punk scene.  ‘Heroin Face’ is unique.  Most bands avoided the subject altogether; RS was one of the few that had anything to say on the matter; The Clash and ‘Deny’ being another (‘…baby I’ve seen your arms…’).  Even the band name, ‘The Cure’, was slang for the process of getting off heroin (as in ‘take the cure’)

1980480803_small_1The really early live material from the Malice/Easy Cure days shows the band having an almost ‘northern’ quality about them.  Which is a bit odd, considering that both RS and LT were born 30-35 miles south of London, PT born in London and Dempsey having been born in South Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe).  They did have a unique-ish sound when compared to the London bands at the time.  The scene up north in Manchester/Birmingham/Leeds came together during the spring and summer of 1976 after the Sex Pistols had played two gigs at the Free Trade Hall in June and July.  Although Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto had seen the Sex Pistols some months earlier in London.  The earliest available Easy Cure material is somewhat reminiscent of early Wire.  All the new music and all the happenings (both good and bad) were being soaked in through the eyes and ears (and in some cases veins) of bands that were just starting and those that were tentatively established and hoping to grow.

After having made some decisions as to where he wanted the band to go, RS made the extremely difficult decision to sack Porl Thompson and reduce The Cure to a three-piece.  The party-line is that PT was let go due to Robert’s ‘growing preference for minimalist song-writing’.  There is no evidence that PT had been involved in the writing of any of the songs that would turn up on the various singles and the LP ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ so we have to presume that he was not involved.  The surviving live recordings show PT already capable of some pretty pyrotechnic playing.  I consider that we got a small taste (in 2005-2009) of how that quartet would have developed had PT been allowed to stay in the band.  It also seems to me that The Cure as we knew/know it would have burned fairly brightly (and quickly) but never have achieved much success before burning out completely.  Having that second guitarist would have made them sound like any number of other bands of the era and they would have passed un-noticed into the pages (or dustbin) of history.  Hindsight being what it is, it’s pretty clear RS made a good call.

78-12-hope-cure-drink

It’s very difficult to follow the development of ‘The Cure sound’ in this early stage because there is so little ‘sound’ available.  We go from having a few well-recorded gigs at the beginning to being able (now) to download last night’s gig and watch or listen to the whole thing in (generally) excellent quality.

The band were signed to the ‘Fiction’ label (distributed by Polydor) in autumn 1978 and their first single ‘Killing An Arab’ arrived in December (albeit on another label, the details of the deal with Fiction not yet clear enough for Fiction to release it).  The album ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ was released in May 1979, followed closely by their second single ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ in June and later by ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ in November.

The ‘Cure sound’ at this point did not give any clues as to just how quickly the bands material would mature and progress in a very short time.  There are flashes of brilliance in many of the songs.  One song in particular, 10:15 Saturday Night, showed a melancholy (in demo form) that did not survive the later album sessions.  The song survived but the real potential it seemed to have was either overlooked or ignored.  Check it out.  ‘Subway Song’ is another take on the subject broached by Paul Weller on ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’.  ‘Object’ is glorious punk rock at its finest.  ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is practically perfect pop.  Some of the songs are tentative, a few are downright invisible (the master tape of ‘Foxy Lady’ should have been and even now ought to be destroyed).  RS was still searching for his signature sound; at the time his sound was several parts distortion, a dash of chorus and a little reverb…not unlike countless other guitarists.

originalRS tells the story of The Cure being (quite low) on the bill at the Reading Festival in 1979.  At the time, the Reading Festival was more or less a metal-fest and The Cure in their earliest incarnation were definitely not a metal band.  The Cure were slotted in on the same day that Motorhead were headlining.  The Cure were not received well (to put it mildly) and RS tells of ‘bottles of piss’ being hurled at the stage throughout their set.  He also mentions that despite the objects and substances being thrown, he was not hit and felt ‘blessed’ as a result and felt a bit of solidarity with the punk bands (who had undergone similar…and worse…treatment).  Motorhead both liked them and took pity on them and took them ‘under their wing’.  Being given the thumbs-up by Motorhead was in the late seventies the equivalent of bands from New York City getting the thumbs-up from Lou Reed in the early seventies, the ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval.

The early material showed promise and it was ‘sink or swim’ time for yet another young band.  Dempsey left because he did not react favorably to the ideas being put forth for the next album.  Simon Gallup (bass) and Mathieu Hartley (keys) climbed aboard and all the pieces were in place for the next (massive) step forward.

Craig Eyler

One thought on “The Cure, “Strange Days: an expression of sounds”, part one 1977-1979

  1. Interesting article, really enjoyed reading it, looking at an era about which much has been written previously from a fresh perspective. Incidentally, regarding your comment of an early ‘northern’ sound, Robert Smith was born in Blackpool, Lancashire.
    Cheers
    Dave

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