The Cure, “Strange Days: an expression of sounds”, part two 1979-1981

resize_1359995591I can’t thank Craig Eyler enough for this excellent series of articles charting The Cure’s groundbreaking first decade.

If you didn’t catch the (excellent) first part of this series – Strange Days: part one 1977-1979 – I thoroughly recommend you read that first.

Site back and enjoy the Cure’s journey through Seventeen Seconds and Faith.

The second chapter finds our (cult) heroes trying to re-group following the departure of one of the members of what was really the first stable line-up of The Cure.  How important was Michael Dempsey in the creation of the material and to the stability of the group?

The dates, locations and set list excerpts included herein (and hereafter) are taken from commonly available sources.  The information would be next to impossible to verify but has been included mainly as an indicator of the changes in the band’s material and the fluctuations in the band’s popularity (both as a live band and on record).  The absolute accuracy of the information is therefore not as critical as it would be if the intent of all this were statistical rather than historical.

This period is really when the Cure ‘legend’ began to establish itself.  A superior batch of songs, the band all on the same page, the Joy Division juggernaut still in flames at the side of the road creating a death-cult perfectly willing to take Ian Curtis’ body down and nail up Robert Smith in his place.  Music fans can be psychic vampires at times, hoping or expecting someone to go through some sort of personal hell so we can get a kind of aesthetic or intellectual thrill feeding off the wreckage, never mind what happens to him or her afterward (if there is an afterward) and wasn’t that jolly good fun…  Next, please.  That’s what keeps Joy Division planted firmly in our collective consciousness and what keeps ‘Pornography’ in the upper reaches of many folks’ top-ten lists.  Well, that and the f***ing great songs

Michael Dempsey’s final concert with The Cure was on the 15th of October 1979 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.  It was a typical (of the time) short-ish set made up of first-album material along with the ‘Arab’ single and ‘M’.  No word as to the quality of the set.  It was the final gig of an 18-date U.K. tour that had begun almost a month earlier.  A bit of perspective: Joy Division and Buzzcocks were on tour together at the time, both in Europe and in the U.K.

One month (and one day) later, The Cure would embark on the ‘Future Pastimes’ Tour of England.  I say ‘England’ but that would require a certain generosity of spirit as one would have to include Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool ( couldn’t resist!).  There seems to be as big a divide between North and South in England as there is in America.  Michael Sheen (as Brian Clough) said it best in ‘The Damned United’ as he walked along the waterfront: ” bloody southerners, look where we are we’re almost in France!”.  The booking agent on this one had apparently never read a map; it started in (the previously mentioned) Liverpool, back to London (at the LSE, made famous in ‘Yes, Minister’), then Preston and Manchester.  Hope they got gas and mileage reimbursements.

images-1New bassist and bassist thereafter (apart from a time away in the early 80s) Simon Gallup (round of applause) was now on board, along with keyboardist Mathieu Hartley (round of applause as well, come on…).  Given the fact that Simon had to learn the existing set along with the five new songs (‘Seventeen Seconds’, ‘M’, ‘Play For Today’, ‘In Your House’, ‘A Forest’) that would be introduced almost immediately, it is possible that Dempsey’s departure and Simon’s arrival had both been arranged some time earlier and that Simon had been rehearsing with The Cure before Dempsey’s final gig in mid-October.  There’s no back-stabbing involved there, they were just getting on with the job.  Deep Purple had done the same thing ten years earlier, but with each heavy rock group you get a side of back-stabbing so that was somewhat messier.

The final gig of the tour was a hometown gig in Crawley on the 7th of December.  The single ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ was released on 20-Nov-79, the b-side being ‘I’m Cold’.  It is almost certain that these songs were recorded with Dempsey on bass rather than Simon.  There were 13 more gigs during December, mostly in Holland and France, and the eventful year 1979 comes to a close.  The gig in Amsterdam on the 12th of December is of particularly high quality, both sound and performance, and it is available complete.

Seventeen_Seconds
The Cure’s second album, ‘Seventeen Seconds’, was released in the spring of 1980 and made its way to number 20 in the U.K. charts.  It is a departure, but not so much that listeners can’t hear the threads inter-woven between the first two albums.  Was ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ a means to an end?  Get established using the musical language of the day then deliver the goods once you’ve got the label’s ear?  Probably not.  Seems like a natural progression.  A somewhat twisted natural progression but a progression nonetheless.  Some bands are excellent studio bands trying desperately (and failing) to recreate the feel of their albums from the stage, a good example being Generation X.  Great in the studio, crap live band although they did improve just before they split (after which they improved even more!).  Some bands are excellent live bands, surpassing the studio versions of their songs night after night; The Cure are the latter and have been since the beginning.  It’s impossible to be a great live band without the high quality material first, so far from slagging off the studio recordings it’s actually a validation of them.  You can get a spot-on well-rehearsed professional cover band that plays a note-perfect version of  ‘Satisfaction’, but my first question will always be: ‘why?’ (while secretly hoping that one or more of the members has some sort of terminal disease).

Nick Kent wrote an article in the NME on 26-Apr-1980, the title being ‘Why Science Can’t Find Cure For Vagueness’.  Seriously, where’s Sid Vicious when you need him (or just anyone with a bicycle chain I suppose).  There are folks that keep this kind of music at arm’s length intentionally because it makes them think the odd unpleasant thought, a(n) (over-)reaction of self-preservation.  Then there are the folks who think ‘I can’t listen to this, I used to be a punk’.  John Lydon is spot on when he says that all one does when rejecting a type of music is cut oneself off from another potential source of entertainment.  Although I think it is safe to say that one is in no danger of missing out on any ‘entertainment’ if one decides to reject, say, rap music.

So here we are, a new Cure line-up announcing itself and its intentions with a new album, ‘Seventeen Seconds’.   The first track, ‘A Reflection’, is somewhat atmospheric but repetitive.  Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings but it works as a transitional piece between the old and the new.  The end of the track represents the end of the T.I.B. band and the door slamming shut.  The album really starts with ‘Play For Today’, a damned fine piece that would have worked on ‘Three Imaginary Boys’, the main difference being that the distortion on the guitar has all but disappeared and has been replaced with some chorus and reverb.  Very little to say about ‘Secrets’, doesn’t leave much of an impression.  ‘In Your House’ is up next.  The lyrics are a bit odd, on the surface it appears to describe what Charles Manson used to call a ‘creepy-crawl’, going into houses and changing things, moving them around whether the owners were home or not then disappearing without a trace.  What’s it really about?  Who knows.  Great song, especially live.  The album version is a bit tentative; it improved immensely as they played it in on the road.

Next up, ‘Three’ and ‘The Final Sound’.  Neither has much substance.  That might seem a bit harsh and dismissive but it’s really just filler material (which also comes across as a bit harsh and dismissive).  Then we get ‘A Forest’ (also a single).  This song can be thought of as one of the first ‘classic’ Cure songs, one many folks feel is the first great Cure song.  Ask any Cure fan and you’ll get one of two answers; ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ or ‘A Forest’.  As with ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’, this song conveys a palpable sensation of velocity and motion.  The next two, ‘M’ and ‘At Night’ are two of the greats and have plenty of life left in them even today.  Finally, ‘Seventeen Seconds’.  At first it looked like ‘Seventeen Seconals’ (a Judy Garland tribute possibly?) but no.  There is definitely a quantity of filler material on this record.  Comparing ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ and ‘Seventeen Seconds’, they seem to have roughly the same ratio of truly excellent material to the more mediocre or underdeveloped ideas.

CURE 1980 thumbHard to imagine but The Cure played better than 125 gigs in 1979 and would do the same again in 1980.  That is serious work but not unheard of in the 1970s with the record labels cracking their whips as they did.  It’s difficult to have sympathy for the touring bands, it meant we could see our favorites several times a year instead of the now standard routine of waiting for a new record and hoping they’ll tour in support and hoping they’ll be playing somewhere (anywhere!) within a 500 mile radius.

The Cure played six gigs in March 1980 then crossed the Atlantic to play their first-ever shows (six as well) in the USA during the month of April.  They played a couple of the venues that Joy Division were scheduled to play in three or four weeks time.  Joy Division never made it across but New Order played most of the scheduled dates later on in September of that year.  The final Cure gig in Boston was captured on several videotape machines and later combined and edited by someone who apparently had watched ‘War Of The Worlds’ a few too many times.  It’s all greens and reds and blues and black & white with all four images overlapping each other.  There was some trouble with the videotape which necessitated doing something unusual in order to salvage it, and ‘unusual’ is an understatement.  It remains unreleased, but not unseen.  The visuals are difficult but the sound is actually quite good, find it if you can.  It also answers the question “why doesn’t Simon smile on stage?”.  Apparently he used them all up during his first year with the band.  If only he’d learned to pace himself

The ‘Seventeen Seconds’ tour started in England at the end of April and went around Europe finally setting back down in Scotland for the final gig in late June 1980.  Three more gigs in Holland then down to New Zealand and Australia for the ‘Get A Dose Of The Cure’ tour starting on the 29th of July and running through the 31st of August.  The last date was in a hotel and they played two shows, an afternoon and an evening set.  These would be Hartley’s final gigs with The Cure.  The ‘Faith’ songs had started to take shape although only ‘Primary’ had appeared in the set thus far.  Hartley’s complaint was that the music was becoming ‘suicidal’ and ‘funereal’ and he just wasn’t interested.  For once someone was correct in anticipating Robert’s intentions.  Hell, even Mike Hedges the (co-)producer called the ‘Faith’ material ‘morose’, and he contributed to making it that way!

I have to call Chris Parry out for a moment.  Couldn’t he have prised Vic Coppersmith away from The Jam for a week or two?  One of these first four Cure albums deserved decent production, surely (actually the first does have solid production).  You’d think the proprietor of a business would want shiny goods in the window, not some old dead cat.  Still, he knew best   Would we love these albums as much had they been smooth and polished (and audible)?  I think so.

The on-again, off-again, on-again trio takes a month off for writing and rehearsing and head back out on the road starting in Sweden on the 2nd of October.  The first known airing of ‘The Holy Hour’ came the next day in Stockholm.  Non-stop touring throughout October, then we get another new one, ‘All Cats Are Grey’ on the 28th of October in France.  A short break then the start of the ‘Primary’ tour on the 5th of November, ending up in Wales on the 18th.  One final gig in London a month later and the very turbulent year of 1980 is over.

Again, more than 100 gigs in 1981.  Adding the stress from the touring schedule to the fluctuations in the line-up and the psychological strain from these and other sources, it’s amazing (even downright miraculous) this line-up of The Cure remained unchanged for nearly two years.

The_Cure_-_Faith‘Faith’ was released on the 11th of April 1981.  Mike Hedges, producer of ‘Seventeen Seconds’, was again behind the desk.  The quality of the material was somewhat more consistent than on the previous album as well.  The opening track, ‘The Holy Hour’, is very good and was even brought out on a couple occasions during Porl’s final stint with the band 25+ years later.  The vocals are a bit distant, as though RS had somehow been locked out of the studio and he had to sing down a lift shaft or something.  ‘Primary’ is next but considering it’s a fairly up-tempo number it is somewhat delicate.  It works with keys but not without, even if the crowd provides the melody.  ‘Primary’ mentions children but also the three primary colors so read into it what you will.  The lyrics show that RS had a fairly mature outlook for a 21-year-old ‘kid’, ‘the more we know the less we show’ and related sentiments.  ‘Other Voices’ has a great bass sound but we get the same detached/remote vocals.  The guitar is minimal, occasionally rising to the surface before submerging once again, usually just floating around in the ‘air’ at the top of the mix.  ‘The Funeral Party’ is pretty brutal lyrically; musically it’s a funeral march (surprise surprise).  Nice metallic chording.  This song could be considered The Cure’s equivalent of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’; truly a pity it has gone so long unplayed.  Maybe we could take up a collection or sign a petition or something

‘Doubt’ launches itself out of ‘The Funeral Party’ like a flea jumping off a dying dog.  If this song had the same production values of T.I.B., it would have fit nicely on that record.  It’s a backward glance, with no regrets.  ‘The Drowning Man’ up next, good on the album but better live.  One interesting feature is the vocals bouncing from the left channel to the right.  This album really was an opportunity for RS to take his ‘preference for minimalist songwriting’ to an extreme.  Finally, ‘Faith’ itself.  There are flashes of how RS sounds today on this track.  ‘Faith’ (the song) is trotted out at gigs that RS feels are significant for one reason or another.  The gig might qualify in any number of ways.  It could be a very well-played gig, a very enjoyable gig, the audience might have been particularly enthusiastic or responsive or emotional or something historic may have happened that day (as in 1989 after Tianamen Square in China) or just for the sheer bloody hell of it.  As with the song ‘Forever’, it has been used to signal the end of the band (whether it actually ends or not and it hasn’t so far).  It obviously has great significance for him for any number of reasons.

At the end of the Paris gig in 2008, the band had just played a marathon show and had finished up the ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ mini-set that usually serves as a signal to the crowd that the proceedings have come to a close.  Porl, Simon and Jason walk off and Robert lingers a bit as is customary.  You can see the moment when the ‘Faith’ bulb pops on in his brain and he makes a ‘wait here, I’ll go get the other guys back ‘ gesture and the band re-takes the stage and they play ‘Faith’.  Hope it’s on the DVD   Gotta love moments like that.

Listening to the production on ‘Faith’, it seems a cheap-ish ‘Cowboy Junkies’ affair, recorded in a big boomy church with RS ‘contributing’ from the back row.  It is what it is (obviously) but one can’t help but wonder what if?  The same thought occurs while struggling to give the Sisters’ ‘First And Last And Always’ another listen.  Dave Allen has a lot to answer for.  More on him later, he hasn’t joined up just yet.

283058817_eb47fed8fa‘Carnage Visors’ is a bonus track on disc one of the deluxe re-issue of the ‘Faith’ album.  The title, as we all know, is supposed to mean the opposite of the phrase ‘rose-colored glasses’.  Robert has been quoted as saying that he has been approached multiple times over the years with requests that he write some ‘cinematic’ material, music that would be appropriate for whatever visuals happen to be on the big screen at the time.  ‘Carnage Visors’ is apparently one of his earlier/earliest attempts at doing just that.  He would re-visit the concept some years later in 1988, although of course those efforts evolved into the ‘Disintegration’ album in 1989.  Not sure what kind of film would go with ‘Carnage Visors’, someone falling asleep possibly.  The word ‘minimalist’ works again here, seems to be an RS solo effort.  A drum machine is used, few effects, a Peter Hook-ish sound to the bass, it’s also a long-ish piece.  Not sure what type of visuals (if any) had been considered, but taking into account what happens between the 12th and 14th minutes it’s probably best that we don’t have to look at it too.  None of this should be construed as complaining; it’s a hell of an effort, (mostly) interesting, wide-ranging, subtle then intense.  Too long for a side of vinyl but ideal for cassette and of course, just four years later, compact disc.

The ‘Picture Tour’ started in Aylesbury in the middle of April and more ‘Faith’ tunes were added to the set.  The set list maintained its tradition of having a good ratio of old to new.  The festival set from the Werchter Festival on 5th July 1981 is worth mentioning for several reasons.  Excellent sound quality for one, it being an FM-broadcast.  Another fine rock & roll tradition (dating back to the sixties), a one-off radio station sound crew getting a better recording than a professional mobile studio crew who do it for a living.  How many live albums have gone back on the shelf after the first listening, never to be seen/heard again?   The prime example coming eleven years later when the XFM crew captured what may be the highest quality live recording of The Cure, with the professional crew turning out an inferior and even substandard double-live album in ‘Show’.  Although it may not be the recording itself but the mixing; the sound on the ‘Show’ video is to my ears vastly superior to the album.  A good recording can always be given a better mix, but a poor recording can never be improved.  This is outside the scope of these pages, but still a good example of the phenomenon.

This festival gig is for the most part excellent, although some of the ‘TIB’ songs (particularly ‘Accuracy’ and ’10:15′) are already pale in comparison with the newer material.  In fact, they are also pale in comparison with the earlier versions of themselves.  The problem seems to be that the same overall sound that makes the new material sparkle also leaves the older material in the dust.  As The Cure’s sound evolved throughout the years, there were times that both old and new material went in and out of focus (occasionally at the same time).  Anyway, try to find this show, it’s worth a listen.

‘The Drowning Man’ is about a literary (near-) drowning rather than a literal one but this particular version is interesting for two reasons.  Reason #1 is that it may be the best version we have from any era.  Reason #2 is that while the lyrics are telling one story, the music is telling another.  The sound, to my ears, is layered as though depicting someone actually drowning.  The synth ‘waves’ are weak and distant as if they were far overhead.  The guitar is clean and shimmery with reverb (even a bit mandolin-like) and seems to define the huge gulf between the surface and ‘our’ location.  The bass is clear and immediate and goes through two separate runs of descending notes as if representing the location of the listeners and the fact that we are continuing on down to our doom, although by this time we don’t stand a chance anyway.  Interesting to hear regardless of intention; very cool but likely just a coincidence.  ‘All Cats Are Grey’ is probably the most interesting of all Lol’s drum ‘compositions’, especially this live version.  Reminiscent of ‘Atrocity Exhibition’.  The guitar cuts out during ‘Primary’ and Simon stops playing but Lol soldiers on (and on and on) until the guitar is fixed and they finish the song.

It’s also (in)famous for Simon giving his opinion of Robert Palmer at the end of the show.  The organizers wanted The Cure off the stage for Palmer and band so, naturally, The Cure drew out the final song by repeating “such a long end ” over and over and finally Robert stomped on his distortion pedal and started wailing away like a metal maniac, delaying the end of the set even further. Robert lets us know (somewhat more tactfully than Simon) his opinion of Robert Palmer twice during the final song, ‘A Forest’, but in case there is any doubt Simon makes it plain.  One doesn’t normally hear bands shouting obscenities during FM broadcasts.  Rarer still are FM broadcasts where the on-air hosts repeat them word for word!  The story goes that after the set, Robert Palmer’s roadies chucked The Cure’s gear off the back edge of the stage as repayment for The Cure’s ‘cooperation’.

There were six more gigs in the USA during mid/late July, the significant three being Pasadena, Hollywood and San Francisco.  The set lists were nearly identical but the band were on fire and the audience-spawned recordings are probably the best of 1981; find them and listen for yourself.

After the USA, The Cure toured Canada, New Zealand and Australia through August.  France again in October then the ‘Eight Appearances Tour’ and the first airing of ‘Pornography’ material in Sheffield on the 25th of November.  One gig in London on the 3rd of December and the band cross the finish line of another marathon touring year.  The set underwent some changes during the last months of 1981.  The set opener was ‘The Drowning Man’, and ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ along with ‘Splintered In Her Head’ were both added to the set.  Appearances of the ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ material were becoming more rare, although the ‘Arab’ single as encore was still a ‘common’ occurrence; in truth there was almost nothing ‘common’ or ‘routine’ about a Cure show during this period.  In the middle of October at shows in Lyon and Paris, it seemed almost as if the Cure were doing a ‘TIB revue’ as an inordinate number of the early songs were played during the set and encore, sort of a ‘last hurrah’ type of thing.  It seemed that after that, the ‘TIB’ material came at a premium, as if The Cure were giving the material one last airing before putting it away possibly forever or at least until the material re-gained the favor of its creators.

The-Cure-Charlotte-Sometim-125864The label did manage to surprise us with the aforementioned ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ single on the 5th of October, the 7″ version backed with ‘Splintered In Her Head’ (which in short order actually made it into the set almost every night) and the 12″ version backed with a ten-minute live version of ‘Faith’ (which is available on disc two of the deluxe edition of the ‘Faith’ album).  ‘Charlotte’ is a fantastic pop song with a touch of minor-key-melancholy just to keep us on our toes.  ‘Splintered’ is much more disturbing, a preview of the forthcoming aural assault of ‘Pornography’.  The production is horrifying.  Pity.  The live versions from just three years later show just how good the song really is.  The versions from 1992 are spit-shined and absolutely perfect (if you care to go check ’em out ).  The cover photo is actually the same photo as used for the cover of ‘Pictures Of You’ some years later, albeit much more distorted and disguised.  The woman in the picture is, of course, Robert’s wife Mary.

Next time: part three – Pornography

  • (c) Craig Eyler, 2014, all rights reserved, please ask permission before re-using

2 thoughts on “The Cure, “Strange Days: an expression of sounds”, part two 1979-1981

    1. Not everything can be stated as plainly or forcefully when one is trying to maintain and even keel. You may be absolutely correct but I just reeled it in a bit. Thanks for your comment.

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