[31 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When Cee Lo Green changed the lyrics to John Lennon’s timeless “Imagine” to alter the meaning to be more inclusive to the world’s various religions during a 2011 New Year’s Eve broadcast, fans were understandably outraged—considering Lennon wasn’t exactly an advocate for religion in the first place. Well, Cee Lo isn’t the only one playing revisionist history with song lyrics lately. On the recent two-disc live set by British mope rockers the Cure, Bestival Live 2011, perennial lipstick and mascara-wearing frontman Robert Smith has changed the title and chorus of his band’s early hit “Killing an Arab” to become, now, instead, “Killing Another”. And, if you are a die-hard Cure fan (like I once was in my teenaged youth), the decision is a bit of a head-scratcher. It just doesn’t work: the song’s Middle Eastern vibe remains and, yet, the tune’s victim of a potential bullet has been changed, or, you might say, ethnically cleansed to be non-specific. Now, I know that sensibilities are a little fragile in this post-9/11 environment, and you could argue that the song takes on a certain shade of the macabre in its original form, but “Killing an Arab” has always been a controversial song in the Cure catalog. This is despite the fact that, as Smith is probably tired of arguing by now, the song’s lyrics are lifted directly from literature: Albert Camus’ existential 1942 novel The Stranger. However, the deed has been done, the title and chorus lyric has been changed, even though it’s a frankly dumbfounded move: how is murder in any form any better than one directed directly at one particular ethnic group? It’s a real misfire, a blemish, making the song try to be Pollyanna-ish when the track is meant to disturb and be, arguably, thoughtful in the first place. If Smith is that aghast by the song and its implications, you have to wonder why he bothered to revisit it in the first place.
Thankfully, this is the only misstep on this most recent 32-cut deep live album from the Cure. The rest is, more or less, vintage Cure, a set that trawls throughout the band’s extensive back catalog, with a focus on a particular era of ‘80s and early ‘90s hits for the most part. Bestival Live 2011 could even be considered to be something of a legal bootleg of a Cure concert. The sound quality is merely OK—it sounds a little on the thin side—and this is the first document of an entire set delivered by the veteran British alt rock icons, which kind of gives it that illicit feel. This is also their first live record since the double-shot of Show and Paris in 1993, and the thing that’s striking about the Bestival set – preformed in front of 50,000 fans (mainly female, as the peals of delight that emanate from the crowd during the opening of “Plainsong” attest) at the Isle of Wight festival in September 2011 – is that it barely visits any material post Wish, released in 1992. Only “The End of the World”, “The Only One” and “The Hungry Ghost” post-date the early ‘90s, and albums such as Bloodflowers and Wide Mood Swings are skipped altogether.
Proceeds from the album are going to charity as well, which dilutes the impact that this is a bona-fide release for Robert Smith and the boys – not to dismiss the philanthropy behind the album, but you do have to wonder just what is the point of Bestival Live 2011, considering that the bulk of the material, save for surprises like “The Caterpillar”, which hasn’t been performed live in quite some time and reportedly rarely at that, is essentially material culled from the greatest hits compilation Standing on a Beach/Staring At the Sea, plus a few stops into Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish territory, which have been covered elsewhere in the now five-disc deep live discography of the Cure.
However, this double disc shows Smith and company in relatively fine form—if you overlook Smith’s miffing of some lyrics to “Let’s Go to Bed” and some bungled guitar notes on “Close to Me”—and there are actually some interesting choices in the logical flow and sequencing of the album. Disc two opens with “The Hungry Ghost”, which boasts the line “All the things we know we never want / Well, it’s the price we pay for happiness” at its very end before plunging headlong into the bleak suicidal desperation of Pornography’s “One Hundred Years”—a.k.a. the most depressing song ever written in the history of recorded music. Then there’s the delightful romp through five songs at the end of the set from their 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys in what’s presumably the encore, and even though the band sounds a little on auto-pilot here as some of the material has been slowed down somewhat, it’s good to give a wink and a nod to album cuts such as “Grinding Halt”, which I haven’t heard in years, ever since I gave away my monumental Cure collection to a used CD store in the ‘90s when I purged myself of any music that I felt was depressive. As well, the coffee shop jazz of “The Lovecats” purrs right into that song’s sequel-in-feel, “The Caterpillar”. Toss onto that some deep cuts, such as “Push” from The Head on the Door, and “Open” and “End” from Wish, and there’s a bevy of stuff here that will delight the once hardcore Cure fan such as I, who used to own all of these songs during the tumultuous teenage years before passing them on after reaching a certain emotional stability in my life. For someone like myself who invested a lot into the Cure—financially (I owned just about everything the group put out down to rarities such as singles) and emotionally—it’s good to have these songs back as a bit of a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
That said, Bestival Live 2011 might be a bit much for the Cure completist who probably has all of these songs in various permeations such as bootlegs and remixes—even a fair weathered fan like me probably can go a lifetime without hearing some of the mainstream hits like “Inbetween Days”, good as they are, one more time. As for new fans, while Bestival is a good overview of the group’s halcyon day high-points, they might be better served by picking up the greatest hits compilations first to hear the original studio recordings, the songs as they were really meant to be heard. However, Bestival does capture Robert Smith and his band, which now includes on-again/off-against keyboardist Roger O’Donnell for a third time in the band’s history, on a pretty good night, and the casual fan will rejoice in hearing songs that they might not have heard in ages, depending on one’s proximity to alt-rock radio and the ilk. Bestival, at least, is going to a good cause—the Isle of Wight Youth Trust, to help a counseling/support network for youth—so this isn’t a mere cash-grab for the group.
If you haven’t overexposed yourself on the yin and yang on Smith’s moods, alternating somewhere between mercurial and delirious, Bestival is worth picking up, though you’ll have to excuse the travesty of “Killing Another” that ends the show. Everything that comes before it, however, is nearly top-notch, and proves that the Cure, some 30-plus years since forming, are still relevant, even when they’re trolling through songs from their commercial heyday without changing a single note in the process. Then again, they don’t have to when they’ve written material that holds up through the looking glass of time, and Bestival is ultimately a testament to a band running through the hits with some level of gusto and verve, making them seem fresh and exciting so many years removed from their gestation.