Trippin’: The Cure 1983-1987

>PopMatters Associate Music Editor

With a sound that moved easily from post punk to goth to college alternative to pop, the band Robert Smith founded in 1976 as the Easy Cure has secured its place in music history. On the 30th anniversary of the original formation, the third wave of remastered and expanded Deluxe Edition reissues has been released. Overseen by Smith, these releases track his ascent from a murky personal and professional crisis to far-reaching commercial heights.

The band’s cast of rotating characters has resulted in an inbred family tree. Musicians have jumped from role to role within the group — Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst moved from drums to keyboard, and Perry Bamonte moved from keyboard to guitar. Bassist Simon Gallup, guitarist Porl Thompson, and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell have all had extended stints with the band interrupted for various reasons. In all, 11 people have comprised 13 different lineups over the last three decades, ranging from tight three-piece to expansive sextet. Although a revolving door lineup has beset the Cure, Smith has been the one constant throughout. 

The Glove, Blue Sunshine (August 1983)

The Cure, The Top (May 1984)

The Cure, The Head on the Door (August 1985)

The Cure, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (May 1987)

The Side Trip

After its UK and US post punk debuts, the Cure released a trio of goth classics with the Smith-Gallup-Tolhurst lineup. Shortly thereafter, Smith blew up the doom-and-gloom mold by releasing a singles collection of pure pop eclecticism. But in between these two radical ends, Smith took a well-publicized detour with Siouxsie & the Banshees’ bassist Steve Severin as the Glove.

Though Smith and Severin originally conceived Blue Sunshine as a small singles collection aimed primarily at the Japanese market, they banged out 15 songs in ten days for the project. Johnny Black, in the reissue’s liner notes, explains the approach this way: “The idea was that by drowning themselves in acid and junk culture the pair would produce the kind of mental disorientation essential to the creation of genuinely psychedelic music.”

Smith, who watched as his primary band was falling apart in the wake of Pornography‘s destructive Fourteen Explicit Moments Tour, was devoting more and more time to his efforts as the Banshees’ guitarist and the ramping up of the Glove. As a result, Fiction Records founder Chris Parry grew fearful of losing his label’s first signee, and fought to keep Smith from performing any vocal work on the Glove album. Smith was eventually permitted to take lead vocals on two of the side project’s songs (“Mr. Alphabet Says” and “Perfect Murder”), but that left a hole to be filled.

Enter Jeanette Landray. A Siouxsie Sioux sound-a-like, Landray was the then-girlfriend of Banshees’ drummer Budgie. She was also a member of Zoo, the Top of the Pops‘ dance company and had never sung before. Her work on the Blue Sunshine album amounted to her only singing foray. The Cure’s Andy Anderson handled drum duties where necessary, and the sound was rounded out by a trio of strings.

The “acid and junk culture” drowning is apparent from the outset. The group’s name is taken from the evil Glove in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine animated movie, and the album title refers the eponymous movie about a fictional strain of LSD that turns the users homicidal ten years after taking it. From there, the original album makes for an appropriately disorienting romp.

The original ten songs sound better than they ever have — the delicate piano and strings of “A Blues in Drag” benefit in particular from the remastering. The weakest offerings of the entire package are among the disc one bonus tracks. “The Man from Nowhere (Original Instrumental Mix)” is a demo quality synthesizer-and-drum machine exercise. The depth of the “Punish Me with Kisses” album version is lost on the Mike Hedges mix, where the full orchestration is supplanted with a tinnier sound. And the “12-inch Club What Club?” mix of “Like an Animal” remains largely unessential. From a completist’s standpoint, though, it’s nice to have everything collected in one spot.

As good as the quality is on the remastered original album, it’s Rarities (1983) that makes this reissue truly special. Here, Smith presents a completely new version of the album, marrying the original demos with his vocals. This “alternate universe” version where Smith takes lead vocals on all tracks is the long lost Glove/Cure/Smith solo album. While there is some internet debate over when exactly Smith’s vocals were recorded for this release — promotional wording leads fans to believe they are circa 1983, while Smith comments about “singing songs that stayed in a drawer for 23 years” in the liner notes — it doesn’t diminish the impact.

The finest of the package is the alternate version of “This Green City”. Everything from the vocals to the music improves on the over-orchestrated original. In Smith’s hands, the muted synthesizers work perfectly with his vocal interpretation. Where Landray’s reading evoked fear, Smith coaxes sympathy. The closing tracks, “And All Around Us the Mermaids Sang (aka Torment)” and “Holiday 80”, are also both exceptional and worthwhile finds.

The Glove — Punish Me with Kisses

The Acid Trip

Other than the UK Top 14 hit “The Caterpillar”, 1984’s The Top shares little in common with its immediate predecessor, the Japanese Whispers singles and b-sides collection. Instead, The Top builds on the paranoia of 1982’s Pornography and marries it to a swirling psychedelic kaleidoscope. At this point, Smith was pulling double-duty on a daily basis, splitting time as the Banshees’ guitarist on the Hyæna album and fronting the Cure. Despite the album credits, in reality Smith played virtually all instruments on The Top except drums. And the song selection reflects Smith’s fractured, chemically-altered state of mind. In short, the Cure was falling apart.

The Top bursts open with the fury and maniacal laughter of “Shake Dog Shake”, Smith spewing “Wake up in the dark / The aftertaste of anger / In the back of my mouth / Spit it on the wall / And cough some more.” The experimentation begins in earnest with the opening samples of “Wailing Wall”. Inspired by Smith’s visit to Jerusalem with the Banshees in September 1983, the Middle Eastern sway is obvious from the opening notes. Anderson’s windup soldier drumming gives “The Empty World” a martial accompaniment to Smith’s slight lyrics. Continuing the sonic freak-out is the bleak title track. Beginning with the clattering of a child’s top, the sparse yet sprawling seven minute song leaves the listener with little solace.

Like “Killing an Arab” and “Charlotte Sometimes”, “Bananafishbones” takes its inspiration from Smith’s love of literature. This three-minute synthesizer and drum workout takes its idea from the J. D. Salinger short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. A love song of disturbing proportions, “Birdmad Girl” is nearly as sweet though somewhat more warped than the kind of fare that would soon follow. The song hints at what eventually would evolve into the band’s successful The Head on the Door formula — acoustic guitar, ringing keyboards, and Smith’s yelps and wails.

The Top‘s second disc, Rarities (1982-1984), offers mostly straightforward early demos and alternate studio mixes of everything that found its way on to the proper album. Speaking more to Smith’s drug-addled mental state than his songwriting process, most of the demos contain incoherent mumbling in place of verses. While not particularly revelatory on their own, the studio demos of “Happy the Man” and “Throw Your Foot” found here are bass-and-percussion-heavy run-throughs, compared to the more synthesizer-based versions released as b-sides of “The Caterpillar”.

The exceptions to the demo rule are the handful of live tracks. “The Empty World”, “Bananafishbones”, and “The Top” are represented as live bootleg tracks captured at the same May 1984 show at the Hammersmith Odeon that makes up the bulk of Concert – The Cure Live. Curiosity – Cure Anomalies, side two of the original cassette tape release of Concert, was made up of ten other live tracks from Smith’s personal collection. The song that closed out that tape, “Forever”, also closes out The Top‘s rarities disc.

The Cure — Killing an Arab

The Head Trip

By the end of 1984, Smith was nearly dead. The trippy binges that fueled both his creative side trip with Severin and the acid trip of The Top had spent that lineup of the Cure. Bassist Phil Thornalley had headed off to engineer Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, drummer Anderson left following a dust up during The Top tour, and Tolhurst was sinking into a debilitating drug and alcohol stupor. All that was left was for Smith to crawl off to recovery and start things up all over again. The first step was quitting the Banshees; the second was reaching out to his old friend and Cure bassist, Gallup, a casualty of the Fourteen Explicit Moments Tour. Former Thompson Twins drummer Boris Williams stepped into Anderson’s shoes; Porl Thompson, who had contributed in various ways to previous Cure efforts, was fully inducted into the group, and one of the band’s most successful lineups was born.

On the surface, The Head on the Door appears to have little in common with The Top, but closer inspection reveals the predecessor’s fingerprints are on its successor. “Wailing Wall” leads directly to “The Blood”, a song with decidedly flamenco leanings about a Portuguese wine called the Tears of Christ. And songs like “Sinking” retain the hazy desperation of a man going under, with its strings and Smith crying out “I crouch in fear and wait / I’ll never feel again… / If only I could remember / Anything at all.”

The Cure — Close to Me

However, after the turmoil of The Top, The Head on the Door is almost quaint in its poppy use of synthesizers and strings when taken as a whole. The first proper Cure album to have two singles released from it, The Head on the Door is the one that gave the band a foothold in America. And those singles — “Inbetween Days” and “Close to Me” — were the first hint at what the Cure was capable of: brilliant three-minute pop songs with a slightly twisted bent. “Inbetween Days” is a jangly confection of guitars and synthesizers and Smith’s lamenting lyrics. In the extensive liner notes of the reissue, Smith describes “Close to Me” as “wishing I wasn’t born [but] with a groovy bass line.”

This use of acoustic guitar and superior pop craftsmanship lead to a fuller sound and to the further commercial heights of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. The orchestration found on The Head on the Door also hints at a style that would become more apparent on Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and come into full bloom on Disintegration. Songs like “Push”, with its two-and-a-half minute sweeping instrumental intro, point directly to the approach employed across the board on the masterwork Disintegration that would follow four years later.

The Head on the Door demos are a fascinating window into the evolution of Smith’s songwriting process. There are lyric, song title, and instrumental changes throughout Rarities (1984-1985). The disc opens with some instrumental home demos of “Inbetween Days” and “Push”, along with the previously unreleased “Inwood” and “Innsbruck”, all of which illustrate the territory Smith was wandering into during this period, which would mark the modern Cure sound for years to come.

The previously unreleased “Mansolidgone” studio demo shows the way to the “A Man Inside My Mouth” demo, which leads directly to the version released on the b-side of “Close to Me”. The most interesting selection is the previously unreleased “Lime Time” studio demo. It is obviously a forerunner of “Inbetween Days”, but also gives a glimpse into the lyrical development of a Cure song as it contains snippets of future “Six Different Ways” lines as well. Another treat is the four-and-a-half minute studio demo of the greatest b-side ever released: “A Few Hours After This…” Here, the finished version’s sweeping orchestration is replaced with a guitar-based swirl. And just as interesting is the replacement of the final lyrics with the bulk of what would become “Screw”. Live bootlegs of “The Baby Screams”, “The Blood”, and “Sinking” round out The Head on the Door‘s rarities disc.

The Cure — Inbetween Days

The Commercial Trip

Make no mistake, the Cure is Smith’s personal vehicle. But coming off the breakthrough success of The Head on the Door, he had one of the best lineups the Cure had seen. In early 1986, he decided to open the door to the other band members, asking them to actively contribute to the next album. Smith played some of the home demos he had put together as a means of stimulating the others. After the summer of touring and promotions, the band regrouped in the south of France to begin work on the Cure’s next album, tentatively titled One Million Virgins.

Everyone came together with their offerings — around 40 demos between them — to sift through the songs, and Smith had an opportunity to begin composing lyrics. It soon became apparent, as Smith mentions in the reissue’s liner notes, that “trying to squeeze stuff onto a single 45 minute record would have resulted in a release that was either too ‘poppy’ or too ‘atmospheric’ — neither of which would have been quite right.” And that is the downfall of not just the rechristened Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, but of most double albums: The all-inclusive “compromise” often results in a bloated, schizophrenic affair.

With Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the Cure put forth an album that truly is of two minds. It builds off the pop brilliance of The Head on the Door with both singles and deep album cuts, but it also submerges the listener in the ominous, enveloping moodiness of tracks that recollect the early Cure fashion of Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography.

The nervous guitar work of “Why Can’t I Be You” plays perfectly against the horns as the song bounces along with Smith’s histrionic vocals, never letting up until it hits its brick wall ending, completely out of breath. The album’s crown jewel, “Just Like Heaven”, takes the three minute pop formula to dizzying heights with its propulsive drums and ringing guitar work. Songs like the soft and sweet “Catch” and the funky “Hot Hot Hot!!!” find the Cure stretching out of their comfort zone with success. Turning again to literature, “How Beautiful You Are…” takes its root in a Baudelaire short story.

The Cure — Just Like Heaven

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me‘s other personality forces one to acknowledge Smith and company are really a genre unto themselves. New fans brought to the album by the singles were no doubt shocked by the six-minute descent into lusty hell of the album-opener, “The Kiss”:

Kiss me kiss me kiss me
Your tongue is like poison
So swollen it fills up my mouth

Love me love me love me
You nail me to the floor
And push my guts all inside out

Get it out get it out get it out
Get your fucking voice
Out of my head…

I never wanted this
I never wanted any of this
I wish you were dead

The Middle Eastern influences that peppered Cure albums since the early ’80s appear again here with “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep”. The scratchy guitars and Gallup’s understated bass churn around Smith’s yearning sexuality on “All I Want”.

While Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me sprawls, it does inform the concise, focused — yet expansive — sounds that would follow two years later. Where this album separates the atmospheric from the pop track-by-track, Disintegration would marry them not just on a single album, but within single songs.

The reissue does include the surf guitar-meets-horns “Hey You!”, which was excised from the original release because of space. Slight and somewhat mindless, it’s still nice to have the original album’s contents and running order restored. Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me‘s disc two, on the other hand, is by far the weakest of the reissues. Rarities (1986-1987) contains every track found on the proper album in an alternate form of some kind — be it home demo, studio demo, alternate studio demo, or live bootleg — many of them instrumental only. They don’t offer a window into Smith’s mental state like those included with The Top, nor do they enlighten like The Head on the Door selections.

Just a few short years ago, Smith meticulously compiled the Join the Dots box set, a proper b-sides and rarities compendium. There, Cure fans can find many of the oddities found on the Rarities discs fully remastered. On these releases, however, the less-refined versions and their proper album counterparts show a clear progression from one to the next. Where the demos give insight into the evolution of the album they accompany, the albums themselves provide signposts for each successive release. Sonically, the movement from one album to the next and beyond is readily available. And when taking The Top, The Head on the Door, and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me together with the intervening years wiped clean, they form a clear roadmap for the Cure’s eventual commercial success. The best was yet to come.

The Cure — Why Can’t I Be You