Few bands can claim to have influenced as much of the global alternative music scene as The Cure. Regardless of where you lived from the late ’70s on through the ’80s and ’90s, it was difficult to find someone who had not heard of The Cure-their music was universally adopted as the go-to alternative to the mainstream and soon became inseparable from the goth rock scene that began to find its footing in the transition from the punk noise of the ’70s to the moody post-punk sounds of the early ’80s. But they were more than just another band riding the wave of change from one decade to the next; they were shepherding an entirely new set of musical possibilities.
Commonly associated with the heavily theatrical goth movement of the ’80s, The Cure was a band whose music was initially far more new wave melodies than moody, introspective noise. Their early records were masterpieces, to be sure, but weren’t the darker and denser goliaths that some of their later records proved to be. And it didn’t take long before the mainstream music landscape started to appropriate and misuse these sounds in ways that felt lazy and like their only purpose was to ride the coattails of a larger and more successful collection of artists.
The history of The Cure is marked by internal reorganization and an aesthetic of both a strident pop inclination and the ferocious emotionalism of post-punk. Before The Cure as a fully formed band was recognizable, you had students at Notre Dame Middle School in Crawley, Sussex, in England getting together to play music as Obelisk. They made their public performance debut in 1973 and included Robert Smith on piano and Laurence Tolhurst on percussion. Obelisk gave way to subsequent band Malice, but with an increasing interest in punk rock, the members of Malice (minus guitarist Marc Ceccagno) went on to form Easy Cure in January 1977. After some time, Smith took over as lead vocalist and guitarist Porl Thompson joined the band.
Later that year, the group won a talent show and a resulting record deal with Hansa Records, although none of the songs they recorded for the label would ever be released. And in March 1978, the band and record label split over disagreements regarding the direction that the band should take. Thompson was dropped from the band in May and Smith renamed them The Cure. The band signed to the newly formed Fiction label, which was distributed by Polydor Records.
Their debut record, “Three Imaginary Boys,” was released in 1979, and because of the band’s unfamiliarity with recording in a studio, label head Chris Parry and engineer Mike Hedges assumed control of those sessions, resulting in an album that the band wasn’t completely satisfied with. After a tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the band regrouped musically and found that they preferred the darker, moodier atmosphere that Siouxsie had perfected and altered their own trajectory accordingly.
On their sophomore album, “Seventeen Seconds,” Smith took over coproducing responsibilities with Hedges and was able to create a sound that was leagues away from what they had previously done-it was more atmospheric and emotional, less ragged and more morose. And this new sound resonated with fans, and the band quickly became closely associated with this musical approach. On their following records, they’d stick to this sound for the most part-although they did make some pop detours from time to time and went through a series of dramatic roster changes.
“Disintegration” was released May 2, 1989, and would forever change the way people looked at and responded to The Cure. Once this record came out, for better or worse, people would gauge this aesthetic by its attention to or delineation from the sounds of this specific album. Whereas their previous few records were steeped in pop distraction, “Disintegration” was a return to the dark, dense sounds of their early ’80s work. This was a new chapter in goth rock’s storied lineage, and The Cure was determined that the genre would again have the emotional potential that it once had before it became something of a cultural stereotype.
These songs are bottomless, filled with cocooning rhythms and the band’s trademark opulence. But there isn’t a sense that they were trying to reclaim some of their former glory. They were taking the experiences and inspirations from those earlier records and reconditioning them into a subverting take on the goth rock mentality. And besides being a callback to the sounds of their prior releases, “Disintegration” is arguably the band’s greatest accomplishment-it is the sound of a band remembering why they loved making music in the first place.
Smith and the band were able to incorporate some pop predilections into their gloomy rock landscape and came away with one of the most fascinating and memorable records of the ’80s. The fact that it came so late in the decade made it feel as though the band had been working up to it since their first recording. Tracks such as “Pictures of You” and “Lovesong” are dead set on working their way deep into your head. Other songs like “Fascination Street” and “Lullaby” are gauzy and theatrical, with a particular sound that is difficult to pin down and even more difficult to explain.
The Cure wasn’t looking for easy answers-and in many ways, they weren’t even concerned with the questions. They were a completely emotional creature, full of swan song grandiloquence and a rhythmic pomp that lent itself well to Smith’s temperamental and emphatic tales of love and loss, and the thousands of shades of emotion in between. There was nothing subdued or subtle, just the combined weight of a group of like-minded musicians and the man who led them into the darkest avenues of ’80s pop music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.