The Cure - Lovesong
(Okay, scratch what I said earlier. One last bit of Love and Hate bonus content… because I know better than to deny Chris Ott. -h)
Once a song ingrains itself in the historical record of Pop—once it becomes part of the landscape of Pop, helping define and expand its boundaries—we are often incapable of ever listening to it again without at once recognizing it as a milestone, memory, or at base, a “classic.” You’re all but guaranteed to hear “classics” in the course of your life, whether you want to or not. Most songwriters will never pen a classic. Memorable acts—the ones critics and attuned fans invoke whenever they’re asked about a particular style or sound—will write two or three. A select set of masters have individually concocted dozens of timeless tunes.
Robert Smith never cracked that canon, but owing to endurance, the Cure is more than simply memorable. The Cult is memorable. Love and Rockets are memorable. The Cure posted two Top 10 hits in America, despite wearing a great deal of makeup and Smith’s quizzical and on occasion even feminine affability. “Lovesong” and “Friday I’m in Love” have established themselves as FM-stroke-licensing standards in America, but the latter is a day-of-week novelty romp, and has endured more as a giddy drive-time bit of sunshine.
Owing to recent covers by Adele and Blake Lewis, “Lovesong” has enjoyed a substantial resurgence, and we are far enough away from the Cure’s heyday that it no longer plays (as I once put it) as one of those “great grey Anglican classics,” like “Pretty in Pink,” “I’ll Melt With You” and “The Killing Moon.” For Smith, “Lovesong” was the most personal and honest composition in a then ten-year discography of self-loathing, antisocial dejection, and see-saw silliness. It was written for and very publicly dedicated to his wife, Mary Poole, who has been by his side since they were fifteen years old.
One test of whether a song has really achieved classic status is whether or not it can be ruined. Hundreds of artists have probably covered “Lovesong” in concert—as a singer-songwriter standard, as emo treacle, as a pop-punk gag—but it wasn’t until 311’s infamous tiki torch rendition of 2004 (from the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore vehicle 50 First Dates) that “Lovesong” demonstrated its impervious eternality. It worked as dorm-room reggae. The identical-twin pro-lesbian hip-hop duo Nina Sky fashioned a sort of Rihanna redux of “Lovesong” during a fallow period spent battling their record label, and even that worked quite well.
“Lovesong” has all the elements of a classic single: a smooth, memorable guitar lick, a haunting, yet hummable verse melody, and even a fairly ripping solo. Oddly—and this is the case with nearly all of the Cure’s upbeat singles—it was never very good live. “Charlotte Sometimes” was probably the closest thing to a single that the Cure made better in concert. As with “Close to Me” and “The Walk”, “Lovesong” always suffered for the grating, untreated synthesizers that failed to recreate the finessed studio ambience, and sunk the whole piece.
Despite Smith’s assertion that “Lovesong” was an anniversary present to his wife, it plays for the rest of us like a letter to the one that got away, to that dream girl or boy we gave ourselves to, whether in the boundless naivety of young love, or as part of a commitment we hoped would last a lifetime, but somehow disintegrated.
"That’s Clown Makeup, Bro"
In his post-punk survey Rip it Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds penned a throwaway barb that has stuck with me for ten years. It was a passing remark about the Human League:
“…aligning themselves with commercial dance pop (ABBA, Euro-disco, Chic), they sneered at middlebrow studenty notions of deep ‘n’ meaningful (the Pink Floyd/Cure/Radiohead continuum).”
There is no insult to Robert Smith or the Cure small enough that devoted fans won’t pounce on its issuer and claw out their eyes. You should not do this to Simon Reynolds. Because from one perspective, from quite a larger perspective, actually, the Cure aren’t very important. For many people, they are indistinguishable from…
…the Thompson Twins. Or even Culture Club. It’s brutal, I know, it makes my skin crawl, honestly, as I type it, I’m just shaking with rage over here. But I’ve reached out to a lot of friends over the last week, to get those perspectives, to push and prod them, and understand how life works for a person who doesn’t enjoy and hasn’t staked their emotional development to the Cure’s music.
A lot of young men, of course, could never get past the makeup, and their level of indifference is probably the highest. For them, the Cure are a smudge of lipstick and a can of hairspray and they’ll go no deeper. The music is rendered irrelevant by the singer’s coy, sometimes even effeminate un-seriousness, which isn’t important to them, just as, more than likely, music isn’t that important to them. For obsessed pop fans, though, the Cure did something so few bands manage to: they wrote beautiful, strange pop music that was also completely, and I mean rudimentary in its musical simplicity. The Cure have always written ditties, from this perspective, but they come from a voice of isolated despond, of lust and adoration. All the primary colors of young adult life are vibrantly applied to each of Robert Smith’s canvases.
Pop music was so important to Smith, and its best practitioners so life-affirming for him, that he made his band a tribute to pop in so many ways, and a signpost for other kids like him. As a young man, as many before and since, he had ambitions of making Important Music and touring the world, but he didn’t realize how the absurd, unknowable and uncertain elements surrounding pop music as an art form and especially as a business can be used to exploit, undercut and destroy its potential. He was not careful what he wished for.
Obviously, the makeup was an extension of Smith’s attitude toward what he was doing. If you look back, you can trace the use of makeup as a meter for his uneasiness with success, and more explicitly, fame.
This is Smith in 1979, by which time the Cure are signed to Polydor, under a new house imprint gifted to punk rock’s unofficial A&R man, Chris Parry. Parry was at the mixing desk for the Sex Pistols’ famed September 20-21, 1976 stand at the 100 Club; he spent the summer and fall trying to sign them to Polydor. In fact, he had verbally signed them, via their lawyer Steve Fisher, and had paid for their studio time in mid-1976. Sadly, Malcolm McLaren used Parry’s interest to negotiate a massive, farcical deal with EMI, and the rest is un-history.
Parry was originally going to call his new label “18 Age”, a terribly naff name that Robert Smith scoffed at. And so Fiction records was born, out of Chris Parry’s dual frustration over Polydor’s prevarications with the Sex Pistols, and his belief that Robert Smith was among the best unsigned songwriters in England in 1978.
With Polydor’s backing, their 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys was heavily promoted. If you watch closely, at the thirty-five minute mark of theSex Pistols’ chaotic film finale The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, you’ll see Steve Jones walk by a wall plastered with blue and white adverts for the Cure’s first major tour. There is some speculation that this was intentional, an apology from Malcolm to Chris Parry for having used him in trade against EMI.
Here is Smith in 1983, still routinely working without very much makeup, though the hair is assuredly in place. He’d smeared lipstick on his eyes and mouth during the last few dates on the ghastly 14 Explicit Moments tour of 1982, but just as often went without. On this Top of the Pops performance from July 1983, Smith is still plying the image shown above, as showcased during his turn as the Glove with Siouxsie & the Banshees co-founder Steve Severin (their only album, Blue Sunshine, is one of my favorite records; I’ll be writing about that later in the week).
It’s not really until 1984 that Robert Smith becomes “Robert Smith”, and his debut performance might well be the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops, just six months later, on December 29, 1983.
I had wondered if that Reynolds insult was going to be addressed on OWOB. It too has stuck with me for a few years.
The Cure’s “A Forest” single was released April 3, 1980. Here’s a very early, radically different version of the song performed on French TV in 1979 (it starts about 1:20 in). I can guarantee you’ve never heard it like this. Highly recommended.
The Cure - In Between Days