Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#20)


We rushed through the foreplay of the first eighty so we can really take our time and savor the “good stuff.” It’s pretty easy to figure out how this is going to go down—twenty artists remaining, twenty days left in March. Read on for #20.

We’ve also entered another new technology age. Time to ditch those cassettes and work our magic on the computer in burning full-length mix CDs. And since now’s not the time to get stingy, the mixes can ignore an entire LP because that one’s never got a reason to leave the player—could be the artist’s best full-length or simply the one most chockfull of terrific songs. So a “starter kit” and a masterwork; the only thing better is the whole back catalog, but we’re not all made of money.

I was not a gloomy teen obsessed with the Cure. I did not sport the goth look; in fact, I think they usually looked just as ludicrous as the perky cheerleaders with glitter all over their faces they were revolting against. I didn’t sit in my bedroom for hours writing poetry about pain, heartbreak, misery and sell-outs. I didn’t opt for piercings, or believe that my face would look better caked in white paint and black eyeliner, and I never worshipped at the altar of Baudelaire and Lovecraft. cure4Maybe if I had been born about a decade earlier, I might have latched onto the music, if not the unfashionable image/lifestyle. But I grew up with grunge and corporatized alternative rock, so I preferred my misery accompanied by a healthy dose of fuzzbox and power chords. In fact, by the time I departed for college, these were the Cure songs I knew: “Lovesong,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Burn”; the latter for really no better reason at the time than because I owned the soundtrack to The Crow. That’s it. (I was also familiar with “Boys Don’t Cry,” but didn’t know at the time who did it.) So if it’s not yet obvious, I was a really late bloomer for them, both in my life and into their career.

It kind of feels like a cop out to even discuss the whole “goth” thing when devouring Cure records. Not just because they were the sort of folks who hated being swept into a corner and being “defined” as anything related to styles or movements, but because it ill-represents the group in their entirety. Sure, when you think of the Cure, you don’t typically think of references to Albert Camus novels, New Orleans-styled brass, acoustic remixes, and happy endings, but they’ve touched on all of these and more. Just try and pigeonhole a band that’s recorded a track like “Hot Hot Hot !!!” and a track like “Pornography.”

They’ve lasted well over thirty years now, and though they’ve slowed a bit after their prime, they’ve never completely stopped. As the 90s commenced, they had a hard time competing with the new grim kids on the block (the aforementioned stuff that soundtracked my teenage years), cure2and for long periods later on they slowed—especially during a drawn-out lawsuit filed by former drummer/keyboardist Lol Tolhurst for a restructuring of royalty payments—and did too much spinning of the proverbial wheels (though rarely did they release an album without a standout track or two). But during their peak, for those ten or so years when the Cure’s music infiltrated the blackened, sobbing hearts of lonely youths, goth punks, and pop fanatics, they were transfixing. While they could be too hostile for some people, it was an exception to the rule of sad, malevolent beauty. As someone with assured pop chops, Robert Smith rivaled most everyone else in the 80s (which, let’s not forget, was the time of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, George Michael, and more), masked well by lovesick melancholy, adolescent frustration, and at times, even nearly-nihilistic depression and fatigue.

They didn’t debut fully-formed; while they did score several top-notch tunes immediately (including “Killing an Arab,” “10.15 Saturday Night” and “Boys Don’t Cry”), they were more indebted to the twitchy, angular and abstract side of their post-punk method than the darker, more atmospheric shade that would become their signature. But they transformed almost overnight for their sophomore album Seventeen Seconds, obviously inspired by Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and early Bauhaus singles. This phase was largely driven by Simon Gallup’s basslines, as essential to early-80s post-punk as New Order’s Peter Hook. But Smith was the captain of the ship, and he pushed them in increasingly dark and destructive directions. Going even bleaker and greyer on Faith and all the way to the brink of madness with the startlingly violent and malformed Pornography, they appeared to be spiraling out of control, to the unsavory benefit of a still undersized, cloistered, but scrupulously enraptured fanbase.

cure1Recovering from the ultra-desolate Pornography proved somewhat easier than one would have expected—but then again, when you hit the bottom, the only direction to go is up. It wasn’t a smooth ride, though, beginning with the departure of Gallup and detox sessions for Smith. The deceptively upbeat and dance-friendly “Let’s Go to Bed” single brought them back from the brink, though it’s a rather slight effort on their part, and contains the line, “Fires outside in the sky look as perfect as cats,” peculiar even by Smith’s standards. Later came The Top, the lone slack outing from the band during their renowned days, and the public still wasn’t biting during the transitional phase.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-80s that the Cure started getting more mainstream attention. Rebounding from the uneven The Top effort, A Head on the Door presented the Cure’s best pure and focused pop endeavor, with the depression and psychosis that colored Pornography stripped away entirely for lovely, infectious gems like “A Night Like This,” “Close to Me,” “Push” and “Inbetween Days”—they weren’t really “happy” songs, but they were catchy and surging enough to still inspire smiles and body moves considerably more jolly than the usual head bob and morphine-slow hokey pokey leg steps that typified gothic dance. They (il)logically pressed on from there with Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, an album so big, diverse and cluttered that it virtually guaranteed that everyone could find something (or everything) on there that they could love, notably the group’s first US Top 40 hit in “Just Like Heaven.” Though hardly hopeful, those two albums represented the Cure at their most assured and spirited, willing to “follow the hearts desire,” as they say. And then they had to go get themselves all committed to Disintegration.

You can say that you enjoy one of their albums more, but unless you greedily crave multiplicity, there’s no reasonable defense in suggesting that Disintegration isn’t their greatest and most monumental statement. It was their patented doom-and-gloom standard writ large, utterly cure3gorgeous pop music filled out by sad, longing instrumental sections that glide and grieve underwater majestically. That was the Cure’s greatest achievement—taking achingly human frailty and giving it larger-than-life grandeur. It’s vulnerability that doesn’t feel quaint or overly personal. They usually draw their murk inward, mourning just on the right side of mopiness, and it’s clear that Smith not only kept a diary in his youth but drew a lot of song inspiration from both the details and emotional memories within the tear-stained pages. But at their most dreadful, when they sink beyond despair into torture, they’re almost frightening—whether the pain is directed inwards of outwards, the music lashes out vindictively, through sadism, in chaos.

Their ability to transcend one-note brooding and pining was also critical to their worth. There’s tenderness in Smith’s longing, and he could also transform despair into disgust in a flash. Just missing the girl isn’t enough—how much of nostalgia that sells is bitterly empty, after all? There’s desire, anger, fear, obsession, and the leaps between them startle with their authenticity. Who lingers in the bedroom just weeping heartbroken? No, you’ve also gotta punch some pillows, tear cure5up photos, pick up the pieces and gaze into the unblinking eyes, become consumed with lust and need all over again, and then hate yourself for not having him/her, and then loathe outwardly at the missing lover and the cruel world that would demonstrate such fickle things.

Though they did score a platinum album with 1992’s Wish, interest in the group flagged after Disintegration, but they never collapsed. They stuck to their guns all the way, even when it came to stylistic diversions like the misfire Wild Mood Swings and a disappointing “return to form” in Bloodflowers. But they can never be dismissed. They’re reportedly in the studio working on album number fourteen right now, and it will be rightfully greeted with anticipation. No matter all their shapes and twists, they’re doubtlessly one of the best pop bands in my lifetime, and even though they didn’t “shape my growing pain years,” they’ve certainly affected and enriched my adult ones.

10.15 Saturday Night
Boys Don’t Cry
A Forest
One Hundred Years
The Walk
Inbetween Days
Close to Me
The Kiss
How Beautiful You Are
Just Like Heaven
Never Enough
(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On
Underneath the Stars
...and the album Disintegration

Also endorsed: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Lucy Show

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Matt Medlock


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