For a good chunk of the late Reagan era (1987 to 1989, arguably three of the best years of my life), my two favorite bands in the world were The Smiths and The Cure. My love affairs with both began shortly after I arrived at the University of Florida and developed an obsession with alternative rock that would span my entire college career. They didn’t call it “college rock” for nothing.
The Smiths had the good sense to split up officially weeks later, after only three years of recorded output, but The Cure, which was actually my favorite band of all time for several months before being overtaken by The Smiths, carried on well past its prime. Like so many great bands before and after have done a decade or so in, the guys started to lose me after its 1989 masterpiece Disintegration. Meanwhile, R.E.M. flipped the 10-year rule as it entered its second decade, soaring with a holy triumvirate of college rock: Automatic for the People (1992), Monster (1994) and New Adventure’s in Hi-Fi (1996).
I’d actually discovered R.E.M. three years before I stumbled upon The Smiths and The Cure (while rifling through a neighbor’s cassette collection in UF’s Hume Hall dorms) when I first saw the video for the Athens, Ga., band’s 1984 single “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” on Night Tracks. Although I bought my first R.E.M. album, Life’s Rich Pageant (the band’s third), the following year, my love affair with R.E.M. had a slow and steady build. It would be another seven years before they pushed The Cure to No. 3, becoming my second-favorite band of all time.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting The Cure on my iPod and wondering what might have been if, like The Smiths, Robert Smith (no relation) and the boys (an ever-changing cast over the decades) had bowed out earlier, before the ’90s rolled around. I had to force myself to sit through 1992’s Wish the few times that I did, and I still cringe every time I hear “Friday I’m in Love,” the album’s second single that ended up being the band’s second-biggest U.S. hit.
The previous decade, though, pretty much belonged to The Cure. From “Killing an Arab” (which was released in the UK in 1978 but didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1980’s Boys Don’t Cry) to “A Forest” to “The Hanging Garden” to “The Caterpillar” to “Close to Me” to “Fascination Street,” the band’s greatness spanned the entire ’80s. I can’t think of a UK band that’s represented by a more stellar string of ’80s singles.
Then came the inevitable decline (it happens to the best of us — see Virginia Madsen’s speech in Sideways for details). Everyone talks about the “crap” that R.E.M. put out from the late ’90s on (most of which I loved), but aside from The Cure’s cover of “Purple Haze” (from 1993’s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix) and “Watching Them Fall” and “Maybe Sunday” (from 2000’s Bloodflowers), if the band hadn’t released anything after 1989, I wouldn’t have missed any of it. Nothing else that The Cure did after Disintegration even warrants taking up space on my iPod, which recently has reminded me nonetheless of The Cure’s peak-era (1979-1989) greatness via 10 key tracks (not the best, just the best this week).
“Killing an Arab” (from Boys Don’t Cry, 1980) More pop singles should reference the literary genius of Albert Camus (“Arab”), Emily Brontë (Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights) and James Joyce (Bush’s “The Sensual World,” incidentally, one of Smith’s favorite songs when it was released the same year as Disintegration). It’s hard to fathom that Bush was Justin Bieber’s age (18) when she wrote “Wuthering Heights” and Smith only one year older when The Cure released the Smith-penned “Arab”!
“Other Voices” (from Faith, 1981) Eighties music might be most fondly remembered for giving us, among other things, MTV, new-wave and Madonna, but The Cure offered three post-punk classics (1980’s Seventeen Seconds, 1981’s Faith and 1982’s Pornography) before Michael Jackson even got around to Thriller.
“M” (from Seventeen Seconds, 1981) My favorite use ever of the 13th letter of the alphabet. (No offense to Fritz Lang and Dame Judi Dench!)
“Splintered in Her Head” (B-side of “Charlotte Sometimes,” 1981) She wasn’t the only one! I used to go to parties during my freshman year at UF and entertain fellow revelers by singing Cure B-sides, including “Throw Your Foot,” “Mr. Pink Eyes,” “A Man Inside My Mouth” and this, despite the fact that I didn’t know — and still don’t — what the hell Robert Smith was singing.
“One Hundred Years” The Cure (from Pornography, 1982) Nearly seven minutes of pure musical catharsis that, unlike any man I’ve ever known and probably ever will, still makes my heart beat faster every time it re-enters my life, more than a quarter-century after the first time.
“The Figurehead” The Cure (from Pornography, 1982) The fifth track on The Cure’s fourth studio album (my favorite until the arrival of Disintegration, which was the second part of an unofficial trilogy that included Faith and Bloodflowers), this is also notable for forcing me to consult a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word “figurehead.”
“The Top” (from The Top, 1984) The title track from the Cure’s least-celebrated ’80s album, the first one I heard in its entirety after getting hooked on the 1986 best-of collection Standing on a Beach. It’s plodding and dirge-like, recalling the best of The Cure before the group discovered pop melody with 1982’s “Let’s Go to Bed.”
“Close to Me” (from The Head on the Door, 1985) I recently listened to this about five times on repeat on my iPod, and I was blown away by the intricate and sophisticated musicianship. (Smith’s layered vocals, the horn arrangement on the single remix, and the way the woodwinds echo his voice for the first time at 1:36 was musical nirvana half a decade before the real thing.) I felt like I was truly noticing it for the first time. I still wish Adele had covered this and not “Lovesong” on 21.
“Like Cockatoos” (from Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987) A tribute to my favorite bird (currently my playmate in my Facebook profile photo) and rocking proof that pop and musical complexity need not be mutually exclusive.
“Plainsong” (from Disintegration, 1989) Inspired by the way Sofia Coppola incorporated it into her 2006 film Marie Antoinette, my best friend used the intro for the opening track of The Cure’s most accomplished album in her wedding last year. I once read a review that described it as sounding “like glass breaking in motion.” How I wish I’d written that first.