10 Reasons Why The Cure Ruled the ’80s
A tribute to my favorite act in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
I began the ’80s as a child of country and Top 40 pop and ended it raging against the mainstream. My transition commenced my freshman year at the University of Florida in Gainesville during one of my first college party nights. Drunkenness, curiosity, and perhaps a touch of kleptomania led me to “borrow” two cassette tapes at two different gatherings — The Cure’s Standing on the Beach: The Singles and The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead — and take them home with me.
From the morning-after on, both bands and the genre they represented (then tagged “college rock”) would dominate the soundtrack of my life during the late-Ronald Reagan/early George H. W. Bush U.S. Presidential eras (1987 to 1989, three of the best years of my life). What started as a hangover fling evolved into a love affair that continues to this day
The Smiths had had the good sense to split up a few months earlier, after only three years of activity, 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 groups before and after have done a decade or so in, the band began to deliver diminishing returns with each new album. For The Cure, it happened after their 1989 magnum opus Disintegration. Meanwhile, R.E.M. (the third band in my holy college-rock trinity) flipped the 10-year rule as it entered its second decade, soaring with a triumvirate of alt-rock perfection (as the genre became better known as in the ’90s): 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 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 number three, becoming my second-favorite band of all time.
Every time I revisit The Cure, I wonder 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 mid-’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 came out in the UK in 1978 but didn’t appear in the U.S. until its inclusion on 1980’s Boys Don’t Cry) to “A Forest” to “The Hanging Garden” to “The Walk” to “The Caterpillar” to “Close to Me” to “Just Like Heaven” to “Fascination Street,” the band’s greatness spanned the entire ’80s. I can’t think of a band that’s represented by a more stellar string of ’80s singles.
In fact, The Cure covered more musical ground than The Smiths and R.E.M. did, and their sound evolved in a way that the other two’s didn’t. Boys Don’t Cry and Disintegration could pass for the work of different bands (which is partly due to revolving-door membership and mostly due to Smith’s versatility and adventurous, wandering spirit), but only The Cure could have produced both of them. I think they just recaptured the number-one spot on my list of all-time favorite bands.
As they join my other ’80s faves Def Leppard, Janet Jackson, and Stevie Nicks, as well as the awesome-in-other-decades Radiohead, Roxy Music, and The Zombies in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 (for once, not a dud in the bunch), I’m paying tribute to The Cure’s peak era (1978–1989) via 10 of their most essential songs.
“Killing an Arab” (from Boys Don’t Cry, 1978)
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,” which, incidentally, was one of head-Cure Robert Smith’s favorite songs when it was released the same year as Disintegration). It’s hard to fathom that Bush was only 18 when she wrote “Wuthering Heights” and Smith merely one year older when The Cure released the Smith-penned “Arab” as a single.
“M” (from Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
My favorite use ever of the 13th letter of the alphabet. (No offense to Fritz Lang and Dame Judi Dench!)
“Other Voices” (from Faith, 1981)
Eighties music might be most fondly remembered for giving us, among other things, MTV, new-wave, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, but The Cure offered three post-punk classics (1980’s Seventeen Seconds, 1981’s Faith, and 1982’s Pornography) before Jackson even got around to Thriller.
“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” (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 30 years 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, though I’d say Pornography, not Faith, should kick off the threesome), this is also notable for forcing me to consult a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word “figurehead.”
“The Caterpillar” (from The Top, 1984)
Five years before “Love Song” became The Cure’s biggest U.S. hit, another sad-ish love song took them to number 14 on the UK singles chart. “You flicker/And you’re beautiful/You glow inside my head/You hold me hypnotized/I’m mesmerized/Your flames/The flames that kiss me dead.” That’s amore.
“Close to Me” (from The Head on the Door, 1985)
If I listen to this once, chances are I’ll listen to it at least a half-dozen more times and be blown away by the intricate and sophisticated musicianship with every repeat. The combo of Smith’s vocals, which sound like he’s being smothered under a pillow in another room, the horn arrangement (in your face and way up in your ears on the single remix), and how it pulls off both minimalist and densely textured at the same time was college-rock nirvana half a decade before grunge Nirvana. 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 and rocking proof that pop and musical complexity need not be mutually exclusive.
“Plainsong” (from Disintegration, 1989)
Inspired by the way director 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 in 2012. I once read a review that described it as sounding “like glass breaking in motion.” How I wish I’d written that first.