A Symposium on The Cure: Prog or Something Else?

Readers of Spirit of Cecilia, we have a special treat for you: not a dialogue, but a full-fledged, three-way symposium! The topic: Is the Cure a prog band or not? Join Editor-in-Chief Brad Birzer, Tad Wert, and the brilliant Kevin McCormick to learn what they concluded.

Brad: Tad and Kevin, I’m in the mood to talk about The Cure!  Granted, in the middle of the COVID crisis, “The Cure” could mean a lot of things, not all of them pleasant.  But, I mean specifically the English rock band, led by everyone’s favorite mischievous trickster, Robert Smith.  That guy with huge teased hair, smeared lipstick, and boot-like tennis shoes.

Though identified and remembered mostly as a Goth and a post-punk New Wave group, The Cure always employed progressive rock elements rather effectively in many of their songs and, sometimes, throughout the entirety of some of their albums.  Some of this prog influence, of course, came from the band’s love of minimalism, drone/wall of sound, and Eric Satie. 

Admittedly, because of my prog obsession, I want The Cure to be proggish!  So, I might be reaching here.  But, it’s really hard for me to listen to album such as their 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, and not think prog.

If pushed, I would happily rank that album in my top 10 albums of all time, sitting near Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, Moving Pictures, Songs from the Big Chair, Skylarking, Selling England By the Pound, and Close To the Edge. Every song on Disintegration fits perfectly with every other song on the album, and it makes for a wildly effective album in its consistency, art, and beauty.

In hindsight, Smith has claimed Disintegration to be the middle of a trilogy, beginning with 1982’s Pornography and ending with 2000’s Bloodflowers. If a trilogy isn’t proggy, nothing is!

Of course, much of The Cure is really clever pop as well.  In fact, despite having a distinctive sound, The Cure are about as diverse–when it comes to style–as any band over the past fifty years.

Tad: Okay, Brad, I’ll tentatively  accept your assertion that The Cure are prog, even though it never occurred to me until you and I made each other’s acquaintance! Even though I was a huge British music fan in the ‘80s, I was a little late to the Cure party. I think it was because my first exposure to them was hearing “The Lovecats” on the radio and I took an immediate dislike to that song (I still think it is too cute for its own good). However, while working in a record store in 1985, a coworker was a Cure nut and he played The Head On The Door instore repeatedly. I liked that album, and they earned my grudging respect.

That said, THOTD was the only Cure album in my collection for many years until I heard “Why Can’t I Be You?” on the radio, and I realized there was a gaping hole in my musical knowledge. So I embarked on an exploration of Cure music via some shady file-sharing software (this was in the ‘00s, before streaming!) and discovered how terrific Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Disintegration, and Wish were. 

When most people think “prog”, they think of extraordinary technical proficiency on musical instruments, shifting and odd time signatures, long song lengths, and lyrics that deal with deep subjects. While The Cure fail to check the boxes on the first three criteria, they often hit the jackpot on the fourth. And I would argue even their early work – Seventeen Seconds and Faith – have a proggy sensibility to them. Both of those albums (particularly the latter) set up and carefully maintain a consistent atmosphere throughout their entire length. They aren’t mere collections of unrelated songs, but song suites whose impact is far greater than the sum of their parts. As far as later works, I think “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea” off of Wish is about as proggy as you can get. I’m holding off on sharing my thoughts on Disintegration until we hear from Mr. McCormick!

[To keep reading, please scroll down a bit . . .]

Kevin:  Fellows, my knowledge of The Cure is rather thin compared to both of thouses (is there a plural for thou?). However I consider Disintegration to be an excellent album in theme, scope, and composition–not to mention it being a recording of superb production values particularly for the time.  Not knowing a great deal about them, it would seem to me that this was a peak of creative work from Mr. Smith, while maintaining the introspective themes of his earlier, and much more pop, sensibilities.  It also seemed to be a great synthesis (pardon the pun) of his melodic work to that point.

I feel that my contributions to our discussion might focus more on the technical and compositional aspects of the band’s output, hopefully complementing your deeper insights into the texts and sounds that lie therein.  

My memory of The Cure was swinging at high school dances to Smith’s rather drunken vocal performances from the very poppy “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Let’s Go to Bed”.  I was rather taken with “In Between Days” from 1987’s Kiss Me… and I was lucky enough to catch them live in Rome the following year.  But their radio/MTV catalog to that point (I didn’t own any of the albums) and certainly their public personae presented them as stylists of lackadaisical love songs.  It was creative and poetic whimsy—passionately noncommittal, never seeming to sink too deep.

My wife and I discovered Disintegration shortly after arriving in Japan for a four-year stint.  For us (though I doubt we would have articulated it at the time) I think the title resonated at some level with our sense of living as strangers in a strange land.  It seemed to be a piece of home and yet a piece that longed for home.  It was on heavy rotation for quite a while in our apartment.  It somehow managed to strike a node between dark and catchy, melodic and expansive, personal yet detached and (for our personal musical histories) between rough edges and careful craftsmanship.  We loved it and still do.  It’s a classic.

I look forward to exploring their work with you both!

Brad: Tad and Kevin, thanks so much for the reflections and recollections.  Wonderful. My first memories of The Cure are a little different than yours, but also rooted in the poppier stuff the band had done.  Sometime in 1985–when I was first working for our town’s local radio station–KWHK, I was going through a stack of rejected records that had been sent by the record companies.  For a very brief moment, KWHK had been a “new wave” station before turning to adult/soft rock.  Despite the format having existed for only a bit, companies still submitted new wave/college rock albums and singles all of the time, even long after we were New Wave.  It’s how, for example, I had first come across XTC. 

Anyway, that summer, 1985, I came across Japanese Whispers by The Cure.  It was in the discard pile.  I had no idea if it was a proper album, an EP, or some compilation, but I was really taken with the cover and then the album itself. I had rarely heard anything as weird and as attractive as Smith’s playful voice. And, of course, the music itself was extraordinarily well performed, despite it being a bit poppier than what I normally listened to.

It was after this introduction to the band that I purchased Head on the Door later that summer.  Again, I heard The Cure’s poppier stuff on the album, but it was the darker, more adventuresome music that I fell in love with.  Most particularly, I remember first hearing “The Blood” and being rather blown away by the music and the lyrics.

And, of course, is there anyone our age who didn’t own a copy of Standing on the Beach?  I thought–and still think “A Forest” is a perfect track.

I’ll also never forget two years later, getting a copy of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and thinking that poppier stuff was pretty good, but that it was the weirder tracks–such as “The Snakepit”–that really grabbed me and made me love the album. One of my closest friends, who shall here remain nameless, complained that it would’ve been a perfect album if it didn’t have tracks like “The Snakepit” on it!  I was shocked!!

Jump ahead two years later, and my friend, Ron Strayer (former debate colleague and constant friend), asked me if I’d heard the new Cure yet, Disintegration? I hadn’t, so Ron played it for me.  I won’t say I was floored at the same level as I was floored first hearing The Colour of Spring or Spirit of Eden, but I was floored.  Truly floored.  Disintegration had everything I loved about The Cure: dreadfully deep lyrics, consistent sound, and a theme of hopeless romanticism that runs throughout the entire album.

That listen in 1989 sold me on the band, and I began to collect everything in their catalogue.

As I mentioned above, Robert Smith now sees Disintegration as a the middle album of a trilogy, beginning with 1982’s Pornography (which is anything but; part of the irony of the title) and 2000’s Bloodflowers. Whether intentionally or not, all three albums look at the unnecessary brutality of the world and the inhumane treatment of entire populations.  Even the titles reveal something deep in their implied cultural criticisms.

At the risk of being too introspective and full of myself, here’s what I wrote about Disintegration a few years ago:  

But Disintegration?   Is there a flaw in the album?  Nearly every note is perfectly placed, and the music holds together beautifully from the opening track, “Plainsong,” to the strange finale, “Untitled.” Lyrical intensity, driving bass, timeless keyboard work, and even some periodic optimism, ala T.S. Eliot-fashion, predominates on the album.  The Cure’s great flaw is their attempt (commercially lucrative, to be sure) to write bouncy pop songs.  While songs such as “Friday, I’m in Love,” are fun, they have absolutely no staying power.  If I never hear any of these pop songs again, I will not be sad.

But, Disintegration avoids all attempts at commercialism.  It succeeds brilliantly.

There are some truly weird songs on the album, such as “Lullaby.”  Taken in isolation, “Lullaby,” would not be special.  But, in the context of the album, it is stunning.

Many people, especially those older than I am, tend to think of Robert Smith only in terms of nihilism and drugs. These things about Smith are undoubtedly true.

But, frankly, I find much of his work haunting and inspiring. I would much rather spend time listening to Smith’s 1981 Gothic anthem, Faith, then any song/hymn I know of by either Dan Shutte or Marty Haugen, modern Catholic drivel. Raised Roman Catholic himself, Smith — no matter how drug-induced his music and lyrics are — possesses a rare sense of the contemplative and even, dare I write it, the liturgical. Thankfully, his music never gets political, but it is always intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally stimulating.

Though the Cure achieves the creation of some profound moments on their following albums, about 1/2 of Wish (1992), Bloodflowers (2000), and The Cure (2004), Smith and co. never quite reached the level that they established with Disintegration.

The album only has one serious flaw — the few seconds of silence between each song.

I pretty much still feel the same.

Tad: My take on Disintegration is that it lives up to its title. Just take a look at some of the lyrics:

“I think I’m old and I’m feeling pain” (“Plainsong”)

“I’m running out of time I’m out of step and closing down” (“Closedown”)

“But Christmas falls late now flatter and colder and never as bright as when we used to fall” (“Last Dance”)

“Let’s move to the beat like we know that it’s over if you slip going under slip over my shoulder” (“Fascination Street”)

“You shatter me your grip on me a hold on me so dull it kills” (“Prayers for Rain”)

“So it’s all come back round to to breaking apart again breaking apart like I’m made up of glass” (“Disintegration”)

They create a relentless atmosphere of things falling apart: relationships, mental health, spirit. The music matches this theme, with most songs’ tempo rarely rising above a dirge-like thud. The one exception, both lyrically and musically is the aptly titled “Lovesong”.

The album is perfectly sequenced, as well. Has any album opened with as majestic a song as “Plainsong” and closed with as cathartic a song as “Untitled”? After sitting through all 72 minutes of the CD version, the listener has gone through hell (if “Lullaby” isn’t a vision of hell, I don’t know what is) and come back.

I have to echo Kevin’s praise of the production – for an album released in 1989, it manages to avoid entirely the unfortunate excesses of the latter half of that decade. It sounds just as appealing today as anything recorded in the last ten years. I think Simon Gallup deserves special praise for his work. His bass and keyboard lines are the glue that hold this sprawling set of songs together, and they create a cohesive suite of songs that can be heard as one long symphony of sorrow.

Brad: Tad, excellent points.  Robert Smith is SO much the face of The Cure.  I wonder how much of the music he’s responsible for and how much was a group effort?  A lot of The Cure albums list Smith as the lyricist and the entire band as the song-writers.

I love watching the band live on the DVDs and Blu-Rays I have–and the music clearly takes the whole group, each really talented and proficient.

According to the latest news, Smith has said that the band has so much newly written material that the band could release several albums.  I very much hope they do.  What a glorious thing would be a new The Cure album or, better yet, albums!

Kevin:  I like your point, Brad, of drawing attention to the rest of the creative unit involved in The Cure.  For Disintegration in particular it would seem that the collective writing really dominates the overall mix.  It’s true of much of their other popular work as well.  I second Tad’s praise for Simon Gallup’s contributions. Since Smith’s vocals slide around the pitch spectrum, the simplicity of the keyboard and bass work is an essential grounding without which his delivery would seem utterly sloppy.  I hear the same in Bjork’s vocal delivery which requires very solidly grounded accompaniment.  Within that backdrop both singers paint ethereal soundscapes.  Yet The Cure’s melodic sense makes their music more accessible, perhaps less exploratory, yet more immediate.

Boris Williams’ drumming also deserves credit for bringing an expansive rhythmic element to the darkness of much of the overall textures.  “Last Dance” stands out in this regard.  Imagine a straight backbeat against the same track and it would lose the primal power.  The seemingly patternless pattern intensifies the sense of wandering and disconnectedness. Not to mention that it contains hints of a certain Canadian drummer with whom we are all familiar. 

Still, it’s somewhat difficult to articulate how the album fits the criteria of progressive rock.  One purely superficial indicator is that the compositions are just way too long to fall under the “pop” banner.  The twelve tracks run an average of six minutes each (the longest being nearly ten) for a total run time of over 71 minutes.  But the listening experience doesn’t seem particularly drawn out.  Extensive intros, like on “Fascination Street,” draw you into the soundscapes long before the intrusion of the lyrics, leaving room for you to enter into the sonic space before the delivery of the Smith’s poetry.   And yet, the vocal sections retain a compact “pop” body within the tunes. And so the hour and ten minutes fly by as if spent watching and engaging film—with the variety found in certain tracks keeping the listening fresh.  So maybe we’ll call it “contemplative progressive minimalistic pop”.

Whatever the genre, there’s not a single weak tune on the album. The explosive opening of “Plainsong” strikes with its heaviness of the synthesizer pads against the clean swirl of Smith’s plaintive guitar work. 

There are more obvious radio-friendly hits like “Lovesong,” but both “Pictures of You” and “Fascination Street,” with their classic Cure pop sound, clock in for a combined thirteen minutes with very comfortably-lengthed instrumental introductions.

Then there’s the proto-grunge of “Prayers for Rain”.  Not sure if this is a fair term, but Disintegration was released in May of 1989 and Nirvana’s genre-defining Nevermind didn’t arrive until September of 1991.

Lisa tells me that “Lullaby” is not one that she would play for our eight-year old daughter,  though Brad I suspect you might find some faintly Lord of the Rings overtones in that one as I do.

But even the wandering bad-dream of “The Same Deep Water as You” sustains itself over nine minutes of washes and lyrics that powerfully rise and submerge.  Stylistically harking back to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Ocean Rain,” The Cure’s thematic take swims around lost at sea, drowning the listener in waves of the somber.  But honestly, it’s not as unpleasant as it sounds.

Hints of so much of what would come in the nineties can be heard throughout this seminal album, including The The’s Dusk.  “Untitled” captures the ennui of the era–not even committing to name it, Smith concludes with a haunting song of loss.

It’s unfortunate the album and subsequent tour were not a triumph for the band and for Robert Smith personally.  Apparently he was more dismayed than ever at having to play enormous venues and sadly this did nothing to end the bad habits which had beleaguered him on the previous tour.  Smith noted that The Cure had, “despite my best efforts, actually become everything that I didn’t want us to become: a stadium rock band… it was never our intention to become as big as this”.

Nevertheless Disintegration qualifies in my mind as a classic sound recording and the greatest contemplative progressive minimalistic pop album ever.

Tad: Kevin, with that perfect description – “contemplative progressive minimalistic pop” – we’ll let you have the final word!