There is a genuine magic hanging in the air.
As a long term watcher of The Cure I was curiously excited by the band’s Sunday night headline slot at Glastonbury.
Pre-gig and watching their current juggernaut live sets from recent years on YouTube you got a sense of the sheer scale and size of the group’s current live show. A live show which is often of a gargantuan length and full of musical surprises or whole albums. Huge affairs that are loud and diverse and full of heartache, sly humour, atmosphere and an extraordinary sensitivity that clashes beautifully with gonzoid stupidity of most pop culture. With all this combined they are the Perfect Glastonbury band.
Which they prove tonight with a minimum of fuss and bother. There are no dance troupes, hands in the air booty calls from the Cure. Just the sheer joy ion creativity and the celebration of a back catalogue that stretches back into the distance and still sounds as fresh as ever with subtle shifts and twists in the songs structures and dynamics.
Tonight set is a mere two hours long.
One of the great live shows, it encompasses hits and experimental trips with quicksilver singles switching with dark shadow album cuts in an exercise of dynamics and dark heavy grooves.
The whole set is an exercise in sensual and powerful dark shadow music. A music that somehow manages to be left field and yet pop and captivate a huge audience as the band take them on a trip.
It sounds stunning and the playing is flawless and yet at the core of this is a stadium band who are having the time of their lives delivering this varying collection of songs. A stadium band that is a slightly awkward, very English, post-punk band that used to flicker out of battered seventies transistor radios on the John Peel show. Somehow they turned themselves into a huge pop band without any of the naff shenanigans that the form normally dictates to its young hopefuls and became part of our cultural fabric on their own terms.
And that, my friends, is what victory looks like.
In rock n roll, most bands are battered to death by the process and yet The Cure tonight remain defiant and are quite stunningly brilliant. After the show I’m drained emotionally and physically and I’m just watching. This is one of the greatest gigs ever. A real frozen in time moment and post-show Twitter explodes into acknowledgement at what is has just seen.
After 41 years the band, who have been resolutely popular whilst lurking in the shadows and avoiding the pratfalls the limelight are finally National Treasures.
There must be an easy cure…
1. A night like this.
It shouldn’t be like this.
41 years in and bands are usually knackered.
Physically. Creatively. Inspirationally.
But The Cure tonight are defying gravity and everything mortal to deliver one of the greatest live sets that I have witnessed in decades of gig-going.
These are decades of high decibel gig-going that include many gigs by Robert Smith and his merry gang in the late seventies as they toured the college circuit as one of the key post-punk bands of the period.
This was a long time ago before Robert was the tousle-haired, panda-eyed, lipstick smudged icon of alternative. A pre proto-goth time when the band were pinstripe keks, leather jacket, short spiky haired, art school punks as they slithered from their angular Three Imaginary Boys spiral scratches to the darker, gloomier world of Seventeen Seconds, Faith and that crowning slice of post-punk intensity Pornography.
That trip, into the heart of darkness, was a personal big fave at the time. It slotted neatly into my own dark matter trip along with The Stranglers Black and White, my own bass driven intensity with my own band Membranes and Joy Division’s stark adventures. It’s apocalyptic adventure was a wonderful piece of very dark psychedelia which we did test on lysergic and found very challenging and quite brilliant.
Years later I got to interview them for Mojo magazine on the set of their video for Friday I’m In Love (apparently I’m even in the video – a flickering ghost in background). I remember them all sat there doing the interview – lots of chunky white trainers and black baggy clothes. They were very affable and Robert talked very fondly of Blackpool – oddly pleased to find a fellow seasider – a town he had moved from when he was four. It was an interesting crumb of info. There was always something quite northern about this very southern band – that ‘fuck you I make my art on my own terms’ thing that dynamited and dominated the northern musical discourse at the time.
Unfortunately, the interview was edited in a way to make it seem more negative than it was written. I still loved the band at that time and had even managed to navigate their unexpected pop shots that were the only route for them after the dark despair of Pornography had nearly destroyed them.
The pop Robert was like a Syd Barrett Pied Piper of pop – strange pop songs full of childhood nightmares and fairy tale fear. Their odd, off-kilter vignettes made them Top Off The Pops regulars with kooky anthems like Love Cats, which they didn’t play tonight, and other pop shots that were dislocated and deceptively innocent but full of neurotic oddness. After that they flickered in and out of the radar – there were huge albums like Disintegration with its dark shadows reacting to the pop shots and they were nearly the biggest band in the world – even the USA embraced them and Robert’s image became a pictorial byword for the other side. Then there were occasional releases that were reminders of their dark power and the last time I had seen them play was at a huge Manchester show at the Move festival that was spellbinding.
That was until this evening when we were seduced back into the forest.
2. There is nothing slapdash about The Cure.
This could be the best live sound I’ve ever heard at a gig – crystal clear and full of dynamics, this is an exercise in sonic perfection with the stunning live sound exploring every nuance of their complex yet sparse live sound.
You can hear every inflection of the stunning tribal drums on Jason Cooper who switches from the sparse Lol Tolhurst period rhythms to the tribal Boris Williams rumbles. You can hear every nimble minor key run of Simon Gallup’s exquisitely played bass that, in true post-punk tradition, is the melodic spine of so many of these songs.
Robert Smith’s voice is also sounding the best it has ever done. He had remarked to the close confidantes that I was hanging out with after this gig that he had thought his voice was currently at its best – an unlikely flourishing of a very distinctive sound. A very English voice in the wind tunnel of huge sound that envelops the whole field.
4. The long set is a perfect trip through the band’s own back pages. Tonight the pop hits make even more sense stacked against the tribal intensity of Shake Dog Shake which is fierce and quite scary to the pop-shots of Caterpillar – a claustrophobic slice of perfect nightmare pop. They open with the glorious icy salvo of Plainsong and the beautiful Pictures Of You – both exercises in how to make the intimate work in huge spaces.
As the set unravels the group’s diversity is explored, from the dark magus funk of Fascination Street that is fiercely intense tonight to the shape-shifting acoustic driven From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea, to those glorious pop rushes of Just Like Heaven and the bass-driven older song Play For Today that is chucked in there to prove that the Cure were always decades ahead of the game.
The encore of Lullaby, The Caterpillar, The Walk and Friday I’m in Love are all exercises in pop perfection – a classic crowd pleasing encore – if only they had dared to go out with a climatic tsunami of sound of One Hundred Years, the night would have been perfection.
5. The Cure are massive on their own terms. They have never played the fame game. They have always been there and they have always let the music do the talking. There is no pizzaz and ringmaster shouting from the stage. There is no American crowd-pleasing, just awkward English stagecraft. This is somehow perfect for the Glastonbury huge audience who each seem to know a different clutch of the songs each and have a fuzzy memory of the frontman’s iconic image. This is zero showbiz. The music matters. Post-punk didn’t do showbiz. In fact, there is none apart from a humble mumbled quip from Smith about getting a prize for the least words spoken to an audience.
They have a light show that switches from reds to blues and then invariably to greens for the iconic A Forest. As ever the song is a backbone to the band’s set with its cyclical bass line that you could listen to for ever and the dynamics and textures of the guitars and keys ebbing and flowing as it is played out against the stark woodland imagery.
6. Post-punk was never meant to end up like this with bands like Nick Cave and The Cure in the stadiums and Bauhaus, if they could ever work out what needs resolving, potentially not far behind them.
The small coterie of dark-clothed freaks who swapped albums of these bands at school had no idea they were pioneering a mainstream culture decades later. And yet here it is. And it really works. The drama and tension of the Cure works perfectly in these huge environments. Their scale of sonic ambition swamps the arena.
Back then it was late night John Peel music for a clutch of people in schools who were deeply affected by punk rock and its own going adventure. The Cure were one of the key bands for these skinny post-punk youth who were on another new trip and making and listening to music that was moving fast forward from the big bang. These days Joy Division get all the accolades from that period but then they were just one of many key bands alongside The Cure. Very few people had the that iconic Joy Division album that was so hard to find and not the generational rite of passage that most commentators seem to think these days. History is constantly rewritten but let’s not forget The Cure were key in that period as well.
Tonight is arguably a culmination of post punk’s promise. Then it seemed curious that these bands had to be so underground but people would think you were mad if you believed that this was a mainstream music. The Cure were key contemporaries and it’s wonderful to see them so huge now. Post-punk still frames their sound but, like the Beatles, they are adept at any style of music which they promptly make sound like themselves.
Still very much ambassadors of post-punk, the band’s music works from that forms the basic tenet of each instrument delivering its own lead lines. In the Cure’s case, this means the bass guitar’s delicious minor key runs and Smith’s cascading, iconic, chorused guitars that he peals out are the shimmering core. The Cure may also swerve from dark dissonant disconnect to pure pop but the drums are always powerhouse. A refugee from prime time Bowie/Iggy, Reeves Gabrel’s guitar lines only add to the Cure’s vagabond pop.
7. The onstage dynamic is fascinating – the stoic, very English, almost ageless figure of Robert Smith holds the crowd with his cat paw hands, his head tilted in concentration and his curious mix of dark sarcasm, childlike glee, perfect pop nous, toy doll charisma, his truly underrated guitar playing and that voice is without peer. He is also, perhaps, the last of his generation to hold onto his image which is a triumph in a music scene of pastel shades.
To his side is his long term foil Simon Gallup, who is almost the opposite with his zag-zagging physical presence on the stage – a skinny ball of energy who has extended his range of motion beyond the kung fu shapes of his teenage icon – the Stranglers’ iconic JJ Burnel, whose driving bass sound is still echoed in The Cure sound.
8. Tonight is not a case of working their way through classic dark albums like Disintegration. The whole album playback is core to the band’s legendary gargantuan sets – like some sort of monolithic dark orchestra playing its way through old sonic symphonies, presenting dramatic pieces from the past and making them feel contemporary. It’s a festival set but one that doesn’t take the easy option and present the many moods of the band whilst taking a trip through their own back pages for the bulk of the set. There are hits in there and there is plenty of dense dark album track action, but there is no One Hundred Years which is missed by your correspondent with it being a firm favourite, with its stark avalanche of impending doom and emotive power.
9. Its not easy in a huge empty field like this to deliver songs with this kind of innate sensitivity but that’s what makes the Cure so powerful. Small moments magnified, emotional twists and turns, the nuances and quirk, strangeness and charm of life beamed across huge fields, the personal made public, the flickering suburban nightmares made real.
10.It is truly spectacular. The Cure leave the stage having played one of the great live sets not only of Glastonbury but of all time. Here were are getting deeper into the 21st century and our senses are still being dislocated by the bedsit art rock band who slipped past their contemporaries and to the top of the pile with none of the chest-beating bravura, none of the hype, none of the bullshit and got there because they struck a nerve by creating a music that somehow retained the drive of punk rock, the invention of art rock and combined it with subtle shifts in moods and atmospheres, and because they had great songs that captured the many moods.
All words by John Robb.
Photo © Naomi Dryden-Smith.