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The Cure perform ‘Reflections’ – The Royal Albert Hall, London

If ever a band defied critical convention, it’s The Cure. Few artists have managed to both create and inhabit their own universe as completely. Existing in parallel to the trends of the last 30 years means that there has rarely been anyone non-committal on the subject of Robert Smith et al. Simply put, you either get The Cure or you don’t. That means that any review in terms of the wider world of contemporary music is a bit pointless. Those who don’t appreciate the work never will. Therefore, assessment of a Cure album or show can only be done in the context of whether it was a good Cure album or show. Only those with knowledge of this alternate universe – fans – can really do that but they, by definition, tend to be a bit biased. Hence the dilemma.

This set, however, takes the notion of separateness to a new level. This is – literally – everything the band recorded from 1979 to 1981. Everything. Three albums, in sequence, followed by all the singles and b-sides. And it is being held in the rarefied but comparatively small environs of the Royal Albert Hall, with the cheapest ticket costing three figures (and a lot more from the legions of touts outside.) People fought to be here. They are not here because they quite like the odd song. These are Smith’s people and they have come here to share in something a little bit special with their leader. It’s almost like a revivalist commune, except the singing – joyful though it often is – is more about permanent death than eternal life. Well, it is The Cure.

In 1979, the band (then a 3-piece) were snuck in to a studio by their label – Fiction, an off-shoot of Polydor – to record after The Jam had left for the day. Three days later they emerged with Three Imaginary Boys, a debut filled with scratchy guitars, rough-hewn lo-fi and a lot more punk attitude than some may remember. Before Smith’s psyche collapsed into nihilistic darkness – okay, before he became a fully-fledged goth – there was a playful, bipolar energy at the heart of the music. Kicking off with the insistent, nagging ‘10.15 on a Saturday Night’ Smith stands, as he always does, clad in black with wild hair, Kohl eye make-up and lipstick as badly applied as when he first did it. But the album is a lost corker; each track thrums with energy and promise.

‘I never thought I’d be playing that song in this building when we recorded this album’ he says, before adding thoughtfully ‘I never thought we’d do a lot of things we’ve done since making this album’. The sound is extraordinary, rocketing around the old place perfectly and filling the exuberant crowd up even more. ‘Fire in Cairo’ is the perfect blend of fizzing anger and lovelorn hopelessness which would define the band. ‘Subway Song’ reminds you how, well, young they all were back then.

A short break and we are into Seventeen Seconds. It kicks off with as fine a start as you’ll hear on any side one – because it was a side one – as ‘The Final Sound’ gives way to ‘A Forest’, which is almost oxymoronic; it’s actually ecstatic considering how utterly gloomy the original is. The band have grown to a 4-piece for this set – each album is played by a similar number to the line-up which recorded it,  reflecting the fluency of Cure membership behind Smith  – and the sound is less urgent but deeper. ‘Play for Today’ retains an air so redolent of the dark Britain of the early 80s that you can almost feel a sense of nuclear panic. ‘M’ is still heartbreakingly beautiful, while the title track crunches with a vibrancy not wholly realised on record.

Another short break sees the band return for Faith which is, even by Cure standards, a rather down-there album. Indeed, its only real contemporary in the gloom stakes is probably Closer by Joy Division, a band who Smith owes a debt he’s never really acknowledged. Make-up and wild hair alone does not a radical new direction make, and Faith certainly shows its influences. But how beautiful it is, even now. Now up to the classic five-piece line-up, there’s a depth and purpose to songs such as ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and ‘Primary’. This is not easy listening, but somehow the elegiac nature of the building and the warmth of the crowd combine to produce something almost classical in its beauty.

By this, it is clear that we are not merely witnessing another show. This is, even to the converted, an event. The tangible sense of uniqueness simultaneously charges the room and binds audience to performer. Interestingly, the band play instruments mirroring those used for the albums  – same make and model guitars, basses and keyboards. The band are playful in the encores. B-sides such as ‘World War’ and ‘Descent’ delight the most brittle of the hardcore, while the pop majesty of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘The Walk’, and ‘Let’s Go to Bed’ point towards the direction the band would take in the second half of the 80s. They are also brilliant. Indeed, the only bum note in an otherwise faultless 44-song set – yes, forty-four– is a rather throwaway version of ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’. But it’s hard not to forgive them the odd mis-step. Each hit, buttressed by its b-side, just reminds you that great bands make both great singles and great albums. The Cure were always both simultaneously.

It ends, as did the period, with ‘The Lovecats’ which is still beautifully odd after all these years. Everyone sings with gusto, people cheer and hug and the band are gone. Who thought something as joyous could come out of something caused by so much misery? Three classic albums that have, if anything, become more relevant in the intervening decades. Smith apologises to anyone wondering why the band onstage have such a dated sound before realising that ‘if you are in here tonight, you probably know why already.’ But given the new sheen added to the songs, it’s as if they were recorded yesterday. White Lies would kill for this material.

The Cure may never be recognised for what they have achieved in a stellar career by those outside their world. But as we slope away from the magnificent old hall, one is left with a simple thought…who cares? The people who matter know what they’ve done – and tonight, band and audience connect as one.

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5 Responses

  1. I was one of those in the audience who had to fork out whatever it would cost to get a ticket on the secondary market due to touts and ebayers etc trying to make a quick buck…but thats another discussion.

    I do agree with almost everything that was written in the review above for anyone that doesn’t really understand or get the Cure as was pointed out in the first paragraph. So as a lifelong fan I do have to disagree with the fact that the reviewer’s biggest criticism of the gig was their “throwaway version” of Jumping Someone Else’s Train.

    For me that was one of the highlights amongst many of their performances tonight. Their decision to play the first three albums in some ways came as a surprise to me as I know how dissatisfied they were with a lot of Three Imaginary Boys and Faith…but there again knowing The Cure as I do to play the obvious lps such as Pornography or Disintegration in their entirety would have been too easy and too easy to please the diehard hard fans…so they did what they always have done and went against convention.

    So for that and the fact that they had the balls to strip their sound back to the bare bones and revisist songs and do justice to those songs that were written almost three decades ago you have to give them credit.
    Its not easy for a band who has been around for a long as they have to remember why they were adored in the first place and that is what I got from this gig more than anything else…….to know and really love the Cure means that you can never predict their next move.

    Long live the most underrated UK band of all times

  2. Hi KC,
    ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ is one of my favourite Cure songs, but I felt that he’d changed the vocal to something too light and removed the urgency from the song. It just didn’t work for me.

    But that still meant one misfire out of forty-four! Pretty good ratio 🙂

    It was a wonderful gig from one of the UK’s greatest ever bands. ‘Seminal’ is a word bandied about too often, but I think it fits Bob and co.

  3. Great review. Being in my late 30s Disintegration and the Prayer tour was the point I became hooked and I hadN’t really appreciated these albums. Don’t get me wrong, I knew every lyric of every track but until hearing All Cats Are Grey on Tuesday I hadn’t realised how beatiful an album Faith was and your elequent description nailed my feelings of the night. Incidentally, after failing to get a ticket on the web, I arrived at the Royal at 10am on the day and every 30 minutes was asking the booking office lady if antone had cancelled, 5 requests later I landed a £75 returned choir ticket 20 above the stage!
    There is a Keats quote at the start of Triology that sums it up for me, “Ay, in the very Temple of Delights, veiled melancholy has her sovereign shrine”. Bliss.

  4. That’s brilliant Stew, love it!

    I totally agree about Faith. Again, I knew the album, but I feel I saw a new side to it on Tuesday night. I dunno, just a depth to it I hadn’t appreciated fully.

    I have to admit if they do a set that includes both Disintegration and Wish…well, that might just be perfect!

  5. Disintegration & Wish? Yes, that would be pretty much a perfect set! To hear Last Dance, Untitled, Apart & Letter to Elise live would probably force me to risk lining a touts pockets. Could I be greedy and demand a few choice b sides too, maybe Fear of Ghosts & The Big Hand?

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