Emerging from the late-1970s maelstrom of punk and new wave, Robert Smith was always determined to succeed on his own terms, an attitude that propelled The Cure to the very top – and on to a very big comedown, he tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
DARK, DEMENTED, tormented, torrid and tetchy? Oh, I don’t think so. The Cure’s Robert Smith might have gained something of a reputation in his 35-year-plus tenure as the leader of one of the most enduring of alternative post-punk bands, but these days you will find him basking in the glow of sun shining throughout The Cure’s Indian summer. Yes, Smith was once perceived as the epitome (and, indeed, the spokesperson) of teenage sulking, but now in his 50s, he has what he didn’t have at 17: perspective, insight, history, intellectual depth, a sense of irony.
“Good music – emotionally connecting music, in particular – transcends a lot of the traditional pop music age barriers, and if you’re more into image and being of the zeitgeist, so to speak, then you’re much more concerned about being young, and quite rightly in my opinion. Every generation needs their own bands and their own spokespeople. I wouldn’t dream that what I write or what we play represents a younger generation, but I think emotionally it connects. What The Cure has, I hope, is something of a timeless quality to it. It isn’t really to do with how old we are.
“Having said that, yes, of course I’m aware of us growing older, and it feels very strange because in my head I don’t feel as old as I am. Certainly, when I’m singing there are times when I come to the end of a song and think, good grief, it’s been a long time since I wrote that one!”
Formed in 1976 in West Sussex, Smith’s early teenage music tastes were steered from the likes of Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher (“he was the very first music act I saw. I went on my own to the Brighton Dome in 1974, and I was completely entranced . . . ”) to the year-zero moods and modes of punk rock. The Cure’s 1979 debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, set out the kind of stall that should by rights have buckled, yet within a few years the band morphed from trembling, morose teenagers into a fixed unit who effectively created their own genre of pop music.
By the mid-1980s, albums such as Faith (1981), Pornography (1982), The Top (1985) and The Head on the Door (1985) brought The Cure moderate worldwide fame, not only as a band that defined (unwittingly or not) a sombre, often nihilistic worldview (“it doesn’t matter if we all die” sings Smith on Pornography) but also one that could conjure up a tune you could whistle on your way to work.
By the early 1990s, however – with the band even more successful via the global smash album, Wish, and hit singles such as Friday I’m in Love – moderate fame had turned into massive adulation. Cue enormo-domes. Cue a miserable two years. Cue meltdown.
“Yes, that’s when I took a break for a few years,” recalls Smith wistfully. “Wish was number one in pretty much every chart in the world, and we were playing giant football stadia. Our success had escalated to the point where I just couldn’t cope with it any more, and so I had my own version of a breakdown.”
The way Smith tells it (and he relates it, by the way, with eloquence, reflection and humour), he had become a hugely successful and very recognisable celebrity, who had no idea how it had happened.