The Birth Of The Cure: “It was pure nihilism”

From hospital gigs to punk epiphanies, MOJO charts the origins of Robert Smith’s dream-weavers, The Cure.

Robert Smith 1979

by Keith Cameron |
Updated on

On December 20, 1976 a band called Malice made its debut public performance at St. Wilfrid’s Catholic School in Crawley – where guitarist-singer Robert Smith, drummer Laurence ‘Lol’ Tolhurst and bassist Michael Dempsey had until recently been pupils. They opened their set with Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, sung by Martin Creasy, a local journalist wearing a brown three-piece suit. “We had never rehearsed with him,” Dempsey recalls. “I think we would have left along with most of the audience if that were possible.” Tolhurst, meanwhile, wore a black studded catsuit and mascara in the style of his hero Alice Cooper. The set ended with a version of Wild Thing, sung by the drummer. “It was a disaster,” Tolhurst said, 40 years later, in his memoir Cured. “I thought, ‘That’s that, then.’ But it wasn’t.”

On December 31, 1977, the same group, but with a different name and minus the singing journalist, assembled at Orpington General Hospital. The hospital staff assumed that having a band called Easy Cure playing their New Year’s Eve dinner dance must be a joke. The members of Easy Cure, however, weren’t laughing. From a school to a hospital in 12 months didn’t feel like huge progress. Still, the reward for playing two one-hour party-hearty sets would be riches beyond their dreams: £20 each and unlimited free beer. “For 20 quid, we’ll play anywhere,” they agreed.

An inkling of trouble ahead came during soundcheck, when Tolhurst was told to stop tuning his drums: the noise was “disturbing the patients”. Smith, meanwhile, drew up a setlist that mostly comprised the band’s own songs: punk-blasted sneers like Heroin Face and I Want To Be Old, or a creepy vignette inspired by Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, called Killing An Arab.

As the first set ended amid restive booing, Easy Cure took a break and discussed how to proceed without being lynched by Orpington Hospital’s by now well-lubricated nurses, porters and clerical workers. Their manager, Dempsey’s brother-in-law, suggested the trump card held by every sensible light entertainment ensemble in 1977: Tony Orlando & Dawn’s Tie A Yellow Ribbon. To general amazement, lead guitarist Porl Thompson admitted he knew the song from playing in a cabaret band. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember how to play the whole thing.

Thus, Easy Cure opened their second set with the first verse and chorus of Tie A Yellow Ribbon, repeated ad nauseam. A bottle was thrown. Robert Smith and his girlfriend Mary Poole were pursued by some angry patrons into the car park, where a fight ensued. The scene, typical of the apathy-cum-hostility the band encountered in their Home Counties hinterland, marked a turning point.

“We realised then that we couldn’t just go and play any old place,” Smith later reflected. “We didn’t want to learn other people’s songs. That way we would have become yet another pub band.”

Thirteen months after the hospital debacle, the same band, now reconfigured as a trio of Robert Smith, Michael Dempsey and Lol Tolhurst, and definitively renamed The Cure, had a record deal from the man who had signed The Jam, their debut record Killing An Arab was NME’s Single Of The Week, and they were on the front cover of Sounds, proclaimed “Stars In Embryo.” Even given the accelerated momentum of the post-punk era, this was a remarkable turnaround. What catalytic energy had driven The Cure so far, so soon?

“The band was a ticket out of Crawley,” Tolhurst tells MOJO today, “out of going down the pub and having fights with skinheads. Deep in our psyche we knew: If we don’t do something, we’re destined to live in this place until we die.”

First settled in the 5th century by Saxons who named it Crow’s Leah – a clearing infested by crows – modern Crawley hides its rural origins beneath blandly utilitarian architecture and a collection of distinct residential neighbourhoods connected by a great many roundabouts. “To be different in such a place required some resolve, says Michael Dempsey, “but you immediately stood out. There was a steady beat of aggression – largely born out of suspicion of anything that failed to conform.”

The town’s economy was (and still is) principally driven by the adjacent Gatwick Airport, around which sprung a proliferation of light industry units, including Upjohn Ltd, a pharmaceutical manufacturer that from the mid-’60s was managed by Alex Smith, father of Robert. With three railway stations, the M23 on its eastern edge and the airport to the north, Crawley has an abundance of transport links – yet that didn’t make it any easier for Robert Smith and friends to get out. “There were only two ways to escape,” Tolhurst considers. “You either had to be a great footballer, or in a band.”

As it happened, the teenage Robert Smith was a pretty good footballer. In March 1975, the Crawley Observer commended his “devastating wing play” for Three Bridges Wasps in a 3-2 defeat to Shoreham in the Minor Sussex Cup. But music seemed a more feasible option. At 16, the school careers officer quizzed him and his friends about their future ambitions. “I said I wanted to be in a pop group and they all giggled,” Smith subsequently recalled. “Another boy said he wanted to be an astronaut and they giggled at that too. He ended up working in a bookies, but I was really self-centred and went ahead. At least I’ve tried.”

With his 30-year-old brother Richard a knowledgeable source of head food for mid-’70s teenage English misfits – King Crimson, Nick Drake, MC5Trout Mask Replica, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds Of Fire – Smith hunkered down with a £20 Woolworths Top 20 guitar, a 30-watt amplifier, and some existentialist literature. Tolhurst and Dempsey already shared his love of Jimi Hendrix and T.Rex, and Porl Thompson proclaimed himself a fellow Sensational Alex Harvey Band fan. During the hot summer of 1976, a group of sorts began rehearsing at the Smith family home on Cobbett Close.

On January 20, 1977, Tolhurst suggested a trip to Croydon to see The Stranglers at the Red Deer. Dempsey drove, Lol bought the tickets, Robert and Mary sat in the back seat. Punk, hitherto an exotic concept they’d only read about in the music press, was now made flesh. A month later, The Stranglers played Crawley College. Amid the drunken mayhem, Tolhurst found himself on-stage dancing with Jean-Jacques Burnel and went home missing a shoe. In Robert Smith’s mind, blanks were filling in: “When I first saw The Stranglers, I thought, This is it. I saw the Buzzcocks the following week, and I thought, This is definitely it.”

Fuelled by the latest punk singles bought from Rick Gallup’s record counter at Horley Radio Rentals, Easy Cure began their escape. In April they answered a Melody Maker advert from the German record label Hansa – home to Boney M – and were invited to audition at Morgan Studios in Willesden, north-west 
London. To their amazement, they were offered a contract – and Easy Cure signed. “It was the catastrophe before the shining moment of realisation,” says Tolhurst.

Over the subsequent months, while the band established semi-regular gigs at Crawley pub The Rocket, Hansa made clearer their interest in photogenic teen-bait playing cover versions (Japan were signed from the same auditions). But Easy Cure gave the notion short shrift.  “The Clash had no trouble with I Fought The Law, but we refused to do it,” says Dempsey. “Hansa sent a producer down to Crawley, who had played bass for [Noosha] Fox, Gary Taylor, but he clearly had as little enthusiasm for us as we for him.”

Thus far, Easy Cure had persisted with the notion of having a lead singer. Yet when the latest of these, Peter O’Toole, left after a gig at The Rocket in September to join a kibbutz, Smith finally assumed the role himself. “It was clear nobody was going to express his thoughts and feelings better than him,” says Dempsey. With Smith at the forefront, three recording sessions for Hansa ensued, with Rebel Rebel and I Saw Her Standing There trotted out unenthusiastically amid the band’s own material, including Killing An Arab. In spring 1978, at Hansa’s Mayfair office, the label’s UK A&R manager Steve Rowland terminated the contract due to Easy Cure’s recalcitrance. Rather than apologise and plead for a second chance, Robert Smith didn’t blink.

“He said, ‘Well, can we have the rights to our songs back?’” Tolhurst remembers. “And they went, ‘Err… OK. Not even people in prison are gonna like this stuff.’ Those was their exact words.” He laughs. “Rob doesn’t care. He doesn’t care what you think about him. He always had his own vision of what he was going to be.”

Shortly afterwards, Porl Thompson played his last gig with Easy Cure (though he would return for stints in 1983-94 and 2005-08). The guitarist’s flamboyant proficiency had become incompatible with Smith’s vision. The band name also submitted to the new minimalism. They were now simply The Cure.

“The early Cure sound was pure nihilism,” says Dempsey. “We belligerently stripped away everything we loathed in music and found we were not left with much – minimal bass and drums, economical guitar and oblique lyrics.”

At the end of May, The Cure recorded a demo at Chestnut Studios in Haslemere, paid for by Rick Gallup. “I don’t know if any of us would have actually risked 50 pounds on the band,” says Tolhurst, “but he did.” The tape featured four songs – 10.15 Saturday Night, Boys Don’t Cry, It’s Not You and Fire In Cairo – and Smith sent one to every major UK record company, including a note (“Hello. I’m Robert from The Cure. We don’t have any contracts but we would like some”), a tea bag and a Digestive biscuit. As Dempsey recalls, “We were rejected by everyone – Phonogram, Virgin, EMI, Island – many using the same phrasing: ‘Not the type of material we are looking for.’ Except Chris Parry, who wrote back saying, ‘I would like to meet the group.’”

A 29-year-old New Zealander, Parry had enjoyed chart success in his homeland as drummer with late-’60s psych-pop band The Fourmyula, before moving to the UK and joining Polydor’s A&R department in 1974. He signed The Jam in 1977, but only after his attempts to bring The Clash and the Sex Pistols to the label were thwarted by superiors. His disgruntlement boiled over in mid-1978 when his enthusiasm for The Cure’s demo fell on cloth ears.

“They just went, ‘Huh, s’all right.’ I thought, Ah fuck you, it’s better than that. So I put my notice in. On that tape there were two extraordinary songs: 10.15 Saturday Night and Boys Don’t Cry. From an A&R point of view, the important thing is: Does this have what in the old days would be called ‘the sound’? Is there something distinctive? It’s often the voice. Robert did have a distinctive voice. Then meeting him, I felt there was something about him, he was a very bright boy.” He pauses. “They looked shocking though.”

Parry was especially appalled by Michael Dempsey’s “corduroys, Hush Puppies and grandpa jumper.” For their part, although initially disappointed to discover he was offering to sign them to a label that did not yet exist (fittingly, it was soon named Fiction), The Cure soon warmed to Parry (Dempsey: “We were entertained by his casual manner”). Both shared an outsider’s perspective, had already been bruised by the establishment, and were driven by an entrenched belief they knew best. Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, these common instincts would soon conflict, but in September 1978, The Cure happily acquiesced with Parry’s still nebulous future. It wasn’t like anyone else had dunked their Digestive.

“Without Chris Parry there would have been no Cure,” says Tolhurst. “We would have probably circled around the plughole a few more times, and disappeared. He was the only person from London who bothered to come and see us play in our hometown.”

Parry’s plan was essentially to get Polydor to sign his new label: to demonstrate his viability he needed a Cure record out, pronto. An initial session at Morgan Studios yielded a stinging version of Killing An Arab, which all agreed should be the first single. Parry himself produced, with the studio’s in-house rookie Mike Hedges engineering, an arrangement repeated over two subsequent bookings in November and January, yielding some 25 songs, from which the debut Cure album Three Imaginary Boys emerged. Parry sought to distance The Cure from punk, without necessarily abandoning their astringent perspective on the human condition.

“We wanted space,” he says. “How can we make this sound more lonely? Can we make this emptier? The approach was to take the songs and these three characters and make a really good record, but one that left you thinking, ‘These guys are a bit weird – there’s something not quite right here.’”

In between sessions, Parry sent the band out of their suburban domain, with support slots for Wire and The Jam in Canterbury, UK Subs at the West Hampstead Moonlight Club, and a short tour opening for Generation X, including Birmingham where they covered Paranoid. Seeing Wire on October 5, however, had a profound impact on Smith’s vision for The Cure.

“Wire gave me the idea to follow a different course, to hold out against the punk wave,” Smith told Guitar World in 1996. “During the first song, about half the audience left. It was the most intense thing I thought I’d ever see – blinding white lights shooting straight into the audience and this incredible wall of noise. Then they’d stop it and do little quiet bits. I remember a big row with the others in the van afterwards because they all thought it was shit, and I thought it was immense. That’s what I wanted The Cure to do.”

Still finessing the details of Fiction’s accommodation with Polydor, Chris Parry struck a one-off deal with Walthamstow independent label Small Wonder to release a double A-side single featuring setlist standouts Killing An Arab and 10.15 Saturday Night. Parry regretted what he now regards as “throwing away” the latter, but if he wanted to make an impression, Killing An Arab did the job. It’s a measure of the era’s ambivalent – or insensitive – attitude to race and gender politics that the press barely addressed the song’s power to confuse. In the Sounds cover feature, Smith stated that Hansa had refused to entertain releasing it “’cos we had to keep in with the Arabs… it was so ridiculous.” On tour in February 1979, other perspectives were made apparent. The National Front showed up in force at the West Kensington Nashville Rooms. The next night, at Kingston Polytechnic, the students union banned them from playing Killing An Arab, until Smith explained the lyric’s A-level origins.

“I don’t recall for a moment discussing how anybody might misconstrue this lyric,’ says Dempsey, Smith’s English Lit classmate, “but then we had overlooked the obvious: not everybody had read the book.”

The Cure felt even more misconstrued when their album was released. On the subsequent UK tour, Smith played Chris Parry some demos. This, he said, was how the album should have sounded.

“Crunchy cheap guitars, à la Buzzcocks,” says Parry. “Join the queue. Mike Hedges and I were not looking back at punk, we were looking forward.”

“Robert says he doesn’t like the first album,” says Tolhurst. “Well, the reason is, because he wasn’t in control of it.” Parry’s studio methods caused friction, but far more contentious was his deciding on a track-list (bizarrely including a version of Foxy Lady, sung by Dempsey) and artwork that infamously represented the trio as household appliances, without consulting The Cure.“As far as I’m concerned,” says Parry, “this was a young band. I wanted to do the best by them. But I needed to create something, and I knew how to create it and they didn’t.”

Although Three Imaginary Boys presented a unique artistic vision, the route out of suburbia and into the world was proving fraught. Major bumps still lay ahead – and there would be casualties. “Perhaps all the problems with the making of Three Imaginary Boys demonstrated in one quick, early lesson, how not to do it,” says Dempsey. “And gave Robert, who was a very quick learner, the knowledge of what to avoid in the coming years.”

Michael Dempsey played with The Cure for the last time at Hammersmith Odeon on October 15, 1979, the final date of an extraordinary tour supporting Siouxsie & The Banshees on which Robert Smith played with both bands, following the exit of the headliners’ guitarist John McKay. Days later, after a tense Cure meeting, Smith phoned Chris Parry and told him he would only continue “with a band I can get my head around” – i.e. without Dempsey. Smith invited Parry to his parents’ house in Crawley and presented him with his vision: a new glacial dark sound and new bassist, Simon Gallup, younger brother of Easy Cure’s early patron Rick. Here was The Cure’s future, first glimpsed by Smith a year earlier when Wire had blown his mind.

“I think Michael challenged Robert in a way that Robert didn’t like to be challenged,” says Parry. “There was obviously a sense of Robert wanting to get control. I saw it as, ‘OK, this might be what’s needed.’ And it was.”

In January 1980, Robert Smith took his new model band back to Morgan Studios and began recording Seventeen Seconds, co-producing it himself with Mike Hedges. It was, reflects Lol Tolhurst today, the moment when the band became “truly us. The first album is The Cure as well, but it’s also like, ‘Hey, this is the band that played Orpington Hospital, and it’s not that different. Except we’re not playing Tie A Yellow Ribbon…’”

On March 29, 2019, before a star-studded audience in New York, The Cure were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Accepting the honour from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Robert Smith was flanked to his left by the current members of The Cure, and to his right by five former members, including Dempsey and Tolhurst: the original three imaginary boys reunited.

Significantly, Smith’s speech acknowledged just one other person. “When we very first started, and we were a teenage trio in 1978 playing in the south of England, at one of our very first shows this small bloke came along, and we weren’t very sure who he was. And he saw something in us that most people didn’t. And that’s Chris Parry – proving that he did get something right after all.”

This article originally appeared in MOJO 328

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