The Vivid Live Festival in Sydney scored a major coup when curator Stephen “Pav” Pavolic convinced Robert Smith to bring The Cure to Australia to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their seminal tour-de-force Faith, a new wave, post punk, Gothic Dark Side of the Moon.
“Now, we go back 33 years…”
- Robert Smith, upon hitting the stage, May 31, 2011
Word has it that while considering the opportunity, Smith requested that Faith’s predecessor, Seventeen Seconds, be added to the show to also give this underrated opus its due. Then later, Smith supposedly rang “Pav” back to add the band’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, to the night to “provide context.”
The three-album event, now given the name “Reflections,” grew further in stature as estranged band members were re-enlisted, along with a film crew, to capture and chronicle the event for a DVD release.
Faith’s congregation mobilized fast, and tickets for the two “Reflections” shows at the legendary Sydney Opera House sold out in mere minutes. Devotees travelled from around the planet — I met people from every continent save for Antarctica — to stroll down memory lane with The Cure. Tickets were in such demand they fetched up to $2200 a pair on eBay.
Smith’s decision to “provide context” was a brave move, because Three Imaginary Boys was never to his liking, as it was rush-released by the band’s record label and in many places was never issued properly. Some of its tracks were eventually added to a compilation of singles and B-sides from that era and released as Boys Don’t Cry in several countries.
In some respects, Three Imaginary Boys is a series of family photos; some you wish were lost forever while others privately bring a smile, a cringe or at least a smirk, and some you share proudly with your friends. None of this was lost on the band, and Smith even admitted after the misogynistic and juvenile “Object” that the track was never one of his favorites. Before “So What” Smith even confessed that he would be surprised if he remembered all the lyrics; he did.
This initial set featured Smith, longtime bass slinger Simon Gallup (1980-1982, 1985-present) and regular drummer Jason Cooper (since 1995). The trio replicated The Cure’s 1978-era sound impeccably. Often, it was like seeing and hearing a group of teens thrashing in the garage, stumbling towards an identity.
Fittingly, Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” was included — this time sung by Smith instead of original band member Michael Dempsey — as an axe-wielding cover version that tipped its black hat to the dearly departed Jimi. As far as I’m concerned, along with Prince, “Fat Bob” (as a bitter Siouxsie Sioux supposedly coined him) is the world’s most underrated guitarist. On the harmonica, however, as demonstrated by the still tense “Subway Song,” Mr. Smith showed he’s no Bob Dylan.
After a mere 30 minutes (not taking into account the time to flip the vinyl), the set on the first night concluded with the album’s atmospheric title track (on the second night, it concluded with throwaway track “The Weedy Burton,” as the album does, because diehards demanded it for “accuracy” purposes).
Admittedly, Three Imaginary Boys was a hodgepodge of a debut, and the set seemed truncated (I’d forgotten how short albums used to be). However, it served its purpose as the foundation and context for the next two albums/sets. Despite the “drip drip dripping” kitchen sink that Three Imaginary Boys often is, “Another Day,” along with fan favourite “Fire in Cairo” and opener “10:15 Saturday Night,” all served as a rough prequel for what was to come.
Flash forward a year to Seventeen Seconds.
After a brief intermission, we were transported a year forward for 1980’s Seventeen Seconds. On again/off again band member Simon O’Donnell (1987-1991, 1995-2005) joined the three not-so-imaginary boys on stage, along with original keyboardist Matthieu Hartley. Immediately, as they launched into “A Reflection,” the quantum progression heard in the band’s sound was visceral and profound.
The maturation in songwriting that occurred in the year between Cure albums is staggering. Now there is a previously missing lushness in the material. Notes that were once buzz-saw and choppy now are decanted, allowing room for them to breathe and grow. The band discovered the flanger, so waves of sound could now sustain themselves seemingly forever.
Thematically and textually, there are evolutions and revolutions evident in Seventeen Seconds as well. Longstanding encore fodder “Play for Today” initially seemed out of place so early in the set; however, its enduring and endearing sing-a-long (with its keyboard riff) revealed an audience engagement with the song deeper than seen in previous shows.
This rapture reappeared in full force with the opening notes of “A Forest,” a whirling and blinding six minutes of tonal transcendence, which also was forgiven for appearing mid-set instead of in its usual encore position. “At Night” pulsated with its brooding and driving bassline, and “M” ensnared with its hooks and progressions. However, in between, the perennially underrated “In Your House” was captivating and sublime with its understated hooks and nuances. It was an unexpected highlight in a night full of them.
As with the first set (at least on the first night), the title track was the closer. “Three Imaginary Boys” had evoked a dreamy atmosphere, and while “Seventeen Seconds” might be equally as hypnotic on the album, its beefed up backbeat made it more of a presence live, ending the set with an unanticipated sense of authority.
Another intermission, another year passes, another ex-member joins.
Joining the band for the Faith set was co-founding member Lol Tolhurst (1973-89), first ostracized to keyboards after the Pornography album and then canned outright in 1989 due to alcoholism and incompetence — at which point he unsuccessfully sued Smith for rights to the band’s name.
Tolhurst’s inclusion as a keyboardist/percussionist after 22 years might stem from a hatchet buried, but there was a tragicomic component to his presence. He was the architect of much of the sound and feel of every song played this evening; these albums, especially Faith, would not be as revered if not for his distinctive Krautrock-meets-tribal drumming, notably on the rototom. On this night, though, almost like a parolee or a “stranger,” he was relegated to the side, permitted to perform primarily non-essential services.
On those occasions when the band allowed Lol to carry scissors, there was a sense of uneasiness and foreboding, particularly given the gravity of the event and the future DVD investment. Thankfully, his contributions, like the bell in “The Holy Hour,” the drum arcs in “Doubt,” and the ethereal closing keyboards in “All Cats Are Grey,” came off adequately.
As a five-piece, the group showcased why Faith deserved this regal gala. The leap from Seventeen Seconds to here is nowhere as jarring as was the jump from albums one to two, but there was a distinctive resonance and confidence underlying each song as well as a phenomenally strong cohesiveness to the album as a whole. Faith is a bona fide statement as opposed to a series of songs, and its strength could not be disputed as the band progressed through its eight tracks.
From the opener “The Holy Hour,” which set the tone with a dark and visceral soundscape, to the close (yes, a title track again), Faith’s magnificence proved breathtaking, its themes of trust, doubt, belief, and alienation coming across as strikingly relevant and still potent. When Smith surmised, “There is nothing left but faith,” at the end of this eight-song journey, sincere “reflection” was only just beginning.
As much as the content and sequence of these three sets was known, such foreknowledge did not take away from the emotional trek of working through and reliving each song and album. The crowd remained riveted, and nobody departed during the three hours it took to deliver them.
Once more from the top, not The Top.
After fulfilling their commitment and archeologically by plundering their canon, The Cure were at this point free to play for themselves. Anyone who has seen the band know that three-hour-plus gigs are the norm, so they could not escape the encore, which was the great unknown of the evening.
Many hoped the band would continue through the canon and move onto 1982’s Pornography, but alas, a performance of that has already been captured on DVD. After such an arduous sonic trek, where could this sentimental journey go next? Truthfully, there didn’t seem to be any unfinished business.
Remarkably, however, the band returned to their conception and (re)told their story again, this time using their alternative history — with songs relegated to B-sides along with the singles. In this era, The Cure treated singles and albums for the most part as separate entities.
In what can only be described as a fan’s dream come true, songs untouched for decades were dusted off. Starting as a trio again, Smith, Gallup and Cooper hit the stage and broke out a trio of B-sides circa 1979-1980: “World War,” “I’m Cold,” and “Plastic Passion.” Roger and Lol rejoined for the singles portion: “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” “Killing an Arab” (sensitively renamed “Killing Another”), and the awe-inspiring pairing of “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and “Another Journey by Train.”
This should have been enough, but we are dealing with the Grateful Undead here. A second encore still lay in store, during which the band completed the history with Faith-era singles and B-sides, including the exquisite “Charlotte Sometimes,” and its B-side, the drumming onslaught “Splintered in Her Head.”
To close, they slyly avoided sealing the epoch by introducing Pornography with “The Hanging Garden,” thus demonstrating that their history, including their alternative history, is very much a living one.
It made for a perfect statement for a perfect evening. On the second night, Smith joked they were leaving to drop some acid, a nod to their drug du jour for the Pornography era which lead to Gallup’s quitting.
“And again and again and again” The Cure refused to let this evening end. Like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, they just kept coming. For their third and final encore, they ushered in the epoch-alypse, the trio of singles that followed Pornography, compiled on the Japanese Whispers EP: “Let’s Go to Bed,” “The Walk,” and “The Lovecats.”
In this manner, they ended the night on a “happy” note. Nobody complained.
Three Imaginary Boys set: 10:15 Saturday Night, Accuracy, Grinding Halt, Another Day, Object, Subway Song, Foxy Lady, Meathook, So What, Fire In Cairo, It’s Not You, Three Imaginary Boys, No Weedy Burton (only played on the second night).
Seventeen Seconds set (with Roger O’Donnell): A Reflection, Play for Today, Secrets, In Your House, Forever/Three (Happy Birthday lyrics added on second night for bassist Simon Gallup), The Final Sound, A Forest, M, At Night, Seventeen Seconds.
Faith set (with Roger O’Donnell and Lol Tolhurst): The Holy Hour, Primary, Other Voices, All Cats Are Grey, The Funeral Party, Doubt, The Drowning Man, Faith (not extended).
1st Encore: World War, I’m Cold, Plastic Passion, (then joined by Roger O’Donnell and Lol Tolhurst) Boy’s Don’t Cry, Killing Another, Jumping Someone Else’s Train, Another Journey By Train
2nd encore: Descent, Splintered in Her Head, Charlotte Sometimes, The Hanging Garden
3rd encore: Let’s Go to Bed, The Walk, Lovecats
[photos 1, 2, 3 by Chris Rose; photos 4, 5 by Sam Zavaleta]
— Chris “Gutter” Rose