33 at 33: The Cure’s Standing On A Beach, Staring At The Sea

The Cure have had a spectacular evolution from post-punk misfits to the massively influential elder statesmen of alt-rock. It’s also 33 years today that the band released their first singles collection, which would serve as a primer for a new generation of Goth-rock mopers, indie kids, and college rock devotees. Marking a decade since their inception in 1976, the vinyl edition of Standing On A Beach was a chronological compilation of all 13 of their commercially released UK singles up to that point, with the CD featuring four bonus tracks and its very own moniker, Staring At The Sea. The album’s titles are taken from the opening lyrics of the Cure’s debut single, the immortal Killing An Arab, which has since been dropkicked into oblivion due to ludicrous political correctness concerns. 

Of all the great guitar bands I loved as a black-clad teenager in the Thatcher’s Britain of the early to mid ‘80s, it was the Cure and Echo And The Bunnymen that really struck the chord I was searching for. The dark and majestic songs, aloof attitude and scruff-bag chic were balm for a pre-determined lost soul. Both groups held masses of mystique for me back then, and, apart from the obvious visual aesthetic, a big part of that was their unquestionably great runs of singles 

In the 1980s, the Cure and the Bunnymen were two of UK’s greatest singles bands, right up there with Madness and Pet Shop Boys, a coruscating quadrumvirate sharing the hallowed territory that had been owned by Roxy Music in the ‘70s and The Beatles in the ‘60s. The Scouse four-piece collected their prime 45s first, on 1985’s sublime Songs To Learn And Sing, with the southerners playing catch up just six months later.

For me, no acts typify that whole leaving school, heading to college transitional period more than this epochal pair. And yet, for very different reasons I didn’t get around to seeing either band live until 1997. A bit of a late bloomer compared to someone I know who met Robert Smith on the train back to Surrey after a Bunnymen gig at Hammersmith Palais, where “he said that he’d loved it, and if he wasn’t in The Cure, the only other band he’d like to be in was the Bunnymen.” 

The Cure first flashed up on my radar in the summer of 1983. Paul Day, my best friend’s younger brother had bought their new single, an unsettling synthetic confection called The Walk, and he seemed quite enamoured with it. Then again, he had the coolest taste in music than anyone I knew, certainly leagues cooler than his older sibling and me. I mean, we were the two Steves who still liked Adam Ant, fer christsakes.

I had just turned 14 when The Walk was released—literally the day before in fact. (Thanks to wonky Wikipedia a thoroughly incorrect release date of 5 July has spread into the blogosphere; I can assure you it was 27 June). But apart from it slightly reminding us of the recently released Blue Monday, I was unconvinced.

“I think Blue Monday came out a bit earlier than The Walk but I wanted it to sound like the band Japan, not New Order. Simon Gallup and Peter Hook have got similarly aggressive personae on stage, although I think Simon is a far superior bass player. And the six-string bass was an instrument we both picked up at the same time in the early ’80s. But I’ve never deliberately copied New Order.” (Robert Smith)

Being the youngest of the three, I gave slightly too much credence to my own classmates—largely a hotchpotch of Duranies and Whamsters—who did as everyone did, and had a post-mortem on the previous night’s Top Of The Pops every Friday morning.

“He can’t sing, that Cure bloke.”

They’d soon say the same thing about Morrissey. Except of course, that his band was called The Smiths.

I decided to reserve judgment, but by the time the next single The Love Cats was issued that October, I couldn’t fail to be enchanted by its jazzy, feline catchiness. Essentially, it’s pasty British post-punkers with pointy hair and eyeliner try to sound like a smokey cabaret jazz combo and it’s utterly charming. This cat’s got ear worm. In fact, according to Robert Smith, the atypical accessible lightness was an homage to the Disney film The Aristocats.

By that time, we knew Smith—or Fat Bob as he was later monikered in the press, utterly unmercifully—as the new bloke in Siouxsie And The Banshees. He was the cool looking one in the Ray-Bans and leather trousers that “shuffled around” and irritated the Sioux one “a lot.”

“Robert’s mad. His nickname’s Fat Boy, but he looks so big half the time because he forgets to take his pyjamas off when he gets dressed. He’s very cuddlesome. Sometimes we don’t speak for a month, for some unknown reason, and then we bump into each other and have a month of conversations in one night.” (Budgie in Smash Hits, May 1984)

This was a pivotal moment. In more ways than one. This was period where Robert Smith fully developed his trademark pointy backcombed hair and hooker red lipstick look, possibly having its permanence influenced by being part of Siouxsie’s entourage, and hanging out at The Batcave.

For me, it was a revelation. Robert Smith became my visual role model, with a side helping of Ian McCulloch to boot. As long as it was regulation head to toe black topped off with hair spikes a plenty, natch.

Not only was my wardrobe getting a make-over but so did my record collection. Through Paul Day I was introduced to the propulsive leftfield world of Ultravox, Japan, Talk Talk, Heaven 17, Soft Cell, the Associates and of course, the Bunnymen and especially The Cure. Suddenly Adam Ant’s perennial pop pantos seemed far too juvenile for teenagers discovering sex and sexuality. I needed to put away childish things, and fast.

I splashed the cash on The Cure’s new mid-priced LP, Japanese Whispers, a decidedly odd compilation of A and B sides.

The recording, release, and touring phases of the band’s desperately bleak fourth studio album, Pornography, had highlighted all sorts of problems, not the least of which were issues around Robert Smith’s depression, infighting over the band’s artistic direction, and debilitating levels of hard drug use. An alignment of events which took The Cure to the precipice, staring into a self-destructive abyss. It’s all there, laid bare, on Pornography. Which may or may not be the reason many Cure fans cite the album as the band’s pivotal work. 

After bassist Simon Gallup (temporarily) quit the band, across late 1982 and all of 1983, The Cure embarked on a slightly more upbeat pop-embracing path, with Smith honing his song-writing skills and repositioning himself as a master of the quirky love song. With that shift in focus came a series of standalone single releases and it’s those tracks which formed the core of what would prove to be the first of a dozen or so Cure compilation albums.

Of course, having only just discovered the band, I had no idea this wasn’t a proper studio album. I just thought they were being nice with the price! In retrospect, I can see why many Cure purists view this as the band’s low-point, but having nothing of their earlier doom-laden works to compare it to at the time, I just took the record for what it was. I had no idea it was for the most part unrepresentative of the music to slit your wrists to aesthetic Smith and Lol Tolhurst had set out to create.

Having said that, I still enjoy Japanese Whispers, and naturally I have a sentimental attachment to it and the kittenish cuteness of The Love Cats. You would, wouldn’t you?

So if I hear any goth bores rubbishing its poptastic quality that just makes me want to love it even more. I mean, that walking bass line, piano pulses, and brass crescendo makes it utterly irresistible, even if the drum and happy, high guitar rhythms are slightly reminiscent of those dodgy rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats. It’s one of the most infectious moments of The Cure’s entire career and I don’t give a stuff who knows it.

Then something strange happened. Although I loved the band’s next release, the strange psychedelia of 1984’s Caterpillar (their only single of the year, in fact) I opted not to buy it or the attendant album The Top. Their next LP, The Head On The Door, was issued the very month I started further education but although it had a couple of cracking singles on it that send me back to Bletchley College in seconds, I skipped that particular purchase as well.

Did I tell you I regard The Cure as a brilliant singles band? Well, there you have it: Standing On The Beach. No actually, Staring At The Sea because I bought the CD, naturally. Release date: 19 May 1986.

I was still in my first year at college. Yup. The concrete manifestations of my teenage fandom – the haystack hair; the ever more extreme experiments with make-up, the scanning of the listings magazines to try catch every one of their TV appearances (and there were quite a few in the Eighties), the studying of the lyrics in Smash Hits. Paul and I—and later local girls from a year below me, Sarah and Lesley—embraced their ascent overground, and never once flinched.

Why? Because the core of their music remained true: however hard you tapped a toe, Robert Smith was ultimately still there for the nasty things in life. Kind of like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis but with a better handle on his demons.

Standing/Staring kicks off with 1979’s debut 45, the sophisticated metaphor of existential nihilism that is the brilliant if, in millennial terms, the deliciously politically uncorrect Killing An Arab. (Sensitive to accusations of racism, Smith changed the lyrics live to “Killing Another”, though he’s since reverted.)

In retrospect, what made Standing on a Beach so exciting at the time was its clever use of formats. Vinyl listeners had a taut 13 tracks to enjoy on their edition, while new compact disc connoisseurs like yours truly could take advantage of the longer playing times with an additional four non-single tracks, in the UK at least (10:15 Saturday Night, Play For Today, Other Voices and A Night Like This, all of which received airplay through their newly fashioned music videos).

But cassette owners had it best: the 13 tracks of the vinyl edition of Staring were on one side of the tape, while another dozen “unavailable B-sides” (all previously released on vinyl) made up the other side.

All the early classics like Boys Don’t Cry, A Forest, The Hanging Garden and Let’s Go to Bed are present and correct, before 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and 1989’s Disintegration took the group to a beautiful round of crossover pop success with hits like Lullaby and Just Like Heaven.

Ultimately, Standing on a Beach became the group’s highest-charting album at the time, peaking at No. 4 in Britain and No. 48 in America, and ultimately selling two million copies on our shores.

Less successful but just as intriguing for collectors was one single released to promote the set: a remix of 1979’s plaintive pop anthem Boys Don’t Cry, featuring a new vocal track from Robert.

Fans didn’t warm up to the “New Voice – New Mix” too well though – Smith’s vocal sort of clashes against the sonics of the original track, and it only went to No. 22 in 1986 – but there was manna for collectors in the form of two previously unreleased tracks dating from 1979 on the B-side, Pillbox Tales and Do The Hansa.

But as a single document, this collection captures some of the finest— and most influential—post-punk music. At their best, The Cure were nervy, intellectual, catchy, and foreboding, all at once.

No matter how carefully crafted the individual albums were, their finest moments occurred on singles like these, when they distilled their essence into surprisingly catchy, but decidedly left-of-centre, pop singles accompanied by comic Tim Pope videos that nobody would have guessed they could make: Inbetween Days, Close To Me et al.

Standing/Staring not only selects highlights from their uneven early albums, but if you aren’t a vinyl junkie then it gives you more bang for your buck with a glut of often undervalued non-album singles. It’s a definitive retrospective of The Cure and is one of the finest compilations of the 1980s.

And that’s not damning with faint praise. It’s almost as good as Songs To Learn And Sing. Really.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: Put on a little make-up, make-up

After the 1997 show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I also caught the band live in 2016. This time, when The Cure came to Sydney, I faced up to my androgynous teenage past and got my lippy on. Get me

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