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The Cure in 1983: It’s all Lovecats and Japanese Whispers

Few bands have a back catalogue as deep — or as truly kaleidoscopic — as The Cure’s. Their considerable discography, which now stretches back over 45 years, is a study in extremes par excellence — from the most abjectly bleak and funereal goth dirges to the giddiest of Technicolor dream pop. This is a lament for the latter.

Now a sprightly 64, Robert Smith spent the first few years as its forlorn frontman gazing and then plunging into the abyss of existential horror, and the next few clawing his way back out of that abyss, with a grin on his face drawn on with lipstick. 1983 was most certainly The Cure at their most jolly.

After the stripped-down darkness of Faith and Pornography and all its associated fallout (both psychologically and physically), it made perfect sense that 1982’s The Hanging Garden appeared to be some thunderingly percussive homage to Siouxsie & The Banshees. After all, for an 18-month period until the summer of ’84, Fat Bob was now splitting his time shuffling between the two post-punk outfits. 

A period of personnel instability had also caused The Cure’s longstanding trio lineup of Smith, bassist Simon Gallup, and drummer Laurence Tolhurst to splinter, leaving Bob and Loz effectively a duo with the latter switching to keyboards. 

But why did the next single but one sound so uncomfortably close to a complete rejig of New Order’s very current Blue Monday? It probably has as much to do with the limited abilities of early sequencers as it does with the phenomenal impact of that pioneering twelve-incher. 

Either way, it certainly sounded nothing like anything that came before or since, and was, according to Smudger, the only song he wrote that his mother liked at that point; this is probably due to the part in the song where the singer exclaims, “I saw you look like a Japanese baby!” but that’s pure peer conjecture.

Initially a stand-alone single produced by Japan cohort Steve Nye, The Walk is an anomaly in The Cure’s career, their one true entry in the then-hot synth pop sweepstakes based on keyboards and chattering drum machine fills and featuring a naggingly catchy synth hook in place of a traditional chorus. 

Moreover, from the sublime Let’s Go To Bed, the previous 45, through to The Lovecats 12 months later and maybe even a couple of subsequent offerings, The Cure put out some of the catchiest songs of their career. These were not only singles that got the band radio play and made them a household name, but more importantly a precursor to the next phase in the music of The Cure, which would reach its peak with albums like The Top, The Head On The Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

Released in December 1983, the songs on Japanese Whispers (the aforementioned non-LP singles from the so-called “Dream” phase, including all but one of the associated B-sides) are light, pseudo-dancey, and at times jazzy. Happily, the specially priced set was one of those rare releases when a singles collection works just as well as a standard-issue album.

Adding those new wave keyboard clicks, some old timey-wimey percussion, standup double bass, and some damn silly lyrics rejuvenated Smith and sent him on a course that would cement his role as one of the most interesting musicians to emerge from the eighties alternative rock scene. 

Songs like The Dream and The Upstairs Room illustrate the modified sonics with their machine-like drum beats and soundtrack feel. Along with the new wave interest, Smith and Lol Tolhurst also developed a short lived interest in jazz, and nowhere is that more evidently flashy than on the last of the 1983 recordings. Speak My Language is a poppy piano-driven number with a mid-tempo triplet jazz rhythm with windy guitar effects, but no one knows what the hell Smith is singing about. His lyrics are totally off the wall on all these songs in fact.

Closing out the LP’s almost-but-not-quite chronological running order, The Lovecats is gleefully its most commercial offering, three minutes of the most immaculate musical confectionary Robert Smith ever concocted, and which had purred its way to No. 7 that November, the band’s first and only Top Ten single until Lullaby six years later. 

Once the song starts to kicks in, it’s one of the most infectious moments of the Crawley combo’s entire career. There’s an element of sentimentalism at play here, admittedly, because The Lovecats (initially spelled all joined-up stylee) was the first Cure single I bought, on 12” Extended EP format. (Sorry but not sorry, Japanese Whispers and a later more career-spanning compilation, 1986’s Standing On A Beach/Staring At The Sea, were ultimately the only Cure albums I’ve owned in a physical sense.) 

So, of course I think The Lovecats is still one of their best singles. There’s no murk, no foreboding, just an old school retro rhythm track with a wiggle in its hips and Lol Tolhurst’s keyboards and Andy Anderson’s drums cooing and plinking at each other. Its distinctive walking bass line (courtesy of Phil Thornalley), piano pulses, and brass section crescendo makes it eminently enjoyable, plus the drum and happy, high guitar rhythms slightly reminiscent of The Stray Cats make this one of those tracks you wish you could dance to.

The Cure made a point of adjusting their identity on a regular basis—that was the prerogative of new wave — and the big difference here from the band’s earlier work is that the arrangement of The Lovecats is straight-up pleasure music: a “wonderfully pretty” feline love song about amour and erotic bliss sung right up in your face from the point of view of somebody who’s probably just necked one too many happy pills. 

Smith has subsequently claimed he wrote The Lovecats as a joke while drunk, which just makes me like it even more, because The Cure in 1983 were when they could speak my language.

Steve Pafford

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

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