While the discographies will maintain that 1979’s Three Imaginary Boys is the debut album by The Cure, it’s their sophomore full-length, Seventeen Seconds, which is truly an LP of firsts: it was the first record when frontman Robert Smith took control and the first time we were introduced to The Cure’s trademark darkness. In the liner notes to the 2005 reissue of Seventeen Seconds, Smith openly admits: “I’ve always thought of Seventeen Seconds as our opening album, it was the first record I felt was really The Cure.”
Sonically sparse, gone were the Buzzcocks-like post-punk leanings of Three Imaginary Boys. “I hate the first album, loathe it,” Smith acknowledged to Johnny Black in an interview for Penthouse in the spring of 1982. “I loathed it when we were making it, but we were so glad to be allowed to make a record… I never imagined we’d make any more records after that album.”
It is understandable that Smith had such a pessimistic outlook given the band’s rapid ascent. Having performed regularly around Crawley between 1977 and 1978 as Easy Cure, the group had undergone a few line-up changes before settling as a three-piece with Smith (guitar and vocals), Lol Tolhurst (drums) and Michael Dempsey (bass). The band lost the Easy to become The Cure and an early demo would eventually land in the lap of Chris Parry, an A&R man at Polydor, who was looking for bands to release on his fledgling Fiction label.
Entering Morgan Studios with his newly signed band, Parry took control. “Chris told us to record every song we had, and we’d work out what went on the album afterwards,” Smith told James Oldham in August 2004. “I trusted him, but in the end, he just chose what went on there… If we’d gone into the studio six months later, we’d have made a much better album.” Following the release of stand-alone single Killing An Arab, Three Imaginary Boys hit record stores in May 1979 and Smith immediately distanced himself. “The first LP in a lot of ways was like a compilation,” the singer told NME journalist Paul Morley in 1980. Morley had savaged both Three Imaginary Boys and the band for their ‘anti-image’ stance in his review of the record, taking particular exception to the arty cover. “I thought the artwork was a bag of shite,” Smith readily admitted in 2000. “Parry had this vision of the group that I reluctantly went along with. By the time it came out, I’d already written M and Play For Today, so I’d mentally divorced myself from it anyway.”
Boys Don’t Cry, another stand-alone single, was released in June 1979, but again failed to impress. However, as Smith told Trouser Press’ Jon Young seven months later: “I would have hated it if Boys Don’t Cry had become a big hit, because people would have expected more songs like it, which we are moving away from.”
“The music scene was changing, moving forward into new territories,” wrote Tolhurst in his autobiography Cured: The Tale Of Two Imaginary Boys. “We felt we were at the forefront of whatever was coming next.” However, relationships within The Cure camp had begun to become strained…
JUMPING SOMEONE ELSE’S TRAIN
While supporting Siouxsie And The Banshees on a UK tour, irreparable fractures in Smith’s relationship with bassist Dempsey had formed. When John McKay quit the Banshees mid-tour, Smith found himself both fronting The Cure and depping on guitar for the headliners.
“For the rest of that tour, The Cure part of the show was always uncommunicative and teeth gritted,” Smith confessed to Uncut in 2000. “As soon as I got in the Banshees’ van, it was all over. I think the final straw came when I played Michael ideas for the next album and he hated them.”
The situation left Smith with a lot of anger and anguish to resolve, admitting: “I felt overcome, overwhelmed and very alone.” Having decamped to his parents’ house, Smith took comfort in sound. “I was listening to Bowie’s Low, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Jimi Hendrix’s live Isle Of Wight, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Khachaturian’s Gayane Ballet Suite,” he said. “I wanted The Cure to create a weird kind of hybrid music to somehow connect these five and for every song to work with as little instrumentation as possible.”
“THOUGH SINGLES AREN’T THAT IMPORTANT TO US, IT IS ALWAYS NICE IF YOU GET A HIT”ROBERT SMITH
“We were at the Smiths’ house back in Crawley when Robert presented a cassette for us to hear,” wrote Tolhurst. “I was amazed by the minimal beauty of the songs. Inside this preview of what would become Seventeen Seconds, I heard a glacial sonic landscape that mirrored my own lonely feeling at the time.” To capture the absolute isolation felt by both Smith and Tolhurst, the pair returned to Morgan Studios with Dempsey’s replacement Simon Gallup on bass. The Cure were bolstered by the addition of Matthieu Hartley on keyboards and the almost complete removal of Parry from anywhere near the studio.
“With the money from Three Imaginary Boys, I bought 10 days of studio time,” Smith told Rolling Stone. “We only used eight, so I got my money back for the last two, which was lucky ’cause we spent far more than I thought we would on beer.” The Cure were able to save time and money by sleeping on the studio floor. “We slept in the old Morgan Studio One, which was kind of creepy, as it used to be a church,” said Tolhurst. “Above the new ceiling was an old stained-glass roof. When the studio was dark, it was visible in a ghostly kind of glow. At 4am, it looked almost otherworldly.”
Smith knew exactly what he wanted to do on Seventeen Seconds and didn’t want anyone to interfere with that. Left to their own devices, a sense of contentment set in as a resuscitated Cure completely submerged themselves in their art. The only other person allowed in was co-producer Mike Hedges. “Robert said to me he thought he and I could produce the record more to his liking than if a third party did it,” Hedges told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin. “As an engineer, I was very keen to experiment, and Robert encouraged me to do this.”
However, the album’s emotional gravitas and pitch-black darkness weighed heavy on everyone involved. Hedges said: “It was so introspective and so depressing, it did us all in.
COME CLOSER AND SEE
With the album in the can, A Forest was released as a single on 8 April 1980. The track broke the Top 40 and became The Cure’s first chart success, reaching No. 31. As a result, the band found themselves on Top Of The Pops for the first time.
“It was a nice surprise that A Forest did so well,” Smith told New Zealand publication In Touch in the summer of 1980. “Though singles aren’t that important to us, it is always nice if you get a hit.” The exposure that appearing on a programme such as Top Of The Pops would bring to such an ‘anti-image’ band like The Cure didn’t go unnoticed. However, as Smith pointed out: “If we didn’t do it, someone else would, and it made no difference to the majority of people watching whether we played or not.”
Of course, The Cure would go on to become one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable groups of all time, and the whole ‘image versus anti-image’ quandary seems a little ridiculous today. Even in 1982, Smith was more than aware: “All that stuff blew up about the anti-image and I was totally unprepared. I couldn’t believe or take it seriously.”
However, for Seventeen Seconds the anonymity factor still loomed large, not least in the album artwork. Directed by Smith, photographer Andrew Douglas managed to capture the LP’s absolute introspective quality. “We did all the photos the day we finished recording, at about eight o’clock in the morning,” Smith told Rolling Stone. “I said, ‘could you do some that are out of focus’ and they’re the ones we used, because the ones in focus looked so hideous.”
Tolhurst wrote: “The photos of the band were all blurred, which we felt correctly mirrored what we felt our fans should take from the album. We wanted people to focus on the music, the actual songs, not our appearance… I think if that had been the last the world had seen or heard of The Cure, then we would have made our mark. It meant that much to us.”
Released on 22 April 1980, Seventeen Seconds reached No. 20 on the UK album chart. It is fair to say the rock press were not prepared for it: “To many, Seventeen Seconds may seem a valid progression. I, however, find it depressingly regressive,” wrote Nick Kent in the NME before concluding, “even so, I await their next move with great interest.”
An unsettled Chris Westwood wrote accurately in Record Mirror: “This is a reclusive, disturbed Cure, sitting in cold, dark, empty rooms…” While, in his favourable Sounds write-up, an on-the-money Phil Sutcliffe proclaimed: “With Seventeen Seconds they have courageously emphasised their extremes as a band of blue-grey mood and emotion with no easy thrills to offer,” adding: “Smith portrays with rare intensity a metaphysical sense of isolation and loneliness.”
Melody Maker writers were not so convinced. Reviewer James Truman offered that Seventeen Seconds “plays like a dismal TV drama: vaguely disorientating, fleetingly attractive and meaninglessly evocative,” while fellow MM scribe Adam Sweeting didn’t like the LP at all: “When Seventeen Seconds appeared, it came as a shock. Gone were the succinct and snappy songs, replaced by longer and less defined pieces. The prevailing mood was brown bleeding into grey.”
That all considered, back in 1980 perhaps the most intriguing response would come from the NME’s Paul Morley. Having lambasted the band’s debut, he called Seventeen Seconds “an extraordinary LP.” In a feature entitled ‘Days Of Wine And Poses’, dated 12 July 1980, he wrote: “There is the quiet agony of love and loss, a constant sense of distance – between people, places, past and present. Seventeen Seconds is an LP of romantic melancholy, of anguish and finally horror.”
In the same article, Smith confessed: “There is genuine emotion on there and whether people want to take it that way is up to them. I am not going to say you’ve got to believe me…”
A MEASURE OF LIFE
Following the release of Seventeen Seconds, much of the rest of 1980 was taken up with touring. However, the tragic suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in May at the age of just 23 had a profound impact.
“I was 21, but I felt really old, older than I do now,” revealed Smith retrospectively in an interview with Uncut magazine in 2000. “I had no faith in anything and genuinely felt that I wasn’t going to be alive for much longer. I tried particularly hard to make sure I wasn’t. The whole thing was reinforced by the fact that Ian Curtis had killed himself. I knew that The Cure were considered fake in comparison… If I wanted people to accept what we were doing, I was going to have to take the ultimate step.”
The melancholic mood surrounding The Cure escalated at the start of 1981. Smith’s grandmother had suddenly passed away and Tolhurst’s mother was terminally ill with cancer. The collective grief would materialise on the album Faith and only intensify on 1982’s Pornography.
Thankfully, by his own admission, Robert Smith has subsequently found a “genuine passion for being alive”, and The Cure have gone on to create some of the most incredible, multi-coloured pop songs: The Love Cats, Just Like Heaven, The Caterpillar, Six Different Ways, Close To Me, Why Can’t I Be You?, Pictures Of You, Mint Car, Never Enough and Friday I’m In Love, to name a few… but dig a little deeper and you will still expose that creeping dark side first revealed on the magnificent Seventeen Seconds.
“During Seventeen Seconds, we honestly felt that we were creating something no one else had done,” Smith confessed. “From this point on, I thought that every album was going to be the last Cure album, so I always tried to make it something that would be kind of a milestone. I feel Seventeen Seconds is one of few albums that genuinely achieved that.”