In the weeks and months leading up to this gig, I had been thinking how it was a little anachronistic that a band so synonymous with having a black-clad following should be ending their tour by playing in such a cavernous white building! These concerts had seemed so far away through the Spring and the long slog of that near-dangerously hot Summer that they felt almost like an abstract concept. But, with Autumn seemingly non-existent this year, suddenly, they were upon us and – with nearly perfect timing – it was a case of Mother Nature coming to the rescue, dusting much of London with a sprinkling of snow on the very first night of this trilogy of shows.
Suddenly, it all seemed to make a bit more sense. The Wembley Arena was transformed into something resembling an ice palace (with a bit of imagination), and it began to seem the perfect home for some of The Cure’s more glacial epics, old and new. On a more practical note, I’m also pretty sure that these freezing temperatures meant that the curious lack of cloakrooms at the venue mattered a little less to the 12,500 crammed inside on each of the three sold-out dates.
Inside, it was all a bit surreal at first as people drifted in: the Cure faithful huddled at the front, with a few peppered around the mixing desk at the back, while others mill around or sit in the middle of what was once an Olympic swimming pool(!) Also, instead of a tape of music deemed appropriate or a DJ playing the same, the pre-gig time is soundtracked with a simple recording of the sounds of pouring rain. It’s different and – combined with the accompanying projection of a starry night sky on the stage backdrop – a little ominous, too, somehow.
Regular Cure support act The Twilight Sad put on a great show, despite facing what is sadly probably only a quarter-full venue at their 7 pm start time. Their unique brand of rousing yet quirky indie rock won many new fans during their set – and hopefully the whole tour, too. It’s also a rare joy to hear someone sing in such a broad regional accent; their Scottish roots are brought clearly to the fore. Someone in the front rows even waves a Saltaire during their first song! They mention how much of an honour it is to be supporting “their favourite band”, which no doubt ‘greases the wheels, and when they leave the stage in a blizzard of bass feedback, the anticipation starts to grow.
So when the lights drop again and the main attraction emerges, assuming their places one by one across the stage, the enthusiasm grows to a frenzy, peaking as reluctant icon Robert Smith emerges from stage right and – after taking time to wander the stage and survey the gathered throng – saunters almost reluctantly to his position, front and centre.
It’s brave to start a set with a new track, braver still than one such as ‘Alone’, with its themes of isolation, impermanence and insignificance and also with such a massive instrumental intro that gives Robert much time to consider them. “This is the end of every song that we sing”, he eventually incants, as a huge image of a globe rises, then recedes slowly behind him on the screens. It’s clear from the start that this will be an emotional test for us fans and Smith himself.
But we’re back on more familiar territory and solid ground with the next song, the anthemic ‘Pictures Of You’. It’s an unlikely crowd pleaser …and this huge crowd is undoubtedly very, very pleased – and keen to let the band know it! It’s almost a moment of cathartic joy, but one with a most unlikely soundtrack.
Full disclosure: I was a teenage Cure fan! I worshipped particularly at the altar of Simon Gallup (since I dabbled in bass playing at the time), even modelling my huge crimped and backcombed hair of the time after his! Someone else might cringe at that admission, but I’m proud when I look back at the few photos of me from that era. So the grinding bass fuzz that starts the next song can mean only one thing for us elder fans: ‘At Night’ – a track that takes this oldster back to his angst-wrought teen years and yet, on reflection, fits perfectly alongside all the later epics, despite its relative succinctness. I think it’s safe to say that nearly all of The Cure’s early output has aged surprisingly well, only the mode-ish punk-influenced sneer of the first album’s vocals giving away the time when they were performed.
Talking of Gallup, he seems to offer the counterpoint to almost the rest of the band onstage. He is the mischievous ‘spirit of Rock’n’Roll’, with his immaculate, spikily quiffed hair, his tight jeans (at least I think those were jeans!) and his low-slung bass. He was forever scampering across the stage, occasionally ‘duelling’ with Smith or Reeves Gabrels, on guitar, like some mischievous, hyperactive sprite and scaling the stage front monitors at regular intervals, too, seemingly keen to exhort the throng to even greater heights of worshipful fervour. I was a little concerned for his safety at points, but I think he’s had plenty of practice, and he seemed as assured as a mountain goat!
More fan favourites follow (they’re all fan favourites!) in the form of ‘A Night Like This’ and a surprisingly rock-y version of ‘Charlotte Sometimes’, which is accompanied by a suitably purple vista of lighting and visuals. It’s then on to one of their most famous, emotionally-charged and yet simple tracks, ‘Lovesong’, which he famously wrote as a gift to his wife on one of her birthdays.
Next up was another new song: ‘And Nothing Is Forever’, which was almost hard to watch. As well documented, Smith has endured more than his fair share of losses in the last five or so years, losing both of his parents and his older brother too. So when the accompanying projections are of an arched stone monument silhouetted against a night sky illuminated with aurora, you know what is going through Smith’s mind. So it is almost beyond doubt that this grief will have been channelled into the recent output, explaining the emotional intensity of these new tracks we have witnessed tonight.
But during this sequence, we also saw one of Simon Gallup’s other roles made clear. As the longest-standing member of The Cure, other than Robert Smith himself, not only has he co-authored some of their most memorable tunes and greatest hits, but the two have a special bond with all the ups and downs they’ve been through. So it is particularly touching when – obviously overwhelmed with the prospect of the emotions evoked by performing these songs, with all those thoughts on his mind, he turns to Gallup between ‘Lovesong’ and ‘And Nothing Is Forever’, and the two have a needed supportive hug between tracks. It’s all too much for Smith at points, with this being the penultimate night of a gruelling 44-date pan-European tour – and with a colossal 2hr 45min set duration each night, too – It’s no wonder those emotions are making their way to the surface more easily now.
Seemingly revived, though, after these emotionally charged songs, the band launched into a sequence of more aggressive material: ‘Burn’ and ‘Push’ bookend two tracks from their iconic Pornography album, ‘The Figurehead’ and ‘A Strange Day’. All the shades of the black rainbow are being covered tonight, for sure. Stepping back still further in time to their Seventeen Seconds album, ‘Play For Today’ presages the arrival of one of the highlights of any Cure set: the mighty ‘A Forest’, accompanied by perfect footage of an impressionistic nighttime forest pursuit! The intro sends us all into raptures, but so does the extended outro. After Smith’s guitar finally runs its course, it climaxes with those signature bass pulses and ends with Gallup thrashing all four strings into a brutal submission as the crowd roars their approval.
Throughout much of the set, I was thinking how additional latter-day guitarist Reeves Gabrels – once of David Bowie’s rock side-project, Tin Machine, and with Hendrix or Fripp levels of guitar-wrangling talent – was underused. However, his time to shine came with the next pair of tracks – the vast, quasi-Psychedelic wig-outs of ‘Shake Dog Shake’ and ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea’. I generally resist the temptation to liken some of The Cure’s output to that of Pink Floyd, even though Smith admittedly was heavily influenced by them. I don’t see very much of a resemblance, generally, but on tracks like these two, I can reluctantly admit some resemblance, I have to say. Certainly, Gabrels got to have fun, and the raptured audience appreciated his craft too.
Looking back at some of the hastily-uploaded videos that some attendees had already shared last night, I realised how such videos simply don’t capture the intensity of such an event. Sure, it’s a minor miracle of modern technology that a phone can capture such audio and manage to reproduce it with clarity. But with such clarity and inevitable volume-levelling, the sheer physicality of some of the sound levels present last night is lost. This is music that needs to be heard loud; thus, what you see online doesn’t really represent the experience.
To be clear, the sound was pretty much perfect throughout. It was loud – very loud at points, yes – But it was never distorted or unclear, so the sound guys earned their keep. Hats off, too, to the technician who realised that if you point a small camera mounted on the floor at the front of the stage at your subject who is simultaneously having that device’s footage projected onto a screen directly behind them, then you will get an almost ‘hall of mirrors’ like effect. Combine it with a few digital treatments and colour washes; the result is genuinely mesmerising. This simple trick was deployed several times throughout the night, but most effectively on ‘A Night Like This’ and – during one of the two epic encores – on ‘The Walk’, where the colour palette was dazzlingly varied throughout.
It was revealed throughout the set that each band member had a dedicated camera. For ‘Burn’, drummer Jason Cooper was rightly highlighted on the backdrop, soaked in red light, as he heroically pummeled out that primal rhythm. And on ‘Shake Dog Shake’, all the other members were cast in monochrome, trembling silhouettes in columns on the rear screen, that shuddering building throughout, until they were just blurred by the end. Simple but massively effective stuff. By contrast, the main set ends with the suitably epic and harrowing ‘Endsong’, where the backdrop is nothing by seemingly an orange sun in a red sky.
With the first of those encores, they dangle us over the existential abyss with the long-form classics’ Plainsong’, ‘Prayers For Rain’ and ‘Disintegration’, but again open this second phase with a third new song, ‘I Can Never Say Goodbye’, which again, is suitably bleak, given Smith’s recent life experiences. It becomes clear there has also been a theme developing with the projections. With the long-awaited upcoming album being titled Songs Of A Lost World, the volcanic landscape that accompanies ‘Prayers For Rain’ reinforces the continuing metaphor of likening the physical world’s metamorphosis and destruction with that of our own lives.
With the second vast and expansive encore, we are snatched back from the brink. We see the other, redemptive, life-affirming side of The Cure, with a quickfire sequence of some of their greatest uplifting tracks: ‘The Walk’, ‘Friday I’m In Love’, ‘Close To Me’, ‘In Between Days’ all hit us in quick succession, pulling us back from that void of despair they have themselves previously invoked. But they save for the last one of the songs that means the most to Smith personally: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ – his railing against the expectations of gender emotional robustness that has clicked with just about every generation of musicians – and fans – since. And this is emblematic also of the trick that The Cure have pulled off, over the decades, possibly more successfully than any other band whose singles have routinely made it into the charts: It’s not outright rebellion; it’s not even a particular look – it’s that their songs represent the inclusion of the excluded and a vocalisation of those emotions we all feel from time to time but mainly never mention.
Smith has said in interviews how he doesn’t think of The Cure as Goth – that Goth was something that came after their founding (back in 1976, in their first incarnations) but which they just happened to synchronise with for a while in the early 80s, in terms of musical style and themes. However, a strange thing – which people tend to forget – about some of the early Goth bands centred around Soho’s ‘The Batcave’ club night is that they were surprisingly varied, stylistically. In their formative years, people like Bauhaus and Danielle Dax routinely experimented with other genres: Funk and Reggae rhythms frequented the early releases of Bauhaus. At the same time, Dax went further, incorporating not just those Bowie-approved genres but also bending even Honky Tonk and Country elements to her will across her solo 80s releases.
In that sense, the diversification in both style and mood that The Cure undertook from 1983 onwards was, if anything, more of a continuation of the original spirit of Goth than the 4/4 uniformity of some of its more open proponents, who followed from the mid-80s onwards to the present day. And Smith has mentioned how The Cure is the only band who seem to get described as both suicidal and whimsical at the same time! But this variety distinguishes them and allows their fans to identify with them so much.
No one feels suicidal all the time, and no one feels whimsical all the time! In short, they’re expressive and emotional. All human life is here …if you take the time to listen. And I would suggest you do. Smith has hinted that this album (and its mooted twin album, yet to be confirmed) may well be the last they make – at least together, as a unit. So if they do a tour again, get out there and see them while you still can. Songs Of A Lost World might be the album’s title, but it also neatly sums up what we will be missing once they’ve gone.