Join The Dots: B-sides And Rarities, 1978-2001 The Fiction Years
By: Eric Greenwood
Box sets are always indulgent and scary prospects, as few bands have enough good material to sustain multiple discs much less the four that The Cure covers here with every one of its b-sides and rarities in chronological order, spanning 1978 through 2001. Sure, there are some bumpy spots, particularly in the later years (as one might expect), but The Cure's wildly experimental heyday retains its immediacy and timelessness even in b-side form.
The Cure has always been a fan's band, releasing extra material and deluxe packaging back before such things were fashionable or even expected (although, curiously, in the much-maligned and now practically extinct cassette format). Double-sided cassettes like 1984's Concert The Cure Live/Curiosity: Cure Anomalies And Rarities and 1986's Standing On A Beach- The Singles featured b-sides and rarities galore, which brilliantly lured fans into The Cure's mysterious evolution from Existential pop icons to cartoonish Goth pioneers, allowing fans to feel a direct link to The Cure's mass of musical contradictions.
The earliest b-sides reveal The Cure in its most simplistic incarnation: as a trio that relied on minimal yet memorable guitar lines, flowery bass, and ape-simple drumming. To think that "10:15 Saturday Night" was originally a b-side (to the band's Camus-inspired debut single "Killing An Arab") is mind-boggling, considering its stature amidst The Cure's legendary canon now, but it just goes to show how strong even its castoffs could be.
Some pre-Cure demos (recorded as Easy Cure) like "Plastic Passion", "Pillbox Tales", and "Do The Hansa" all embody punk's "fuck you" ethos as well as its DIY aesthetic with performances that seem amateurish and naked and classic all at once, while revealing a sense of something lingering just behind the door. Replacing the busy note fingering of Michael Dempsy on bass with Simon Gallup's less studied approach allowed The Cure to mine its darker sensibility with a tougher, more credible edge, as on the bass-heavy "Another Journey By Train" and the overtly percussive "Splintered In Her Head."
The band's maturation over the course of its first five years was staggering. As The Cure delved deeper and deeper into its frighteningly personal emotional obsession over the course of its thematically linked early albums, its b-sides lashed out fearlessly, marking the band's most experimental and disparate period. Robert Smith's songwriting took unexpected – even hated – turns towards the end of 1982- as he abandoned the trench coat suicidal rock of Faith and Pornography for an unforeseen fascination with playful disco-flavored pop.
The resulting b-sides were originally collected on the import Japanese Whispers in 1983, and they foreshadow the crossover dark pop formula Smith would soon employ. "The Upstairs Room" and "Lament" allowed some muted light into Smith's gloomy pop landscape- a huge leap forward compared to some of the band's less dynamic predecessors. The way Smith melded paranoia and fear with quirkily memorable choruses and catchy keyboard passes went wholly unnoticed by the record buying public, though, as all of these singles stiffed in the charts, but twenty years later they serve as the foundation for countless bands' elemental sounds.
Smith's refusal to cater to a niche crowd proved to be his most brilliant business decision, as it cast a much wider net for The Cure's ever-expanding audience, but more importantly it allowed him to grow by leaps and bounds as a songwriter and performer. The b-sides gloriously display the extreme ends of the highs and lows of his development. The playful side of the band made Smith's persona seem schizophrenic, plunging the depths of his personal demons and revealing his, by turns, silly, disturbing, and drug addled euphoria in music that became the soundtrack to a generation of teenagers home alone on Friday nights.
As The Cure became more comfortable with its kaleidoscopic formula on 1985's The Head On The Door and 1987's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the unpredictable diversity of its b-sides, ironically, tapered into a string of dreamy pop songs with heavy synths and anthematic choruses ("A Japanese Dream", "A Chain Of Flowers"). By the time Disintegration came out in 1989, The Cure was stadium huge, and its b-sides reflected a Pink Floyd-ian sense of dark grandeur, but the fierce experimentation that marked its early years had vanished. Still, "2 Late" and "Fear Of Ghosts" proved Smith had nuggets of pure pop brilliance tucked well beneath his anti-fashionable web of black hair.
The 1990's were not kind to The Cure, as Robert Smith became all too aware of his power as a voice for the disaffected youth or, rather, what was then the alternative college scene. Wish's a-sides were pretty dreadful (the band should be horse-whipped for ever recording the atrocious "High"), so it's safe to assume that the b-sides probably don't fare too well either. And 1996's Wild Mood Swings was even worse- for the band it was the musical equivalent of holding the microphone out to the audience while sleepwalking through its hits in a reunion show. With inexplicable hippie jam rock production, The Cure sounded akin to the Dave Matthews Band with songs so self-aware and self-referential that the resulting vacuum left no room for an emotional discourse of any kind. Robert Smith was singing what he thought his fans wanted to hear, instead of what he wanted to say- a sign that should bring about imminent demise to any band.
Despite countless promises, The Cure never even tried to go away. Needless to say, the band's output was thin both in quality and quantity throughout the decade, and, consequently, the b-sides are totally hit and miss. Remixes and alternate versions fill the gaps, but every now and again Smith redeems himself with an unexpected treasure (namely, "Burn", The Cure's contribution to the Crow soundtrack, circa 1994). But even the bad stuff shouldn't shy casual fans or curious observers away from such a colossal collection of musical distinction. Nine out of ten bands worth a shit today cite the Cure as an influence, so how can you be a fan of music and ignore this?