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The Cure: Many Happy Returns To 'Disintegration'

Thursday, 29 May 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

‘Disintegration’, the Cure’s dark-hearted classic, surpasses anything released by pop’s more noted miserabilists, even, as Robert Smith will tell you, the Smiths’ early output. Some 25 years since its release, it remains a suffocating masterwork.

Rapidly approaching 30, Smith, Crawley-raised and Roman Catholic-schooled, became ever more convinced that the creative juices dried up once artists passed that milestone. The despondency, and desperation to conjure up something vital, began to eat away at him. “It is so embarrassing to see those old people doddering about like Dire Straits – they’re hideous,” Smith told Q magazine’s Robert Sandall in 1989. “I’m sure they must be different people posing in latex masks.”

Having become a household name as oddball goth-popsters, thanks to peppy delights such as Just Like Heaven and a remastered Boys Don’t Cry, ‘Disintegration’ found Smith leading the band into murky waters, revisiting and delving deeper into the black mood of their early ‘80s output.

The band, newly augmented by keyboard player Roger O’Donnell, began demoing material as touring duties for ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’ ground down, but not all was right in their world. As Smith battled the march of time and the pressure that attended the Cure’s rapid spiralling into a world-renowned rock band, Lol Tolhurst slipped further into drink and drugs.

A childhood friend of Smith’s, Tolhurst had helped to found the band and flitted between drums and keys in their early goth-rock years. By 1988, his contribution had dwindled, just as the group's ability to deal with his addictions had. While Smith’s appetite for excess was well documented, the Banshee binges were behind him, and the rest of the band continued to pick Tolhurst apart at the seams once the ‘Disintegration’ sessions were underway.

“In about 1986 the piss-taking directed at Lol started getting really nasty, partly because we were trying to make him see how ridiculous he'd become,” Smith said in a Q question and answer session back in 2000. “In the end Lol kind of validated himself by being a victim and a clown. He was a safety-valve and took all this stick because it was the only way he could justify to himself being in a group.

“He didn't write or play anything. Making the ‘Disintegration’ album I used to despair and scream at the others because it was fucking insane the way we were treating him. Even then I kept him in the band because I felt a certain responsibility towards him. But the other band members gave me an ultimatum that if Lol was going on tour they weren't.”

As is their way, all tracks on the album are credited to every member of the band but, tellingly, Tolhurst’s musical contribution is stated on the liner notes as “other instrument”. He would leave during the mixing process, returning in 2011, post-litigation, to perform the Cure’s first three albums live.

“I was mercifully able to find the way out of that particular maze, for which I am eternally grateful to many people but especially Robert,” he told Big Wheel that year. “I feel he saved my life by firing me. It forced me to find a solution to my problems and join life again. He had to do that to get me to wake up really.”

Work on what would become ‘Disintegration’ began in earnest at the Devon home of Boris Williams, the band’s drummer. “Everyone played their tapes of the demos they had written,” O’Donnell wrote in his account of the process. According to the keyboard player, the recordings were then given a rating and the highest scoring tracks went on to form the basis of the album. Further rounds of demo work at Williams’ southern retreat - inbetween games of pool, window-smashing cricket matches, boules and even a clay pigeon shoot - added flesh to the album’s complex skeleton.

Light-heartedly echoing some of their US label’s contemporary fears, O’Donnell remembered: “We packed up after this session with pretty much a completed album, without vocals and it sounded good. I still don’t think anyone thought it was anything special. I remember Boris saying: 'What do you think? There aren’t any singles on it are there? It will never sell.' Little did we know.”

For the album proper, an expensive, grand manor house in Oxfordshire – now known as Hookend Recording Studios – was rented, after attention had temporarily turned to the wedding of Smith and his childhood sweetheart, Mary, in August 1988. It was here that the initial recordings were laid down, with Dave Allen on production duties for the fourth Cure record in a row.  As autumn and winter set in, O’Donnell recalled, the band took on an almost nocturnal existence. Typically working from 4pm to 8pm, for the first shift before a lengthy supper, the band would then return to the studio and carry on into the early hours.

The tracks were recorded systematically, the picture of the album becoming gradually clearer. The vocals, though, were left until the last two weeks, with the band essentially clueless as to what the lyrics, penned by Smith, would be like. A certain apocryphal fire has also since made the record's words more mysterious, but despite the subject matter, spirits in the camp were high as the band’s leader stepped behind the mic.

“The mood didn’t change in the studio when Robert started singing,” O’Donnell wrote. “It was exactly the same, very happy and jokey. Lots of laughing and fooling around. I was there for all of the vocal takes and I don’t remember anyone breaking down or being overcome with emotions.

“It sounds very dramatic and probably fills out some people’s fantasies of what the band is like but it’s just not true. We are all very English. The Cure is probably one of the most English of groups you could imagine, the closest we got to showing emotion to each other was saying ‘good morning’.”

Smith, though, would not remember the process quite so fondly soon after its completion. As is traditional, ‘Disintegration’ was touted as the band’s last record. "It would be ridiculous to feel any other way about it," he told Q. "It's really emotionally exhausting making an album. I usually end up crying in the studio, which is a problem, because if you get emotional like that it just sounds as if you're singing badly. Yeah, I still haven't got over making this one yet…"

But, the songs stand up for themselves and there is little hint at the fatigue Smith was suffering once the needle finds a groove. The album peaked at #3 on the UK chart, while the spidery Lullaby remains the band’s most successful single on home soil, climbing to #5. Its reviews were generally positive, with its reputation enhanced over time. Rolling Stone named it as one of the '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' back in 2003.

In the US, Elektra’s uneasy union with the Cure’s latest statement continued. Propelled by its thudding bassline and guitar riff, Fascination Street, arguably the album’s strongest song, was selected as lead single ahead of Lullaby.

It would top Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, having been inspired by an impending trip to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. “I was getting ready to go there and I thought: ‘What the fuck do I think I'm going to find?’ It's about the incredulity that I could still be fooled into looking for a perfect moment,” Smith told Select in 1991.

Lovesong, written as a wedding gift for his wife by Smith, would better its performance, landing the Cure a #2 single on the Billboard ladder. It has since been covered by a number of artists, including Adele on her 2011 album ‘21’.

Thankfully, despite Smith’s words to the contrary following its release, this eighth studio collection represented not the end for the Cure, but a high point in a career that has since produced five further albums. With ‘4:14 Scream’ and ‘4:26 Dream’ in the pipeline, one set of Trilogy shows behind them and possibly more in the future, the Cure have yet to disintegrate.

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