Read Hard’s Classic Pop-punk Picks #39: The Cure- Boys Don’t Cry

Posted: May 24, 2019 in Read Hard's Classic Pop Punk Picks

I’ve wondered when the day would come when this column goes too far. And this one is about a record, that isn’t pop punk, that isn’t even an album. I’m talking about Boys Don’t Cry, the American edition of The Cure’s debut album Three Imaginary Boys, but somehow it fits into the column. This is the year when The Cure was accepted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio along with the likes of the Zombies, Stevie Nicks and Radiohead. Robert Smith and the gang seemed humble and surprised to be there, even if it doesn’t really come as a surprise to most music fans. The band formed in 1976 as Malice, but had performed together as a school band at Notre Dame Middle school in Crawley, West Sussex since 1973. Malice played covers of David Bowie, Alex Harvey and Jimi Hendrix. In 1977, when punk rock finally made it into the mainstream, Malice changed their name to Easy Cure. The band recorded their first demo in 1978 and removed the “easy” from their name, as they were now a trio. On May 8 1979 they released their debut album Three Imaginary Boys on Fiction Records. After the release, the Cure went on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees. In the middle of the tour, SATB’s guitarist John McKay quit and Robert Allen Smith Jr., the Cure’s singer and guitarist would step in and play for both bands. The experience of playing with the Banshees inspired Smith a lot. He wanted the Cure to be the punk rock Beatles, what the Buzzcocks and Elvis Costello were trying to do at the time, but playing with Siouxsie Sioux and her band made him want to get to into a more gothic sound, which the band would later be famous for. The line-up on Three Imaginary Boys was Robert Smith on vocals and guitar, Michael Dempsey on bass and vocals and Lol Tolhurst on drums. With the band’s new direction Simon Gallup replaced Dempsey on bass. The following records Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography went in a darker and less accessible direction, while The Top would be a lot more diverse and engage with the new pop of the new romantics, jazz, psychedelia and electronic music, like New Order were doing at the time. In 1985, they would release what I would consider their best album and the first album with what I’d call the traditional Cure sound called The Head on the Door, with great pop songs like “In between Days”, “Close to Me” and “A Night like This”. Later they would consistently and constantly top themselves with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish. And the rest is history.

The album Boys Don’t Cry was released February 5 1980 on Fiction Records as the American and Australian version of Three Imiginary Boys. The track list is slightly different and ironically, it would be more popular in the UK and France than in Australia and the U.S. Where Three Imaginary Boys is a picture of household items such as a refrigerator, a lampshade and a vacuum cleaner, the Boys Don’t Cry cover looks like it’s in Egypt with palm trees, sand and a pyramid. Both covers were designed by Bill Smith. Both albums were produced by Chris Parry. On Three Imaginary Boys, the label and Parry had creative control over the album. I’m not sure if the same goes for Boys Don’t Cry, but on future albums Robert Smith would be sure to have all the creative control. Musically, I think both albums are very much like the Buzzcocks and that’s one of the reasons I feel like it fits in this column. I’ve always preferred Boys Don’t Cry to Three Imaginary Boys and where the latter is quite is to find, the former is not, so I was quite pleased when I found it in a record shop in Barcelona in 2015.

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1. “Boys Don’t Cry”: The album starts up with what Spin Magazine called a ‘jangle pop’ song, even if it doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with the Byrds, except Smith’s ambition to write 60s-inspired punk. I would say that this is really one of the first real pop punk songs along with “What Do I Get?” (the Buzzcocks), “Teenage Kicks” (the Undertones) and “Another Girl, Another Planet” (the Only Ones). The reverb guitar sound gives us a prediction of what the 80s would sound like. The guitar lead is incredibly cheery and the lyrics are rather sad. The song tells the tale of a boy who is apologetic about his behavior in the aftermath of a breakup, but would only apologize if she would come back to him. Instead he decided to hide in his feelings, knowing he an apology wouldn’t mean anything if he couldn’t have her back. It’s rather unclear what has happened between the two of them, but in the bridge he says he misjudged her limits, pushed her too far and took her for granted and thought that she wanted more (he rhymes “far” with “more”, which I love!). He understands that he has done wrong, but he laughs about it and keeps his feelings inside, driven by a social expectations that boys and men shouldn’t cry. In the end, he declares that he would do almost anything to get her back, but he laughs instead and hides the tears he is crying. In many ways, I could compare it to the Four Seasons classic “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, where the irony in both song is that big girls/boys actually do cry. Debra Rae Cohen wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine that “Amid the Cure’s nerve-edge numbers — hushed and haunting or insistent enough to make you dance to your own jitters — the title track is the odd tune out. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a sweetly anguished pure-pop single, carried by an aching, infectious guitar hook and the singer’s taffypull croon. Though it doesn’t have the film-clip explicitness of Smith’s other songs, the words offer a nice twist on the standard lovelorn script: boy meets girl, mistreats girl, loses girl, yearns for girl but won’t appear vulnerable — even to get her back. Hell, if Robert Smith ever decides to quit rock & roll, he’s got a great career ahead of him writing for the movies.”

A big factor in the song is how gender roles and expectations makes people act a certain way. The guy is hesitant to apologize or show his feelings because of a gender expectation, where men are supposed to not show feelings. The gender-aspect of the song gets another layer when it’s used in the movie of the same name from 1999, directed by Kimberly Peirce, about a man named Brandon who is transgender and is outed and has to move to another town and he later gets sexually assaulted and eventually murdered. The film highlights the awful problem of violence against LGBT people. A cover of the song by Nathan Larson is used in the movie. The song is also used in less serious movies such as The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates. The Cure used re-recorded vocals on the version on the Standing on a Beach singles collection and re-released it as a single and a music video. I prefer the original version by a longshot. The original single was never a huge hit, but the re-issue ended up on #22 on the UK singles chart and #19 in Germany.

2. “Plastic Passion”: The B-side to the original “Boys Don’t Cry” single. The lyrics are a bit more minimalist and the music is more modernist than “Boys Don’t Cry”. With cool palm-muted clean guitars, it could fit in on the first Buzzcocks album Another Music from a Different Kitchen. The guitar solo also sounds like a surf song or a Shadows song. Maybe an unknown tune, but a pretty good one!

3. “10:15 Saturday Night”: The first song on the Three Imaginary Boys album, is the third song on Boys Don’t Cry. It was also the B-side of “Killing an Arab”. The song is about loneliness, a theme that would continue on the album. It was the song that gave the band their record deal with Fiction. I think there’s something jazzy about the music and the drum fills are fantastic .The guitar solo sounds like late-sixties Rolling Stones. The tune was sampled on Massive Attack’s “Man Next Door” and covered by the Living End.

4. “Accuracy”: Lyrically, it is a song of few words. It’s just about five lines long. In spite of that, it’s a very dark song. Genius.com states (about the song): “The title and refrain of this song, the word ¨accuracy¨ refers to the secret pleasure derived from fantasizing about attacking someone. If taken from a metaphorical perspective, Accuracy can pertain to the pinpointing of another person’s fears and demons. This roots from a generous amount of time spent with them – such as what happens within an intimate relationship.” Yep, dark shit right there! Where “10:15 Saturday Night” was a bit jazzy, I think “Accuracy” is more blues-y, but there’s a jazz-vibe here as well.

5. “Object”: A pretty cool classic rock-meets-post punk number about lust and objectification where Smith gets a very weird space-y voice. Very few words in this one as well. The song could be seen as having quite misogynist attitudes; the beholder here has at least not hold the beheld in very high esteem, except for their appearance. It’s also possible that the song is supposed to be a criticism of objectification and sexism. Robert Smith said in 1988 that it was his least favorite Cure song. The guitars are more distorted in this song than the previous songs and there’s a strange echo in Smith’s space-y voice.

6. “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”: As naïve as I am, I always imagined this song to literally be about freighthopping, but it’s meant to be metaphorical of course, even if the music video is just a train ride from London to Brighton. Reading the lyrics, however, it’s obvious that the song is about trendy bands jumping on bandwagons. And the particular trend that the song attacks is the mod-revival wave. In a Belgian magazine in 1989, Smith said “I loath (sic) the snobbism and elitism of it all: ‘I was already acid[-house music] when you were still new wave’ – that stuff. In fact it’s all as small as the ska revival where I wrote an angry song about: Jumping Someone Else’s Train. Now I read articles everywhere about the new ska revival. Despicable. At this rate, we’re having 5 revivals every year. I’m probably old fashioned, but I like music that’s not limited to a certain time.” And in the Cure News fanzine in October 1991, he said the song was about fashion, about the mod revival in 78/79. The single was released on November 2 1979 with the B-side “I’m Gold “ featuring vocals by Siouxsie Sioux. A new wave song, with a pop punk melody and another song that reminds me a lot of the Buzzcocks. The riff also forecasts the kind of lead we’d hear on later Cure songs such as “Just Like Heaven”.

7. “Subway Song”: Side-A ends with a mysterious song. A somewhat gloomy look into the London underground. The song tells the story of a girl walking in the subway station, she’s on her way home and she feels like she’s being followed. A dark and creepy aesthetic. There’s something about 70s/80s subway stations that give me an uncanny feeling and this song captures that. The music fits the lyrics quite well, with a blues-y bass line and a harmonica that sounds like railroad screeching.

8. “Killing an Arab”: The band’s first single released in September 20 1978. The lyrics are based on Albert Camus’s existentialist masterpiece L’Étranger (translated to The Outsider in the UK and the Stranger in the Us); a philosophical novel about the French Algerian Meursault who kills an Arab and later gets the death penalty, a great use of the unreliable narrator and a must-read for every literature enthusiast. The lyrics of the song are seen from the point of view of Meursault. While the chorus and the second verse are quite existentialist, the first verse deals with the actual killing of the Arab and where the Cure compilation Standing on a Beach got its name from. The song been controversial for years because it could be seen as justifying racism and violence against Arabs. The aforementioned compilation had a warning sticker on it, and Smith has many times had to defend the lyrics against racists. Playing the song live he has often changed the lyrics into i.e “Kissing an Arab” and “Killing an Ahab”(making it about another book). The fact that the one being killed is an Arab isn’t really as important in the book. What Meursault gets the death penalty for is not following the moral code of the prosecutors and jury. He went out to enjoy himself and had sex with a woman right after his mother died, also shows very little empathy, but most importantly he doesn’t believe in God. His moral fabric seems to be what puts him to death and not his crime itself. Appropriately the music is inspired by Arabian music.

8. “Fire in Cairo”: The Arabian theme continues on the next song “Fire in Cairo”, a quite erotic song where the fire and warmth are used as sexual symbolism. It’s my favorite song on the album, and my favorite Cure song in general. I think it’s a perfect recording, the bass lines and the guitars and the spelling out of “F-I-R-E-I-N-C-A-I-R-O”. It’s a song where spelling out a word really works, when doing that is usually quite embarrassing. I also love the way he sings “Silence and black mirror pool mirrors a lonely place where I meet you” When I first heard the song in 2013, I was completely blown away and loved it immediately. What Robert Smith says about the song, however, is that ‘“Fire in Cairo” is about pop shamelessness and what’s behind it.” I’m pretty sure the Barracudas’s “The KGB Made a Man out of Me” must’ve been inspired by this song.

9. “Another Day”: Another day, another minimalist set of lyrics. This time the repetitive nature of life is being described through looking out the window as if one sees a painting, while waiting for time to pass. There’s something bleak about most of these lyrics, but beautiful at the same time. “Another Day” appears very early on Three Imaginary Boys and very late on Boys Don’t Cry. The intro and outro here sound more like the mix of raga music and psychedelia that George Harrison made famous, while the rest of the song is normal mid-tempo ballad.

10. “Grinding Halt”: The darkness continues with “Grinding Halt”, where we are left with nothingness; “No sound, no people” and “no light, no people”. Interrupting and apathy; the perfect combo. One of the catchiest bass lines on the album and one of the songs I think that fits the pop punk term the most, but also has the cymbals that I like to think of as the post-punk or dance-punk cymbals that you can hear when Blink or the Wombats tries to do that thing. Also one of my favorites on this album.

11. “World War”: Along with “Object”, “World War” is another contender for Robert Smith least favorite Cure song, as he told Big Takeover it was their worst song back in 1996. And in 1991 he called the song “nonsense”. The lyrics start with “Dressed in Berlin Black” and the chorus states that no one loses and no one wins in war, you only end up with dead friends. It’s also one of the earliest Cure songs. It was removed from many cd-versions of the album. Another song that sounds more like a classic rock song: not the best song ever, but certainly not the worst.

12. “Three Imaginary Boys”: The title track of the Three Imaginary Boys album and the last song on both albums. The lyrics were based on a dream Smith had had. The lyrics are quite poetic and somewhat nonsensical (far more than “World War” I’d say, which seems pretty straight forward): “No one’s home/In amongst the statues/ Stare at nothing in/ The garden moves/Can you help me?” and “Close my eyes/ And hold so tightly/ Scared of what the morning brings/ Waiting for tomorrow Never comes/ Deep inside The empty feeling/ All the night time leaves me/ Three imaginary boys”. I’ve always imagined that the title refers to the band being a trio at the time, but I’m not sure if that’s the truth; it makes sense in the album title though. Another song where the mirror plays a role. I don’t know what’s up with Robert Smith and mirrors, but it’s got to be something. It starts with a slow clean guitar until the bass comes in with the drums and monotonous vocals until the song climaxes with distorted guitars crash in.

Bonus track: “It’s Not You”: Where there are many songs on Boys Don’t Cry that aren’t on Three Imaginary Boys, the same is also through vice versa. “It’s Not You” is one of the more punk Cure songs and it’s an angry one. It starts with “You wear your smile like it was going out of fashion/ Dress to inflame but douse any ideas of passion” and has the same bitterness that fellow post-punkers Wire have in the song “Mannequin” from their album Pink Flag, two years before. The second verse is even angrier with the line “I would murder you if I had the alibi” and it corresponds with the lyrics to “Accuracy”. There’s also a lot of spite in the chorus “Well, I’m tired of hanging around/ I want somebody new/I’m not sure who I’ve got in mind But I know that it’s not you!”

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I don’t know if I’ve taken this column too far now, but we’ll go back to the classic 90s pop punk next time with Wish I’d Taken Pictures by Pansy Division.

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