With a thirty-five year backlog of singles, albums, b-sides, demos, outtakes and bootlegs, the Cure’s discography is among the most daunting in pop. Added to which, they’re one of the most wildly diverse acts that also sticks, by and large, to classic four-bar song structure.
“Snow in Summer” is my favorite Cure song. It was the B-side to their biggest hit up to 1987, “Just Like Heaven”, which reached #40 in America, despite outright resistance from radio stations. American radio jocks had no idea what to make of the obscure artwork or Robert Smith’s crackling warble. Between spinning Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, they desperately wanted the Cure to write another song about killing arabs.
In 1986, with the success of Head on the Door, the Cure’s manager Chris Parry urged the release of a greatest hits compilation for the largely unaware American market, where Cure fans had just pushed their latest single, “In Between Days”, to #99 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Standing on a Beach served as America’s mainstream introduction to the Cure’s output through 1985. It generated some minor press (an interview with Lol?!) but with the mediocre response to a re-recorded and remixed version of “Boys Don’t Cry”, the compilation wound up making its mark because it was the first time a lot of people saw the title “Killing an Arab” in print. American FM radio at the time was not a hotbed of liberalism or intellectual debate; in fact, listening to it would transitively lower your IQ for a period of hours. Faced with a strange-looking new LP, the program director or jock would flip it over, and see the first track.
Face-on racism and prejudice toward Middle Eastern people, including Arabs, was at an extreme peak in American in the mid 1980s. Coming out of a series of hostage crises and bombings, including an American Marines barracks in Beirut, where my cousin perished, the mainstream media felt no responsibility to balance any hatred aimed at that part of the world.
And so a number of revolting and probably drunk FM radio jocks played “Killing an Arab” as a racist gag song. They would sing the chorus over the air along with Robert Smith, totally oblivious of its overt indebtedness to the Albert Camus novel L’Étranger. Which is like asking whether the girl “Charlotte Sometimes” is about is good-looking.
British revulsion at American arrogance and boorishness is a longstanding international theme. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek, but more often than not, there are real cultural differences visible to the English, and totally incomprehensible to Americans, who built a country with less concern for propriety than representation. You might think I’m on an irrelevant tangent here. Take a look at this clip from last week:
Now the tail of that, there’s a bit of an argument about when and whether Robert Smith will embarrass himself (or has already) by continuing to put on makeup at age 53. There is an entire film loosely based upon the possible psychological explanation for that choice, starring Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a proxy for Robert Smith. It is called This Must Be the Place, and most of the film is just sight and/or situational gags based on the predicament Smith is in. The film sweetens the pot by giving Cheyenne a paralytic case of writer’s block, but has only one really incredible moment. This one:
Like the “Killing an Arab” controversy, This Must Be the Place misinterprets another bit of Cure history. Within the space of a few years, the suicides of two teenagers in New Zealand and attempted suicide of a man at a Los Angeles gig in 1986 had given the ultra-conservative set a new target in the moral majority bullshit that brought America the dreaded PMRC hearings. Parents were actually told to consider Cure records “warning signs” for depression or suicide by high school guidance counselors. Being British, the Cure were able to ignore a good deal of the noise around this stuff, but in the US, all you heard for years and years was how their “gloom n’ doom” image and music made someone stab himself to death at one of their concerts, and the band and the crowd were all cheering and they ate a baby and burned down a church and had group sex on the ashes afterwards.
The Cure Concerts Guide offers a forensic breakdown of the LA Forum incident, but an unlikely witness, the American actress Christina Applegate, was also there, and set the record straight for Jimmy Kimmel: