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How The Cure Set The Tone For A Career Of Constant Reinvention With 1980’s Seventeen Seconds

Article by Eduardo Rivadavia

Most bands play it safe with their sophomore album, especially if they’re among the lucky few to actually find some success with their debut; but The Cure proved they weren’t going to be like “most bands” by immediately exploring new directions with their second long-player, 1980’s Seventeen Seconds.

Formed in 1976, by schoolmates Robert Smith (vocals, guitar), Michael Dempsey (bass) and Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst (drums), first as Easy Cure, the fledgling trio lived close enough to London (thirty minutes due south, in the West Sussex town of Crawley) to experience more than just a few ripples of the punk rock tsunami.

But in spite of its (by modern standards) politically incorrect title, The Cure’s 1978 single “Killing an Arab” (based on Albert Camus’ The Outsider) saw the young band substituting punk’s filth and fury for a far-more-subtle and hooky brand of angular guitar pop – as evidenced by ‘79’s even more infectious singles “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” plus first full-length proper, Three Imaginary Boys.

And yet, as the ensuing Seventeen Seconds would soon reveal, The Cure were already transitioning away from post-punk to new wave and gothic rock – an evolution at least partly inspired by their recent U.K. tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees, during which Smith pulled double duty, stepping in for the Banshees’ departed guitarist’s John McKay each night on stage.

Furthermore, while on the first album, Smith had ceded most of the decision-making to producer and Fiction label boss Chris Parry, this time he insisted on calling all the shots and co-producing with engineer Mike Hedges, all while replacing founding bassist Dempsey with Simon Gallup and recruiting keyboardist Matthieu Hartley.

Interestingly, Gallup’s dense, disciplined bass and Hartley’s keys weren’t employed to beef up The Cure’s sound on Seventeen Seconds – anything but!

Instead, Smith’s new songs took a turn toward the ethereal, maintaining almost skeletal, certainly minimalist arrangements, whether they were brief instrumentals (“A Reflection,” “Three,” “The Final Sound”), faux-mechanical pop (“Play for Today,” “At Night”), or morose, deliberate, protean goth-rockers (“Secrets,” “In Your House,” “M,” the title track).

As for the album’s most iconic and enduring track, “A Forest,” Smith would tell Rolling Stone that “I wanted to do something that was really atmospheric, and it has a fantastic sound. Chris Parry said, ‘If you make this sound radio-friendly, you’ve got a big hit on your hands.’ I said, ‘But this is how it sounds. It’s the sound I’ve got in my head. It doesn’t matter about whether it’s radio-friendly.’”

Indeed, it was, reaching an impressive No. 31 in the U.K. charts.

Even the album’s stark, nebulous, mysterious cover art contrasted sharply with the bright pastels of Three Imaginary Boys, as Smith explained to Rolling Stone, “We did all the photos the day we finished recording at about eight o’clock in the morning. I said to the bloke, ‘Could you do some that are out of focus.’ And they’re the ones we used, because the ones in focus looked so hideous.”

And while all of these creative decisions seemed to fly in the face of commercial common sense, Seventeen Seconds went on to peak at a rather impressive No. 20 in the U.K., easily toppling its comparatively upbeat predecessor (which had stalled at No. 44), and paving the way for The Cure’s relentless, almost stubborn evolution over increasingly successful subsequent albums, Faith (No. 14) and Pornography (No. 8).

Said Smith to Rolling Stone, “We honestly felt that we were creating something no one else had done. From this point on, I thought that every album was going to be the last Cure album, so I always tried to make it something that would be kind of a milestone. I feel Seventeen Seconds is one of few albums that genuinely achieved that.”

Sure enough, rather than rejecting Smith, Gallup, and Tolhurst (Hartley would quit after the Seventeen Seconds tour) as they persisted in exploring ever darker sonics while adopting an intentionally ghoulish goth rock image, fans simply couldn’t get enough of The Cure’s every, daring, unconventional reinvention.

Reminiscing once again to Rolling Stone, all those years later about just why The Cure still thrives, so many decades after most of their contemporaries fell by the wayside, Smith mused “One of the reasons people like the band is because they’re never quite sure what’s gonna happen next. If we were predictable, we wouldn’t have really lasted this long.”

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