Plastic Passions: The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry at 40

Looking back at the Goth giants’ first odds ‘n’ sods collection

The Cure Boys Don’t Cry poster

Founded in West Sussex, England in 1978, The Cure is undoubtedly one of the most influential and enduring bands in of the 1980s.

Spearheaded by vocalist/songwriter Robert Smith—whose characteristic juxtaposition between ghoulish make-up and gentle performance itself is quite iconic—the group helped popularize new wave, post-punk, and alternative rock while emphasizing a gothic social outcast aesthetic. Naturally, many fans and artists have, directly or indirectly, evoked The Cure over the past few decades. (Specifically, modern Swedish darlings Ghost seem to be a slightly heavier take on the same alluring visual/musical disparity).

The Cure Boys Don’t Cry, Fiction 1980

Although it’s a compilation album, 1980’s Boys Don’t Cry surely played a part in making The Cure become so celebrated and popular, especially here in the States. Released nine months after their initial outing, Three Imaginary Boys, the record is mostly a repackaging of that first sequence for Canadian, Australian, and American audiences to capitalize on how well was received in the UK. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Smith was unhappy with how that debut LP turned out since the label—Fiction Records—chose the final track list and album art. (Plus, he told Spin magazine in 1987 that it was a very “superficial” and “lightweight” album; fortunately, he had more control and satisfaction with its follow-up, Seventeen Seconds, which arrived less than three months after this collection). Forty years later, it’s easy to hear why Smith was somewhat dissatisfied with the material, but there’s still enough here to enjoy (especially when taken as a glimpse into the greatness that followed.

 

VIDEO: The Cure “Three Imaginary Boys” (Live)

There are eight songs that appear on both Three Imaginary Boys and Boys Don’t Cry, with the additional five from the former (“Foxy Lady,” “Meathook,” “So What,” “It’s Not You,” and “The Weedy Burton”) being swapped for five others (“Plastic Passion,” “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” “Killing an Arab,” “World War,” and the title track) that mostly existed as previously issued non-album singles in the UK. Aside from that, the pair are notable for being the only Cure albums to feature bassist Michael Dempsey, as he left in early 1980 due to creative differences with Smith. By Seventeen Seconds, Simon Gallup has replaced him.

Neither LP is definitively superior to the other, as each houses many of The Cure’s top tunes from that era. For instance, “Object” has lost none of its raucous accessibility, with its razor-sharp guitar riffs, tight drumming, lyrical provocation (“You know just what to do / Lick your lips / And I want you”), and echoey vocals uniting punk and pop trademarks with DIY zeal. Later, “Subway Song” creeps along with minimalist seductive mystery thanks to Dempsey’s espionage bass lines, Lol Tolhurst’s faint cymbal taps, and Smith’s periodic harmonica bellows and matter-of-fact exposés. “Fire in Cairo” excels thanks to its irresistible chorus and danceable rhythm—conjuring The Police along the way—whereas “Another Day” is almost nightmarish due to its otherworldly guitarwork and atmospheric dynamics. Eventually, “Grinding Halt” oozes punchy directness that’s simultaneously edgy, beguiling, and sparse prior to “Three Imaginary Boys” closing things with their trademark downtrodden arrangements and angsty singing.

 

VIDEO: The Cure perform “Boys Don’t Cry” on MTV Unplugged 

Indisputably, the best of the bunch is the titular “Boys Don’t Cry.” It first delighted listeners’ ears in June 1979 (as the second single from Three imaginary Boys), and it revolves around a man trying to hide his heartache internally. It’s easily the catchiest and most fully realized and focused track, with Smith’s compelling melodies complemented by appealing backing vocals, an almost equally memorable guitar lead, and exciting percussion. It’s no wonder why the song has since been featured in many other places (albeit in cover form at times), including films such as The Wedding Singer, Nick and Norah’s infinite Playlist, Me and You, and of course, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Of course, its central hook—”I try to laugh about it / Hiding the tears in my eyes / ‘Cause boys don’t cry”—arguably resonates even more today, when the illogicality and burdens of traditional gender roles are a large part of societal conversations.

Even with its strengths, Boys Don’t Cry doesn’t entirely hold up due to some lackluster and forgettable inclusions. For instance, “Plastic Passion” is a bit too monotonous and simplistic to appeal (even if it does employ couplets in-between the chorus). Similarly, “10:15 Saturday Night”—released as the B-side to their first single, “Killing an Arab”—has some interesting instrumental changeups, but it’s also too meandering and disjointed. Speaking of the obviously controversial “Killing an Arab” (which is actually based on The Stranger by Albert Camus), its narrative is intriguing and thought-provoking, but the production and arrangement aren’t particularly great (even with its Middle Eastern guitarwork). As for “Accuracy,” it’s bland in every way imaginable; sadly, and although they’re faster and more forceful, “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and “World War” fare just about the same.

Nevertheless, Boys Don’t Cry is a worthwhile glimpse into the earliest studio works of The Cure since its succeeds more often than not and serves as a time capsule of both the burgeoning band and the styles they fronted. Like many of their peers upon first starting out, they were still finding their footing before quickly developing as musicians and songwriters. Thus, it’s almost unfair to blame them for the dullest moments here. In any case, it remains a mostly valuable and striving sequence forty years on. 

 

VIDEO: The Cure at Hurrah’s NYC, April 1980

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Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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