The Cure was at a transition point in 1980. Despite only having been a band for around two years, and despite the members just coming out of their teenage years, they had already extinguished their previous punk sound. In order to survive the ’80s, the band had to change and adapt to modern times, modern technology, and modern tastes. While most of their contemporaries found refuge in new wave and synth-pop, it would take at least another five years before Robert Smith and Co. would embrace the lighter side of music.
‘A Forest’ became the line of demarcation for a new version of The Cure: gloomier, moodier, more reliant on synthetic instruments and doomy atmosphere. The only holdover from their punk incarnation was Smith’s signature yelp, but instead of the bone-dry production of Three Imaginary Boys, his voice was now drowned in reverb and echo to give a new sense of spiralling depth. The lyrical content of the new material described depression, a sense of loss, and confusion in stark, unglamorous fashion.
To coincide with the new sonic territory also came a slow, but steady, image change. Smith began to wear dark eyeliner and smeared lipstick, while the rest of the band traded in the fairly raggedy street clothes of their punk phase for leather jackets, black jeans, and muted tones. Any previous ethos of rock and roll were being deconstructed in favor of moroseness and gothic sensibilities, and the band weren’t afraid to clash against their brighter or more mainstream peers.
That clash came to a head during the 1981 Rock Werchter Festival in Belgium. Allegedly told that they had to cut their set short to accommodate cock rock crooner Robert Palmer, prior to his worldwide ‘Addicted to Love’ fame, The Cure responded by breaking out a nine-minute version of ‘A Forest’.
The performance is a gloriously extended kickback at everything that The Cure were against at the time: mainstream rock and roll, showmanship, arrogance, corporate micromanagers. Swilling booze and seething with contempt, Smith, Simon Gallup, and Lol Tolhurst stage a nine-minute protest that doubles as a fantastic expression of their newfound sound. Spacey, unsettling, and yet completely alluring, their take on ‘A Forest’ feels dangerous and pointed in its disassociation. Smith sing-shouts his lines, but they feel empty and hollow, not devoid of emotion but heightened in their own sense of vacuous nothingness. The idea that they were being bullied by a more audience-friendly act causes them to throw everything and everyone into a state of limbo, covering the crowd with darkness and disdain.
As the performance begins to wind towards its conclusion, Smith intones a series of impromptu stream of conscious lines. As the intensity grows, he completely gives up playing chords, furiously strumming his Fender Jazzmaster simply for the wall of effects and noises it produces. When Smith returns to his traditional playing, the band collapses in on itself in a wash of harsh textures and righteous fury. Smith departs with a sarcastic acknowledgement of the audience by saying: “I hope you like the rest of it.” Gallup is less diplomatic: “Fuck Robert Palmer. Fuck rock and roll.”
The Cure were indeed done with rock and roll. Their next album, 1982’s Pornography, is the beautifully dreary nadir of the band’s initial run. Oozing with oppressively dour synthesizers and impossibly dark imagery, Pornography was a point of no return: Gallup would soon exit the group, with Smith and Tolhurst deciding that they once again necessitated a change in sound in order to survive. The result was a complete 180 degree turn into bright and bouncy synth-pop, and the first sign that Smith was one of the great pop songwriters of his time: ‘Let’s Go To Bed’.
From there, the band followed their muse through psychedelia, pop, alt-rock, and even famously returned to the extended gloomy post-punk sound on Disintegration, which fused the band’s gothic imagery with their newfound love of pop hooks on tracks like ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Pictures of You’. The band were constantly able to change direction whenever the outside world seemed like they didn’t understand the band, but to find the roots of this rebelliousness, all you have to do is watch the ’81 performance of ‘A Forest’, in all its insubordinate glory.