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The Story Behind The Song: 'Boys Don't Cry', The Cure's pop masterclass


Released on this day in 1979, The Cure’s quirky punk-pop classic ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was a sleeping giant that never climbed the charts upon its first release despite being one of the catchiest songs that the band ever produced. The single, a move away from the band’s previous dirgey post-punk squalor, signalled that, despite being let down by their label, Robert Smith and The Cure were set to be one of the most complete bands Britain has ever produced.

The Cure, comprised at the time of Smith, Lol Tolhurst and Michael Dempsey, were gaining fame among the glitterati of London’s punk scene almost as soon as they began rehearsing in Crawley in 1978. By the end of the year, they were a hot new thing, and their menace-laden post-punk sound was a wave of the future. It was enough to get the group’s name up in lights and the attention of the music press.

It meant that the release of their pop-tinged classic ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ came a little out of leftfield for music journalists who claimed that while the song performed live mirrored the band’s artistic output, on record, it sounded fairly paltry in comparison. It’s something Tolhurst has often rallied against. “Pop was never a dirty word with the Cure,” Tolhurst told Radio X of the original number and the perception that had surrounded the band.

“But our songs came from our lives, like our diary. A lot of things that happened in my life and in Robert’s life were very upsetting,” he added. “So that’s what we wrote about. And I think that’s what artists should do. They should be a reflection of the times and the places that they live in. For The Cure, we tried to paint the pictures of our lives, musically.”

The Cure continually played with the machismo that runs throughout rock and roll in the seventies; they were happier than most to offer up vulnerable sides to themselves and were never scared to show their emotions. It was a clear narrative that meant that the song did connect with a subsect of society, becoming a cult hit on the indie dancefloors of the nation. Despite this fact, the single didn’t even break in the top 75 on the charts. Everybody involved was disappointed, including Fiction label boss Chris Parry.

Parry explained in The Cure’s official biography Ten Imaginary Years: “‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was my pick for the top 10. It didn’t get there because Polydor [Fiction’s parent label] stitched us up. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was a hit song and it should have been a hit. Robert was disappointed and he had a right to be. It was a farce.”

Shortly after the release, the band moved away from the pop tones of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, their material became darker and more menacing, the group even stopped performing the song live, thinking it lost to the air, never to be recaptured. After a few band member changes (it is The Cure after all), Smith began to take the band in a new direction.

The group added a duality to their music, offering a candy-coated nugget of coal in the form of shimmering pop construction with a double-dose of Smith’s caustic wit and unique outlook. Songs like ‘Love Cats’ and ‘In Between Days’ had seen The Cure become a main-stage act, and following the success of The Head On The Door, they were keen to make hay while the sun shined.

Fiction worked with the band to release a compilation of The Cure’s singles called Standing On A Beach and, with it, came a re-release of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ which featured new vocals and a new mix. Seven years on and Smith’s vocals had drastically changed, maturing into something removed from their first effort and positively bolstered by the passage of time.

Perhaps the most notable move by the band, considering MTV’s vast influence at the time of the April 1986 release, was to also shoot a Tim Pope-directed video promo for the single. Soon enough, years after its first release, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ got a proper charting. It found commercial success in Australia, Germany, Spain and France, reminding the world that we all weren’t paying attention the first time around.

Robert Smith of The Cure (Credit: Alamy)

The song has since been a staple of the band’s triumphant live show and offers a sing-a-long moment like no other track in their arsenal. In 2019, 40 years on from the song’s release, The Cure proved the track’s timeless nature when performing it on the Pyramid stage as Glastonbury Festival headliners: “I was singing [‘Boys Don’t Cry’] at Glastonbury and I realised that it has a very contemporary resonance with all the rainbow stripes and stuff flying in the crowd,” the band’s enigmatic frontman Smith said in an interview with Rolling Stone.

It’s hard to argue with. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is a song that emboldened many a boy to open his heart and not be afraid to show his emotions. It’s a heartening message which was taken straight from Smith’s life: “When I was growing up, there was peer pressure on you to conform to be a certain way,” he explained. “And as an English boy at the time, you’re encouraged not to show your emotion to any degree. And I couldn’t help but show my emotions when I was younger. I never found it awkward showing my emotions. I couldn’t really continue without showing my emotions; you’d have to be a pretty boring singer to do that.”

It was this sentiment that inspired boys across the globe to embrace their emotions, after all, it could make them a rock star. He continues: “So I kind of made a big thing about it. I thought, ‘Well, it’s part of my nature to rail against being told not to do something’.”

This was what made The Cure such an enticing prospect in 1978 when they first arrived and remains a pivotal reason that they are still so revered to this very day. They offer not only a poetic punk slant on the society we live in, as well as the deeply personal moments that litter every record, but a sense of commitment to doing so for the good of their audience and themselves.

Listen to quite possibly the start of it all with the band’s 1979 single ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, below.