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Music

Three books that inspired The Cure’s iconic songs

@SamWKemp

Robert Smith has been offering moody adolescents a role model since 1980 when his group The Cure shot to fame with their breakthrough single ‘A Forest’. Smith’s signature a-symmetrical hair and ghostly makeup were yet to flourish, but the group’s maudlin post-punk sound was already fully formed. With its echo-drenched vocals, krautrock beat and slinky guitar lines, ‘A Forest’ is a gothic blend of quietly psychedelic post-punk designed, seemingly, for the set purpose of giving anxious schoolboys a reason to stare at their feet. It’s little wonder, then, that Smith and company have taken a lot of inspiration from another art form that has been serving much the same purpose for hundreds of years: literature.

Take The Cure’s 1986 single ‘Charlotte Sometimes’. The track is based on one of Smith’s favourite books: Penelope Farmer’s 1969 novel Charlotte Sometimes. The third and final instalment of Farmer’s Aviary Hall trilogy, this fragmentary piece of sci-fi tells the story of Charlotte, who, on starting boarding school, discovers she has travelled back in time and is known as Clare. Each night, Charlotte and Clare swap places, with Charlotte travelling back to 1918 and Clare forward to the 1960s. There is an eerieness to Farmer’s prose that Smith attempts to capture in his own lyrics, painting a picture of utter dislocation: “So many different names / Sometimes I’m dreaming / The sounds all stay the same.”

Clearly, Smith had a bit of a taste for alternative realities. The Cure’s ‘The Drowning Man’ was inspired by Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, the best known of which is probably the 1946 novel ‘Titus Groan’. Peake’s work is generally defined as fantasy fiction or speculative fiction, but don’t expect the quaint world of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia; there is a brutality to the Gormenghast series that is quite unlike anything else in the genre. In ‘The Drowning Man’, the girl Smith sings about is most probably Fuschia, who decides to drown herself after realising that she is too old to retreat into her fantasy world. Pretty dark right?

Smith often isolated specific scenes from his favourite books in his tracks. The Cure’s 1978 single ‘Killing An Arab’ uses a sequence from Albert Camus’ The Stranger (sometimes known as The Outsider) to conjure up a warped monologue from the point of view of a man staring at the body of a person he has just shot and killed: “Staring down the barrel / At the Arab on the ground / I can see his open mouth / But I hear no sound.”

French-Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus published The Stranger in 1942. It tells the story of Meursault, a Frenchman who settles in Algeria and kills an Arab man. The title of The Cure’s track sparked controversy at the time despite clearly containing no racist sentiment. That didn’t stop members of The National Front from turning up to one of The Cure’s concerts, having misinterpreted the lyrics.

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