The Cure played their first gig on 9th July 1978. So Robert Smith, the group’s sole constant member, knows a thing or two about compiling a set list. But, during the first few songs of the band’s Glastonbury performance, he thought he’d got it all horribly wrong. “For the first 20 minutes I was very, very unsure,” he told NME a few days later. “In some respects for the first half hour we didn’t really offer much concession to the ‘casual’ listener.”
He wasn’t wrong. Unlike The Killers, who headlined The Pyramid Stage 24 hours earlier with one euphoric hit after another, The Cure begin their show with something altogether darker, moodier, and perhaps less suited to the average festival goer.
They open with the funereal Plainsong (all swirling keyboards and loping six-string bass) and eternally melancholy Pictures Of You, the first two songs of their brooding masterpiece, Disintegration. A frothy High briefly lifts the mood, but isn’t exactly instantly recognisable, and a gloriously desperate A Night Like This is by no means the biggest hit from 1985’s excellent The Head On The Door. “I never get nervous, but for about 20 minutes I was like: ‘Ooh, maybe I haven’t read this one right’,” Smith admitted.
He needn’t have worried. By doing things his own way – no guests, no lasers, no fireworks, (barely) no chat – with head-down determination, impeccable musicianship, and the occasional cheeky grin, The Cure gradually win over the crowd with their varied back catalogue. There’s the ethereal Last Dance balanced out by the all-out rock guitar onslaught of the rumbling Burn (complete with a Smith flute intro), sleazy Fascination Street, and thunderous Never Enough.
There are the insatiable pop confections (a soaring Lovesong, jangly In Between Days, dizzying Just Like Heaven) paired with scream-at-the-sky epics From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea (about love lost) and Disintegration (about life lost).
There’s the ferocious fan favourite Shake Dog Shake, which shows just what a tight band Smith, bassist Simon Gallup, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, keyboard player Roger O’Donnell, and drummer Jason Cooper are. And there are the live staples that are so effortless they cause Cure fans to sing along to the melodies: the driving Push, swaying Play For Today, and breathless A Forest.
As the set proceeds, Smith visibly relaxes. He frequently chats with Gallup during the typically long instrumental intros, shares goofy grins with O’Donnell, looks on in admiration at one of the shredding solos by David Bowie’s long-term guitarist, and even jokes that he’s in the running to win the prize for this year’s least conversational performer. By the time the encore rolls around, he’s positively chatty. “What we do on stage is difficult to translate into this,” he explains, gesturing to indicate the festival, before declaring: “The next half an hour is Glastonbury.”
What follows is 30 uninterrupted minutes of bonafide radio hits. Twisted bedtime story Lullaby even has a swaying Smith flailing his arms about. The Caterpillar floats like a psychedelic butterfly before The Walk runs as energetically as O’Donnell’s ‘80s synth line.
Fittingly introduced as “Sunday I’m In Love”, the ever effervescent Friday I’m In Love has 60-year-old Smith-lookalikes bouncing alongside teenagers with glittered faces. Close To Me, with its unmistakable bassline, and bounding Why Can’t I Be You both have the singer trade his guitar and microphone stand for a wireless mic, some stage roaming, and gloriously unchoreographed dancing. “That was good fun,” he beams afterwards. “I never thought I’d be doing that.”
All that’s left is to say goodnight with a triumphant Boys Don’t Cry, by which point the crowd are bounding around even more enthusiastically than Smith just has. And as the singer bids his final farewell, he’s clearly overcome with emotion. Perhaps it’s relief that his single-minded approach to headlining The Pyramid Stage worked, but more likely it’s the same pure joy that tens of thousands of people have just shared with him.
Photography by Kalpesh Patel at Glastonbury Festival on Sunday 30th June 2019. Review by Boris Bamonte.