26 Years Ago: The Cure's American Breakthrough
On May 6, 1986, Elektra Records released a singles compilation from The Cure called Standing On A Beach. Though the band had been becoming increasingly well-known on the American college rock circuit, this 13-track LP finally properly introduced Robert Smith and crew to a wider stateside audience that had thus far had a fairly incomplete view of the band.
The Cure's first US album, 1980's Boys Don't Cry, was a rejiggered version of the 1979 UK debut Three Imaginary Boys that suffered from being released by the tiny, cash-strapped PVC Records label. Seventeen Seconds and Faith didn't even get a proper US release, instead appearing mashed together as the double LP Happily Ever After. That compilation and 1982's Pornography were released by A&M Records, but barely promoted.
It wasn't until 1983's uncharacteristically danceable synth-pop tune "Let's Go To Bed" hit MTV that the band started making any headway, but new label Sire Records was hampered by the fact that Smith and keyboardist Lol Tolhurst released that song and its two follow-ups, the New Order-influenced "The Walk" and the oddly jaunty "The Love Cats," as non-LP singles, a format that has never found favor in the states. Perversely, the band deliberately squandered that newfound pop sensibility on 1984's The Top, a deliberately abrasive and uncommercial album on which Smith played almost all the instruments. Finally finding a permanent American home on Elektra, as well as a stable new band lineup, 1985's The Head on the Door finally found a midpoint between gloomy post-punk and bouncy pop with the singles "Close To Me" and "In Between Days."
So when Standing On A Beach -- named after the first line of opening track "Killing An Arab" and called Staring At The Sea on the expanded CD edition -- was compiled, most of these songs were new to The Cure's expanding American audience. Chronologically sequenced from the scrappy, guitar-driven post-punk of "Killing An Arab" and "Jumping Someone Else's Train" through the increasingly synth-centered and gloomy era of "Charlotte Sometimes" and "The Hanging Garden" before gathering all the quirky pop songs of the preceding three years, it was the best possible introduction to The Cure. Indeed, for all the mainstream commercial success of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish over the next five years, Standing On A Beach remains song for song The Cure's best long-player, and is up there with Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady, Squeeze's Singles 45s and Under and New Order's Substance as one of the best greatest hits albums of the new wave era.
The album was not without controversy, however: new fans unaware of the context of "Killing An Arab" -- the pivotal scene of Albert Camus' philosophical novel The Stranger reduced to a two-minute pop song -- misunderstood the song's political viewpoint. Later pressings of the album added a liner note clarifying the song's lyrics: "The song 'Killing An Arab' has absolutely no racist overtines whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence. The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feeling."