Mommy, What’s a B-Side?
Join the Dots With The Cure

As a general rule, I dislike hearing songs I love in television commercials.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that a lot of my previously held principles have fallen by the wayside, particularly when it comes to producing art for money, so it’s comforting to know that I can still be prodded into righteous rage by commercialism. I hate hearing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” being used to sell cars, for example, especially since the producers seem to have missed the point: “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is about sex, of course, not about driving moderately fast in your cushy SUV. Same with Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” being used to add “American flavor” to blue jeans ads, when the song is bitterly anti-American, or at least anti-American governmental injustice.

But the ad that has stung the most, recently, is the one for Hewlett Packard’s digital photography products. The song they’ve chosen to use is “Pictures of You,” by the Cure, and if you give that a moment’s thought, you’ll see why it’s a stupid choice. “Pictures of You” is about how photographs and mental pictures are wrong, how they can’t capture anything, and how real, living, breathing people will only put lie to your images of them and break your heart. It’s a gloriously sad song, layered and prickly, and using it to sell cameras because it has the word “pictures” in the title just… hurts.

I admit, it probably wouldn’t bother me if “Pictures of You,” and in fact the whole of the Disintegration album, weren’t so permanently enshrined in my pantheon of truly great, important records. There is, of course, a genuine disconnect between what I intellectually know and what I personally, emotionally feel when it comes to the most important bands and albums of the last century. Even though, for example, I know that U2 is the more important band, the Alarm is more central to me. And I know that the Cure represents something very small in terms of the overall picture of music, but to me, they will always be one of the best bands of the past 50 years.

The connection, I’ll grant, is largely emotional. I don’t mind saying that if not for Disintegration getting me through some bad patches in high school, I probably would not be alive right now. It is perhaps the most expansive claustrophobic album ever made – the sound is enormous, textured, vast, and yet the album itself is a small thing, almost stifling in its perfectly glittering sadness. A more gloriously depressing album I have never heard. I have such an attachment to it, that when the South Park guys had Robert Smith guest-star, and one of the kids blurted out to him that “Disintegration is the best album ever,” I yelped in agreement.

You understand, of course, that I know Disintegration isn’t the best album ever. Sometimes, though, when I’m alone in my head, I feel like it really is.

The Cure has had a 25-year career, and of course they are more than that one album, but the others have had a tough time measuring up. They began as a rough-and-tumble guitar pop act, slamming their way through the superb pop of Boys Don’t Cry before adding computers and atmospheres on Seventeen Seconds and Faith. They veered back and forth from there, making silly yet satisfying pop albums like Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Wish, and crafting dense masterpieces like Pornography and Disintegration. Along the way the goths embraced them and dozens of guitarists tried unsuccessfully to copy Robert Smith’s clean, echo-drenched tones.

Four years ago the Cure put out another of those dense masterpieces, Bloodflowers, which they called the concluding chapter in a trilogy that also included Pornography and Disintegration. This seemed to some like trying to tie their latest work in with their greatest, to increase sales, but to the band’s credit, the three albums really play like a single thought. Pornography is anger, Disintegration is depression, and Bloodflowers is resignation, and it isn’t hard to join the dots, even though they’re spread out over 18 years.

Speaking of Join the Dots, that’s what the Cure has called its latest project, a four-CD box set of B-sides and rarities spanning 23 years of album and single releases. Its 70 songs offer an embarrassment of riches, sort of a sprawling alternate history of the band. Smith has been quoted as saying that he expected great B-sides from the bands he loved as a child, and he tried to hold the Cure to the same standard. These are not throwaway tracks – for the most part, the songs included on Join the Dots would have fit just fine on the albums that housed their corresponding A-sides.

Before we explore the content of the box further, I wanted to point out that projects like this are something of an anachronism. Today’s generation of music buyers doesn’t even know what a B-side really means – they have only known CDs. The days when bands would record songs specifically to be released as flip-sides of 45 rpm singles are long gone, as are the days when bands would release singles without intending the A-side for album release. There are something like 30 Beatles songs that never made an album, including “Hey Jude” and “We Can Work It Out” and even “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” These days, CD singles are not even all that prevalent, and the extra tracks are usually remixes, demos or album cuts. The idea of compiling a B-sides collection, even for a singles band like the Strokes, is absurd. There’s nothing new to collect.

Me, I like these projects, particularly because I don’t go out of my way to collect singles. Join the Dots is like getting 70 new Cure songs – there are very few here I’ve previously heard, and none that I already have on CD. It’s arranged chronologically, so one can trace the evolution of the band’s sound from skilled guitar-pop act to gloomy purveyors of atmosphere to layered modern pop band. Disc One starts sloppily, with garage rockers “10:15 Saturday Night” and “Plastic Passion” (both earlier versions of songs that later made the debut album), and continues in a noisy, simplistic vein.

There are great early songs here, though, notably a pair of instrumentals (“Another Journey by Train” and the creepy “Descent”) and two versions of the recorder-inflected “Lament.” The shift comes with “Speak My Language,” a B-side from the Lovecats project (collected on Japanese Whispers). It’s amusing to note that while many (including myself) have chastised Smith for swallowing all those happy pills in the ‘90s, older Cure songs were actually pretty happy – “Just One Kiss,” “Do the Hansa.” The melancholy really kicks in with “A Few Hours After This,” the swirling B-side to “In Between Days.”

Throughout this set, Smith shows a tendency to pair effervescent A-sides with sad B-sides, and vice versa. Most of the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me singles came paired with deep, beautiful ballads like “A Chain of Flowers” and “Snow in Summer,” both on Disc Two. Ditto the Disintegration singles, save “Lovesong,” which is backed with “Fear of Ghosts,” a seven-minute web of guitars and keyboards of a piece with the album. The second disc is rounded off with three (count them, three) covers of the Doors’ “Hello I Love You,” recorded for Elektra’s Rubaiyat project in 1991. There’s a previously unreleased six-minute “psychedelic” mix, a straight cover, and an 11-second takedown that’s chuckle-worthy.

Though this set covers an expansive timeframe, Cure albums were few and far between in the last 15 years, and so the later discs have less to work with. Disc One culls from six albums and a few EPs, for example, but the third and fourth discs only have Wish, Wild Mood Swings and Bloodflowers to pull from. Hence the inclusion of several soundtrack songs and remixes on the latter discs, which sort of weighs the set down. Here are the band’s songs from The Crow and Judge Dredd and the X-Files album. Here are acoustic mixes of songs. Here are two covers of “Purple Haze.”

Still, the later material holds its own. In keeping with tradition, the B-sides from the largely poppy Wish are moody and stunning. “This Twilight Garden,” the B-side of “High,” is the summit of this set, thick and powerful. And if you get through the mediocre cover of David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” you’ll find a treat – the three acoustic-based B-sides of Wild Mood Swings embarrassment “The 13th.” For most of that album, Smith led the band straight off the rails into horn-drenched happy land, and hearing these much better songs that were left off the record is a delight.

The fourth disc is the biggest hodgepodge, containing only four real B-side tracks. But there are some gems here – there’s “Coming Up,” the extra track on Japanese and Australian versions of Bloodflowers, for instance, and it’s a perfect fit with the rest of the record. There’s “Signal to Noise,” a B-side of “Cut Here,” a new track on the latest Greatest Hits album (their third, I believe). There’s Curve’s stunning remix of “Just Say Yes,” another new track from the best-of. And there’s unreleased track “Possession,” a nifty ditty. This set could have been shortened to three discs, no doubt, but for Cure fanatics, having some of these curiosities (like Paul Oakenfold’s run through “Out of This World”) is damn near essential.

The Cure plans on re-releasing its entire catalog through Rhino starting this year, and Join the Dots is a superb start to the reissue campaign. It also serves as a reminder that this band was always more than the gothic stereotype stuck to them, and that their catalog deserves pristine digital preservation. Plus, after promising that Bloodflowers was the last new album they would make, the Cure is back in the studio as we speak with (of all producers) Ross Robinson, and aiming for a new record this year. After 25 years, the Cure can still make affecting, lovely music, and I suppose I should take things like the HP ad (and like 311’s torturous cover of “Lovesong”) as testaments to their importance.

Regardless, Join the Dots is wonderful, an immersing treasury of nearly forgotten songs, and a project the likes of which we may not get to see too frequently. It’s a loving tribute to a great band.

Oh, and Disintegration is the best album ever.

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It’s my sister’s birthday this week. Happy Birthday, Emily! It’s also Christine Reyno Guertin’s B-day. Odd to think that I’ve known her more than 10 years now. Happy Birthday, Christine!

Next week, some new music. Who’d’a thunk it?

See you in line Tuesday morning.