Before they had keyboards, before hair dyed black as shoe polish, before Robert Smith twirled like a Goth Sufi, the Cure was a great power-pop trio. In the era of Wire, the Jam and Buzzcocks, Smith doled out more than his share of incomparable hooks.
This we observe from Rhino's "Three Imaginary Boys," which kicks off the label's series of Cure reissues, each packaged with a whole disc of outtakes and a booklet of insights about one of pop's most cultish bands. Seven previously unreleased songs! Photos of Smith at 17!
The new, deluxe "Three Imaginary Boys" marks the first U.S. release of the British band's 1979 debut. A hot-pink LP with appliances on the cover, the holy grail for American fans sold as a top-dollar import back then, in the thick clear plastic sleeve that was record-store code for "more than your allowance." Never mind that eight of the tracks also appeared on the Cure's 1980 U.S. debut, "Boys Don't Cry"; who could resist a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" that can only be described as goofy?
In contrast to the clean, spare pop of the original LP, the outtakes/rarities disc shows a rough-around-the-edges Cure. Some demos and live tracks are surprisingly garagey for the generally polished band -- note Lol Tolhurst's truly amateur drumming -- but enjoyably so. "Grinding Halt" is better for the sloppiness.
For the musicologists, there are four versions of "10:15 Saturday Night." Smith's home demo of guitar and churchy Hammond organ is slow and morose yet warmer in its melancholy. The snappy live version, quite frankly, rocks.
The Disc 2 tracks date from 1977 to 1979, and the flavor of the era banishes thoughts of the Cure as purely an '80s band. The lean new wave version of "I'm Cold" from 1977 beats the spooky recording that emerged later. The previously unreleased "Winter," "Play With Me," "I Want to Be Old" and "I Just Need Myself" are all sharp pop tunes, though the latter two owe plenty to the Buzzcocks' staccato vocals and crisp guitar licks.
Other new tracks show the looser side of a band now identified with humorless paleface Goths: the playful instrumental "The Weedy Burton" and "The Cocktail Party," a grand cotillion romp.
In addition to showing off those baby-faced band photos, the liner notes tell of the force behind the Cure's stark trademark sound: producer Chris Parry, who left his A&R job at Polydor to start his own label and sign the Cure. (Fun fact: Under cover of night Parry sneaked the Cure into studio space he'd rented for the Jam, recording for his old employer.)
Parry dipped the Cure songs in "weird reverb" and created an "icy veneer," to the shock of Smith, who wanted a warmer sound. (He hated the impersonal cover art, too.)
Now a legendary control freak, Smith vowed never to let another outsider produce the band's albums. "I figured we might only get to make one more record and I couldn't bear the idea of somebody else making mistakes on our behalf," he said. He also fired the band member behind the "Foxy Lady" cover.