1989 came at us with a wave of unforeseen but welcome optimism. In Eastern Europe, popular uprisings that began in Poland would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Brazil, the first elections in three decades sealed the country’s journey from military dictatorship to democracy. In South Africa, FW de Klerk was elected and immediately began the work of dismantling the hated apartheid regime, paving the way for Nelson Mandela to eventually return as President. As spring prepared to turn into summer, the outlook for the whole world seemed sunnier.
Then, on the first Tuesday of May, as Hungarians began dismantling the border fence with Austria to allow thousands of East Germans to defect to the West, The Cure saw this worldwide mood of boundless optimism, thought “fuck that”, and released their gloomcore ‘Disintegration’.
I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said
And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second
Once the album’s opening quatrain lolloped around my moody, hormonal teenage brain a love affair began. Like most affairs, it had its ups and downs, some ill-advised outfits, long periods in bed, and more than a couple of trial separations. But for the most part it endured until November 2015, when tickets for the The Cure’s imaginatively named 2016 tour “The Cure 2016 Tour” went on sale. I remember sitting in the car trying to order them online via my phone. For a while it didn’t look good, but eventually I managed to procure two tickets for the Manchester gig.
And so, a year later, I found myself sitting up with the gods, waiting for the gods of my teenage years to take the stage.
Manchester Arena is big, for an indoor venue. You might think it’s an annoyingly long walk from the sofa when you need the loo, but honestly that’s got nothing on the Arena. It’s the biggest arena of this identikit design that I’ve watched a concert in, in fact you could probably fit Nottingham Arena in it (see Return of the Black Eyeliner Pencil (part 2), coming soon). That’s probably because, at 21,000 bodies, it has the highest seating capacity of any indoor arena in the UK and is actually the third largest in Europe (cheers, Wikipedia).
I didn’t really wear black eyeliner, although many did. I was never cool or popular enough to be even remotely alt. Even my imaginary friends used to play with the other children.
The set opened with fan favourite ‘Shake Dog Shake’, the opening track from 1984’s ‘The Top’. The first thing that struck me was the incredible volume in the arena, by which I really mean the incredible lack of volume. We could hear conversations from people three rows behind us. While we weren’t exactly straining to hear the music, it wasn’t as loud as you’d expect, and frankly, sonically, the concert left me a little disappointed. The sound was too quiet, and tonally it was flat and muddied.
“This music has been mixed to be played loud so TURN IT UP.”
~ liner notes from ‘Disintegration’
That’s not the band’s fault, of course, the Arena is just too big. Our seats were so high up that we were effectively above any of the speakers, as you can see from the picture above. I know now how Newcastle United fans feel when they’re sat at the back of the Leazes End, except that I didn’t have to pay to watch the preposterously-named ‘Jonjo’ Shelvey (if that is your real name).
There was something slightly flat about the setlist, too. I accept that, when your band is older than sixteen different countries on the planet, your back catalogue is likely to be quite lengthy (unless you’re Massive Attack, of course) and trying to meet everyone’s wishes in a 21,000 crowd is never going to be possible. But there were still some odd choices.
It’s interesting that there’s only two songs written in the last twenty years: ‘Want’ is the rarely-performed opening track from 1996’s ‘Wild Mood Swings’, one of the worst-received albums by The Cure, selling ‘just’ one million copies worldwide; and ‘The Hungry Ghost’, which is an album track from ‘4:13 Dream’ released in 2008. Whilst ‘Wild Mood Swings’ was poorly received, selling 364,000 copies in the US, then ‘4:13 Dream’ fared much worse, selling only 93,000. The most recent single that the band performed was ‘Friday I’m in Love’, which was released on 16th March 1992, whilst half the songs on 1985’s “The Head on the Door” album make the set list.
The main part of the set ended with ‘Give Me It’, an album track from ‘The Top’, released in April 1984. It didn’t feel like a climax – there was no sense of crescendo – the song ended and they walked off. That was it. I’ve appended the setlist below with the album and year of release, with an asterisk denoting singles.
1. Shake Dog Shake* (The Top, 1984)
2. A Night Like This (The Head on the Door, 1985)
3. The Walk* (1983)
4. Push (The Head on the Door, 1985)
5. In Between Days* (The Head on the Door, 1985)
6. Sinking (The Head on the Door, 1985)
7. Pictures of You* (Disintegration, 1989)
8. High* (Wish, 1992)
9. Lovesong* (Disintegration, 1989)
10. Just Like Heaven* (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
11. Primary* (Primary, 1981)
12. Want (Wild Mood Swings, 1996)
13. The Hungry Ghost (4:13 Dream, 2008)
14. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea (Wish, 1992)
15. One Hundred Years (Pornography, 1982)
16. Give Me It (The Head on the Door, 1985)
17. A Forest* (Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
18. Burn (The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1994)
19. Lullaby * (Disintegration, 1989)
20. Friday I’m in Love* (Wish, 1992)
21. Boys Don’t Cry* (Boy’s Don’t Cry, 1979)
22. Close to Me* (The Head on the Door, 1985)
23. Why Can’t I Be You? * (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)
The three encores felt a little like the band were just milking it. Fair enough, do an encore, everyone knows that the first time you walk off, you’re going to come back. But three encores just seemed like an affectation. There was very little interaction with the crowd, beyond waving at the end of each part of the concert. At the end Robert Smith walked off with a hand on his throat/chest (we were too far away to tell exactly) and I wonder if he was having some sort of vocal trouble – the whole set was shorter than we expected, given the legendary lengths of some former shows. Older Cure fans talk in reverential tones about children conceived during the main part of the set starting school during the second encore.
Given that I’d waited almost thirty years for the chance to see the band live, I confess that I was disappointed. It was great to see them, but it would have been nice to see a different, more varied setlist. More than that though, I was very disappointed in Manchester Arena. It’s a very poor experience, especially given that we paid £80 each for the tickets and they were literally the cheap seats.
I would watch The Cure again, but I wouldn’t go to Manchester Arena again.
There was a support act – The Twilight Sad – but we watched them on YouTube and thought that the time would be better spent elsewhere. It was. We spent it in Fopp on Brown Street. Support your local independent record store, kids.