My favorite 100 albums of all time: #76 ("Standing on a Beach / Staring at the Sea")
My introduction to this was in the late 80s, when I was still really new to The Cure and looking for the most bang for my buck. I found it in the cassette version of Standing On A Beach • The Singles (And Unavailable B-Sides). This is The Cure's early stuff, just up to 1985, so it's before the band really hit the charts with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
This extended play cassette had most of the singles as well as their b-sides. However, this sequence has not been duplicated on CD, and CD releases under the title Staring at the Sea have tracks not found on this collection but also omit the b-sides. No doubt a combination of media limitations (an extended play cassette can hold more songs than a CD), record companies grabbing money with both hands from completists (guilty), and the whims of the folks who put the tracks together.
So, I have to vote for both here, and have even gone to the lengths of re-creating the track order using The Cure's Join the Dots collection and other albums for my listening pleasure. So let's talk about all the goodness on these releases. All told there's 29 tracks between the various versions of the albums, so I'm just going to hit a few highlights on this one.
All of the releases start with "Killing an Arab," which is somewhat famous (or infamous) for being misunderstood as a song against Arabs rather than what it is – a song inspired by Albert Camus' The Stranger.
"Killing an Arab" sits somewhere between punk and new wave. The live version (now played as "Killing Another") is much harder and almost straight-up punk rock. But the version on Standing is slower, and more cerebral.
"10:15 Saturday Night," and "Boys Don't Cry" are in a similar vein to "Killing." This is the band at its most stripped down, but you can see the outlines of what was to come.
"Charlotte Sometimes" is glacial, dreamy, and bass heavy. This is one of the non-album singles, so if it weren't for collections like this one, most folks getting into The Cure at a later date never would have discovered it.
"The Hanging Garden" has a driving tempo that doesn't let up or change much throughout. Almost every time I listen to this one, I wind up having it stuck in my head thanks to the simple but effective bass/drum foundation of the song. This one is a clear example of how The Cure have been saddled with the "goth" label over the years, even though Robert Smith objects to categorizing the band as "goth."
And then you have gems like "Let's go to Bed," "Love Cats," and "The Walk."
"Let's go to Bed" is Robert Smith showing his feisty, playful side. It's practically bouncy, and you can picture Smith grinning while singing "but I don't care if you don't, and I don't feel if you don't, and I don't want it if you don't… and I won't say it, if you won't say it first." "The Walk," is similarly bouncy, but also has a solid dash of weird.
And then there's "Love Cats" which is just perfect from Smith's opening "meow," tinkling piano, and what sounds like stand-up bass. This is The Cure's sampling a bit of rockabilly, mixed in with its own skewed view of the world. Truly, it is the grooviest thing. Also, almost assuredly, the only time a major band has used the word "meeces" in a song. In the hands of any other band, this would have been a novelty track, but it's perfectly executed here. It is, also, delightful played live.
Let's talk about some of the b-sides a bit, because The Cure's b-sides are often better than other band's singles.
"I'm Cold" has a trippy, guitar-heavy approach. It features Smith's vocals distorted with echo and reverb, while there's some heavy guitar (also heavy with reverb and other effects) going on throughout.
"Another Journey by Train" and "Descent" are instrumentals. "Another Journey" is a riff off of "Jumping Someone Else's Train" whereas "Descent" is a sparse and slow-moving piece. "Descent" features Smith playing a simple, but satisfying, bit on six-string bass.
"Splintered in Her Head" is the b-side for "Charlotte Sometimes," but would feel right at home on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. It's got the long instrumental lead in, heavy bass riffs, and almost primal drums. On top of that foundation, you've got strange and high-pitched keyboard riffs and distorted harmonica that almost devolve into noise, but not quite. This track is not an instrumental, but only has about 30 seconds of Smith's vocals processed in such a way that the lyrics are almost unintelligible.
At the risk of over-using the word, "Splintered" is a lush track with a hell of a lot going on. Check out this live version, if you don't have handy access to the studio cut. It's a fantastic jam.
And then there's "A Man Inside My Mouth," another b-side that is completely original. The lyrics are… open to interpretation, but are certainly suggestive. Like "Love Cats," and "Let's go to Bed," this one is The Cure in full bouncy mode. You'll be humming this in the shower, but be careful if you find yourself singing it out loud in the office.
I could go on, and on about this one – every single track is a winner, in my book. This look into The Cure's formative years is what made me a solid fan of the band, and has kept me coming back for more ever since.