Play for Today: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Play for Today: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Whilst it is literally the second studio album from The Cure, as far as Robert Smith is concerned it’s the first proper Cure LP.

If you didn’t already know, Smith bloody hates their first album, Three Imaginary Boys; he hated making it, he hated it when it came out, and despite it now being regarded as a classic Cure song, if ‘Boys Don’t Cry‘ had been a big hit at the time, he’d probably hate that too and never play it. Instead, this, Seventeen Seconds, is the real debut LP by The Cure, and you can see why he thinks that.

Smith has said that when they recorded Three Imaginary Boys, they were herded into a studio and told to record every song they had, leaving a mixed bag of styles of songs. Seventeen Seconds is very much the opposite of this. Concise 10 tracks, a distinct noir-pop sound, and even a Top 40 hit in ‘A Forest’.

In retrospect, and whilst it is a classic Cure song of the early era of the band, how on earth did ‘A Forest’ become a hit single and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ fail when it is now ubiquitous on alternative and indie commercial radio?

In the intervening period between the two LPs, The Cure supported Siouxsie and the Banshees, and it was on this tour that John McKay quit the Banshees and Robert replaced him for the shows, playing The Cure set with his own tensions with bassist Michael Dempsey and then filling in as guitarist for the headline act. It was this that was probably the catalyst for how Seventeen Seconds sounded. Smith said, “It allowed me to think beyond what we were doing. I wanted to have a band that does what Steven Severin and Budgie do, where they just get a bassline and the drum part and Siouxsie wails.”

In came Simon Gallup to replace Dempsey, and keyboardist Matthieu Hartley to add the textures to the minimalist feel Smith wanted to capture. Post-tour, he decamped back to Crawley and existed on a diet of Nick Drake, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Khachaturian, and Van Morrison and attempted to find the missing link between all of them.

Whether he found that link is up for debate but he certainly discovered something else. A sound that would instil The Cure as one of the most loved bands of the 20th century and probably the most influential after The Beatles. More so in some circles.

Seventeen Seconds begins with an instrumental, ‘A Reflection’ forlorn piano and minor chords guide us in slowly and gently. It certainly has the melancholy of Pink Moon era Nick Drake.

With hindsight, we now know they then fly into one of their most loved deeper cuts, ‘Play For Today’ a favourite for so many, the liquid, chiming guitar of Robert Smith as distinctive as his pleading vocals. ‘Boys Don’t Cry‘ may have come before it but this is a touchstone for the archetypal Cure sound.

Secrets’ seems to have come from the same writing period as its predecessor, albeit there is a guitar solo that plays around a scale and a repetitive hook that bounces around, as much as a Cure riff can bounce.

In Your House’ is much more fluid and less rigid, the guitar hook glides rather than stabs. Gallup’s bass is as iconic as you remember; underpinning, underscoring everything with a counter melody. It is glorious and stately.

Three’ is electronic experimentation, harking the Banshees and Tubeway Army. It is subtle and hypnotic. Is it a rudimentary drum machine? Is it rigor mortis human Lol Tolhurst drums? ‘The Final Sound’ is so brief it is basically preparing you for the piece de resistance, the majesty of ‘A Forest’. Here Smith and Gallup are as one, a tight, rhythmic beast, a twinned head monster of noir pop mastery. It was the one and only single from the LP and gave them their first Top of the Pops appearance when it entered the charts at No.31. Producer Mike Hedges had procured as many as seven flangers from various studios and had them running through to create the warped atmosphere of the song.

The lack of budget for the recording session meant that the whole album took seven days to record and mix, which whilst being longer than Three Imaginary Boys took, is quick in anyone’s book. Recording studio techniques stretched to, literally, having tape running around the studio over pencils allowing for up to 32 bar loops of drums and bass.

M’ demonstrates the heavy tape delay used in the studio. Hedges and Smith were deep into using every possible technique to make this sound different.

At Night’ the original working title for ‘A Forest’, has Smith’s vocals lower in the mix so it sounds like he’s calling from far away, in an empty street, dimly lit by street lights, the synth notes full of dread, spiky, rushed guitar digs give it a horror film atmosphere.

Seventeen Seconds’ has a very similar guitar line but Gallup’s bass is front and centre with deep synth accentuating it.

Whether it’s because the state of the country very much echoes the late 1970’s or if we are now just so very used to how The Cure are and sound, but Seventeen Seconds isn’t as jarring as the rock hacks at the time found it, with the bizarre exception of Paul Morley who so hated their debut, he positively gushed at how “extraordinary” this was. Most found it bleak and even depressing, which we now think of as such a reductive way of viewing music that evokes feelings of loss and pain. It can be comforting that others, as great as Robert Smith, could feel the same as you, someone who can express it far better than you are able to. That chimes, that resonates.

I’m telling you things you already know about The Cure and how Robert Smith makes you feel and has made people feel for 45 years. They and he continues to do so. For someone who around the time of writing and recording this record believed he wouldn’t be alive for much longer and actively tried to make that happen, he’s very much still with us and about to inflict more of himself upon us. Bit longer than seventeen seconds.

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