Big Grey: The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds

SEVENTEEN SECONDS

Released 22 April 1980

Label: Fiction
Produced by: Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Recorded at: Morgan Studio One, London
Personnel: Robert Smith (guitar, vocals), Matthieu Hartley (keyboards), Laurence Tolhurst (drums), Simon Gallup (bass)


 “We like Seventeen Seconds, all of us.”

So wrote Steve Albini in 1986, in the liner notes accompanying Big Black’s pulverising debut LP, Atomizer, exposing the then-somewhat unexpected influence that The Cure – at that point, off at their most whimsically, lushly, Technicolor pop with the Head On The Door album – had exerted on the dingiest, most desperate basements of America’s underground. (Three years later, J Mascis would cement the grunge connection with Dinosaur Jr’s brilliant fuzz-out cover of “Just Like Heaven.”)

Albini made the Seventeen Seconds reference in regard to Atomizer’s ominous “Bad Houses.” Built from a rudimentary drum machine pattern, skeletal, hairy-spider guitar arpeggio, and a disassociated, reverb-drenched vocal, it’s a track that does indeed resemble the lo-fi psychotic American bastard offspring of this, The Cure’s second, most stripped-back album. Specifically, were you to mash up the Seventeen Seconds songs “In Your House,” and “At Night,” amplify the result until overload, and then set it on fire, the result would sound very like the Big Black song.

But the kinship runs deeper than the sonic similarity. If Big Black were about anything, it was a mood that comes from a bad place, and takes the listener to another one. For a few years, beginning with this carefully constructed downer LP, the album on which The Cure first really became The Cure, that’s precisely what Robert Smith’s group were about, too – even if the bad moods in question are ultimately very different. In Big Black’s world, it was that of a foot stamping on a human face in a dark car park behind a bar in a small town, forever. In The Cure’s, in 1980, it was more about finding a quiet grey room, lying down, giving up, and just waiting for it all to end, while the rain hits at the window.

There isn’t much crossover between the snotty, Buzzcocksy punk-pop of Three Imaginary Boys–era Cure and the self-consciously chill, artsily enervated arena staked out by their second LP, but echoes persist. For one thing, following the Albert Camus adaptation of “Killing An Arab,” Seventeen Seconds would see Smith wearing his library card evermore proudly on his sleeve, with another cameo from Camus, and a pivotal guest turn by post-punk’s poster boy of literary paranoia, Franz Kafka. Musically, there were melancholic clues as to where Smith would go next in the debut album’s forlorn title track: Seventeen Seconds isolates the desolate, endless-empty-evenings atmosphere caught in “Three Imaginary Boys,” freezes it, and magnifies it until it fills two sides.

Smith had started thinking about his next record in terms of a unified mood piece even before Three Imaginary Boys was released. Along with the rest of post-punk, he was under the heavy spell of David Bowie’s Low, whose Eno-inspired ambience would affect his choices as much as its fractured, fragmentary lyrics and strange song shapes and sizes, the use of tape loops and the inclusion of experimental, quasi-instrumental pieces.

As well as having Bowie’s orange album on heavy rotation, in preparing for Seventeen Seconds, Smith assembled a private mixtape of inspirations that he sought somehow to synthesise on his new LP. Listened to obsessively around the making of the album, the tape consisted of four songs, with increasingly little in common – and, it must be said, little in the way of any immediately obvious connection with anything that resulted on The Cure’s record:

First, Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” the yearning, drifting, 10-minute centrepiece of visions and nostalgia from Astral Weeks. Then, Nick Drake’s “Fruit Tree,” a mournfully beautiful piece of mystic-death pastoral from Five Leaves Left (if there’s a crossover with Seventeen Seconds, it’s perhaps to be found in line,“safe in the womb of an everlasting night…”). Third, the sweepingly strange and melancholy Adagio section from Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane Ballet Suite, which Smith knew from its inclusion on the soundtrack album for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Those three perhaps share passing shades of a certain slow, downbeat, inward-looking something, but it’s not really something that can be found in the tape’s last track: Jimi Hendrix, Smith’s first guitar hero, with his incandescent hotwiring of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” recorded at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival, which the 11-year-old Smith had attended in the company of his older brother.

Just as much an influence on Smith’s thinking, meanwhile, was that of the bands he saw as his peers in the fermenting, fomenting moment as the new decade dawned and raincoats grew longer. Joy Division, with whom The Cure had shared a bill during a four-night residency at London’s Marquee in 1979, were particularly on his mind in those days, and a constant personal challenge. When the Manchester group’s majestic final studio album, Closer, appeared three months after Seventeen Seconds, and on the heels of Ian Curtis’s May suicide, Smith admitted, “I can’t ever imagine making something as powerful.”

Closer again was the example of Siouxsie And The Banshees, with whom Smith, a fan, had formed an allegiance that, for a while, would become symbiotic, if not schizophrenic. Having struck up a friendship with Banshees bassist Steve Severin (with whom Smith would later form the dayglo psychedelia outfit The Glove), Siouxsie was then persuaded to provide keening backing whoops for The Cure’s “I’m Cold,” the fantastically stroppy B-side to the “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” single. More significantly, The Cure were offered the support slot on the Banshees’ autumn ’79 UK tour.

Infamously, Siouxsie’s band imploded early into that campaign, on the day of the fourth gig in Aberdeen, when drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist John McKay spectacularly quit before the gig. Stepping into the breach, Smith spent the remainder of the hastily rearranged tour fronting The Cure as the opener each night, then returning to the stage with the headliners as the Banshees guitarist – a position in which he would continue, in various degrees of happiness, for live shows on and off until 1983.

While he was absorbing ice from the Banshees’ sound, the particular pressures of holding down double duties on the road saw frictions, both personal and musical, coming to a head between Smith and Cure bass player Michael Dempsey, who had been expressing growing dissatisfaction with the trend of the fragmentary new songs Smith had started demoing. When the tour ended, Dempsey was out of The Cure, leaving to join their brilliant Fiction labelmates, The Associates.

As a replacement, Smith drafted in Simon Gallup, whose pared-down playing more suited the claustrophobic territory he wanted to explore, and who, just as importantly, had become his bosom drinking buddy. With Gallup came keyboardist Matthieu Hartley, who had played alongside the bassist in Surrey post-punk hopefuls The Magspies, and, like him, would be prepared to take Smith’s direction, at least for a while.

The addition of keyboards to the palette would forever change The Cure, but the massed ranks of synths that came to dominate some later tracks were still a long way off. For Seventeen Seconds, Smith had a particular, peculiarly thin sound in mind, limiting Hartley to playing mostly single-note parts, and rarely a chord. (Gallup and Hartley made their unofficial Cure debut in October 1979 as members of Smith’s daft side-project band Cult Hero, playing on the headbanging disco-postman single of the same title, which would also feature the last appearance of something that would not be found on a Cure record again until the end of 1982: Smith’s lively sense of humour.)

With a new vision in his new batch of songs, and a new band to realise it, Smith further stamped control over proceedings by insisting on producing the new Cure album himself, in partnership with another hungry producing neophyte, Mike Hedges, who had previously worked as engineer on Three Imaginary Boys.

Having rehearsed the new set of songs intensively at Smith’s parents’ house, The Cure entered Morgan Studios to begin recording on January 13, 1980. Working on a tight budget – the album was made for less than £3,000 – time was limited to the extent the band slept on the studio floor to maximise their days (and their drinking time). But having worked as a tape-op and studio engineer for four years, Hedges knew his way around and could work at speed, allowing time to experiment and go with happy accidents.

Hedges and Smith paid particular attention to compression and attaining a flat, contained drum sound across the album, hitting upon an intriguingly sterile, thin-yet-dense simplicity unlike anything The Cure had hinted before. All eleven tracks were recorded by January 20. Smith and Hedges would finish mixing the record across three days in February.

The spare sound, impressionistic introspection and consciously morose mood of Seventeen Seconds is perfectly captured by the blurred, anonymous, fragment-of-a-rainy-afternoon cover art, created by photographer Andrew Douglas. (Ironically, given the last thing The Cure recorded before the album was “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” their sideswipe at the new Mod bandwagon, Douglas’s most famous record sleeve was The Jam’s Setting Sons.)

With its faintly eastern piano figure and distant, wordless wailing, the opening instrumental, titled, seriously enough, “A Reflection,” signals the influence of Side Two of Low, but has nothing of the invention, muscle or heat of Bowie, even at his most distraught. Taken alone, it’s a nothingy piece, but it does its job in the context of this album as a whole, establishing the hesitant, pensive tone, and the sense of songs that will never quite resolve themselves.

Coming in on a long instrumental opening (on initial listen, you might almost wonder whether Smith is going to rouse himself to sing on this record at all) “Play For Today” presents a slight throwback to an earlier, snottier Cure. Lyrically, it introduces the album’s overriding theme – essentially, heavy lifting made out of adolescent relationship angst – but with Smith’s glassy guitar harmonics sparking nimbly around Lol Tolhurt’s treated, steam-cleaned drums, compared with the rest of the record, the pace is relatively lively.

What comes across most in the strained vocal, however, is a growing ennui “…wait for something to happen…” The song is named after the BBC’s great old strand of mostly worthy, mostly social-realist dramas; today, Play For Today is rightly regarded as a jewel of British television, but for young punks looking for something to do back then, in the days of three-channel TV, it could seem just another regular part of the UK’s endless grey drudgery.

The rising sense of suffocating listlessness grows intense with “Secrets.” Musically, with its clipped scratching bass and tic-toc percussion, the song has a curious, beguiling similarity to the greatest minimalists of British post-punk, Young Marble Giants. But Smith’s vocal is deliberately, carefuly muffled, buried in the claustrophobic mix to reflect the lyric’s half-sketched picture of being trapped in a relationship because you’re too scared, too exhausted, or too numb to move (“Remember me the way I used to be” the singer pleads, suffering under the heavy jaded horror of being almost 21-years-old.)

The same lyrical theme extends into the slow groove “In Your House,” on which, between Hartley’s nagging, one-finger nursery-rhyme keyboard noodle, Tolhurst’s tightly compressed drums and Smith’s downward spiralling guitar, The Cure hit for the first time on a nascent psychedelia. It grows across the next two, quasi-instrumental pieces. Closing the first side, “Three,” is a small bad trip, disjointed by electronic percussion cracks, the unintelligible vocals sounding beamed in by a radio in another room.

Opening side two, the stark, treated-piano stumble “The Final Sound” is another short exercise in disjointed atmospherics. Suggesting a cue from a horror movie soundtrack, it’s most interesting as an example of proto-hauntology, and as a document of the budgetary constraints under which Seventeen Seconds was produced: originally, the 52-second track was intended as a much longer piece, but the tape literally ran out. As with “A Reflection,” it works better as part of the whole than as a piece in itself, clearing the way for the ominous keyboard that swirls into “A Forest.”

The lead single, “A Forest” would be The Cure’s breakthrough hit, rising to Number 31 in the UK singles charts, and securing the band their impressively static Top Of The Pops debut. It would become a key song for the rest of the decade; onstage, as the band got bigger and wiggier, The Cure would continue to push through and explore “A Forest” to near Hawkwindish extremes. By comparison, the original LP recording is a (deliberately) pale, grey shadow of the dense psychedelic growth that would eventually bloom, but it’s easily the album’s standout track: a long, dubby anxiety dream in which, as Smith’s lost-boy vocal echoes and his guitar jangles brilliantly around Gallup’s relentless unshowy bass, the pace, space and curious airlessness of Seventeen Seconds combine to produce a genuine sense of dimly-lit drama.

Featuring one of Smith’s most disarmingly simple vocal melodies, “M,” is another highlight. Lyrically, it’s another but-I-know-this-is-hopeless love song, but brightly and tightly constructed around Smith’s chiming chording, it sounds a welcome change of pace. The consensus among longterm Cure-watchers is that the “M” in question is Smith’s muse and future-wife Mary Poole, although another contender is Patrice Mersault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s debut novel “A Happy Death,” from which Smith filched his opening line, “Hello, image.”

The literary allusion is more blatant on “At Night,” one of the tracks Steve Albini had most in mind when he wrote his Atomizer liner notes, and a great, blunt shift back into darkness built around an insistent, growling bass figure and another maddeningly stark keyboard line. Smith lifts his lyric and attitude from a disquieting Franz Kafka prose piece of the same title, first published in the book Description Of A Struggle, a collection of the writer’s often extremely short pieces, the fragmentary nature of which seem to have strongly impacted on Smith’s songwriting of the period. Significantly, the same collection also contained Kafka’s tiny, unsettling story, “The Top.”

Coming after “At Night,” the title track is something of an anti-climax. A despairing singalong, “Seventeen Seconds” sees the album petering out, just giving up, uncertain why it should go on. Again, though, taken in context, it’s the perfect way to end. As it ends, it leaves behind a sense of something not quite finished, things left unsaid, waiting for something to happen. On Seventeen Seconds, Smith carefully, and with crisp precision, captures an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else The Cure ever did – a sharp, endless after-the-rain mood, empty, but pregnant. After this, for a while, the rain would give way to a dense, marble-grey mist.

A shorter version of this piece ran in ‘The Cure: The Ultimate Music Guide’