The Cure: Japanese Whispers (1983)

January 4, 2012

Japanese whispers cover artRoll: 2-2-13
Album: The Cure, Japanese Whispers

People from my record-collecting circle between 1995-2005 would find this an odd statement, but by relationship with new wave was always a bit of a strange one. Tenuous, fickle, obsessive and shallow.

Before I liquidated my vinyl collection in order to move across the country (Canada being a bit too large to move 2000+ pieces of vinyl across cheaply) I owned pretty much every essential new wave/post-punk and early-80s pop record you could imagine. That’s about 100 titles—tops—and then 1900 or more mediocre-to-shite gap-fillers.

Obsessed? What collector isn’t?

But why new wave? The obvious answer is that it was, more or less, the sound of Top-40 radio in my area (probably everywhere else too) the year I started really listening to rock music. Sometime around 1983 music on the radio become more than just background filler. Some grad student has probably done a study about why kids suddenly gravitate towards pop music when they enter their tweens. It seems to be a pretty standard stage of development and at age ten or eleven I was no exception.

In grade five Michael Jackson‘s Thriller was my favourite cassette, followed closely by John Cougar Mellencamp‘s Uh-Huh. Neither were new wave albums, but the K-Tel tapes that filled out my collection were full of tracks by Thompson Twins, Big CountrySpandau Ballet, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, The Police, Thomas Dolby, The CarsThe Payolas, Corey HartNaked Eyes, Soft CellBlondie, and various sundry others.

Basically, my tape collection sounded a lot like The Cure‘s between-album “pop period” singles collection, Japanese Whispers.

Ironically, The Cure didn’t figure on any of those TV-advertised compilations and I was unaware of songs like “Let’s Go To Bed” and “The Walk” and it’d be years before I’d even heard of the band itself. Though “The Lovecats” is absurdly poppy, I guess The Cure were just a little too “alternative” to get mainstream airplay.

Judging by current new wave compilations, you’d get the idea New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen and Bauhaus were household names in the suburbs in 1983, but this wasn’t the case. At least not on the west coast of Canada where all-hit LG73 seemed to think INXS were pretty cutting edge. It would have been different for older kids but, come on, I was ten. How hip can you expect me to have been?

Though this period in The Cure’s career is seen as Robert Smith‘s sell-out bid, it’s surprisingly dark when I listen to it now. Despite the upbeat, Bowie-esque funk-pop arangements, it’s actually more sincerely dismal under the sparkling outer-later than his goth-by-numbers albums from the ’90s onwards. Pop music history may have proven The Cure to be one of the biggest UK bands ever, but it’s no wonder they were still an underground act while I was bopping to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Hungry Like The Wolf.”

Other than the aforementioned bookends (“Let’s Go To Bed” and “The Lovecats”), which can’t help but colour the listener’s impression of Japanese Whispers, the album could be considered a suitable follow up to the harrowing Pornography and easily Head On The Door‘s artistic equal. The only time Smith ever managed to blend his signature bleak surrealism with subtle pop hooks better is probably on his pièce de résistance, Disintegration (an album I always thought was a little overrated).

Personally, I’ve always found Whispers to be one of the band’s most enjoyable listens as it’s the last time The Cure sound natural and unselfconscious. Here Smith is making art for the sake of music, not art for the sake of art, if the distinction makes sense. And though Cure mythology has it that he was in fact trying to make music for the sake of money with these singles, they sound less like a cash-grab than most of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and isn’t nearly the cynical give-em-what-they-want pandering of Bloodflowers.

This is why Japanese Whispers was my gateway to appreciating The Cure somewhat late in the game. People who’ve known me for a long time would probably assume I spent most of high school moping about listening to Disintegration and Seventeen Seconds.

They’d be right, but about five years off. In high school I thought The Cure and The Smiths were whingy gits. I liked “Killing An Arab” well enough but lost interest with The Cure when they stopped being a punky garage band.

It wasn’t until I was taking fine arts at college and I started dating a girl with whom I shared an interest in new wave. She introduced me to Japanese Whispers and the gates finally swung open. Much like the cover art, it was as if cherubs were singing beams of wisdom shrouded in golden light down upon me. Beams of wisdom, though, that made more sense than the gibberish written on the cover, that is.

Since I’d been listening to goth for years by now, Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography (albums I’d never actually listened to do to my long-standing anti-Cure prejudice) became instant favourites of mine. We listened to these albums and a pile of other new wave and post-punk classics for two summers and a winter while we played pool in her parent’s garage. There are songs I still associate with sunbeams tinted blue by her cigarette smoke.

In the years following the ignominious end of that relationship (she tried to poison me after I broke up with her), I devoted a great deal of time and money tracking down every record even vaguely related to the albums we listened to in that cold, smokey garage.

Later on, I’d regain my sanity somewhat and lose a certain degree of passion for new wave and all the childhood nostalgia it carries for me. But some of that passion remains as it has  since I first fell in love with “rock’n’roll” by way of “Dancing With Myself“. And though I barely got out of that art school romance alive, I left with a love of The Cure.

Some people say if you leave a relationship with a stolen sweater, it was worth it. I figure I did one better than that.



  1. In grade 5, my favourite cassette was Nightmare on my Street.

    • Arguably hipper than MJ.

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