Former The Cure drummer Lol Tolhurst has spoken to NME about exploring the origins of goth for his new book, how his former band were part of the genre all along, and how the likes of David Bowie, Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails shaped the scene.
In his far-reaching new book, Goth: A History, Tolhurst explores the music, literature and art that shaped the genre, as well as the band he co-founded with Robert Smith in 1977. “Despite our passionate insistence that The Cure was not a goth group,” Tolhurst writes in the book, “The Cure was very much a goth group.”
Speaking to NME from his home in LA, the musician laughed off The Cure’s insistence not to be termed a goth band. “We were kind of aware that any bandwagon you were on or anything that you were labelled by are very fashion orientated,” he said. “So when you attach yourself to something, as soon as that goes down, you’re done.”
Part goth history, part memoir, the book tells the story of the music that shaped The Cure’s goth leanings – from David Bowie to Bauhaus, Joy Division to Nine Inch Nails – though Tolhurst’s own memories. The book delves into the bleak Thatcherite world of the late ’70s and views it through a gothic lens, finding some unsung goth heroes too – like Nico, Scott Walker and Alice Cooper – who aren’t always immediately associated with the scene.
“Alice Cooper was really shocking when he first came out,” said Tolhurst. “It was completely mind-blowing. In fact, first time I ever played as The Cure, I persuaded my mother to get me this black zip-up studded jump suit because I thought it looked a bit like Alice Cooper. Robert’s wife Mary, who went to school with us, did my eyes like him so they would all be weird.”
The book also describes how goth music helped to bring Tolhurst back-from-the-brink when his alcoholism led to his sacking from The Cure in 1989. “Music has the power to save you,” Tolhurst told NME. “Of that, I’m certain.”
Hello Lol. Where did the idea to write a book about goth come from?
Tolhurst: “I found an old box of records when I was still formulating the idea for the book. I just started listening to them and it absolutely amazed me because everything that The Cure did was in those records. Everything we became was there. I thought ‘OK, that’s what I’m going to write about. I’m going to put those connections together for people.’.”
One of those records was Bowie’s ‘Low’ and you describe him as one of the founders of the genre. John Robb in his recent goth book said, ‘No Bowie, no scene’, do you agree?
“It’s true. I can remember going to a party when I was 19, hearing ‘Sound and Vision’ and thinking this is everything I want a pop single to be because it’s catchy, it’s lovely but it’s also much deeper and darker.
“I was watching people and thinking it’s great to dance to and it makes you feel good, but there’s something more there too. I knew that was what I wanted to do with music. I wanted to do something that was accessible but can give you that feeling as well. Bowie’s ‘Low’ was a template for me and I know it was for Robert as well. We played Bowie songs a lot when we started. I still listen to ‘Low’ probably once every couple of weeks.”
In the book, you also talk a lot about the influence of punk on the goth scene…
“As morbid as this sounds, I have a playlist for my demise! I’ve told my son ‘OK this is what I want you to play [if anything happens]’ and it gets bigger all the time. It’s going to be a very long playlist. The Clash are on there of course because they changed everything.
“The night I saw The Clash with Robert, it was a revelation because it was like ‘OK, we can do that.’ I’d seen them at the carnival with Pearl [Thompson] too and it just felt like everything was changing. I remember reading Melody Maker and NME in Robert’s parents’ house and finding all the [punk] bands to see, like The Stranglers at The Red Deer in Croydon – all these influences fed into what goth was [to become].”
You describe Joy Division in the book as one of goth’s main “architects of darkness”…
“I can remember going to The Batcave years ago with Robert. The thing that always struck me about that place was yes there was people dressed in what you would consider goth [clothes] but there was a lot of people who weren’t and I liked that because it wasn’t like, ‘Well if you don’t have the uniform, you’re not coming in.’ I think that’s the way I look at Joy Division. It’s like maybe they weren’t wearing the right uniform, but they’re still very much a part of it.
“When I wrote that particular chapter, I was thinking a lot about who to put in there. I could see Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees and I know how I feel about The Cure…but I always thought Joy Division were that too. It was bleak and I always associated that with [goth].”
You recall your memory of meeting Ian Curtis in the book too…
“Yes, that was the first time we played something seriously big at The Marquee. I do have an image I remember of him sitting on the chair and just looking very down. That was the one thing that stuck in my mind [vividly] and it wasn’t until later that I sort of put that together with what was happening. Especially when I saw them at the end and I was like ‘OK, something’s not good here, something’s not correct.’ I suddenly saw where the music was coming from; life imitating art. I could see where it was going.”
Has Robert read the book?
“For the first book, I gave him a copy of it before it was out and asked him to have a read through, to see if there’s anything [he] think shouldn’t be in there or whatever whereas with this, I haven’t given it to anybody. I saw Robert about a month ago when [The Cure] were out here playing the Hollywood Bowl and I went along to see everybody. It’s [still] a family affair and like going back to the pub in 1977. We didn’t really talk about [the book]. We talked about other things and you know, they’re my family.”
Did they give you any updates on when The Cure’s next album might arrive?
“Robert’s exact words to me were ‘I think we finish with all this touring and then the album’. He’s always said that’s going to be the last thing, always. I don’t actually believe anything’s going to be the last thing until he shuffles off the mortal coil!”
You talk in the book about the importance of goth music in bringing you back from the brink when you were struggling with alcoholism, like Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Downward Spiral’…
“Listening to that album when I was first here [in LA], everything had gone sideways in my life. There was no more band; I was going through a divorce. I had this big court case where I lost this huge amount of money and I did what I always do in those situations: I ran away. I ran here and I was a stranger in a strange land. At various points in my life, I’ve listened to different albums which I felt have helped and that [album] helped at that point because I felt like I was on a downward spiral. There’s a redemption at the end that is hopeful. There’s a redemption in [The Cure’s] ‘Pornography’ at the end too, there’s hope and that’s what I get from it.”
And of course Trent Reznor inducted you into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
“Yes, they asked me who would you like to induct you and I said Trent because I know he has a similar world view. The first thing he said when he got on stage was about how he grew up in small town USA, Mercer, Pennsylvania, looking out on the fields and you know, how what was coming through the radio was what saved [him] and pushed [him] out there. It was the same for me in Crawley – with Bowie and the rest. I still see it today. I’ve travelled all around America for the last 40 years and I go to small towns. Immediately I can pick out the 5-10 goth kids that are there ready and waiting to escape!”
Goth: A History is published by Quercus and is out now. Lol Tolhurst x Budgie x Jacknife Lee release collaborative album ‘Los Angeles’ on November 3