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Three Songs No Flash

Clash Of The Titans: The Cure Vs Radiohead Live
Kevin E.G. Perry , August 2nd, 2012 07:06

The Cure and Radiohead are the twin titans of UK alternative rock but which group is better? Kevin E G Perry travels to Bilbao BBK to find out

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Photos by Music Snapper

There’s a monkey who watches the news in the Guggenheim in Bilbao. An artist named Francesc Torres put him there. He’s sat on a rotating high chair, and as it turns his simian gaze takes in first the television playing CNN, then glacially slow footage of the Russian Revolution, Hitler’s rise to power, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, the creation of the state of Israel, decolonization as represented by Algeria’s war of independence and Gorbachev taking control of the Soviet Union. Finally he sees an etching by Goya, in which fortune punishes those who have risen to greatness with downfall. History stutters past as the baffled chimp watches on. I think I know how he must feel, and I don’t even own a rotating high chair. That monkey doesn’t know how lucky he is.

I’ve come to Bilbao to weigh up whether either Radiohead or The Cure can lay claim to being the foremost proponents of live “alternative rock” in 2012 or whether fortune is grasping their ankles and precipitating their downfall. They’re headlining a music festival on a hilltop just outside the city. It’s called Bilbao BBK, after the Basque mega-bank which sponsors it. At least one member of the British Press Corps is here under the mistaken impression that they are attending a festival in honour of JME’s grime collective Boy Better Know. We are in fact attending something closer to Reading or Leeds than the Glastonbury model of festivals. It is a big gig where you will be granted the chance to forget Spain’s ongoing economic worries by paying 9 Euros for a beer while looking at Vodaphone adverts and walking past Seat cars parked ostentatiously between the stages. However, LCD Soundsystem did once sing about “parties like in Spain where they go all night” and James Murphy’s global nightlife expertise is borne out by the fact that the festival runs from 6pm each day to around 8am the following morning.

On Friday, The Cure will be preceded onto the main stage by Snow Patrol. In light of this fact, and the stark financial realities of the aforementioned 9 Euro beers, your servants in the hardworking British Press Corps decide to begin drinking in a hotel room. Our poison is some sort of horrendous pre-mixed Mojito, which is only slightly improved by diluting it with vodka. Then we stumble across town, past the undulating titanium-clad mass of the Guggenheim. Earlier in the day, workers from Bilbao’s Formica manufacturing plant had staged a protest here. Their factory is being shut down for good, yet more victims of the economic malaise both here in the autonomous Basque Country and in Spain more widely. Eventually we arrive at Athletic Bilbao’s football stadium, a team who inspire fierce patriotism in the local populace for their decision to field only Basque players, and board the bus uphill to the festival.

Due to a clerical error we manage to arrive while Snow Patrol are still playing. This is not the last mistake of the night. Somebody has broken The Cure. We wait patiently as their appointed 11:15 stage time comes and goes. Eventually, Robert Smith arrives onstage alone and picks up a black acoustic guitar. “Just while they fix it,” he says, “I’ll sing something to you.”

And he does. He plays ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ and ‘Fire in Cairo’ and ‘Boys Don't Cry’ and he makes 40,000 people on a hilltop feel like a gig in a living room. When he finishes the first song he says: “Don’t applaud too loudly or you’ll give me ideas.” When he finishes the second he ends on a few bum notes and says: “You see, it’s been quite a long time since I busked like this.” When he finishes ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, he smiles and says: “I think I have to get the rest of the group. Hang on. That’s why it’s The Cure and not Robert Smith,” and if that isn’t class and cool personified in one big-haired, kohl-eyed man then I don’t know what is.

Then The Cure come on properly and play for three hours. They play 37 songs in total, and yet it doesn’t drag. By my reckoning they play 15 of the 19 tracks on their Greatest Hits record. The crowd, as they say, are pleased. It might be the Mojitodka moving in me, but I appear to be almost dancing. Those near me definitely are. The Cure play an impassioned ‘Lovesong’, an ineffably sad ‘Pictures Of You’, a cool-as-fuck ‘Lullaby’ and then they start their encore with ‘The Same Deep Water As You’, all of which pleases me greatly because, as no less a cultural commentator than Kyle Broflovski once observed: “Disintegration is the best album ever.”

The Cure do not curtail their set because of the earlier technical issues, which means that Bloc Party start playing on the second stage before they’re finished. The festival ordinarily staggers the acts across the stages, so this impromptu overlap isn’t great for the sound. Nothing against Mr Okereke and his band but neither ‘The Lovecats’ nor ‘Friday I'm in Love’ nor ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ particularly benefit from him hollering away earnestly in the corner so I dive deeper into the crowd before the crowning finale. ‘Boys Don't Cry’ rings out for the second time of the night but this time at full speed ahead and with all guns blazing and all clichés utterly exhausted.

The bar has been set high, just like heaven. As Robert just suggested: ‘Let's Go to Bed’.

Did you ever find yourself wondering what happened to The Kooks? No, me neither. It turns out that they’re in the Basque Country where they can still play a festival line-up shortly before Four Tet and Radiohead. What a truly extraordinary world we live in. Few acts could bridge the yawning musical chasm between ‘Naïve’, the grimly inevitable final Kooks song, and Radiohead’s opener ‘Bloom’ but Kieran Hebden pulls it off masterfully. The audience are stimulated and provoked. We’re ready for Radiohead.

No really, we’re ready to love Radiohead. They don’t make it easy. They follow ‘Bloom’ with ‘15 Step’, ‘Bodysnatchers’ and ‘The Daily Mail’. The crowd, as they say, is less than pleased. Before ‘Myxomatosis’, Thom Yorke does his Robin Hood impression. He addresses the crowd: “We know in Spain you’re having a lot of problems. The cuts. The cuts. No money. No money. Well we think you should be taking to the streets. Someone stole that money off you. The banks.”

Yeah! Take that BBK! You took from the poor and now Radiohead are taking from you! They’re not quite giving it back to the poor, granted, but they are being sort of unspecifically rude about you! When he is king, you will be first against the wall!

Or perhaps this idle protest is of no consequence at all.

They beat on, boats against the current. Occasionally the dry land of a ‘Pyramid Song’ or ‘Karma Police’ will appear and the crowd will woop and sing along before being washed back into a sea of eerie noise. A sad-eyed man dressed as Elvis sulks out of the crowd, followed by others. It’s a shame because the band sound fantastic, but also like they’re playing a game we don’t know the rules to. There are a lot of vexed and disappointed faces in the crowd. That’s obviously sort of great, sort of brilliantly contrarian and righteous, but it might just be less confusing for everyone if Radiohead were allowed to gracefully abdicate their status as automatic festival headliners. After all, this is a band who, as Steven Wells once wrote: “Made a conscious decision to never again make a piece of music that might just possibly be as exciting, thrilling or (horror of horrors) as popular as ‘Creep’. And to dedicate the rest of their lives to the dubious pleasures of self-indulgent auto-proctology.”

They do at least go out gloriously, with a stolen snatch of ‘After The Gold Rush’ running into ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and then a storming ‘Paranoid Android’. They get off stage before scheduled, in under two hours, having played 20 tracks. Despite being half the number of songs The Cure played, it dragged more often.

There’s a Spanish idiom: “pensar en la inmortalidad del cangrejo” which literally translates as “thinking about the immortality of the crab”. It means daydreaming, and it’s what large swathes of the crowd seemed to end up doing at some point around the fifth track from The King Of Limbs. So who’s the foremost proponent of live “alternative rock” in 2012? Well, The Cure will send you home in touch with a deep well of ineffable sadness but still dancing. Radiohead may cause you to wander off into the night wearing the same expression as the monkey who watches the news in the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

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Aug 2, 2012 11:19am

so you like the hits then?

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Tim Layton
Aug 2, 2012 11:28am

So the crowd like the wrong Radiohead songs then?

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Aug 2, 2012 11:36am

I don't really know what you're saying – that Radiohead should just play the "hits"? That would be an even shorter show. Surely even casual fans would be pretty delighted to hear 15 Step and Bodysnatchers early out of the gate?

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Aug 2, 2012 11:41am

So basically Radiohead are still releasing new music and wanting to perform that new music live, whereas The Cure are well into the endless parade of 'greatest hits' performances. Makes sense. Are you basically trying to imply that the 'greatest UK alternative rock group' are the ones that only play their best songs... from the 1980's? I can understand that The Cure may have been an eminently more enjoyable experience for ye olde drunken festival singalong... but are Radiohead really the worse act, here?

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Tim Layton
Aug 2, 2012 11:57am

Much as I loved Stephen Wells, the fact that he was passionate and interesting meant that he was, y'know, wrong about shit loads of stuff. But in an interesting and entertaining way. "Creep" isn't even top ten most "exciting, thrilling" Radiohead track.

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Aug 2, 2012 12:03pm

radiohead were doing the greatest hits type set around the hail to the thief era (anyone remember the stadium acapella section at the end of karma police? belm)

what were you drinking before radiohead? we need these details.

i don't think they can be blamed for the organisers putting them high up on the bill.

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Tim Layton
Aug 2, 2012 12:07pm

I'd really fucking love to see The Cure though

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Tim Layton
Aug 2, 2012 12:18pm

The Cure are my favourite counter-cyclical weather band. *sun comes out* *puts on Disintegration*

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Aug 2, 2012 12:35pm

I was there and loved Radiohead. I am getting the impression though that they have fallen out of favour with the music press (I am sure they couldn't care less). So they don't bang out "hits" anymore, don't do pop. Good. I prefer their last albums anyway. The Cure are fun for sure, and I actually enjoyed the Kooks- didn't really know them before the gig. But, for me and for my friends, Radiohead were the highlight of the festival.

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Aug 2, 2012 12:43pm

In reply to :

I was at that festival specifically to see Radiohead and don't know what you're talking about when you say their show dragged! I didn't see the Cure, but from wha you write they played 15 of their 19 Greatest Hits and you call that being a better live act than Radiohead? Anyone who goes to see Radiohead expecting them to behave like any ole rock band past its prime, belting out old stuff because it's what made them popular, is not a real Radiohead fan because they don't know Radiohead. Radiohead is about innovation and staying true to what they believe in as artists - if that doesn't please the fans they are not concerned. That's what being a true artist is all about, not kowtowing to what the masses want and compromising yourself along the way.

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Aug 2, 2012 1:42pm

The Quietus in 'trolling Radiohead fans' shocker...

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Aug 2, 2012 2:48pm

have to disagree with you there . I was at their Taipei show last week, the crowd LOVED the post OKC songs, i mean, the entire arena was pogoing to Mr Magpie!

And they played a whopping 25 songs. there you go. radiohead over Cure anytime ( and ive seen Cure 4 years back).

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Aug 2, 2012 4:39pm

"Kevin E.G. Perry" = Kathy Burke incognito?

So, Kathy, what you're suggesting is that Radiohead are shit nowadays because they no longer play OK Computer & The Bends in their entirety? And The Cure are the superior band because Fat Bob, realising that he hasn't penned a decent new song in 15 years, plays ALL of "the hits" as compensation? Brilliant insight, cheers...

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Aug 2, 2012 5:01pm

I love Radiohead, but they should realise that they're playing a festival and the crowd expect / deserve certain things.

In other words, they shouldn't take the money of casual fans, and then play a set that's a big "fuck you" to those people.

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Aug 2, 2012 5:48pm

In reply to 5onthe5:

Perhaps. You could also apply that logic to, for example, Bob Dylan, who - like Radiohead - would definitely benefit from downsizing his British concert tours & essentially playing to the converted...

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Aug 2, 2012 7:36pm

In reply to 5onthe5:

I think you've hit the nail on the head. Musical taste, like all art, is obviously subjective. Sounds to me (i wasn't there) like Radiohead played the kind of gig they'd play on their tour and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. However, they might have kept in mind that which you mentioned.

By the way, caught the Cure years ago (probably 20 years now, ugh i'm old) and it just so happened they showed up on the back end of a 72 hour bender. They played (unplanned, mind you) Disintegration in it's entirety and walked off stage. One of the best shows i've ever seen (and Disintegration isn't my favorite Cure album) while my friend was angry 'cos they didn't play anyting off of their first 3 albums. What can you do? Can't please everyone but if that's your goal you end up with Coldplay or Maroon 5. No thanks.

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Aug 2, 2012 7:41pm

By the way, Mr. Perry, no disrespect but with your wealth of musical knowledge I'm rather confused by the fact that you seemed to be expecting something different from Radiohead.

It would be like attending a Pumpkins concert and expecting sing-alongs and smiles. Not gonna happen - Corgan and Yorke are far too dour (and proud of that, mind you) for such things.

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Mark T
Aug 2, 2012 7:54pm

Really? Still lamenting that they never play "Creep"? I'm sure I could list a fair number of bands that milked the Brave New Sound of the Early Nineties for much longer, only to drop off the face of the Earth once that style became passe.

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Aug 3, 2012 12:25am

In short, 'I was drunk during the Cure so I liked them more than I liked Radiohead, plus a load of wikipedia-ed shit about Spain and the Basque country'.

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Aug 3, 2012 2:23am

To be fair though, The Cure's set wasn't exactly a hit parade either. Four of the songs were from The Top and they played some more fan-centric tracks like Want instead of Mint Car. 15 songs out of 37 is the same as 7 or 8 songs out of Radiohead's 20. Off of Radiohead's greatest hits album, they played seven from the first disc alone, and that doesn't consider anything of the later stuff like Lotus Flower which would be recognizable to the crowd. This isn't really a "hits vs nonhits" discussion, purely which band worked better in a live setting.

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Aug 3, 2012 9:21am

Not a particularly objective article this, is it? Its fine to talk about who you prefer, but to characterise the entire crowd as of the same mindset is a little wonky.

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The Claytons
Aug 3, 2012 10:53am

Considering they remain the last truly outstanding band England has produced the moans about Radiohead refusing to become a walking jukebox like everyone else are rather tiresome.
How did we become so conservative?

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Aug 3, 2012 11:18am

It doesn't really matter whether either band played a set full of crowd pleasers or obscure B sides that only fans would know. What it comes down to is the songs - and, let's face it, in that respect The Cure piss all over Radiohead.

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Aug 3, 2012 11:43am

In reply to :

Have to agree with many comments: if you're expecting a band to appease the entire audience, you'll get something much more vanilla - like Coldplay. The Cure is great, no question about it, but I don't find them nearly as thrilling as RH... Few bands are.

They don't really have a greatest hits... The connection fans have with them is more personal...

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Aug 3, 2012 11:49am

In reply to Zelig:

RH makes music that goes places I would never expect it to go - which makes me question the value of my expectations (conservative sensibilities), and why I'd think I have the authority to judge what is good or not. How many bands do this - and transport you???

Again, RH is best on a personal level - not the communal. It's that connection that makes them meaningful to those who like their music... Clearly, not everyone does.

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Aug 3, 2012 5:39pm

I've spent 40 of my 40 years in Spain and I'd never heard that idiom about 'la inmortalidad del cangrejo'. But I also liked The Cure more than Radiohead.

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Aug 3, 2012 6:33pm

In reply to :

Radiohead are by far the best band and live band on the planet, have been since glasto 97 and they are still leading the world world of music kicking and screaming into new avenues. the cure are very dull, they should give up, we are all tired now.

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Aug 4, 2012 1:25am

radiohead are best cos The Cure havent wrote a good song since about 1990,while radiohead even on a subpar last LP still it had 2 or 3 great songs.but yer review is right.they can be boring live when they play there breakbeat tuneless numbers.myxamotoesisis just a downer.but im sure thom is used to getting his way .rock star egos

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Richard Chinchilla
Aug 4, 2012 1:33am

The Cure bring about a melancholic thunderstorm of memories for me when I hear them. I was not old enough to appreciate the music and now at 35 they serve as the marker for a time I wish I'd been able to go back to and live in and stay in forever.

Radiohead made incredible songs but the public made them flag bearers of the idealistic pretentious youth who where anti-every-fucking-thing.

They both defined a generation, a movement and a style. Which one would you rather relive had you'd been given a chance...?

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Aug 4, 2012 6:29am

The Cure, love them though I do, have not done anything relevant in years - hence their "greatest hits" show. Radiohead do not do "greatest hits" shows. They still make great records, and since they are touring for King of Limbs, they are playing a lot of more recent material that - and here's the rub - the average festival goer isn't going to be familiar with (!). This was not a Radiohead concert; it if were, everyone would be going crazy and having a great time, and I know this 'cause I was in the front row of one recently. Therefore, what have we learned here? Who wouldn't enjoy The Cure playing their greatest hits in concert? I certainly would. Radiohead is on tour for a current album - The Cure are not - and so it's not surprising the festival goers who are not serious Radiohead fans are not going to be going ape shit. Apples and oranges. No comparison.

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Aug 4, 2012 4:13pm

I hate to see that my two favorite bands ever are being lumped together. I don't want to say that The Cure is better or Radiohead rocks harder. But according to my musical ear, The Cure's influence is so evident in Radiohead's music. Take for instance, OK Computer was being compared to Disintegration, think about Climbing Up the Walls sounds like Disintegration or Fear of Ghosts??? Do you hear what I hear? Also the RH song Lurgee, it kinda reminds me of Primary. and their Kid A album (which is my favorite RH record) was kinda patterned after Faith. (well, just an opinion) And it's not ideal to compare them, i mean, they came from two different eras...80's and 90's, hello...

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emilio gracia
Aug 9, 2012 9:43pm

I saw both bands a few days later in lisbon. Radiohead are very, very good and making relevant new music. The cure have stopped doing that, apparently. But hey, they've been around since 1978, 15 odd years before radiohead did. 35 years... Radiohead have their masterpieces (ok computer, kid a) and all their records are amazing or close to that, the cure's discography is incredibly diverse and besides the PERFECT disintegration, they have kiss me, wish, head on the door, pornography, faith, 17 seconds, bloodflowers...and listen to 2004's 'THE CURE', a very interesting album, really. Their discography is incredibly diverse, probably more than any other contemporary band. They play a 'greatest hits' setlist...well, they have to rely on that these days, but 'just one kiss', 'want', 'same deep water as you' or 'hungry ghost' and 'sleep when i'm dead' (both from 2008) really don't fit that idea. Do you want to compare these bands and sets? Do it. But it's silly to want to reach the end of the article (very funny and well-written, btw) and reach a verdict. Thank god the cure and radiohead are not like the nme's oasis vs. blur joke. The cure are my favourite band ever and i like to see them made due justice. Radiohead are great, inspiring and challenging, like it or not. Let's call it a draw and appreciate the music, ok? Cheers.

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Aug 26, 2012 4:36am

In reply to :

I have no problem with groups reinventing their sound and exploring new avenues. Give that to me on new albums and songs that I can listen to in the car or at home. If I've paid £50 or £100 or whatever to attend a live event where I can see the band, then yes, they should be playing the greatest hits. Feel free to shoehorn in a couple of more obscure tracks/songs from your latest album after the populist opener, but after that anthems all the way please. I don't pay through the nose to see headliners play out self-indulgent sets, I pay to be part of a mass sing-along celebration of a band's greatness. We made these people hugely successful, can they not indulge us now? It saddens me that a band as intelligent as Radiohead are unable to grasp such a simple fact or are arrogant enough to try to dictate to their audience what they should be liking.

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Aug 29, 2012 6:55am

In reply to aaron.:

You need to check both bands discography. The Cure have been by far the more prolific band. They didn't stop making records in the 80's. If you don't like the more recent stuff, fair enough. But that doesn't mean they don't exist, they do. Radiohead haven't made a decent non-pretentious record in years. That's my opinion and it's also a fact!

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Sep 3, 2012 4:05am

there is a lack of deliberation here that highly suggests Mr. Perry knew exactly how this article would pan out before he went to either of these shows.

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Apr 23, 2013 3:28pm

Not a huge fan of either but i have seen the Cure and they are without a doubt the most boring concert experience on the planet. Their fans are also incredibly annoying, stupid posers.

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Michael G
Aug 19, 2014 5:23am

I'm not that familiar with Radiohead but they have a huge following.. Robert's voice much more powerful than Thom's.. Cure best band Ive ever seen but I'll always prefer the Disintegration line-up to the others.. Robert the best singer/songwriter/guitarist, Roger the perfect keyboardist, and Simon the most profound bassist.. Jason will perhaps never be quite as great as Boris but he's excellent & Reeves fjts the band much the same as Porl did.. Soo they're still the best band in the world IMO..

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