A Is For ‘A Forest’: Simon Price On The Cure

In an exclusive extract from his forthcoming book 'Curepedia: An A-Z Of The Cure', Simon Price explores the band's classic 1980 single 'A Forest'

The following text is the opening chapter of Simon Price’s new book Curepedia: An A-Z of The Cure, which is published on 28 September by White Rabbit. You can preorder the book here.

A is for… A Forest

If you go down to the woods today…

From childhood onwards, the forest exerts a powerful hold over the Western imagination. It is a zone of mystery and menace, where ungovernable forces are freely at play. In Brothers Grimm fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, it is a place where terrible things happen to children. In Slavic mythology, the forest is the realm of Baba Yaga, the cannibalistic witch. In the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, the haunted forest – heralded by a sign reading ‘I’d Turn Back If I Were You’ – is where, in a disturbing scene, Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch’s winged monkey minions.

In New Jersey folklore, the Pine Barrens are home to a winged, hooved, wyvern-like entity called the Jersey Devil. ‘Pine Barrens’ is also the name of a classic Sopranos episode in which mobsters Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri find themselves lost in a snowy forest, convinced that they are being hunted by the man they came there to bury. In Robert Frost’s 1922 poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, the slowly whitening forest represents death (at least according to noted poetry analyst Meadow Soprano in another episode of that show).

There are counter-examples. In Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, the combined Parliament of Trees is a benign – though vengeful – power; an idea inspired by the sacred tree Yggdrasil from Norse myth. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the forest of Lothlórien is an earthly paradise. In A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Hundred Acre Wood is a mostly idyllic realm of fun and adventure. In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the Wood Between the Worlds is a magical place where the powers of the White Witch are weakened. In Snow White, the forest is ultimately a place of refuge from evil (even though, in an unsettling scene in Disney’s 1937 adaptation of the Grimm tale, the heroine is intimidated by owls and bats, and grabbed at by creepers, branches and roots.) In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, fugitive slave Sethe, heavily pregnant and near death, is rescued by a young white girl called Amy, a guardian angel figure who nurtures her back to health and delivers her baby.

But these are outliers. In horror and horror-adjacent film, the forest is chiefly a place where city folk have unspeakable violence inflicted upon them. In Deliverance, a man is raped at gunpoint by rednecks. In Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, a woman is literally raped by a tree.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest is a realm of deception and trickery where nothing is as it seems, and all manner of bizarre events occur, including Titania, queen of the fairies, having sex with a man with the head of a donkey.

In Dante’s Inferno, the journey to hell begins in a shadowy forest, the selva oscura, which serves as a metaphor for straying from the path of salvation. (Incidentally, Dante’s Inferno has been turned into a symphony by the American composer Robert W. Smith, who is just six months older than Crawley’s Robert Smith.)

Even in the popular 1930s children’s song ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, the minor chord beginning of each verse contains dire warnings that ‘you’d better go in disguise’, ‘you’d better not go alone’ and that (it’s) ‘safer to stay at home’.

All of this shared cultural memory plays into ‘A Forest’ by the Cure, and informed the listener’s understanding of it when they first pulled the record out of its sleeve – a creepy inverted black and white photo of woodland, taken from a low angle – and placed the needle into the groove.

‘A Forest’ is, in many ways, the definitive Cure song. As overused as the word has become, ‘A Forest’ is undeniably an iconic single. And Robert Smith had the generosity and foresight to give it a title which places it at the top of any alphabetical list of Cure singles (and, at least until 1992 B-side ‘A Foolish Arrangement’, of Cure songs), making it the perfect way to start this book.

Released on 28 March 1980, with ‘Another Journey by Train’ on the B-side (described by Robert as ‘a pisstake – a way of disassociating ourselves from the previous Cure sound’), and produced by Mike Hedges with Robert Smith, it was the lead single from their second album Seventeen Seconds, and took more time to record than any other song on that album. The effort more than paid off. Despite manager Chris Parry’s belief that ‘A Forest’ had the potential to become a hit if only it were more ‘radio friendly’, Smith stayed true to his own vision for the song, and it became a hit anyway, spending eight weeks on the British charts, peaking at No.31.

It’s uniquely important as the song with which the Cure found their direction; the beginning of their gothic rock phase. Smith, in haunted, dread-infused tones, recounts a tale of being lured ‘into the trees’ by a spectral apparition of a girl who, we learn in the denouement, ‘was never there’, leaving the singer ‘lost in a forest, all alone’.

On the full-length album version, Matthieu Hartley’s four ominous keyboard notes herald a recurring eight-note guitar motif from Smith, creating an atmospheric Am-C-F-Dm chord progression which, aside from the bridge, continues throughout the song. It’s underpinned by a bassline which, Simon Gallup has said, was influenced by the style of Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers and which, at the end, echoes Hartley’s four-note intro to provide a sense of closure and completion. Each instrument, especially Smith’s guitar, is flanged to within an inch of its life. Mike Hedges once estimated that five separate flanger effects were used on ‘A Forest’. And Lol Tolhurst’s drum pattern has an odd shuffle to its gait, as if the forest-dwelling entity that the song’s protagonist so fears has a limp, and is trailing one leg through the twigs and leaves, slouching, like W.B. Yeats’ rough beast, towards Bethlehem to be born. ‘This is a Cure trademark,’ Tolhurst tweeted during a Tim’s Twitter Listening Party about Seventeen Seconds, ‘the metronomic beat that is simultaneously rushing forward and standing still.’ He added ‘We were trying to get towards that motorik ideal of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit, “You must play monotonous”! I wanted the drums to be like a mantra.’

‘A Forest’ was the first time I ever heard the Cure – fleetingly, on a Sunday evening chart rundown on Radio 1 in the spring of 1980. In that, I wasn’t alone. ‘A Forest’ received more airplay than previous Cure singles, and by sneaking into the Top 40, and onto Top of the Pops, it was many British teenagers’ introduction to the band. (Teenagers who weren’t quite at the age for reading the NME or listening to John Peel under their bedsheets late at night.)

That Top of the Pops appearance (see TV, The Cure Appear On) was the band’s first sighting on British television, and only their second in all. The clip was cut together with footage of actual forests by director Dave Hiller to create the song’s basic and highly literal video.

Its live debut is likely to have been 17 November 1979 at the London School of Economics, the first official date of the Future Pastimes tour (following a warm-up in Liverpool), when they played eight new tracks. However, the show on 12 December 1979 at the Melkweg, Amsterdam (see Red Light District) is the first confirmed sighting of ‘A Forest’ on a setlist by Cure archivists, performed twice: once mid-set, and once as their final encore.

Arguably, the song wasn’t originally called ‘A Forest’. It had a slow and complex genesis in the public eye. As late as 8 December 1979, when the Cure played Théâtre de l’Empire in Paris for their first-ever television appearance on a show called Chorus, it is (mis)labelled in the on-screen captions as ‘At Night’, though its lyrics bear only the vaguest resemblance to the song ‘At Night’ which later appeared on Seventeen Seconds (besides the actual words ‘at night’) and none whatsoever to those of ‘A Forest’ as we know it. It consisted of curt, disjointed phrases (‘speed or sleep’, ‘crack down chest’), and barked solitary words (‘curl’, ‘sound’), as if improvised rather than written.

In the footage, Robert plays a more intricate guitar intro than on the minimalist recorded version of ‘A Forest’ (but one that he has often reprised in the live version since), Hartley’s keyboards are dirtier and more distorted, and Tolhurst’s drums are more traditional and four-to-the-floor.

One of the most enjoyable facets of ‘A Forest’ when performed live is its ever-expanding length. It’s almost become a running joke between band and audience. According to devoted fan Marion Little, ‘Fans love to count the number of times Robert says ‘again’ in ‘A Forest’. They are also always looking out for any extended version of ‘A Forest’ played.’ By the time of The Cure in Orange in 1987, it had reached nine minutes sixteen seconds. At the start of the Wish tour in 1992, on which it was the closing song most nights, it had expanded to fourteen minutes, with Robert singing the original lyrics (as opposed to the canonical ones). By the time they played the Kilburn National Ballroom on that tour it was seventeen minutes, according to a review in Cure News, and the rendition in the Long Beach Arena was said to have lasted twenty minutes (though that is possibly an exaggeration). The billowing outro was a long-standing feature by that point, as Simon Gallup recalled in Ten Imaginary Years. ‘‘A Forest’ was one that just used to go on… and on… The drums would stop, Robert would carry on playing guitar and I was never sure when he was gonna stop so I’d just carry on after him.’ Impatient crowds will often clap rhythmically during the song’s intro, increasing in speed, forcing the band to hold their nerve and start in their own sweet time. ‘A Forest’ is a song that must not be rushed.

Robert Smith performs ‘A Forest’ in 1980

On at least one occasion, the band have used the length of ‘A Forest’ as a tactical weapon. By the time the Cure took the stage at Belgium’s Rock Werchter festival in 1981, the day’s schedule was running late, and headliner Robert Palmer’s road crew attempted to force the Cure offstage after only thirty minutes. The Cure retaliated by closing with one of the most famous performances of ‘A Forest’ in the band’s history. A myth has grown up around Werchter that they played a fifteen-minute version to spite Palmer, but surviving footage shows that it was ‘only’ nine minutes long.

Robert, in a fetching white headband and heavy eyeliner, announces ‘This is the final song because we’re not allowed to play any more, because everybody wants to see Robert Palmer.’ His performance is one of defiant aggression. Just when it seems to be ending, it starts up again and Smith improvises some extra lyrics in the coda, including ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ from Romeo and Juliet and the self-aware words ‘It’s such a long end…’ Simon Gallup screams ‘Fuck Robert Palmer and fuck rock and roll!’ before storming off. Hilariously, they leave the Belgian crowd chanting ‘We want more!’. (Meanwhile, off camera, Palmer’s crew are getting their revenge by throwing the Cure’s equipment off the back of the stage.)

Its length isn’t the only form of mutation the song has undertaken. For example, at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1984, Robert appeared to forget the lyrics and improvised instead. And in the late 1990s, including at the Bizarre festival in 1998, the band played a much rockier, chunkier version with a straight 4/4 beat.

Then there are the remixes. Or, to be accurate, remakes. For the Mixed Up album, ‘A Forest’ had to be re-recorded for the ‘Tree Mix’, later released as a single in December 1990 (with the ‘Shiver Mix’ of ‘In Between Days’ on the B-side), because the original master tapes had been lost. And there’s the acoustic version, recorded for the extra disc of Greatest Hits, the track they chose to supply to Q magazine for its Essential Glastonbury covermount CD in 2004.

‘A Forest’ didn’t receive universal critical acclaim on its release. Reviewing the single for NME, Julie Burchill described Robert Smith as ‘trying to stretch a sketchy living out of moaning more meaningfully than man has ever moaned before.’

However, among fans and musical peers it is arguably the Cure’s most popular song. U2 chose the Cure’s original on a covermounted CD for Mojo magazine called U2 Jukebox in 2005. ‘A Forest’ came first in a Slicing Up Eyeballs poll to rank 225 Cure songs, with 2,984 votes (one place ahead of ‘Just Like Heaven’), and second in a similar poll by Rolling Stone.

‘A Forest’ is the Cure’s fifth most-covered song. It’s been recorded dozens of times, by everyone from London crusty-goth band Creaming Jesus on their Bark EP (1990) to a drum & bass version by Italian artist Madaski (1998) to German techno duo Blank & Jones (2003, with a new vocal by Robert Smith himself, who also appeared in the video) to Gigi D’Agostino’s electronic instrumental cover (2010) to prog rocker Steven Wilson (2010) to Paul Hartnoll from Orbital’s side project 8:58, with folk group the Unthanks on vocals (2015).

The band clearly remain proud of its quality. They’ve performed it live over a thousand times, making it the most-played song in their repertoire. But no amount of repetition can drain the song of its richness, nor the cultural associations it conjures. When Robert Smith sings ‘Running towards nothing/Again and again and again’, one hears distant echoes of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy which begins ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace…’ as the king awaits his defeat by the advancing forest of Malcolm’s forces disguised Birnam Wood).

The Cure are a band whose oeuvre invites overthinking, and ‘A Forest’ invites it more than most. Robert Smith once told Sounds that the song was about an actual childhood experience, and later told Cure News that it was ‘a childhood dream (nightmare) that came true with adolescence’, prompting all manner of speculation from fans. He later asserted in Stand and Deliver fanzine that the childhood experience story was made up.

‘It’s just about a forest…’

Curepedia: An A-Z Of The Cure by Simon Price is published on 28 September by White Rabbit

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