Clash Of The Titans: The Cure Vs Radiohead Live

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

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.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today