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‘Robert Smith isn’t people’s perceptions’: Stories behind classic photos of The Cure

As the Cure head out on tour across the UK, renowned photographer Tom Sheehan takes us on a trip through some classic pictures of the band.

Tom Sheehan has been taking photos of The Cure since the ’80s. Snatching moments on tour in dressing rooms around the world. Persuading the band to pose in major European cities. Capturing that intense connection Robert Smith has with the camera, and acting as a conduit to the readers of Melody Maker, NME, Sounds and Record Mirror.

Sheehan’s new book The Cure: Pictures of You is a visual record of one of the UK’s most influential bands. As The Cure head out on tour across the UK, Sheehan looks back on his decades of working with the band to share his memories and the behind-the-scenes stories of some of his favourite shots.

The first time I met Robert [Smith] and Lol [Tolhurst, the Cure’s former drummer] was at the Shepherds Bush Hilton in 1982. The Cure were supporting the Banshees, and Robert was also playing in the Banshees so he was a tired boy, I guess.

We were under the cosh because they were about to head off to soundcheck. So, my journalist colleague got about 20 minutes on tape. I got a few frames of them going through a revolving door going out of the hotel. When I look at those pictures, I see there’s a lot of humour going on.

On that half roll of film, the majority of them they’re larking about and Robert was smiling. It was a very comfortable entry into the world of The Cure. There’s that kind of rolling humour that The Cure have, which, luckily for me, I seem to have tapped into from our very first encounter. The perception of Robert at that time wasn’t a very happy guy. He isn’t what people’s perceptions of him are.

Prior to a band recording or doing a gig or whatever, there’s always a little bit of camaraderie. You’re setting things up and there might be a little bit of joshing going on, but the minute you start rolling, you’re working. I’m performing as much as they are. They’ve got to respond to me.

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Robert does have a reputation for being a control freak, but I think he hands over the baton to whoever is working with. He ain’t going to leap through hoops of fire, and it was never in my modus operandi to get pictures that made the turn look foolish. But I think he trusts people that he knows can do the job.

Robert Smith of the Cure in Bologna. Photo: Tom Sheehan
The Cure on tour: Robert Smith in Bologna. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Robert Smith enjoys the sculptures in Bologna: The Cure on tour in Italy, June 1984

This was on The Top tour. I joined them in Italy. They were quite a tight band. There’s always this thing when you join a band on tour, even if they know you a bit, you still feel like the outsider because you’re not part of the gang. Although you might be an honorary member for two or three days, you’re an outsider. It’s like you can’t argue with a married couple. It’s the same with any band, you know: they’ve got their own lingo, their own ways. You’re witnessing it, but you’re actually outside of it. And you’ll never be able to penetrate it.

That statue with a fountain is in Bologna, and it’s on a Sunday morning. The day before, the gig was great… but earlier on in the day, Robert had a dicky tummy. I think he’d eaten a dodgy prawn or something and he was laying on the on the dressing room floor, groaning in pain prior to soundcheck.

He recovered enough the next morning to go out. But it was a case of, let’s nail it. So that was just a quick once around the block and take some pictures. It was really fortuitous that there was some nice architecture around to utilise.

Lol Tolhurst and Robert Smith. Photo: Tom Sheehan
Lol Tolhurst and Robert Smith. Photo: Tom Sheehan

A cheeky moment with Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst: The Cure on tour in Italy, June 1984

I have a history of them doing stuff [for other photographers] and me walking in and taking over the studio. There was this really famous Italian photographer who was shooting them for a really high-end publication. This guy was set up and then he was done, and he was talking to his assistant. I just shifted the lights around a bit, and whacked off a couple of frames. That was on the hoof, you know? If something presents itself, you just go to go, there you go chaps. And bang, bang, bang. This picture is the one Lol used on the cover of the UK version of his biography, Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.

A dressing room portrait of Robert Smith. Photo: Tom Sheehan
A dressing room portrait. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Getting Robert out of bed: The Cure on tour in Brussels, November 1987

It was a Saturday night, they played some club in Brussels which I can’t recall. We’re in the dressing room and Robert’s sorting out his hair and all that stuff. I’ve just got a couple of plastic backgrounds on a wall and I’m just saying, “Robert, the blue one.” I’m getting them as they’re ready.

If they’re getting ready for a show, they don’t really want me in their in their hair as well. So I pinned up two backgrounds next to each other so I could switch, one to the other. Then the Melody Maker’s got a choice of colours.

Those pictures have quite clear lighting, they’re quite defined. Good for a cover, perhaps. But I was gagging for something in daylight. So, I said to Robert, can we meet tomorrow lunchtime? I get there at one or two o’clock, and the bugger’s still in bed. It was in November, and it was getting dark. So, I thought I better go from street level up to the roof. And then Robert turns up and it’s that classic kind of ‘Tommy, do I really have to be here?’ kinda look. This kind of weathered, aged, ‘is this totally necessary?’ look. I always remember it, because it doesn’t look as dark as it was getting… or maybe it was just my sheer panic.

Robert Smith of The Cure looks directly at the camera
Eye contact is vital to make a photo work on the newsstand. Photo: Tom Sheehan

‘Give us your eyes’: The Cure on tour in France, 1989

This was a swifty – dive in and dive out. You can’t take a photograph of The Cure in their fatigues. You can’t do it until he’s ready, in the sense of made up, ready to go. The eyes are on, the lips on, the hair’s done. If they if they’ve got a gig coming, I have to be quite economical with the time because they’re on stage in 30 minutes.

Robert is really good at connecting with the camera. He knows what’s required. It’s not like the [Melody] Maker was some sort of art magazine. You couldn’t have some enigmatic, looking-at-the-stars shot, because it’d be too dark and the ink would fuck up. A lot of time it had to be quite clean.

When Melody Maker, along with the NME and Sounds and Record Mirror, was sitting with a multitude of other magazines on the news stand at Tottenham Court Road when you come out of the tube station, you’ve got to be able to see those minces [mince pies, rhyming slang for eyes] on the other side of the road. Every time I’m working with a man, whoever I’m photographing, I say, give us your eyes. Unless you got eye contact, you can’t expect people to look at it the same way.

Sometimes when you look into the lens and look into their eyes, it is a bit of a staring competition. With Robert I think he’s always been confident. I mean, God knows what he thinks about in his own time, but when he’s working his confidence is great. He’s always appeared to be older than his years as well.

The Cure in front of Westbury White Horse. Photo: Tom Sheehan
A big day out to Westbury White Horse with the Cure. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Robert’s side hustle as a National Trust guide: The Cure in southwest England, 1995  

This was a great day out. The band were done in the southwest recording [the album Wild Mood Swings] in that actress’s house [Jane Seymour’s house, St Catherine’s Court in Somerset]. I came down when they’d been stuck in the studio for a couple of weeks, so I’m sure they wanted a distraction. In other words, taking the piss out of a mature lensman. So, off we went.

Robert was, and probably still is, a member of the National Trust. So he had it all worked out, where we’re were going. We got in a van and we just travelled around. We went to Cheddar Gorge and all round that area. Robert had made a few notes, so he’d be looking at the map, and saying, “Coming up is…”

The horse doesn’t have any hidden meaning. It’s just the British countryside. But I like to think it confused a lot of people overseas, in Japan or whatever.

The Cure at Westside Studios. Photo: Tom Sheehan
The Cure at Westside Studios. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Music icons: The Cure in Westside Studios, London, 2005

It was 2005, and The Cure were in Westside Studios recording. I was taking a picture of Robert with a copy of Bowie’s …Ziggy Stardust… for series of portraits on music icons and the records that inspired them. I said to him, “let’s get a couple of other portraits while we’re here”. There was this spiral staircase outside, so we headed there. Robert said to me “you’ll do better getting me from above…” and he was right. I like taking photos from above, you get a better line on people’s jaw. Their faces look better.

I think Robert worked out his relationship between him and the camera. I mean, he got his whole thing together, didn’t he? With the hair and the lips and the clobber. If you’ve got all that stuff around, you could confuse the viewer. So I’d always say, I still want the eyes. I want that contact.

The Cure: Pictures of You by Tom Sheehan, with a foreword by Robert Smith, is published November 3, 2022.

The Cure are on tour now, they play across the UK from December 2-13, thecure.com.

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