Hundreds of years before The Cure would become the flagship band for the UK’s post-punk and goth movement, ushering in an aesthetic and sonic blueprint that whole sub-genres would be built upon – the smeared lipstick and black leather, the icy chorus guitars and melancholic lyrics – classical composers were being commissioned to write and perform music. During the Baroque and Classical Period, composers would write in the venue their pieces would later be played within. In the early 1700s, Bach did much of his writing and playing in a church. Bach’s
preference towards the church as both his workspace and venue of choice was due to the acoustics. Unlike a larger gothic cathedral, which provides more reverberation and reflection, the smaller spacial dimensions of the church allowed for resonance without sacrificing articulation. The music Bach wrote for the church was written specifically for the church.
In the late 1700s, Mozart would be hired for a variety of private functions at his patrons’ palaces. The intimate venues, filled with bodies in elaborate ball gowns and court dresses, provided deadened acoustics in which all the details of Mozart’s intricate compositions could be heard. They also provided a space in which people could dance. In contrast to the rows of seats in auditoriums and symphonic halls, these open floor plans allowed for audiences to move about the room in unison with the music. Had Mozart been writing for musical exhibitions in churches and theaters, his compositions would’ve been vastly different; modulated to fit the environment in which they were performed.
In his 2012 book, How Music Works, Talking Heads lead singer, David Byrne, explores the interplay between music and environments: “Western music in the Middle Ages was performed in these stone-walled gothic cathedrals, and in architecturally similar monasteries and cloisters. The reverberation time in those spaces is very long—more than four seconds in most cases—so a note sung a few seconds ago hangs in the air and becomes part of the present sonic landscape. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed—a real sonic pileup. So what evolved, what sounds best in this kind of space, is modal in structure—often using very long notes. Slowly evolving melodies that eschew key changes work beautifully and reinforce the otherworldly ambiance. Not only does this kind of music work well acoustically, it helps establish what we have come to think of as a spiritual aura.”
With the advent of audio recording and the invention of the phonograph in 1877, music no longer had to be heard at a specific place in time. You could listen to it in your living room, and later on in your car, and as of recently, anywhere you are. But the intermingling of composition and environment continued despite musicians no longer having to contain their material to the space in which it was performed.
In the 1960s, boy-wonder producer Phil Spector would stake his signature sound on treating the recording studio like an instrument. This technique, dubbed “The Wall Of Sound,” would later be adopted by Brian Wilson for The Beach Boys’ late-sixties output, bringing about a whole new philosophy on both pop music and recording methodology. One only has to listen to the opening of “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes to know that Spector’s arrangement was informed by the environment in which it was recorded.
And this brings us to 1982, when The Cure was touring in support of their fourth album, Pornography (which coincidentally, NME referred to as “Phil Spector in hell”). Although the moody sonic landscape they’d sculpted throughout their discography was decidedly uncommercial, The Cure was nonetheless increasing in popularity; garnishing an international fanbase and positive reviews from major music outlets. “It’s downhill all the way, into ever- darkening shadows,” Adam Sweeting of Melody Maker wrote in his review of Pornography.
“Passing through chilly marbled archways to the final rendezvous with the cold comfort of the slab.” The success of the record snowballed into The Cure’s most extensive tour to date, and they would spend the rest of the year in some of the biggest venues they’d played up until that point. But transferring their atmospheric sound from the studio to the large capacity theaters proved to be difficult, and the musical complications bled into the band’s relationships. Behind the scenes, singer and guitarist, Robert Smith, and bassist, Simon Gallup, found themselves in a constant conflict, which climaxed in an infamous bar fight in Strasbourg: “I told him [Gallup] to shut up and he punched me,” Smith would later recall. “It was the first time he really laid into me, we had an enormous ruck and I said ‘That’s it,’ walked out, got a cab back to the hotel, got my suitcase, my passport from the tour manager’s room, and got on the first flight to London. That was at six-thirty am and I was home by half-past ten. I left a note saying I wasn’t coming back.”
Amidst escalating tensions and increasing problems with the live sound, The Cure would play The Hammersmith Odeon in London on May 1st, 1982. The set-list for the night included “Charlotte Sometimes,” a non-album single released in conjunction with their previous record, Faith (1981). Along with a handful of other songs, the band ran through “Charlotte Sometimes” at soundcheck, and someone had the sagacity to record it.
“Charlotte Sometimes” is a concentrated agglomeration of The Cure’s early years. Along with songs like “A Forest,” “M,” and “All Cats Are Grey,” “Charlotte Sometimes” is the apex of The Cure at their most morose and brooding. It’s brimming with nihilism, romance, sadness, and heartbreak all at once; the archetypal paradigm of all goth songs to follow. The recorded version, produced by Mike Hedges at Playground Studios in 1981, showcases the band in all their spooky glory. And while the studio version of “Charlotte Sometimes” is a classic in its own right, the bootleg live version from The Cure’s soundcheck at The Hammersmith Odeon could be considered the definitive version of the song. It’s a perfect concoction of composition and environment, adding an additional ghostly layer to an already haunting song. The lo-fi recording quality and cavernous reverb from the empty venue perfectly plays into the song’s eerie nature. It’s as if The Cure are performing to an audience of phantoms beneath the dim lights of an abandoned theater – is there a better way to hear The Cure than that?
Despite the imperfect mix and shifting levels, the soundcheck performance has a chilling oracular quality to it, as if “Charlotte Sometimes” was always meant to be played in the vacant Hammersmith Odeon, writing itself into existence so it could echo off the art-deco walls and bounce off the coved ceiling. Just as Bach composed his pieces for the acoustics of churches, and Spector arranged his songs to enhance the sound of the studio, it feels as though Robert Smith subconsciously wrote “Charlotte Sometimes” for this soundcheck performance; a quintessential example of sound and place coalescing. | e hehr