The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry: why this classic song wasn’t a hit first time

21 April 2021, 11:00

The legendary Cure song wasn’t as popular back in 1979 as it is now…

By Martin O'Gorman

Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Sit Down. There She Goes. Creep. All great songs. All chart failures the first time they were released… and chart successes the second time around.

Joining that illustrious list of tunes that didn’t quite make their mark on their initial outing is Boys Don’t Cry. Released in June 1979, it was the second single by The Cure, then just a post-punk trio from Crawley, West Sussex.

A fresh-faced Robert Smith performs live with The Cure at London's Lyceum on 1 July 1979
A fresh-faced Robert Smith performs live with The Cure at London's Lyceum on 1 July 1979. Picture: Gabor Scott/Redferns/Getty Images

Featuring Robert Smith on guitar and vocals, Michael Dempsey on bass and Lol Tolhurst on drums, the band were signed to the new label Fiction at the end of 1978 and were considered a hip young act that were set for big things.

“Pop was never a dirty word with the Cure,” Lol Tolhurst told Radio X of the original line-up’s attempt to make unusual punk-pop songs. “But our songs came from our lives, like our diary. A lot of things that happened in my life and in Robert’s life were very upsetting. So that’s what we wrote about. And I think that’s what artists should do. They should be a reflection of the times and the places that they live in. For The Cure, we tried to paint the pictures of our lives, musically.”

"I tried to laugh about it
Hiding the tears in my eyes
'Cause boys don't cry"

The “smiling on the outside” motif is a famous one in pop music - see Smokey Robinson’s Tears Of A Clown, John Lennon’s I’m A Loser or even The Killers’ classic Mr Brightside for similar variations on the theme - and Boys Don’t Cry reminded at least one music journalist at the time of The Beatles.

The Cure - Boys Don't Cry single artwork (original 1979 issue)
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry single artwork (original 1979 issue). Picture: Fiction Records/Press

Fiction boss Chris Parry and the label’s parent company Polydor were confident that Boys Don’t Cry would be a Top 10 hit. They were wrong - it didn’t even make the Top 75 on its release at the end of June 1979, despite a promo tour to plug the single and The Cure’s debut album Three Imaginary Boys.

"Boys Don’t Cry was my pick for the Top 10," Parry later explained in The Cure’s official biography Ten Imaginary Years. “It didn’t get there because Polydor stitched us up. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was a hit song and it should have been a hit. Robert was disappointed and he had a right to be. It was a farce.”

As well as not getting the support from their parent label, some reviewers claimed that while Boys Don’t Cry sounded amazing at live shows, it just hadn’t translated to vinyl effectively.

The song became a cult hit, played at indie and punk clubs, but the mainstream audience remained unaware of its charms. Even The Cure stopped playing it live after a while.

After the failure of Boys Don’t Cry, The Cure moved onto different line-up changes and deeper, darker music with the albums Seventeen Seconds and Faith. Tolhurst claims: “People have a strange impression of The Cure as po-faced Goths sitting in rooms, crying at each other with candles and bells, or something… and that’s not really us.

“We took what we did seriously, but we didn’t take ourselves that seriously. And I think that’s the key, because once you start to believe your own myth, you’re in danger.”

Luckily for The Cure, Robert Smith took the band on a different direction with singles like The Love Cats and Inbetween Days, balancing the fine line between quirky guitar pop and introspective, anthemic music.

The Cure - Boys Don't Cry single sleeve (1986 reissue)
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry single sleeve (1986 reissue). Picture: Fiction Records/Press

Following the success of their album The Head On The Door in 1985, Fiction decided to release a compilation of The Cure’s singles, titled Standing On A Beach. The collection was accompanied by a re-release of Boys Don’t Cry in April 1986, re-sung by Smith, whose voice had matured in the intervening seven years.

The release featured a video by director Tim Pope, who had been behind such memorable clips as those for The Love Cats and Close To Me and spawned the iconic shot of Robert Smith in silhouette. Taken by Andy Vella, the picture has adorned thousands of t-shirts and posters since.

This time, Boys Don’t Cry became a genuine hit! It made Number 22 in the UK singles charts, and even found success in Australia, Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands. Boys Don’t Cry was the name of a 1999 film starring Hilary Swank.

The song is now considered a classic and is the traditional end to most Cure live shows these days. Boys Don't Cry was, of course, the final song played when The Cure headlined Glastonbury in 2019.

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