Boys Do Cry: How The Cure Helped Mainstream Male Emotion
Simon Price on the Making and Legacy of One of the Band’s Most Beloved Songs
It’s a tried and tested ploy by small record labels who have acquired the rights to a chunk of the catalogue of a band with one big song to their name, to whack it all out on an album with that same big song as its title, for maximum marketability. And so, with minimum imagination, the first Cure album to be released in the USA, on the PVC label, was called Boys Don’t Cry.
It’s debatable, however, whether Boys Don’t Cry counts as an album at all, in the traditional sense. It’s essentially a cut-and-shut compilation of extended highlights from Three Imaginary Boys (which had not been released in America first time around) with non-album singles and B-sides.
The songs which survived from Three Imaginary Boys were “10.15 Saturday Night,” “Accuracy,” “Grinding Halt,” “Another Day,” “Object,” “Subway Song,” “Fire in Cairo” and “Three Imaginary Boys.” (Those omitted were “Foxy Lady,” “The Weedy Burton,” “So What” and “It’s Not You.”) And parachuted in from elsewhere were “Plastic Passion,” “Killing An Arab,” “World War” and of course “Boys Don’t Cry,” sitting in classic budget compilation style at the very top of Side 1.
In later years, when Elektra reissued Boys Don’t Cry on CD, some tinkering was done with the tracklisting. “Object,” of which Robert Smith is not a fan, was removed and replaced by “So What.” And Three Imaginary Boys outtake “World War,” which Robert deemed “a nonsense,” was also removed from most CD releases, “probably (possibly) because I hate it,” he told Cure News.
The album was released in the States on February 5, 1980. Its artwork, itself a blown-up detail from the Three Imaginary Boys sleeve, is a vaguely Pop Art approximation by Bill Smith of an Egyptian desert scene, with a pink pyramid rising above three green palms against a bright blue sky, as a reference to the song “Fire in Cairo.”
It eventually slipped out in the UK in the August of 1983, Robert’s craziest year, allowing newcomer fans of “The Walk” and “The Lovecats” to catch up on some of what they’d missed, but was drowned out somewhat by all the other Smith/Cure/Banshees activity at that time, though it did eventually go platinum (and also went gold in France).
Robert Christgau, originator of the “capsule review,” wrote about Boys Don’t Cry in his Consumer Guide column in Village Voice. Despite awarding it a B+, he sounded underwhelmed.
The sound is dry post-punk, never pretty but treated with a properly mnemonic pop overlay—I can look over the titles and recall a phrase from all but a few of these 13 songs. Intelligent phrases they are, too, yet somehow I find it hard to get really excited about them. What are we to think of a band whose best song is based on a novel by Albert Camus? Granted, I prefer “Killing An Arab” to The Stranger—the idea works better as a miniature—but that book defined middlebrow for me before I knew what middlebrow was, back when it was holy writ for collegiate existentialists. And the last thing we need is collegiate existentialist nostalgia.
In Rolling Stone, Debra Rae Cohen also highlighted The Cure’s adolescent literary pretensions, writing that the record “proves they can transcend their Comp. Lit. 201 (Elementary Angst) scenarios.”
Hindsight has been surprisingly kind to Boys Don’t Cry. Despite not really being an album, it has twice made it into Rolling Stone’s list of the four hundred greatest albums of all time. And, in his book Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco, Garry Mulholland drily called it “the ultimate in morose sixth-formers, intellectualising their inability to get laid” and “the most fun you can have without ever having a hope of taking your clothes off.”
It emerged in 1985 that the title track was Andrew Ridgeley from Wham!’s favorite song of all time. And if you think that piece of trivia was crudely bolted together with the rest of this entry, with no consideration for sequencing, now you know how Boys Don’t Cry was made.
Boys Don’t Cry (song)
“Toxic masculinity.” A widely understood phrase now, first coined by author Shepherd Bliss and developed via the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, but non-existent when The Cure wrote “Boys Don’t Cry.” The concept is that societally enforced masculine norms of behavior are damaging not just for people of other genders but for men themselves. A strand of toxic masculinity runs through a certain type of Englishness: stoicism in the face of emotional trauma, the “stiff upper lip.”
Lol Tolhurst, on the BBC Radio 4 series Soul Music, posited a direct connection between “Boys Don’t Cry” and the growth of a healthier attitude towards such matters. “The Cure are totally responsible in my mind for boys being able to get close to their emotions and feelings…As anyone who grew up in 1960s/1970s Britain knows, emotion was not really on the table. It was ‘stiff upper lip’ stuff…Most teenage boys in the seventies were repressed in lots of ways.”
Robert Smith, speaking to Rolling Stone in 2019, confirmed that this emotional repression was behind the song. “When I was growing up, there was peer pressure on you to conform to be a certain way. And as an English boy at the time, you’re encouraged not to show your emotion to any degree. And I couldn’t help but show my emotions when I was younger. I never found it awkward showing my emotions. I couldn’t really continue without showing my emotions; you’d have to be a pretty boring singer to do that. So I kind of made a big thing about it. I thought, ‘Well, it’s part of my nature to rail against being told not to do something.'”
The idea of social pressure to suppress tears was not new in pop. The Four Seasons, in 1962, gave it a feminine twist with “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” In 1975, the breathy female voice of Kathy Redfern on 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” urged singer Eric Stewart to “Be quiet, big boys don’t cry…” The Cure took that idea and, as Smith told Rolling Stone, railed against it. At the Reading Festival 1979, before a super-fast, double-speed rendition of “Boys Don’t Cry” (as if Lol was dying for a piss and wanted to get it over with), Robert pointedly dedicated the song to “all the macho men in the audience.” (He pronounced it “makko.”)
“Boys Don’t Cry” had been a weapon in The Cure’s armory for a long time. It was one of the four songs on the demo tape recorded at Chestnut Studios, paid for by Ric Gallup, that got them signed to Fiction by Chris Parry in 1978. They recorded it as part of their first Peel Session in December that year. And it is documented as the opener of their live set as early as February 9, 1979 at the Nashville Room in London, four months ahead of its single release. At that gig, a gang of skinheads turned up intent on violence, but their leader was pacified by “Boys Don’t Cry” and calmed everyone down, proof that The Cure’s music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.
An irresistible and instantly memorable piece of pop-punk, it was The Cure at their most Buzzcocksian (as Mat Snow of NME noted at the time), but the inspiration went back much further than that: Robert, in Cure News, called it “an attempt at a Sixties pop song.”
The song’s basic narrative—losing a girl by being a dick, living to regret it, desperately wanting her back—is not exactly uncommon in The Cure’s oeuvre, nor in popular music as a whole. But it’s the chorus—pitching Robert’s emotional vulnerability versus received ideas of masculinity—that really resonates.
The B-side, “Plastic Passion,” was based on the same chords as “A Night Like This” but sped up, and included the word “hyoscine” (also known as scopolamine or Devil’s Breath, a drug used for treating motion sickness), most likely a leftover from Lol’s chemistry studies. It started out, Robert told Cure News in 1991, “as a pastiche of early Roxy Music (‘Pyjamarama’-style).”
The single’s artwork featured young soldiers, fear in their eyes, marching off to war. The reverse, to depict “Plastic Passion,” featured an advertisement for a blow-up sex doll (“HELGA Never Says No!”). The runout grooves bore the inscriptions “But Bill does” on the A-side (a reference to Parry) and “From the land of a thousand microphones” on the B-side (referring to the number of mics needed to record Lol’s drums).
One press ad featured a Vietnam War soldier with the following text printed sideways:
Nowadays, terrorism is a plague happening all over the world. An elite troop, made of commandos, coming from the American army, is training to fight terrorists. The general commandant says “We will be there to kill.”
Another ad for the single, with accompanying tour dates, was published in NME and featured an action shot from a boxing match, with informative tickertape up the side:
Red Cross Boxing at the Empress Stadium, Earls Court…2nd round Kilrain retired with split eye…
Warfare and macho (makko) sporting pursuits: it all connected, somehow to the battered and bruised emotions of the song’s protagonist.
The single was warmly received by critics on its release in June 1979. Giovanni Dadomo of Record Mirror and Ian Birch of Melody Maker both compared it to the Beatles. Phil Sutcliffe in Sounds called it “their untypical Undertones manque single.” Even NME’s noted Curesceptic Paul Morley (see Desperate Journalist) wrote “This is magnificent,” and his colleague Jon Savage called it “a genuine find” when it appeared on Polydor’s 20 of Another Kind, Vol 2 compilation (“Killing An Arab” had appeared on Vol 1). Decades later Bob Stanley, in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah, called it “Palitoy Power Pop” (Palitoy being the manufacturer of tough-guy boys’ toy Action Man).
Despite all that critical goodwill, it failed to chart first time around. However, it was to receive a second chance. In 1986 The Cure needed a single to promote the Standing On A Beach compilation, and “Boys Don’t Cry” was given a “New Voice—New Mix” reboot.
There are various notable differences between the 1986 version and the original. On the newer version, the four-chord intro is strummed rhythmically rather than struck, filling the gaps. On the second and third choruses, there is no gap between the words “boys don’t cry” (as compared to the lagged “boys…don’t cry” on the original). At the end of the bridge, on the line “thought that you needed me more,” the word “more” is sung once and allowed to hang, given a bit of echo (as compared to the repeated “more-more-more” on the original). The drums are also slightly more prominent.
The 1986 12-inch is more complex than either of the 7-inch versions. It starts with just bass and drums for a few bars, before the guitar intro plays for a few further bars with added guitar embellishments, so that it’s almost ninety seconds before the vocals come in. The second verse is Robert’s voice and Lol’s drums only, then Lol’s drums on their own for a while then an echoey chorus, then just the guitar on its own, then the drum comes back in, then the “I would break down” verse, then a penultimate chorus, half of which is just Robert’s voice and guitar, then the bridge, then an instrumental section…until the song has become twice as long, but somehow manages to be half as satisfying.
Strangest of all, after going to all that effort, neither the 7-inch nor 12-inch edit of the 1986 version made it onto Standing On A Beach, the album it was intended to promote. For that album, the 1979 original was used intact. (In the US, “Let’s Go To Bed” was re-released to promote the album instead.)As long as toxic masculinity exists, “Boys Don’t Cry” will be there to help with the detox.
For the 1986 single’s B-sides, no new songs were written. Instead, they delved back into the archives for two songs as old as “Boys Don’t Cry” itself. One, on the 12-inch, was the daft disco folly “Do the Hansa” (see Hansa). The other, on the 7-inch, was “Pillbox Tales” (originally called “Listen”), which was recorded in 1979 for Hansa but thus far unreleased. The latter is not, as one might suspect, a drug song but a reference to the time Lol Tolhurst and his girlfriend Sarah snuck out for a midnight tryst in one of the hexagonal World War II machine gun emplacements, known as “pillboxes,” built across Britain in anticipation of German invasion, of which there remained dozens in the fields and woods north of Horley. (Pillbox Tales eventually became the title of a Belgian bootleg compilation of early rarities.) Robert, in a 1991 edition of Cure News, dismissed both B-sides as “a nonsense.”
A video, directed by Tim Pope, was made for the 1986 version. The Cure—the original trio, bassist Michael Dempsey having been brought back in for the day—appear in shadow form only, with glowing red eyes, behind a backdrop onto which “The Cure?” is briefly projected, with day-glo gloves popping up at random (in a possible call-back to the socks in “In Between Days.”) In front of the backdrop, three young boys perform the song. “We saw these three boys playing football in the school playing field,” Robert told Les Enfants du Rock, “and thought they looked remarkably like us at that age.” Another version of the story is that various kids were invited to a dance studio to audition, and asked to play drums. Lol picked someone to look like the younger him (“but he flattered himself”), and they each did the same. In any case, the three children make it a brilliantly effective video. Following their moment of fame, the boys often went to Cure shows and met the band. Only one of them subsequently pursued a career in showbusiness. Mark Heatley (the young Robert Smith) went on to star in the 1988 TV movie Infantile Disorders before leaving the acting industry for a successful career in IT, though he made a return to acting in 2020, voicing the character Mavic Chen in a CGI recreation of a lost episode of Doctor Who.
As well as the video, the single was promoted with a round of television appearances, including one in France with the band all wearing dresses (this, apparently, was Lol’s idea). And it became a hit at last, albeit a minor one. Chris Parry was convinced the original would reach the Top 10, but “It didn’t get there because Polydor stitched us up,” Robert Smith, promoting the new version, told The Hit magazine. “In a perfect world, that would have been No.1.” It reached No.22. (It made the Top 10 in Ireland, and also New Zealand, where it had already reached No.22 first time around.) Nevertheless, it proved to newcomers that The Cure always did have pop songs up their sleeve, before the hits came. It’s just that the world wasn’t listening yet.
“Boys Don’t Cry” has had a significant cultural afterlife. It’s one of The Cure’s most-covered songs, with versions by Scarlett Johansson, Miley Cyrus, Hell Is for Heroes, Reel Big Fish and Razorlight among others, plus a truly horrible breathy rendition by Grant Lee Phillips. In 2016 it was sung in a blind audition on the French version of The Voice by Antoine Galey. (He came third.)
The Cure themselves rarely leave it out of their setlist (it is their second most-played song, behind “A Forest”), and as well as the two single versions, recorded an acoustic take for MTV Unplugged. “Right,” said Robert with a wry twinkle in his eye, “this is the, um, definitive version of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’….”
The title has been repurposed many times, including a 2021 novel by Fiona Scarlett, a 2010 novel by Malorie Blackman, a 1999 film by Kimberly Peirce, and a magazine published by Frank Ocean in 2016 to accompany his album Blonde, which was released on his own label, also called Boys Don’t Cry. The song has been used in countless films, including The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Friends With Benefits. It has also been used, played backwards, as catwalk music at the end-of-year show at the Antwerp fashion academy. And in 2022 English singer Louis Dunford recorded a song supportive of male mental health issues called “Boys Do Cry.”
The song lived on as a touchstone of male sensitivity for the emo generation, and Robert Smith believes it has something to say in the context of LGBTQ+ culture. “I was singing [‘Boys Don’t Cry’] at Glastonbury,” he told Rolling Stone, “and I realized that it has a very contemporary resonance with all the rainbow stripes and stuff flying in the crowd….”
As long as toxic masculinity exists, “Boys Don’t Cry” will be there to help with the detox.
From Curepedia: An A-Z of the Cure by Simon Price. Copyright © 2023 by Scott Simon. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.