Exploring the controversy surrounding the The Cure's performance of "A Forest" from Belgium’s Werchter Festival in 1981.
Doing the rounds on the internet is a bootleg short video of The Cure playing live called “A Forest (Fuck R.P. Version)”, a perturbed, young bandana clad Robert Smith gracing the thumbnail.
It leads to two questions.
First, why does this version run for over nine minutes, when the original on The Cure’s second album Seventeen Seconds (1980) and the 12” version both went for 5:55 minutes, and the 7” single version for 3:54?
Secondly, who is the infamous R.P.?
He was suave English singer Robert Palmer who in the 1980s had a run of soul-pop hits such as “Addicted To Love”, “Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)” and “Looking For Clues”.
With his dashing looks and designer suits, Palmer seemed like he’d just sashayed out of Vogue magazine.
The video for “Addicted To Love” summed up all that was glossy and vacuous about the 1980s.
It featured as his band: four female models, resembling clothing store mannequins, expressionless, white-shade-of-pale skin and jet-black hair.
The Cure and Robert Palmer Cross Paths
Palmer and The Cure crossed paths on July 5, 1981 at Belgium’s Werchter Festival.
After a local act, The Undertones, Toots and The Maytals and Elvis Costello followed.
At that time, The Cure – consisting of Robert Smith, Simon Gallup and Laurence Tolhurst – were yet to have a major breakthrough.
Seventeen Seconds had only charted in four countries – Australia (#39), Holland (#15), New Zealand (#9) and the UK (#20).
They were third on the Werchter bill, after Robert Palmer and Dire Straits.
Set Cut Short
When they were onstage playing their 15-song set, Palmer’s roadies told them to cut it short as the festival was running behind time.
Said Robert Smith:
“We’d only been on for about half an hour and everything was running late so Robert Palmer’s road crew started motioning to us to stop.
“This bloke ran on and said ‘If you don’t stop playing, we’re gonna pull the plug’.”
After “Play For Today”, a visibly seething Smith told the audience, “This is the final song because we’re not allowed to carry on anymore, ‘cos everybody wants to see Robert Palmer, I think.”
The Cure close with A Forest
They ripped into “A Forest”, deliberately stretching it out, much to the anger of Palmer’s crew.
At the end, Gallup yelled, “I hope you’re not arresting me. Fuck Robert Palmer! Fuck rock ‘n’ roll!”
Smith said “It was fucking brilliant. Unfortunately, when we finished, they threw all our stuff off the back of the stage …”
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It was fitting that “A Forest” was used as a middle finger by The Cure.
Wrapped around a story of a girl being chased through a forest (original title: “Into The Trees”) Smith described it as “a childhood dream (nightmare) that came true with adolescence.”
He had, as he revealed to Rockstar in 1984, gotten lost in the forest as a boy.
“I try to capture that feeling of extreme fear I was being taken by and how – maybe in other ways – this type of unpleasant feeling can still be felt by anyone.”
It was further inspired by a punch-up that Smith had with three businessmen in the elevator of their hotel after their show in Newcastle with Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1979.
His anger poured into the song when he started writing the tracks for the album in the basement of his family home in the regional town of Crawley.
He used a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and his sister’s Hammond organ which had a built-in drum machine.
The mood of “A Forest” saw it being used in TV shows as 13 Reasons Why (episode name: “Nobody’s Clean” – 2019), Westworld (“Dissonance Theory” – 2016) and Cold Case (“Offender” – 2007).
It was also in movies as The Nest (2020), Ventoux (2015), 205: Room Of Fear (2011), The History Boys (2006) and Play It Loud! (1981).
Pull The Plug
It wasn’t the only time that The Cure had been embroiled in controversy.
In 2014 when they headlined the BottleRock Festival in Napa Valley, California, they were given a two-and-a-half hour time slot.
But again time ran away from the festival, and as The Cure kicked into “Why Can’t I Be You?”, their 34th song of the show, organisers pulled the plug.
When they appeared on Australian TV show Countdown, they loosened their guitar strings to show they were definitely miming that performance.
Their Biggest Controversy
The biggest controversy was over “Killing An Arab”, which led to calls for bans on radio and concerts alleging it was racist and violent.
“I’m alive / I’m dead / I’m the stranger / killing an Arab,” went the chorus.
Smith repeatedly explained that he had written it when he was still at school and that it was inspired by Albert Camus’s novel L’Étranger (The Stranger).
The main character, mean and self-centered, was referred to throughout only as The Arab.
He was condemned to death for the murder of an Algerian man on a beach over a love dispute involving the victim’s sister.
After calls for its ban, Smith would change the lyrics in concerts, but played the original version at major concerts to wryly make a statement about artistic independence and faith in the values of their following.
Keen for more? Keep reading about The Cure’s “Top Twenty” Sound at Premier Guitar.