Radiohead, The Cure & Stone Roses: How Revived British Rock Bands Come to Terms With Nostalgia

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs in Paris
David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs at Le Zenith on May 23, 2016 in Paris.

On their current tour, The Cure are playing a new song called “It Can Never Be the Same.” It’s about intense romantic longing -- familiar territory for these emotionally forthcoming post-punk legends -- but the title also applies to the challenge facing frontman Robert Smith every time he lipsticks up and hits the stage. As a veteran rock band, how do you recreate the experience of what it was like to see you back in the day, before nostalgia became an engine of your appeal?

It’s a question facing two other era-defining British groups now back in action: The Stone Roses and Radiohead. All three acts are in unique positions -- now that they’re years beyond their most beloved work, each act is tasked with somehow approximating the spark that once made them so pivotal.

The Cure have a great strategy for this. Since launching the North American leg of their global trek on May 10, they’ve injected their sets with more than 70 different songs. In addition to “It Can Never Be the Same” and another new one titled “Step Into the Light,” the group has kept fans guessing with songs from throughout its 37-year career. These include spiky early cuts like “Primary,” seldom-heard gloomy sparklers from 1987’s Disintegration (“Closedown,” “Last Dance”), and even a bunch of tunes from their better-than-you-remember recent albums The Cure (2004) and 4:13 Dream (2008). “Screw,” a fuzzy, funky favorite from 1985’s The Head on the Door, is back in the fold for the first time in 30 years.

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It can’t possibly be the same as seeing The Cure on their 1982 Pornography tour -- when they were a dark, dagger-sharp goth-rock trio -- or even catching them in 2000. But this latest go-round is a chance to party with every iteration of the iconic band at once -- with a lineup that’s game for doing four encores a night. People who live and die by Smith’s music aren’t looking for a greatest-hits show, and they needn’t worry about getting one.

The Stone Roses face a very different set of expectations. When they head out next month for a handful of dates that will include one U.S. show (June 30 at Madison Square Garden), the Mancunian legends will focus on material from their 1989 self-titled debut: a universally loved collection of psychedelic jangle-pop that’s still lemon-meringue refreshing all these years later. Sure, they’ll air a few from 1994’s Second Coming -- the blasé blues-rocking sophomore dip that signaled their demise -- and likely try “All for One,” the brand-new big-up to community that marks the only new music they’ve released since reuniting in 2012. Mostly, though, fans will come to hear “I Wanna Be Adored,” “She Bangs the Drums,” and “Fools Gold,” the dance-rock hybrid that summed up the “Madchester” moment they’ll forever be linked to.

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The Roses are said to be working on a new album, and if they see it through, they’ll take the same chance as Blur, who commemorated their 2013 reunion by recording the The Magic Whip. The other option for the Roses is to make like Blur’s Britpop contemporaries Pulp, who opted against recording new material during their 2011-2013 reunion. There are pros and cons to both approaches. If The Magic Whip hadn’t been so strong, Blur might’ve suffered the same fate as American alt-rock pioneers The Pixies, who burned a whole lot of goodwill by making new music part of their ongoing second act.

For many veteran artists, it makes plenty of sense to rock the old jams and leave it at that. LCD Soundsystem are reportedly calling for $1 million per show to headline festivals this season, and now that Slash and Axl have buried the hatchet, Guns N’ Roses are able to command upward of $2.75 million per stadium show. (GNR reportedly snagged $8 million for Coachella.) Noel Gallagher recently said it would take £20 million for Oasis to reunite, and it’s not unthinkable they’ll one day get that if Liam ever gets on board. 

For their first tour in four years, Radiohead could’ve easily coasted from payday to payday without any new product. For as challenging as their music can be, there’s no shortage of fans who will follow them to the ends of the earth and beyond. (You know the first group to play outer space is going to be Radiohead.) But Thom Yorke and company are back with A Moon Shaped Pool, the excellent new album that’s featuring heavily in their sets. It’s not a paradigm-shifting big-statement record like OK Computer or Kid A, and as it turns out, that’s A-OK. The pervasive strings, gentle acoustic picking, and spastic sparkle found on these 11 songs play to all the group’s strengths without sounding derivative of the past. The world’s most anxious rock band sounds more comfortable than ever in its own skin.

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For Radiohead, the words “it can never be the same” have always been something of a mantra. They’re known for radical shifts from album to album -- evolution that sometimes takes the form of reinvention. Even if they’ve become -- gasp -- consistent and dependable, don’t expect a lot of grumbling from diehards on this latest tour. As Radiohead makes the rounds, interspersing Moon Shaped tunes with obscurities and fan favorites, the band will work its catalog like The Cure, enjoy rapturous responses like the Roses, and thrill the faithful like only they can. Some things don’t ever have to change.