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Killing an Arab: The Cure try to reclaim their most controversial single

Can a song about murdering an Algerian ever be benign?

By Calum Bradshaw

“It should be a great gig – but they won’t play “Killing an Arab”” – this was the last text message my dad, at home, sent to me before my phone battery died in the sweltering heat of The Cure’s 40th anniversary celebration concert at London’s Hyde Park earlier this month.

My dad grew up on The Cure. He had the hair, the platforms, and the drainpipe jeans. He’s stuck with them through every sea change and slump. Against the grain of critical consensus, he reckons that “they’re at their best pre-“The Caterpillar”” – he’s a man who likes OG Cure, from “Boys Don’t Cry”, to “A Forest”, and the band’s first ever single, 1978’s “Killing an Arab”. If not for the inconvenient timing of his wedding anniversary, I’m sure Dad would have dusted off the Doc Martens and hopped on the train to the gig with me.

“Killing an Arab” is a short, spiky track with a colourful history. Written by frontman Robert Smith while he was still at school, it was released in 1978 with the B-side “10:15 Saturday Night”. Its main chorus line runs: “I’m alive / I’m dead / I’m the stranger / killing an Arab.” Its been called either racist or misunderstood in equal measure, and in Hyde Park – despite my dad’s convictions – The Cure played it.

The song draws its inspiration from the central action of Albert Camus’s novel L’Étranger (The Stranger), which follows a protagonist who murders an Algerian man on a beach after a love dispute involving the victim’s sister. This Arab, as he is continually referred to in the novel, is never named, and the protagonist, detached and unrepentant, is executed for his crime. The novel is an exploration of the nihilism and narcissism of its protagonist, and is held up as a crucial component of the 20th century canon. Sadly, few of the skinheads who turned out to early The Cure gigs had swotted up on their existentialist literature, and somewhat missed this memo.

Instead, racist interpretations saw Smith fighting a rearguard action over a song that, as he said in a 2001 interview with now defunct Canadian music magazine Chart Attack, he “had no idea that anyone would ever listen to… other than my immediate school friends”. When The Cure played at Kingston Polytechnic in 1979, they were asked not to include “Killing an Arab” in their set, over concerns of a racist message. It was widely dropped from radio playlists, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee asked for the song to be withdrawn from sale – it later reached a joint agreement with the band and copies of the singles collection Standing on a Beach were marketed with a sleeve sticker denouncing anti-Arab interpretations. The sticker read:

“The song Killing an Arab has absolutely no racist overtones whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence. The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feeling.”

For non-Camus reading, non-racist The Cure fans like my dad, the song was enjoyed without undue consideration. However, unlike my dad’s drainpipe jeans, the racist associations of “Killing an Arab” were not left behind in the 1980s. It saw an unfortunate upsurge in popularity during the First Gulf War, and again in the wake of the September 11th attacks. It was notably not included on the band’s Greatest Hits album, released in November 2001.

Obviously upset by the unwelcome following his work had attracted, The Cure co-founder Lol Tolhurst said in a 2016 interview that “it was about alienation and existentialism – things more relevant to us then. Obviously events of the last two decades have changed the perception of the song’s meaning. Totally erroneously I might add, as it has nothing to do with racism or killing at all.”

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

Smith once said that: “It’s just through the incredible stupidity of certain DJs that the whole thing ballooned into a controversy.” However, giving the track a cursory listen with no knowledge of its context does make you wonder how Smith ever believed it could escape negative attention.

Is Camus himself the problem? The Palestinian postcolonial theorist and literary critic Edward Said said of L’Étranger that “Camus’s narratives of resistance and existential confrontation, which had once seemed to be about withstanding or opposing both mortality and Nazism, can now be read as part of the debate about culture and imperialism”. Indeed, Camus was an outspoken opponent of Algerian independence, and none of the Arabs in L’Étranger are named or granted any real identity (although Camus’s daughter Catherine has long maintained that “he was no racist”). Entire books have been written on the colonialist subtexts of L’Étranger or the lack thereof; it’s far from a settled matter and too lengthy to get properly into here, but suffice to say that defending “Killing an Arab” as acceptable because it simply repeats Camus is not a silver bullet that makes this song’s issues go away.

Indeed, as Ellie M. Hisama, Professor of Music, Music Theory and Historical Musicology at Columbia University, notes in her excellent analysis of the song’s musical construction, Camus should perhaps be less prominent in our thoughts: “because the song is no passive vehicle for conveying Camus’s text (the lyrics portray events that are not in the novel, and the song’s musical setting adds another layer of structure), it requires scrutiny on its own terms as a musical interpretation of a scene from L’Étranger”. There is much to be said for the ways in which the chord progression of “Killing an Arab” suggests a growing closeness between the narrator and his victim, between the self and the other – a perspective not provided by the original Camus. The song ends with the narrator: “Staring at myself / Reflected in the eyes / Of the dead man on the beach.”

However, as Hisama concludes: “I doubt that a general listener would be able to discern the gradually shrinking space between the two forms of scale degree seven or its symbolism; rather, the main “message” gleaned from the song is more likely to be the line ‘Killing an Arab’, underscored by the drums.” This is the central problem – without examination and explanation, “Killing an Arab” appears to be exactly what it says on the sleeve. Provided with airtime without context, the surface-level message is a racist one.

Instead of attempting to “explaining Camus to a sea of utterly bemused faces”, as Smith put it last month, The Cure have in the past opted to change the song’s lyrics for live performance. There’s something quite apologetic in their 2005 performances of “Kissing an Arab” at a series of European festivals, 2006’s “Killing Another” was scarcely better, and the band took a detour through Moby Dick for 2011’s “Killing an Ahab”. Such attempts at revision have looked like concessions that, actually, there is something problematic about the song. 

This Hyde Park performance, with original lyrics intact, was therefore a bit of a surprise, not least the resurgence of the global far right. Should Smith et al. have just played it safe and kept “Killing an Arab” off their setlist?

The cheers from the legions of The Cure fans braving the midsummer heat certainly provided one answer to this question, but others are less sure. The London-based Libyan-born cultural journalist and blogger Nahla Al-Ageli argues that it is “wrong and terribly irresponsible to be singing about the killing of anyone”. The world, she says, has “moved on since Albert Camus”, and artists need to weigh up artistic licence and respect for others. “It is disturbing indeed that they chose to perform this song again in 2018 at a packed concert, dangerously playing on unfair and false stereotypes of what the ‘Arab’ is.”

Dr Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, though, sides with the band’s decision. She notes the song’s context is well-established, and fits a broader pattern of Seventies existentialism, such as The Doors’ song “Five to One”, in which they sing:  “No one gets out here alive.” According to Khatib: “Controversy in art is nothing new, and it is unfortunately not unusual for artists to find that their work is interpreted in ways unintended by its creators. Regarding this particular song as inciting hatred is political correctness gone mad.”

At the packed Hyde Park gig, The Cure put on a two-hour, 29-song marathon, heavy on fan favourites from 1989’s Disintegration album, and expected singalong hits “Friday I’m in Love” and “Never Enough”. 

The choice to close proceedings with an unaltered version of “Killing an Arab” was, if nothing else, a bold one. Maybe The Cure have had it with their critics. Maybe they’re trying to claw back their song from those who have co-opted it. Maybe they just wanted to prove my dad wrong. Either way, just after 10:15pm that Saturday night, with a broad smile and rapturously spread arms, Smith belted out a prodigal single that continues to divide. 

[See also: The best albums of 2022]

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