How Three Moody British Bands Became the Holy Trinity for L.A. Misfits
Fans at last year's annual Smiths/Morrissey convention, held at Avalon Hollywood
The power went out on the day of The Cure concert. It happened sometime in the afternoon, after I had picked out my outfit but before I had done my hair and makeup. The multistate blackout threatened to ruin the night that my friends and I had been anticipating for the bulk of the summer of 1996. With no light in the bathroom, I went outside and tried to apply eyeliner in my parents' driveway under scorching August sunlight, praying to the music gods that the concert didn't get canceled.
To get our tickets (back before you could order them online), I dialed in early and stalled the guy on the Ticketmaster phone line. He caught onto the game quickly but offered to put me on hold until the tickets went on sale, so long as I bought a magazine subscription. It was worth it. We were going to see The Cure at the Forum! This wasn't just about a night of music; it was about feeling a connection.
I refer to my three favorite bands as the Holy Trinity: The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode, listed in a rhythmic order rather than a ranked one. I turn to their music for solace in difficult times and for celebration in joyous ones. They are the three bands to which I have an almost devotional attachment.
When you find out that I'm L.A. born and raised, you might think, "Of course those are her favorite bands." We live in a city where "tribute" nights to the big three of classic alternative radio are so common that they've become cliché. There are conventions for The Smiths and Depeche Mode here (and yes, I've been to both) and Morrissey's birthday is practically a holy day, with services at Part Time Punks. Maybe, like mine, your Facebook feed lit up when The Cure played Hollywood Bowl last year, and again when everyone seemed to have a hot take on Depeche Mode's latest album, Spirit.
It's a strange phenomenon that three bands who aren't from L.A. have such diehard fan bases here. But on some levels, it makes perfect sense.
When you grow up in Los Angeles, your understanding of what everyone else thinks of this city starts to take shape as soon as you can turn on a television set. In the '80s, there were very specific visions of who Angelenos were. We were Valley girls and surfer boys with exaggerated accents. We were the rich kids gone wild, as depicted in the novels of Bret Easton Ellis. We were the hair metal bands and music video vixens.
But the L.A. that the world sees and the L.A. most of us grew up in are two different things. Somewhere on the eve of puberty, this disconnect takes hold and the only thing that can keep you from an overwhelming sense of alienation is music. At least, that was the case for me.
Depeche Mode came into my life first, sometime around Music for the Masses, courtesy of the daughter of my parents' friends. Next up was The Cure, soon followed by The Smiths. Maybe the only commonality between the bands was that none of them sounded like L.A. If there was any sunshine in their music, it peeked through rain clouds. The Cure and The Smiths sang about books. Depeche Mode tapped into politics, touching on topics such as capitalist greed and destruction of the environment.
At that time, the music most frequently associated with my hometown was glam metal and its vast catalog of songs about partying and getting laid. In contrast, bands like The Cure, The Smiths and Depeche Mode sounded like sensitive human beings. Theirs was music made for the L.A. kid who was about to get bullied at lunch. But, apparently, there were a lot of us out there ready to slip these bands' cassettes into our Walkmans before we went to go hide in the library.
There was nothing particularly obscure about these bands. You could float your dial over to 106.7 and hear them almost hourly on KROQ. When I got into them, Depeche Mode were about to play the Rose Bowl. (I didn't get to go.) A few years later, The Cure played the same venue. (I was at that show.) The Smiths were already history, but when Morrissey eventually hit L.A. solo, the fanaticism was in full effect. The fandom surrounding these bands could be intense, and sometimes even produced mini-riots, as at the 1990 Wherehouse signing for Depeche Mode and a 1991 UCLA show for Morrissey.
Morrissey in concert at Staples Center in 2013
But although these were absolutely huge artists, there was still something cultish about them. They might have been popular across the region, but in our own neighborhoods, that wasn't necessarily the case. Depending on where we lived and where we went to school, we might have been that weirdo who didn't listen to pop or metal, that kid that the others mocked.
The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode are all gateway bands. They're great on their own, but better because they lead you somewhere else. The Smiths led further into the U.K.'s indie bands of the '80s and the Britpop scene that developed in the '90s. The Cure were an introduction to goth. From there, you could segue into Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and a hell of a lot more. Depeche Mode took us into synth-pop and, for many of us, EBM and industrial music. That might explain parts of L.A.'s club world, too, where these otherwise distinct scenes often overlap. (As a DJ, I've long played both indie/Britpop nights and goth/industrial ones and often noticed a lot of the same people at the parties.)
In the neighborhoods where shitty public transportation and lack of a driver's license could make a young teen feel trapped, The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode were like lighthouses guiding the other weird kids in our vicinity toward us. We wore their T-shirts and scrawled their names on our binders. When we could get rides down to Melrose, or at least the local swap meet, we would pick up stickers to flatten onto our lunchbox-shaped handbags. It wasn't just a way of showing our love for the bands but of telling others, "Hey, if you're into these groups too, let's talk." Somehow, we would find each other.
L.A. is big and overwhelming, even for those of us who've never lived anywhere else. But we start to figure out where we need to go to find our people. We realize that we're not really misfits or outsiders. There are a lot of us.
Which brings us back to that Cure show in 1996 — which, after the blackout, did finally go on.
As my friends and I inched down the 405 from the Valley to Inglewood, somewhere near the top of the hill, I noticed the cars surrounding us. Their bumpers were covered in band stickers that read like KROQ's playlist before grunge took over the airwaves — The Cure and their equally dour British contemporaries. Music that we didn't hate poured through the windows. As we headed deeper into the Westside and closer to our destination, more of our brethren joined the traffic party.
I was 19, so this was far from my first concert; it wasn't even my first Cure show. I had already found my tribe. My companions were college friends, two girls from other parts of Southern California with whom I had bonded over music. We had already started going to clubs, where we were meeting other young people from across the city who were as seemingly strange as we were. But there on the 405, we found an even larger feeling of community. In the midst of that most mundane of L.A. experiences, a freeway traffic jam, I felt like I belonged here.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article described the 1990 Depeche Mode "riot" as taking place at Tower Records, when it in fact took place at a Wherehouse. We regret the error.]
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