Killing An Arab

Album: Boys Don't Cry (1978)
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  • This song is about someone who has killed an Arab on a beach and is thinking about it in retrospect, observing the body.
  • This was inspired by Albert Camus' book The Stranger (also known as The Outsider). It is not a racist song, but still caused a lot of controversy because many people assumed so because of the title. The book deals with existentialism, and the title "Killing An Arab" was taken from a passage where the main character thinks about the emptiness of life after killing a man on a beach for reasons he can't explain.

    Camus published The Stranger in 1942. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1960 at age 46.
  • The Cure grew up in the rough-hewn town of Crawley, England, where their brooding lyrics and gothic look (make-up!) wasn't always welcome.

    This song came at a time when the National Front, a group whose rallying cry was "Keep England White," was on the rise. At some shows, disaffected youth associated with the group (often skinheads) showed up at Cure shows to sing along with a misinterpreted "Killing An Arab," only to learn that the group was about the introspective and sensitive side of punk rock ("Boys Don't Cry" was especially horrifying). The Cure took plenty of verbal abuse ("Poofs!"), but there were no major incidents of violence associated with the song, and during one show at The Nashville Room in London, The Cure won them over. "Soon all the skinheads were dancing to 'Boys Don't Cry,'" drummer Lol Tolhurst wrote in his 2016 memoir, Cured. "Robert looked around at me and grinned broadly."
  • This was the Cure's first single. They were signed to the German label Hansa when they first recorded the song, but the label wanted nothing to do with it. Instead of pivoting in a new musical direction to please Hansa, The Cure asked for their release, and in a savvy business move, also asked for the rights to "Killing An Arab" and other songs they recorded for the label. Hansa thought very little of these songs, so in the termination agreement they gave back rights to the songs.

    Now label-less, the band sent out copies of their demo tape, which contained "Killing An Arab," "Boys Don't Cry," "10:15 Saturday Night" and "It's Not You." The only interest came from Chris Parry, who was working at Polydor but was starting his own label, Fiction Records. The Cure agreed to sign with Fiction, and recorded new versions of "Killing An Arab" and "10:15 Saturday Night," which were released as a double A-side single, which was first distributed by the independent label Small Wonder and then issued on Fiction.

    Thus began a long and fruitful collaboration between Fiction Records and The Cure. The label gave the band a great deal of freedom which allowed them to break new ground in the alternative rock genre. Chris Parry produced their first single and their first album, Three Imaginary Boys, but then allowed Robert Smith to assume most of the production duties and take creative control of the band.
  • Predictably, this song led to protests from groups that didn't understand it. When The Cure played a show at Kingston Polytechnic in 1979, the student union told them not to play the song. Robert Smith worked it out by explaining the literary origins of the song to a group of students, and the song was included in the set.
  • In a Songfacts interview with Cure co-founder Lol Tolhurst, he said of this song, "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."
  • The title of The Cure singles collection Standing On A Beach is also a reference to the passage in Albert Camus' book where this song title came from. The 1986 compilation, also known as Staring At The Sea, exposed American audiences to The Cure's earlier work, and in turn revived the old controversy surrounding "Killing An Arab."

    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who claimed that racist deejays were using the single to stoke anti-Arab sentiment in the US, launched a campaign to pressure the record label to remove the track from the collection. Robert Smith refused, but he did agree to write a conciliatory message that was displayed on the album cover: "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."
  • In the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Robert Smith was in the hot seat once again over The Cure's seminal tune. "If there's one thing I would change, it's the title," he told Chart Attack in October 2001. "I wrote it when I was still in school and I had no idea that anyone would ever listen to it other than my immediate school friends.

    One of the themes of the song is that everyone's existence is pretty much the same. Everyone lives, everyone dies, our existences are the same. It's as far from a racist song as you can write. It seems though that no one can get past the title and that's incredibly frustrating.

    The fact is it's based on a book that's set in France and deals with the problems of the Algerians, so it was only geographical reasons why it was an Arab and not anyone else."
  • The Cure occasionally performed this under the alternate title "Killing Another" to avoid the inevitable misinterpretation of the song's meaning. During their 2011 Reflections Tour, they performed it as "Killing An Ahab," with lyrics inspired by Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.
  • As a companion to Standing On A Beach, The Cure released a collection of their music videos, including a new clip for this single (which previously didn't have a video). The black-and-white video captures John Button, the retired fisherman featured on the album cover, in moments of quiet contemplation on a winter's day. It was shot in Rye, a small coastal town in East Sussex, where Button lived.

Comments: 13

  • Michael N from Phoenix, ArizonaI remember the song from back in the day, saw them in Detroit, and did always wonder what it meant, but def an excellent band that should have been bigger actually, can see them as the main 80s band along with DM.
  • Chris from Germany Great song, groundbreaking and pioneering at that time. Of course the lyrics nowadays are not politically correct and misunderstood.
  • Anne from Sanilac County, MiThat first singles compilation, covering the period from Three Imaginary Boys through The Head on the Door, had 2 different names, depending on the format that you bought. The CD, the only one of those formats that is still in wide use, and the collection of videos were titled Staring at the Sea, while the vinyl LP and cassette versions were called Standing on a Beach, also from this song. LP version was shortest, containing a few less songs than the CD, while the cassette contained the same songs as the LP plus all of the B-sides from the standard singles.
  • Eli from Spring Lake, Ncactually shoshona, a jihad is not a holy war. Jihad simply means "struggle".
  • Jeff from Atlanta, GaSnatch.. this song was out for SOOOO long before any of the resulting dumb incidents took place. It was always a good song.. its a commentary on the people receiving it rather than the artist who wrote it..
  • Louise from Southport, EnglandSnatchworth you are basing that on today's atmosphere. In 1978 the attitude, particularly in England, was completely different and I don't think it was considered controversial at all.
  • Shoshona from Tennant Creek, Australiaby the way a fatwah is not a holy war sir ignorant. a fatwa is actually an arabic law. a jihad is a holy war. you use these words in the wrong context. it's so called in alaska. And Killing An Arab was re-released. no one i know listening to 'kissing an arab'.
  • Shoshona from Tennant Creek, Australiano no no. none of what you are saying matters. you miss the point. anyway killing an arab isn't excellent. it's stolen from camus. it's undeveloped and limp. you are all limp.
  • Jacob from Brussels, BelgiumWhen friends of mine took an airport taxi after landing in Cairo in 1983 it was playing on the radio.

    Jake, Brussels
  • Jenny from Hereford, EnglandUmm,the compilation is calling "StaRing At The Sea" ,not staRRing, one R.
  • Roger from Los Angeles, CaThe Cure puts a disclaimer on their Starring At The Sea album claiming this is not a racist song and is sorry if it offends anyone.
  • Vince from Florence, KyCovered by the Electric Hellfire Club on Cleopatra's Cure tribute record... significantly changing the implications of the song away from it's existentialist origins to an almost literal translation of the song title... complete with Jerky Boys' Tarbash voice samples.. "You do not treat my people like this!"
  • Snatchworth from Seattle, WaMaybe I'm being cynical, but I think Robert Smith knew full well that this song would be controversial because of the title. Like the old saying goes, "any publicity is good publicity".
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