In Between Days: The Story of The Cure’s The Head on the Door, pt. 1 (1982- 1985)

I set a goal for myself last year, either around or on the album Disintegration‘s 25th anniversary, that I would write about The Head on the Door‘s 30th. I think I deemed myself unqualified to write Disintegration both because of how big an undertaking that would be and the sheer volume of people who have had, what is literally a lifetime to me, to write about that album. In any case, I was a little disappointed on Disintegration day last year, and I woke up and realized today’s the day. What follows here are my raw, unfiltered thoughts on The Head on the Door, which sits at such an odd level of popularity that I think I actually am qualified to talk about it. For a lot of people it doesn’t quite hit the same notes that Disintegration, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or even Pornography does. Which is a shame, The Head on the Door is still great, but once you start listing things past the “third-best”, you get into a really weird “who really cares?” limbo. To use Dylan as an example, it doesn’t really matter for a lot of folks how underrated John Wesley Harding or Desire are, or whether Christmas in The Heart is secretly the best or worst of the Christian albums, none of them touch Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61, or Blood on the Tracks. Point is, nobody, not even diehard Cure fans, will really go to bat over an artist’s fourth-most popular album. unless they are A. talking about Rubber Soul, or B. writing one of those 33 & 1/3 books (in which case, if it’s really that easy, hi!).

Credit: Derek Baird

History doesn’t remember anyone from the 2002 Winter Olympics Skeleton competition that wasn’t Jim Shea, Martin Rettl or Gregor Stähli and neither do I. Photo credit: Derek Baird

In any case, I think what’s most important about The Head on the Door is not the album’s survival 30 years later, it’s that The Cure survived up to 1985. It’s some small miracle that the ground stabilized beneath The Cure the way it did. Making the album really proved to be the band’s make-it-or-break-it opportunity, especially once you consider how thin Robert Smith had spread himself in the three years prior to that point.

After the music press at large considered The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography a flop, Smith, already devastated by the now legendary depression, drug abuse, and fighting within the group during the making of the album, dissolved The Cure to accept a position playing guitar full-time on tour with Siouxsie & The Banshees. When Siouxsie Sioux and drummer Budgie stepped out of the band to record as The Creatures in 1983, Banshees bassist Steven Severin and Smith, fueled mostly by speed and LSD, wrote and recorded as The Glove. Siouxsie could seemingly do no wrong at this point in time, with The Creatures lone single, a worthy take on jazz standard “Right Now” being almost universally hailed by critics in the U.K. as “keen”. Meanwhile, The Glove’s only album, the experimental, psychedelic-synth-pop collage that was Blue Sunshine, was, like Pornography, received with little fanfare on its initial release. When it came time to record the next Banshees album, a frustrated Smith unsurprisingly walked out of the initial sessions.

So by 1983, Smith had been double-sidetracked from The Cure for over a year with little to show for his efforts. For most of 1982 and 1983, the only members of The Cure were Robert Smith and drummer Lol Tolhurst, Smith’s most consistent collaborator since childhood, and the only new releases they recorded together in this time were three standalone singles. The first was the spry, poppy and sarcastic “Let’s Go To Bed”, cut in Pornography‘s aftermath late in 1982, one month after Smith spent a subsequent stint in detox. At the time of the single’s release, Smith lamented not making “Just One Kiss”, the single’s Pornography-evoking B-side, the lead, but something about “Let’s Go To Bed” resonated well enough with Smith to experiment further with non-album songs.

The early months of 1983 gave way to the electronic and disco baiting track “The Walk”, on which Smith had convinced Tolhurst to trade in his drums for synths while Smith traded in some of his mope for funk, but the song wouldn’t be released until shortly before The Glove’s Blue Sunshine album in the summer of 1983. Keeping in mind that The Cure had recorded enough material for two albums and three singles (plus B-sides) by the same time between 1981 and 1982, it began to seem like The Cure’s output had slowed to a grinding halt. Further complicating the matter was how distinctly different these two songs were from anything the band had released since 1980’s Seventeen Seconds, the point where gloom crept into The Cure. Sure, Smith was no stranger to pop music; after all, he began his commercial music career in 1979 with the release of “Boys Don’t Cry”, a pop song whose every hook Smith crafted so perfectly that it hardly changed after the first time he ever recorded it. But after Smith built a name for himself on the band’s increasingly dark and prolific output which came to a head with Pornography, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the same hand that wrote “Boys Don’t Cry” also wrote “Faith”, or that it was writing anything at all.

The final single came only after Smith returned to the studio with The Banshees following the unexpected success of “The Walk” (The Cure’s first top 20 hit), where he left his only real mark on that band by way of his arrangement of “Dear Prudence”. As Siouxsie Sioux demonstrated with The Creatures, anything she recorded afforded her to coast though the charts; whether or not Smith was playing in The Banshees was irrelevant: people loved Siouxsie records. Hearing both Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Creatures continuing to succeed without his contributions but with his producer of choice, Mike Hedges, Smith decided to pen a direct response to “Right Now”. The result, “The Love Cats”, was a single similarly tinged by jazz and Bowie-inspired pop (most were content to call it “New Wave” and leave it at that) and it was another left-turn success for The Cure, despite being hastily recorded. This led to the curious Top of the Pops broadcast below, where Smith mimed first “The Love Cats” with The Cure and then “Dear Prudence” with The Banshees on the same night.

The proper follow-up for Pornography came in 1984 as the album The Top. And while The Top still bore “The Cure” name, unlike 1982’s Pornography, the songwriting credits of which were shared collectively among the members of the band, Smith wrote nearly all of The Top‘s ten songs (with three exceptions, again co-written with Lol Tolhurst) and played nearly everything on it. Here’s the breakdown of the album’s four musicians: Lol Tolhurst played only keyboards, Andy Anderson, appropriately of The Glove, handled drums and percussion, future Cure guitarist Porl Thompson was credited with a sparse guest appearance for saxophone here, and Robert Smith provided vocals, bass guitar, guitar, keyboards, organ, violin, harmonica, and recorder. Among the most devout of Cure fans, this is why The Top sits at or near the bottom of comprehensive album ranking lists: the unhinged and unsteady sleep-deprived, acid-circus hallucinations that make up The Top feel much more like Robert Smith going solo than a proper Cure album.

So to recap, in the span of three years, The Cure went from a fairly standard and certainly efficient three-piece lineup, to a thin-but-slick, two-man hit single making operation, to what may have just as well been Robert Smith sitting in a furnished studio taking the brown acid. And rightly so! To Smith, it probably seemed like nobody even liked The Cure in 1982, so why bother? And no two people, least of all Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst, could even agree on what The Cure was, for that matter. But what was clear was that The Cure achieved their most success in The U.K. charts in five years at a time when they weren’t even really trying. Looking at the common elements between the three post-Pornography singles, three important things stand out:

  1. Robert Smith was coming into his own as both a musical and stylistic force to be reckoned with, but he needed someone to pull in the reins.
  2. The Cure were more than capable of reaching their opposite extreme, the delirious pop heights their contemporaries chased, just as well as they languished inward in their own despair, if they only would.
  3. For the first time in their entire career, The Cure was in a position to make just about any music they wanted: happy songs, sad songs, either, both, or none.
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