On Wednesday, The Cure’s The Head on the Door turned 30. I decided to write a little about it, here’s part one. Ready?
And so, some 1400 words and a day later, I’m still not quite ready to begin talking about what I’m supposed to. The state of The Cure’s musical disarray is part of what makes The Head on the Door what it is, so sorry, not sorry, there’s a bit more background. I really can’t understate that the band had been making music for six years by 1985. And I only covered half of that time in the last post! It’s almost impossible to imagine doing the pressure that comes with doing the same thing over and over without much success for that long. Almost.
All that (mostly) less than stellar reception to his music really did do a number on Robert Smith. He was already depressed by his own admission when he was making Pornography in 1982, and the firing of bassist (and one-third of the band) Simon Gallup during the album-supporting tour that followed probably didn’t help his mood any. And to be absolutely sure, Pornography is bleak as bleak gets. But I’m not so sure that what Smith came up with is significantly less so. “Let’s Go To Bed”, “The Walk”, and “The Love Cats” are only considered happy because they belie Smith’s totally spot-on mockery of pop music at the time. Even the “happy” moments of The Top (the album’s lone single “The Caterpillar” takes half a minute to get there), The Glove’s Blue Sunshine (if that album even has a happy moment… maybe “Punish Me With Kisses”? Maybe?) and Smith’s biggest contribution to The Banshees are a mixed bag. All of Robert Smith’s musical projects post-1983 are apparent products of a “chemical vacation” at work. Years later, Smith himself said of his regimen to uh, keep his mind limber, in 1983-1984:
” It was kind of an experiment in disorientation which ended up as the Glove album. There was this unspoken idea that we should make the album while experimenting with as many different drugs as we could get our hands on. […] The Cure were living in a pub, an incredibly stupid thing to do, and recording in Reading while the Banshees were at Eel Pie studios in Richmond. So I’d finish with the Banshees, get in a cab to Reading, and the barman would leave the bar open for us because we were living there. I’d usually meet up with Lol Tolhurst and Andy Anderson, then Andy would make a big pot of magic mushroom tea before I’d start work on the next song for the Top album. “
This is why, so many years later, Pornagraphy is heralded as one of the omens of the Goth-rock movement: because it conveys, without a single murky detail, how miserable the band was when they made it. In contrast, The Top really doesn’t illustrate anything clearly, other than that Smith, now truly The Cure’s chief architect, was on a hell of a lot more drugs. When I called 1985 a make-or-break moment for The Cure, it wasn’t an exaggeration. While Smith may have only reluctantly experimented with the single format in 1983, as evidenced by his choice to only promote “The Caterpillar” from The Top, the music-listening public saw it as an unusually confident and aggressive chart campaign quashed by another challenging Cure album in 1984. The only thing holding back The Cure, it appeared, was Robert Smith himself. So in the last months of 1984, Smith, having reconciled with Simon Gallup, recorded a home demo of what would eventually become The Head on the Door‘s opening track and first single, “In Between Days”.
By February 1985, Smith had recruited Porl Thompson as a full time guitarist (while on tour in support of The Top), convinced former drummer Lol Tolhurst to switch over to keys exclusively, acquired a new drummer in Boris Williams of Thompson Twins, and was ready to take The Cure into the studio. These efforts left the band with 16 potential songs, all again written by Robert Smith; ten of which would comprise The Head on the Door‘s final tracklist. Two of the remaining sketches materialized in parts of album tracks “In Between Days”, “Close To Me”, and “Six Different Ways”. The remaining four completed songs, “The Exploding Boy”, “A Few Hours After This…”, “A Man Inside My Mouth”, and “Stop Dead” were released as B-sides, though apparently not without some hesitation. “The Exploding Boy” was among four songs previewed on the band’s sixth and final Peel session before the album’s release, and before launching “Stop Dead” for the third time live ever in October 2013, Robert Smith briskly remarked,
” Right, I still think this was a single. “
All of this would amount to The Cure prepping two proper album singles for remarkably, the first time in their career. “In Between Days” was released on July 15, ahead of the album’s drop date in late August, while “Close to Me” would follow two weeks after The Head on the Door. Later, in the U.S., Elektra would even wring a third, promotional single and video out of the album in the form of double A-side “A Night Like This” simply because audiences could not get enough of The Cure. Every song on The Head on the Door is just that good.
Skipping ahead to track two on the album, which is only permissible in this specific instance, “Kyoto Song” seems to find Smith catching a glimpse of himself for the first time during the chemical vacation of 1983. The song floats between the echoes of slow acoustic guitars and drums, working with lyrics about nightmares “of death in the pool” and “lying on the floor of the night before” to call to mind awakening in the haze of an opium den. But nothing in the actual city of Kyoto, that’s too concrete an idea to be realized in this space. The Top immediately becomes worthwhile for the reflection to it posed here alone.
Even though the two are consecutively listed and both share an acoustic guitar, which is far from the norm for The Cure, “The Blood” stands as possibly the strongest contrast to “Kyoto Song” on the record. Where “Kyoto Song” is content to fade away, “The Blood” is exhaustively burning itself out. Despite claims its paralysis, the song’s rattling castanets at you before you know it. And lest anyone think the reference to “The Blood of Christ” a strictly religious matter, it’s only vaguely more so than “Other Voices” off 1981’s Faith. “The Blood” however does dabble slightly with the idea of cultural transubstantiation. Smith’s inspiration for the song came from a specific kind of Portguese wine he’d grown fond of drinking: Porto Lágrima red, whose labels typically feature the image of Christ.
Even compared to what later Cure album singles like those from Disintegration would bring, the particular one-two of “In Between Days” and “Close to Me” is tough to beat. “In Between Days” is another single in the mold of the three from 1982-1983 in that it’s also ridiculously easy to misinterpret. With Williams introducing himself, the song and the album by providing a light but loud opening fill, Thompson and Gallup quickly establish an immediately prominent rhythm section that doesn’t grab attention as much as it suggests following a bouncing ball, and the airy synth melodies that follow swirl around simple rhymes that are perfectly innocuous from the distance of say, grocery store speakers. It’s the most innocent rumination of a collapsed love triangle this side of, well, “Bizarre Love Triangle”. And “Close to Me”, like “Boys Don’t Cry” before it, is a song that feels like Robert Smith nailed its every note, every pause, every breath, clap, and trumpet break down in his head well before he first committed it to tape. Its accompanying music video, which happens to be one of the most iconic of all time, serves as both a perfect compliment to the song.
All in the video: the then-recent now-iconic shock of Smith’s hair and smudged makeup, a take on the song’s title so literal its intimacy becomes claustrophobia, and perhaps most importantly, the band taking taking the piss out of themselves long before anyone else had the chance to, by miming the song’s quirkier instrumentation with a comb, bare hands, an impractically small keyboard and a rubber duck. Long has the debate raged among fans of the band as to the perfect Cure primer for non-listeners, and if it’s not The Head on the Door in its entirety, the “Close to Me” video alone is just about as good an introduction to The Cure that I can think of.
Some tracks on The Head on the Door, like its primary singles, seemed readymade for the nightclub floor. Others, like “The Baby Screams” and “Screw”, feel just as determined to get there eventually.“Screw”, the second-to-last song on the album and also its shortest, is a perfectly fine example of track that’s neither last nor least. It’s where the album’s spotlight is focused foremost on bassist Simon Gallup, whose bass opens and carries the rest of the song under a myriad of slinking synthesizers and vocal harmonies. “The Baby Screams” recycles its disturbing diction and hypnotic commitment to the groove from “The Walk” and “Close to Me” in almost equal measure. An imminently upbeat song that layers its guitars as well as its handclaps, “The Baby Screams” is made that much more danceable by merit of opening the album’s second side and being placed immediately before “Close to Me” in sequence. For three minutes and 44 seconds in 1985, The Cure managed to channel a 16th century dancing plague by way of New York’s Studio 54.
When The Head on the Door isn’t spending most of its ten tracks pushing The Cure into a very hard mainstream pop angle, the are moments that pull briefly back to and acknowledge the band’s past. The sugary sweet “Six Different Ways”, whose main piano part mutated out of one Smith worked on for Siouxsie & The Banshee’s “Swimming Horses”, is made a dark spot on the record only when knowing the loose association it has to its parent song. It’s kind of like retroactively reading Animal Farm discovering that the story really happened, but with Joseph Stalin instead of a few cutely named pigs. However, the aforementioned half-single “A Night Like This” sees the group reflexively back in touch with the despair felt on prior Cure albums.The lyrics, romantic in nearly every sense of the term, depict an internal struggle that teeters between wistful melancholy and insufferable desperation to the point of near-ambiguity (“And the smile, and the shake of your head/ and the smile, and the shake of your head”). Had the band finally collapsed following this record, still a very distinct possibility, “A Night Like This” would have certainly been their swan song. But thankfully Smith began a career of turning emotional trainwrecks into perfectly formed musical gems, a skill he’d have mastered by 1989’s Disintegration, with this song. He vocalizes every lyrical detail powerfully, with tinges of anger, guilt, and calmness when they’re needed, and the delivery never feels overstated. As a matter of fact, the song has one of the fullest arrangements on the album and no one on it feels displaced. From the gentle guide of the intro’s piano and rhythm guitar, to the harsh lead guitar that exists only to remind you of its enormity. Even the saxophone, more likely to be heard in a song by Men at Work or Huey Lewis & The News, sounds how only The Cure would play it here.
Giving pause to the album, side one and two closers “Push” and “Sinking” respectively, expand on the same greater idea of the album, albeit with different means. Further documenting The Head on the Door‘s lyrical themes of failed romance, the rushing “Push” showcases perhaps the best instrumental hooks Smith would ever write, all in one composition. The band is tight like no other song on the album, and I use the phrase “band” intentionally: Smith doesn’t even come into the song until slightly before the halfway mark. By experiencing the perfect realization of The Cure as a collaborative dynamic, “Push” emphasizes, for the listener and Smith alike, how important unison was to their continued survival. Similarly lyrically sparse but lush in all other regards, “Sinking” clocks in at 4:58, the longest runtime of any song on the album. True to its title, “Sinking” features each instrument echoing into the song one at a time as Smith contemplates slowly losing himself in the passage of time. Due to the length, I think Smith turns in his strongest performance on the album given what little lyrics he has to work with. Smith’s singing on “Sinking” ends abruptly, while the band continues playing, giving the illusion that he’s sunken in to his own music, “like everybody else.” That’s an unsteady, restless, and beautiful thought, and if The Cure had ended there forever, it would be a conclusion I could live with.
Obviously though, they didn’t. The Head on the Door became The Cure’s breakthrough, and set them up for further success throughout the rest of the decade. But it led to so many other things too. For a lot of Americans, myself included, it was the first exposure to The Cure. I can still distinctly remember time a Cure song: it was a short sample of “Close to Me” that played on a VH1 commercial in the early 2000’s. It was the first album in the whole wide “new wave” spectrum that clicked for me. If I trace it back far enough, it was my first stepping stone towards goth rock too. It’s an album that’s loaded with stories. Just listening to it again while I was trying to write this piece made me aware of how happy it makes me. It’s impossible for me to imagine a reality that forgot The Head on the Door and I don’t think anyone should ever have to try to.