There was a time before America’s youth was even aware of Seattle’s existence. There was a time when the word “alternative” wasn’t just a marketing term. Alternative music wasn’t always a product of the post-1990 MTV marketing of anger prettily packaged in flannel. In the early ’80s, alternative music was music that was alternative to the mainstream, music that serenaded university students all over the world—college music played by college radio stations that wasn’t defined as “grunge”. There was a time when alternative music was defined as “The Cure”.
The Cure had been more than just a cult success by the time they released their sixth studio album The Head on the Door in 1985. They had achieved a notoriety that rarely accompanies their modest level of musical and popular success. They had yet to breakthrough commercially like U2, INXS and Depeche Mode had, but before most American high school students could even name a Cure song, they could still identify the Cure as what alternative music looked like. Kids who’d taken a weekend to visit older brothers and sisters at their college campuses, had decided that alternative music had long, teased hair, pale white skin, black-lined eyes and blood red lips. Alternative music might have sounded like U2, INXS and Depeche Mode but it looked like Robert Smith. With the release
The Head on the Door, the Cure became Masters of the Form whose music had finally caught up to its image.
The Head on the Door was an unexpected release from the Cure in 1985. Most fans thought the band was on the verge of breaking up. Robert Smith had spent most of 1983 touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees and releasing an album with the Glove, a side group formed with Banshee’s bassist Steve Severin. That same year saw the release of the successful pop confection “Lovecats”, but Smith’s next release with the Cure, 1984’s The Top did little to encourage the band’s fans. The album was a disparate collage of murky, dirge-like ideas that failed to coalesce into a collection of strong songs. Using The Top as exhibit A, it was easy to argue that the group’s best music was behind it and that the Cure was on its way to being a small footnote in musical history.
The most striking thing about 1985’s The Head on the Door though, is how big and accessible it sounds. This was not a murky album content to stare at the floor and be anybody’s definition of “depressed music”. Compared to the group’s earlier releases, the sound was massive. “In Between Days” doesn’t play from the speakers as much as it echoes through them like an anthem echoing through an empty arena during sound check. There is an echo to the drums and percussive strum of the acoustic guitar that, coupled with the soaring keyboards, makes the track’s opening a visceral experience, a breathless example of a band coming into its own.
The fact that the Cure was a band again played a large role in the album’s success. The Top had largely been a solo project with Smith writing the music and playing most of the parts himself. The Head on the Door was recorded as a full band effort and the presence of a band, particularly guitarist Porl Thompson, seemed to reenergize the concept of what the Cure could be. The Cure was a hungry musical animal, with twin guitar teeth it freely bared on tracks like “The Baby Screams” and “A Night Like This”, that were prepared to devour the musical world, and with The Head on the Door they left the sound of clubs and theaters behind for the large sound of arena rock.
Virtually every song on The Head on the Door is poppy, but this accessibility did nothing to make them sound like any of their contemporaries. “It tastes like nothing on Earth,” Smith sings on “Kyoto Song” and he may as well be singing about the Cure. The radio readiness of the album’s tracks seemed to crystallize it into a decisive musical work, but it was still wholly unique. The hooks were bigger, but they were still the Cure. So, the ear could be seduced by the Spanish guitar of “Blood” and the tongue could sing along with the chant “I am paralyzed” but the song’s catchiness doesn’t change the fact that complete line is “I am paralyzed by the blood of Christ”. “Push” carries on the Cure’s affection for extended guitar intros, but the fact that the song has no vocals for almost two and a half minutes does nothing to diminish its power. The song’s hook isn’t in the vocal at all. The hook is in the guitar; the vocals lend an already great “chorus” accompaniment and punctuation.
The album’s two strongest songs might be its two most overtly pop compositions. “Six Different Ways” is an incredibly underrated pop gem. The song is so sugary sweet that it’s almost difficult for a listener to decide exactly which part to hum along with. The piano bounces between the drums, the keyboards sparkle across the piano until the strings slide through the loops of all the other instruments and tie them together like a sash underneath the bow of Smith’s perfect vocal crackling into falsetto as it approaches the end of each line. The poppiest song on the album, “Close to You”, is also its most simple, a yearning love song that seems to be told from the vantage point of a lovesick Casio keyboard. The song is a few moments of pop magic from Masters of the Form who were finally in a position to create magic with regularity. In two years, the Cure would create more with the release of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.