British icons, The Cure‘s sixth studio album, 1985’s The Head on the Door, is their most pivotal opus to date. Primarily defined as an album that is one of The Cure’s most sugary, it bridged the gap between the early, overt gloom that the band espoused in their ‘Dark Trilogy’ of albums and the latter, stadium-filling juggernaut they would become.
Described at the time by Melody Maker as “a collection of pop songs”, retrospectively this seems a tad reductive. The Head on the Door is actually a much weightier album than it gets credit for. This is the brilliance of the album; inflicted with pop melodies, and taking homage to the diverse range of albums that influenced it, The Cure managed to create a realm entirely unique. It manages to be goth, pop, rock and disco at different points but is a unified package.
The album also marked the return of bassist Simon Gallup. Often referred to as the beating heart of The Cure, there is no surprise The Head on the Door, is a triumphant battle cry from the band. Underpinned by Gallup’s strong, unwavering bass lines, the album presents itself as a fully realised body of work, particularly when you compare it to the slightly thin, narcotic psychedelia of the band’s previous album, The Top. Whilst a brilliant album in its own right, The Top marks the end of The Cure’s first era.
In addition to Gallup returning from the cold, guitarist Porl Thompson, who played the guitar during the early days of the band, and had also played keys and the saxophone whilst touring for The Top, became an official member. It is also worth noting that Thompson was married to frontman Robert Smith’s sister. Drummer Boris Williams was also invited to join the band permanently. Thus, The Cure were ready to move into their next chapter.
In a sense, The Head on the Door, is a product of its time. During promotion for the album, Smith explained that it was largely inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope and the Human League’s Dare. In an effort to cast off the overtly gothic overtones of The Cure’s earlier material, Smith wanted the album to be a colourful mix of styles and moods. At one point, Smith explained: “It reminds me of the Kaleidoscope album, the idea of having lots of different sounding things, different colours”.
It is this experimentation with styles that affords The Head on the Door the respect it has cultivated over the years. It is an example for musicians to push themselves out of their comfort zones, as often it culminates in brilliance. Consequently, one would wager that this offering is actually The Cure at their most refined.
If we take a look at the songs that comprise The Head on the Door, you will also see that it features The Cure at some of their most memorable. One would also wager, that the album has more standout moments than its successors 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and 1989’s Disintegration.
At the time, Smith also revealed the other albums that had a hand in informing the band’s new sound. The synthy brilliance of Mirror Moves by the Psychedelic Furs, the new wave/power pop of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, the avant-pop of David Bowie’s Low and The Stranglers’ classic debut, Rattus Norvegicus. If you were to mix all of these influences into a cauldron and sprinkle in the flakes of Kaleidoscope’s hazy psychedelia and the intoxicating electronica of Dare, you would get The Head on the Door.
Lead single ‘Inbetween Days’ is a straight up and down indie-pop number. It features the pacey acoustic guitar and The Cure’s most iconic synth line. In a way, it sounds more like Power Corruption and Lies era New Order than The Cure. Regardless, as the album opener, it is just shy of three minutes of the band displaying that they had shed off the gothic mist of the past.
‘Kyoto Song’ is where you can certainly see the influence of Berlin-era David Bowie; with its sinister-sounding hook. It also represents somewhat of a sonic juxtaposition. It features that cold, industrial beat but also has the warmth of the sinister, psychedelic pop of Kaleidoscope. Smith also treats us to some of what would become his trademark falsetto.
Rhythmically and in composition, ‘The Blood’ is one of the album’s standouts and is actually a highlight of The Cure’s whole career. It builds on the acoustic style marked out on ‘Inbetween Days’ and features a pastiche of a flamenco guitar style. The rhythm is a sensual take on The Cure’s inherent goth and features that classic Robert Smith lyric “I am paralysed by the blood of Christ”, this could not be more fitting of Smith’s bright red lipstick. Furthermore, the guitar solo is one of the most unique moments The Cure have given us and sounds as if it should have been played by the Buena Vista Social Club rather than a pale bloke clad in black from Crawley.
‘Six Different Ways’ is also coloured by the unhinged pop oddity that David Bowie was the king of. Featuring stop and start rhythm, it is the most ’80s point on the album, and one could quite easily imagine it being a Kate Bush number. Ironically, when Smith was briefly in Siouxsie and the Banshees, the piano lick had actually been used for their 1984 single ‘Swimming Horses’. But, what is rock ‘n’ roll if not a series of give and takes?
‘Push’ is also a massively underrated number. It features the reverb-drenched guitar style that would be refined and made famous by the British shoegaze scene at the tail end of the ’80s moving into the ’90s. There are flecks of Ride and Chapterhouse in the guitar riff. Additionally, the way the piano compliments the guitars in the introduction is uncannily similar to Echo and the Bunnymen’s earlier style. This is a toe-tapping anthem that manages to blend the gothic with the uplifting to ethereal perfection.
The second single, ‘Close to Me’ is without a doubt one of the band’s best-beloved compositions. The iconic beat that kicks in, the bassline, the whispers that augment the beat, the unmistakable keyboard line and Smith’s vocals all build up to make an off-kilter yet cacophonous classic. Again, ‘Close to Me’ manages to blend goth and pop to brilliant effect. It is from a line in the song where the album gets its title.
‘Screw’ is also one of the most ’80s moments on the album. The bassline and industrial beat are so Human League. It features Smith’s campy vocals and builds up to a synth-driven crescendo. Furthermore, this is one of Gallup’s stand out moments of the bass. His bassline is incredibly gritty, providing an edge to what without it would have been a somewhat cheesy pop song.
Although The Head on the Door is and should be regarded as the band putting their earlier style to bed, closing track ‘Sinking’ is reminiscent of the band’s Faith era, their third album, which comprised one-third of their ‘Dark Trilogy’. It is an atmospheric, droning number that can perhaps be taken as an inference to where The Cure would find themselves on the hallucinogenic Disintegration at the end of the decade.
Whilst on the face of it, The Head on the Door seems like a poppy, hodge-podge of influences and songs, it is actually one of The Cure‘s most successful bodies of work. A captivating sonic journey, it takes the listener through many interesting and luscious soundscapes, and has, for the most part, stood the test of time. It is always worth a revisit.
Listen to ‘Blood’, below.