It turns out 1984 was quite the year for albums. In looking back at this list, it’s clear now that as I came to the end of my Edinburgh years, my musical tastes opened up considerably, and I started buying albums by all sorts of people.
It would nevertheless have surprised the 1981 version of me to find a Cure album on this list. In my first year at university, and my first in Halls of Residence, my next door neighbour, a maths student who I might otherwise have had a lot in common with, basically played albums by Joy Division, the Psychedelic Furs and The Cure. Now, I’m absolutely certain he was driven to distraction by the relentless wailing and tortured guitar noises coming from my side of the wall, but at the same time, I developed an unhealthy dislike of what I considered the plodding and dreary post-punk noises coming my way.
As I’ve mentioned before, it took me years to actually appreciate Joy Division (and I heard some Psychedelic Furs the other day without flinching at all), but The Cure was a different story – I like to think they came to me as much as I came to them.
I think my biggest problem (and it wasn’t a particularly sophisticated theory) was that music should be in some way fun. I wasn’t able to hear any enjoyment in the early Cure albums (and, thanks to Alan next door, I knew them almost as well as the ones I played), and I couldn’t see the point of any of it. Which strikes me now as oddly incurious of me.
There are genres and styles of music I don’t appreciate as much as others, but I like to think that for much of my life, I’ve given everything a fair shake. There’s a certain attitude to music – something I think of as inauthentic or (thanks to Rush) dishonest – and that usually turns me off, no matter how much fun the people making it seem to be having. But everything else, I like to think, has its merits, even if I can’t always see it at the time. There was clearly a period, however, where I just didn’t try to like anything which didn’t fall within a narrow scope, and I know I missed out on a lot which I would only later come back to, shaking my head at my younger self.
But, like I say, The Cure came to me as well. The early albums, particularly Seventeen Seconds and Faith were all doomy soundscapes and sparse, unsettling lyrics, and I absolutely understand what they were doing and why they are so loved now, but it wasn’t until I heard the quirky and, as far as I could tell, uncharacteristic single The Lovecats that it occurred to me to go back and re-listen to a band I had already written off as ‘not my sort of thing’.
The Top came out the following spring, and I borrowed it from the seemingly inexhaustible supply at Airyhall Library (qv). It was one of the albums of the summer for me, although it’s perfectly possible for me to claim that I’ve never really heard it at all.
As I’ve mentioned several times, the standard practice with library albums was to borrow two (the other one I took out with this one was The Drum is Everything by Carmel, who turned out not to be The Next Big Thing after all, but is an album I recall fondly nevertheless) and record them onto either side of a C90 cassette – this one was on a BASF tape whose inlay card was originally bright orange, but which faded over the course of the summer to a sickly yellow colour.
It faded because it lived on the dashboard of the giant Transit van I spent my summers driving around. My summer job throughout my university years involved me delivering bits of sonar equipment around Aberdeen, often delivering or collecting from the various helicopter companies as the gear was shipped offshore, or sent back for maintenance; it was pretty well paid for a summer job, and – in the latter couple of years – allowed me to listen to a huge amount of music thanks to the cheap cassette player we bolted to the dashboard in an attempt to avoid overdosing on Radio 1.
I don’t know whose player it was, or exactly how it was powered – it wasn’t a particularly sophisticated customisation; I’m almost certain it involved a bar of scrap metal bent into shape and bolted to the top of the dashboard holding the poor defenceless player roughly in place. Did we run power directly from the battery? I don’t remember that, but I know it worked.
The company had two Transits and what I would now call a pickup truck – the pickup was luxurious, with a built-in cassette player, and was the sole preserve of the senior storeman; I remember driving it only once or twice, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as my beast of a Transit anyway. Of the two vans, everyone but me preferred the standard-sized one; it was more maneuverable, and had enough space for all the stuff we moved around. It was probably more comfortable and quieter, but I much preferred by beast – a long-wheelbase version with four wheels on the rear axle, which didn’t always quite fit into all the spaces I tried to squeeze it into, and had an unnerving habit of jumping out of first gear at inopportune moments.
But it had the cassette player, and that probably swung it for me. I’d take the Beast out even if the other two vehicles were available; even if I was driving across town in heavy traffic to pick up a packet of O-rings, because I could listen to my music as I drove.
I say listen – the Beast was not a quiet, contemplative place to listen to the subtleties of an album, it rattled and boomed, had no internal divider (unlike the smaller van, where you sat in a cab, you could enter the Beast by the rear doors and walk the length of it to take your seat up front), and the speaker on the cassette player was not exactly high fidelity. At the time, I also had a cassette of Prokofiev’s violin concertos which I listened to in there, and there are whole movements I was pretty much unaware of for years.
But I heard enough of The Top to know I liked it and it’s weird, psychedelic noises, and I discovered that I liked The Cure, although never enough to make me a full-on fan; enough for me to want to know more, and listen to other albums, and so on. Other than the first time I played it, in order to record it, however, I’m not entirely certain I’ve actually properly heard it, though.
It’s such a distinctive part of my life, and conjures up happy memories of barreling along the back roads between Bridge of Don and Dyce, cheerfully bullying people in Minis into the hedgerows as I careered past, reversing neatly into the cargo area at Bristow Helicopters and all the while singing along with an album whose words were a complete mystery to me. Perhaps I should actually find out what it sounds like.
As soon as I hear the laughter and distorted guitars at the beginning of Shake Dog Shake, I am transported back to the interior of the Beast. There’s a lot going on; the strange guitar tuning and distinctively post-punk bass sound, a lyric which is very dark and unsettling – it couldn’t be anyone but Robert Smith sing, yet unlike pry preconceived notions about this band, there’s nothing dull or plodding about this at all; it’s menacing, but still full of energy and life. Don’t think I’ve ever heard how it tails off at the end, though.
What I hear in Birdmad Girl is that The Cure and Aztec Camera are operating in the same songwriting space; just taking it in entirely different sonic directions. Where Roddy Frame is all bright, crisp chords and open spaces, this is dense and muddy – deliberately so. I remember the line about being a polar bear, and it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then, but it still makes me smile.
Wailing Wall is straight up Siouxsie and the Banshees in sound and construction – Smith was also in the Banshees around this time – and is definitely a song I know less well than the others – it lacks the dynamic range needed to cut through the din of the interior of a late 1970s Transit van, and I have only a vague impression of how it sounded. Now, I hear it as a kind of impressionist painting of a song – full of sonic influences and ideas of what being at the Wailing Wall actually sounds and feels like – you can almost taste the dust in the air. Oh, and some of the guitar sounds move from left to right and back again – I definitely didn’t know that before.
Give Me It, however, definitely cut through the noise. It’s strange to me that I know a song like this – the very definition of a Cure ‘deep cut’ – almost as well as I know the pop singles I was regularly exposed to from the radio. It’s a wild, noisy, angry, urgent mess of a song, but that’s what I loved about it then, and what stands out now. There’s no doubt that it comes from a dark place, and is as fearsome a picture of addiction and dissonance as you could ever hope to hear, but it’s also wildly alive and direct. It pulls no punches, and you can’t look away, nor should you.
Dressing Up features a very 1980s synthesised flute or pan pipe sound (I’m guessing the latter, but it’s definitely not generated by anyone blowing into anything). Some songs form this era haven’t survived to well – the limitations of the technology tend to make them sound thin or somehow ‘shiny’, but this works really well still – the warm bass tone helps, as does Smith’s indulgent vocal, and I’ll even forgive the little glissando at the end, which is only just the right side of cheesy.
Side two – although this was on a C90, so I never made the distinction – starts with the only really well-known song from this album – Caterpillar Girl was clearly designed to be Lovecats part two, and still has all of its irrepressible bounce and simple joy. It’s full of interesting sounds – the jagged violin part, the multiple percussion parts, the random piano runs, and the sweet background vocals – and now I hear how it’s mixed, I love it even more – there’s just so much going on under the melody. The bright pop sensibilities of this seem a long way from the mist and fog of the early albums, but there’s a clear through-line in Robert Smith’s voice, which never quite manages to be purely joyful; there’s always an undertone of something darker however much fun everyone else seems to be having.
And the ending is just perfect.
I’m not quite as enamoured of Piggy in the Mirror; it feels to me like Smith is almost parodying his own singing style. For the first time on this album, I feel like the whole thing could do with being sped up a touch. I like some of the sounds going on here (the pan pipes are back), but I don’t have much else to say, I’m afraid.
The Empty World, however, has a wonderful, sparse, military air, like a half-remembered nightmare set in the world of The Nutcracker. It features another of those pan pipe melodies, but this one sticks in the brain long after the song is done. Terrific drumming, too. Really like the soundscape of this one.
Around the time this album came out, I was also being exposed to the music of Tom Waits. They have nothing particularly in common, but the conflation of the Tom Waits album Swordfishtrombones and this song called Bananafishbones always gave me pause. This is perhaps the most psychedelic of the songs on here; I still have no idea what it’s about, but I love the weird bounciness of it.
I had one of those metal spinning tops as a child; I have no idea what happened to it, but the sound it made was pretty much exactly the sound which is stitched in to the beginning of The Top. I wonder now if I had ever clearly heard it before – I don’t think I was surprised by it, so perhaps there was something about it which stuck with me. This is the most Cure-like of the songs on here, and I feel sure that it was around this point that I finally got what my neighbour Alan had been so enthralled by: it’s a sparse sound, with plenty of room for the imagination to roam. There is a version of me, I think, which went to see The Cure in 1980 instead of Saxon; a version of me which still ended up pretty much here in my musical journey, but perhaps sees this album as not particularly enthralling compared to some others, while the version we’re stuck with in the real world loves this album for the way it helped me open the doors and start listening to everything going on around me, not just the stuff I thought I ought to like.
The Top ends with the top winding down and falling over, but for me it ended with the realisation that I’d missed a lot in the last three years, and I’d better get on with catching up.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Given how much I like this one, you probably shouldn’t consider me an expert on Cure albums, but I also like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration. There are others with even higher reputations which I simply don’t know as well as those, so there’s probably a lot you could catch up on if you felt so inclined.
Compilations to consider?
Standing on a Beach is my favourite, although it came out in 1986, so is missing a lot of later stuff, like Friday I’m in Love, which means you should probably try something later.
The album called Concert is contemporaneous with this album, and features some of these songs; later live albums tend not to feature any of these songs, but as I may have mentioned, I’m not a Cure expert.
For such an influential and popular band, there’s surprisingly little out there to read about them. The ‘official biography’ Ten imaginary Years is about 35 years old at this point, and still seems to be the definitive story. If there’s something out there I’ve missed, do let me know.