Psych album of the week: The Cure’s Join the Dots (2004)

Psychedelia is a key ingredient in their sound and a B-sides collection of “alternate” tracks is the perfect place to find some of the Cure’s trippiest stuff

Join-the-dots

Right: Robert Smith in 1985 (photo by Andwhatsnext, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

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Robert Smith sets the tone for the Cure’s B-sides compilation Join the Dots (B-Sides and Rarities 1978-2001) with a great quote in the liner notes:

The first thing I always did when I got a new single was flip it over and play the other side.  I always hoped the B-Side would give me another version of the artist, something as good as the A-Side but somehow different.  I expected great B-Sides from the artists I loved…

The idea of buying a 7-inch record with an A-side single and an often rare or otherwise unavailable B-side seems impossibly quaint these days. The idea of an artist showing different sides of their music in a format unconstrained by “an album” with its mandatory singles and sequencing concerns however, remains a valid one. Especially for an artist with a catalogue as deep as the U.K.’s most melancholy rockers. 

This hefty, 70-song, 4-CD box set fits the bill admirably. Presented chronologically, Disc 1 covers 1978-1987. Disc 2 handles 1987-1992 and Disc 3 1992-1996. By Disc 4, returns are diminishing but 1996-2001 does offer some nice surprises.

The Cure have long been associated with hedonistic practices. An early highlight: their introduction to amphetamines by Lemmy when Motörhead and the Cure appeared together at the Reading Festival in 1979.  Many of the group’s important albums were recorded with considerable assistance from various substances both legal and otherwise. Psychedelia is a key ingredient in their sound and a B-sides collection of “alternate” tracks is the perfect place to find some of the Cure’s trippiest stuff.

Disc 1

Disc 1 starts off with a B-side at least as famous as it’s A-Side. “10:15 Saturday Night” is a study in minimalism and was the perfect foil for the more in your face “Killing An Arab”. 

“I’m Cold”, which backed “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, is one of the first times the Cure used the studio as a tool rather than to merely capture them playing live. 

They seldom have guest musicians appearing on their material, but “I’m Cold” features backing vocals from none other than Siouxsie Sioux. 

Smith says “I wanted Siouxsie to sing on a Cure song because I admired what the Banshees were doing and I wanted them to be a part of the Cure story. I thought if we slowed the tape down to half speed, it might show another heavier, darker side of the band. I remember the night we did it, listening back at full volume in the control room at Morgan Studios thinking ‘Wow, this is so psychedelic.’”

Other highlights from this first period of the band include the druggy and grizzled “Splintered in Her Head”. This is from the “Charlotte Sometimes” single, recorded between the coke-fueled Faith album and the everything-under-the-sun-fueled Pornography. “Just One Kiss” and “The Upstairs Room” both appeared on the Japanese Whispers album but were technically B-sides. “Mr. Pink Eyes” describes Smith looking at himself in the mirror while in the studio, finding himself extremely worse for wear. “Throw Your Foot” and “Man Inside My Mouth” are gloriously upbeat and inspired. 

Disc 2

Disc 2 opens with “Why Can’t I Be You?” B-Side “A Japanese Dream”. This fan favourite is all tribal drums by Boris Williams and features one of the Cure’s finest bass lines, delivered by Simon Gallup with characteristic flair.  The main keyboard hook is pretty awesome too.

“To the Sky” is also from the same period and had only seen very limited release on a label compilation prior to Join the Dots. Full of longing and innocence, the track is just the type of rare gem a box set like this was made for. 

Disintegration-era tracks “Babble”, “Out of Mind” and “Fear of Ghosts” all show off a deranged state of mind. Smith had resumed use of LSD around this time and was notoriously lost in another dimension “…these B-sides do however show, I think, that some of the ‘attention’ is getting to me again…”. 

“Lovesong” B-side “2 Late” is one of the greatest pop songs the Cure never released as a single. Once again, it shows Smith’s knack for pairing popular A-sides with suitable “alternate” looks at the group.     

Three versions of the Cure covering “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors for an Elektra records compilation show up near the end of Disc 2. These include a previously unreleased, opium-paced ‘Psychedelic Mix’. The final highlight for the disc is “Harold & Joe”, the catchy, electronic-based B-side to the raging guitars of “Never Enough”.   

Disc 3

Disc 3 kicks off with the stunningly gorgeous “This Twilight Garden”. Smith says “I was trying to capture that feeling of late summer dusk, the colour of the sky, the smell of the grass, the sound of the last bird singing. I think it’s one of the best love songs we’ve ever done”. This 1992 B-side to Wish single “High” succeeds on all fronts. It’s one of the crown jewels of the set. 

“The Big Hand” and “A Foolish Arrangement” are two other Wish B-sides worthy of note. So is a neat remix of joyous album track “Doing the Unstuck”. This song was supposedly intended to be released as a single. In the end the moody “A Letter to Elise” was released instead.

Next up on the list of psychedelic covers are two versions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. One is a straight-forward full band version. The other, more interesting version comes from the Stone Free: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix album from 1993. This album was mostly a guitar-based record featuring the Jeff Becks and Slashes of the world. The Cure’s sample-heavy version provided excellent balance to all the guitar heroes (and was even selected as Track 1). 

1994’s The Crow feature film had great songs from Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, Pantera and many more. The Cure’s “Burn”, however, topped them all. It is a glorious, gothic romp that sonically revisits the Pornography-era. The movie studio had asked to use that 1983 album’s single “The Hanging Garden” in the film. Such was Smith’s regard for The Crow’s fictional world that he opted to create a new song just for the film. 

A real stinker

After “Burn” comes the first real stinker of the box. Recorded for an XFm radio compilation, the Cure’s version of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” has little to recommend it. Smith’s vocal performance is acceptable but the musical treatment the band came up with is flat and uninspired. Particularly offensive is the synthesizer patch conjured up to play what was a saxophone on the original. Listener beware.

1996’s uneven Wild Mood Swings gave us six B-sides and all are found here.  “It Used to Be Me”, “Adonais” (submitted but rejected for The Crow 2 soundtrack) and “A Pink Dream” should all have made the album. They are considerably stronger than several of the final WMS tracks. So much the better for this collection. 

Disc 4

After wrapping up the WMS era, Disc 4 mostly comprises alternate mixes and rarities. The band’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “World in My Eyes” is solid. Two tracks from 2000’s Bloodflowers sessions stand out, though.  “Possession” and “Coming Up” are both more electronic-based than the rest of the material from that time. It is therefore unsurprising they did not fit with the album. Both are ringers, though, and their tough grooves and mad production make them worth revisiting. 

The box set ends with an enjoyable but unessential version of one of the Cure’s greatest songs, “A Forest” from 1980’s Seventeen Seconds. It features production by Bowie alum Mark Plati. Bowie’s most excellently named sideman, Earl Slick, slathers the track with wild rock guitar.

Reaction to Join the Dots was generally that it was for obsessives only. The NME, however, allowed that “even the non A-side Cure is still worth 10 of most other bands” and “the cold crumbs many other songwriters offer look like a sick and sad joke in comparison.” 

A B-side collection may not be the best introduction to a band. On the other hand, anyone who has appreciated the Cure’s particular brand of quirky ennui will find the Join the Dots box set to be an embarrassment of riches. 

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