Psych album of the week: the Cure’s The Top (1984)

A powerful reminder that even a distracted Robert Smith is able to deliver more uncompromising and imaginative music than most

The Cure, The Top

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear.

Inspired by Salinger, Kafka, and magic-mushroom tea, The Top —a Robert Smith solo album in all but name—remains an enigma in the Cure’s catalogue. Its tone varies from spitting rage to flopping absurdity, and is always weird as hell.

Like most Cure albums, The Top is always hook-filled and benefits from imaginative keyboard arrangements, clanging electric guitars, and “hit ’em like you mean it” drums. It is also the only Cure album where all bass tracks are performed by Robert Smith, as their most recent bassist, Phil Thornalley, was busy working on Seven and the Ragged Tiger with Duran Duran, and stalwart Simon Gallup was still an album cycle away from returning.

Many fans consider it an underappreciated effort, but in truth it remains a transitional album schizophrenically bridging the gap between the Cure’s club and soft-seater phase and their soon-to-arrive arena and stadium period.

The Cure in 1984

The years 1983 and ’84 saw Smith releasing music and touring as a member of no less than three bands, between the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Glove, and the strain of spreading himself so thin convinced him to focus on the Cure more or less exclusively from then onward. Despite this, The Top remains an important part of their discography and is a powerful reminder that even a distracted Robert Smith is able to deliver more uncompromising and imaginative music than most.

Starting off with the amp-searing open tunings of the merciless “Shake Dog Shake”, Side A explores Israel with the droning fever dream of “Wailing Wall”, and looks in on Smith in green rooms around the globe in the concise and conflicted “Dressing Up”. The “dare you not to sing along” psych-folk of “The Caterpillar” is always a delight.

Side B is even weirder and less accessible, and the quirky “Piggy in the Mirror”, the martial echoes of “The Empty World”, and the J.D. Salinger–inspired “Bananafishbones” are all suitably addled and mysterious.

Standout tracks

“Shake Dog Shake”, “The Caterpillar”, “Piggy in the Mirror”, “Bananafishbones”.

Sonic psych-out

In the opening seconds of “Shake Dog Shake”, Smith’s demented laughter underpinned by a long metallic drum fill lets the listener know they are not in for an easy ride on this album.

Trippiest lyric

“I’ll tear your red hair by the roots and hold you blazing, hold you cherished in the dead electric light.” (“Shake Dog Shake”)

“Like the pig on the stairs, hanging in a groovy purple shirt.” (“Give Me It”)

“Dust my lemon lies with powder pink and sweet.” (“The Caterpillar”)

In their own words

“We’d work all night and arrive at the pub at 10:30 in the morning, have lunch, sleep in the afternoon, get up about 7:30, have a bar meal, drink sixty pints of beer, take some drugs, and then work all night again.” (Robert Smith)

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