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A Quick Fix: The Cure's Head On The Door Revisited
Ned Raggett , August 24th, 2015 07:12

Ned Raggett looks back three decades to when Robert Smith's newly formed quintet version of The Cure were poised for global recognition

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It only occurred to me in recent times that there’s something more than a little remarkable about The Cure’s The Head On The Door, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It’s short.

Then again it’s not that remarkable, really. Up until then every Cure album was about the same length as this one, two sides of vinyl, around forty minutes. The Head On The Door itself is around thirty-eight minutes. That’s not per se remarkable, until you think about the band’s career since then. Every album they’ve released since - singles compilations, remix collections, live releases, not to mention actual full studio albums - has been notably longer. Even the original Standing On A Beach: The Singles, released one year later in 1986, was longer, and then longer again thanks to both an expanded CD release and a cassette release that had a slew of B-sides making up the second half. The Cure have come to stand for packed to the brim efforts, and The Head On The Door was the last time you could talk about one of their albums in terms of briskness and brevity.

That isn’t to complain about what followed. (Not in the least: you will take my copy of Disintegration from me from my cold dead hands and one day, ONE DAY, Robert Smith will finally get around to authorizing those Mixed Up and Wish remasters, for a start.) As for what immediately followed in terms of a proper album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me put everything the band had done together up until that point, made it even more kaleidoscopic and had an actual American breakthrough into the Top 40 to boot. But The Head On The Door is almost what I might choose for someone who wanted to know ‘what’s a good Cure album to start with’, beyond a singles comp or a mixtape or a playlist (you’ll never seem to find someone saying what Cure song to start with, there are too many to choose from, in the best sense; if there’s a Cure song that accurately and absolutely sums them up...well, I wouldn’t know what to pick, would you?). Ten songs, just so.

It’s an album that feels like what it was - a full fresh start and raring to go. Not that they had suddenly returned, but ever since the band’s collapse in 1982 after the Pornography tour, what had occurred felt like a slow but sure reassembling amid Smith’s various stints and collaborations and production work elsewhere. First it was Smith and drummer-turned-keyboardist Lol Tolhurst getting down to brass tacks and coming up with an unexpected pop hit in 'Let’s Go To Bed', also their in-retrospect crucial start of their long-running video collaboration with Tim Pope, with subsequent singles continuing that path. Then it was The Top, almost a solo album in all but name, extreme and fraught at many points but also with a sweet confection in 'The Caterpillar', along with a full tour with a bigger line-up than ever that included album guest and now second guitarist Porl Thompson, who had originally been in the group in the Easy Cure days. Drummer Boris Williams was drafted in towards the tour’s end and after that Simon Gallup returned on bass - and all of a sudden, that was it, and everything seemed to click.

History of course showed that this was still temporary as within a few years Tolhurst was out, Roger O’Donnell was in and out again for one of his irregular stints with the group, and by 1990 Perry Bamonte was on board, and things progressed from there. But the conception of the group growing out of The Top tour as a quintet or at least as something expanded was solidified, something that arguably reflected both the wider range of music Smith and his cohorts were creating and their own increasing success. Less the defunct Jam, despite the Chris Parry connection, and more Depeche Mode or even Iron Maiden - an increasingly entrenched, stalwart UK act that racked up US pop hits to the consternation of those who couldn’t imagine it, with an already memorable backstory and back catalogue, an obsessed and easily identifiable fanbase and a willingness to tour America and Europe that was producing bigger dividends the more they hit the road. Little surprise all three acts still thrive to this day, on their own respective terms.

That said, much like The Top, The Head On The Door has the feeling of a solo effort in that Smith holds all the music credits, something that wouldn’t recur. But unlike The Top’s near total isolation and inward drama, The Head On The Door looks outward and brims with confidence, not least in the respective choices of opening songs - no 'Shake Dog Shake' and wailing anger, instead, New Order. Well, not really, but 'In Between Days' may be as famous for a bit of Peter Hook-style bass as for its video of dancing socks, swinging camera and black-light makeup. Above all else, it’s just a good song, sprightly, immediate, contrasting with the lyrical sentiments about feeling old and a love triangle’s aftermath with rushed acoustic guitar, musical hooks for days and a simple but perfect keyboard part that was the cherry on the cake. It feels like summer, a ruinous summer perhaps of mixed weather and mixed emotions, but summer nonetheless. All that and it starts with a perfect drum fill by Williams, who as the one truly new member was at once the wild card and the secret weapon for the next seven years; The Head On The Door is as much his introductory showcase as anything else.

From there the album takes its turns, feeling like a stage show, balancing the opening giddiness with the slow, elegant descent of the closing 'Sinking', turning the distanced, lost feeling of Faith’s 'The Drowning Man'’s harrowing personal apocalypse into a lush, murmuring sigh with an especially beautiful break, the longest song on the album at five minutes and still short compared to a number of songs they’d done previously. And quite literally in between, eight further songs of moods and shifts. Some of which seemed weightier than they are - 'The Blood', as in “I am paralysed by the blood of Christ”, sure seems like a sudden turn for a band not exactly known for religious belief, but when Smith explained in interviews he was referring to a Portuguese red called Porto Lagrima, referring to Christ’s tears, then both the hints of flamenco and the reeling stop-start feeling of the song make perfect sense.

Other hints of their increasing worldliness in a literal sense crop up elsewhere - 'Kyoto Song' doesn’t explicitly discuss the Japanese city but the arrangement hints, at least in a general fashion, of a performance on a stringed instrument like the koto mashed up with a contemporary Cocteau Twins arrangement, all while Smith sings a lyric about a disturbed sleep and vivid, almost visceral dream imagery. It’s also another point where his lightly treated vocals don’t quite sound the same as before or after on the album - there’s a lot of understated vocal experimentation from Smith throughout this album, either in his delivery or how his vocals are treated, a further expansion of his previous ranges (compare him here with how he was just six years previously on Three Imaginary Boys and you can sense both the confidence and, quite literally, how he had grown up).

His commanding sweep on 'The Baby Screams', a dramatic flow of a song in the vein of 'The Walk' accentuated by both relentless electronic pulses and ghostly piano parts, differs again from his up-and-down lope on the staccato and idiosyncratic 'Six Different Ways' - a song that seems like it’s going to live up its name within the opening thirty seconds before settling into its own engaging groove. The soaring 'Push', featuring a beautiful descending lead guitar melody that Smith only joins in on halfway through the song and then takes an echoed spotlight turn over, is much different again from the taut, almost crabbed punch of 'Screw', Gallup’s distorted bass a tortured thing that Smith almost seems to mockingly breeze past as keyboards bubble in his wake. In all these cases too, it’s not just Smith for all that he wrote everything - there’s something about sensing the quintet at work, Smith primus inter pares in the end, throughout the album. Everyone seems to have at least one sudden standout moment per song, just the right hit; hitting the unexpected money note. Credit David Allen’s production as well, the first of several such collaborations he did with the band; here still some years away from the near cinematic sweep of Disintegration he’s already shown the facility in many modes that would flower even further on Kiss Me.

And then there’s the other singles. The other day, writer Douglas Wolk said on Twitter, “JUST realized that the album version of "Close to Me" does not include the brass-band part at the end. WHAT WERE THEY THINKINNNNNG.” It is a little weird not to hear that extra explosion of horns at the end and at points throughout the song - so popular and memorable was that single remix - but even in its original form, 'Close To Me' is a perfect little delight, as minimal a pop song as the band had done at that point, but almost literally so. It’s almost all Williams and Gallup’s rhythm section, the latter’s part a ridiculously catchy moment in its own right, punctuating handclaps and another twinkly little keyboard melody or two, Smith singing both lead and a little backing rhythm of his own, a breathless winsome anticipation with just a bit of raw desire via sighs and slurps. It might almost be their purest synth-pop song as such, and it’s not too hard to hear a later indie-rock take on that, from the Magnetic Fields to the Postal Service and more, getting some inspiration here. Not for nothing did Tim Pope pull another visual rabbit out of his hat for this one, taking both the intimate feeling and the titular image to present a setting purportedly showing the group stuffed in a wardrobe on a cliff, then going over the edge in said wardrobe and apparently drowning, all while still playing as best they could on such things as combs.

Meanwhile, 'A Night Like This' wasn’t a formally issued single per se, but it too got the Tim Pope video treatment - and it’s one of his most straightforward efforts, perhaps suiting the song itself. There’s nothing quirky, goofy or the like about it, and on an album where there’s a lot of space in the arrangements, just a little silence and restraint letting all the instruments lock in around each other, 'A Night Like This' is one of the fullest sounding numbers, sweeping and strong while retaining a mournful undertow, guest saxophone by Ron Howe making for a perfect extra touch, something seemingly very eighties but much removed from the oily associations that instrument had often gathered by that point in mainstream pop. Smith’s lyric, another portrayal of romantic collapse, is a tangled mess of emotion; despairing, angry and regretful. He delivers it winningly, vocals sometimes spiteful, sometimes calm, sometimes yearning. It's all the more powerful because at no point is it clear the other person even feels anything like the narrator does.

The Head On The Door broke into the Top Ten in the UK, its singles were Top 40 hits here too, and elsewhere they racked up further successes, including hitting the Top 75 in America, with the now entrenched modern/college rock circuit turning the band into an powerhouse. A French tour appearance resulted in another Tim Pope-directed effort, their debut concert film The Cure In Orange, catching the band in excellent form. His videos gained further MTV airplay in turn for the band and the world was primed for the band when they returned with 'Just Like Heaven' a couple of years later. It’s easy to look back now and say everything that happened afterwards was inevitable - given the twists and turns of the group’s history up until that point. Nobody could have been blamed for presuming that another full line-up reworking to a total collapse was just around the corner. But if that had happened, The Head On The Door would remain what it is, an immediate pleasure of the moment in the year of such albums as Hunting High And Low, Songs From The Big Chair and Around The World In A Day and like all of them one that happily lasts in its own right down the line - even if it’s over before you know it.

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matthew mcfarlane
Aug 24, 2015 10:01am

Great Article. Why is the Cure in Orange not on DVD such a crime an amazing concert.

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Aug 24, 2015 10:11am

Although I rarely listen to them at all now, this was the first album they released while I was a fan and as such retains its own place in my affections, making this an enjoyably nostalgic read. I would say that In Between Days is one of the few Cure/New Order rip offs that owes nothing to Hooky. It's all about the guitar in Dreams Never End. Also, Why Can't I Be You? not Just Like Heaven was the first Kiss Me single but that's just typical CureFan nitpicking.

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Aug 24, 2015 10:22am

Great article, thanks. I've always thought this album and Kiss Me... represent The Cure at their peak. I much prefer them as an off-kilter pop band than plodding dirge-mongers (I remember being slightly disappointed by Disintegration when it came out, thinking it was a step back for them. Sorry, Ned!). The only gripe I have with The Head on the Door now is that, as touched on in the article, the single version of Close To Me is so much better thanks to the horn section. In comparison, the album version sounds unfinished, like a demo really. Apart from that, a stonking album - Inbetween Days, Push, The Baby Screams, A Night Like This ... all belters.

(Just one deviation into pedant's corner here: I'd always been under the impression that the sax player from Fools Dance - Simon Gallup's gap year band - did the solo on A Night Like This, not Porl Thompson).

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Aug 24, 2015 10:26am

In reply to Rab:

Actually just listened to Dreams Never End and I take that back it is the bass. Amazing how 30 years can addle the mind.

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Aug 24, 2015 10:37am

What is: "Smith primus inter pares"? And Kyoto Song is weak but otherwise an interesting article....

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Aug 24, 2015 11:30am

'Sinking' is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. 'The Head on the Door' is a rather magical album; clearly not as dark as the old testament of goth trilogy but it certainly has its bleak moments. A remarkably consistent record, its brevity enhancing this quality.

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Ned Raggett
Aug 24, 2015 1:31pm

In reply to Tony:

Thanks and you are absolutely right about the sax credit there! Getting it corrected! (And thanks to all for the kind comments so far!)

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Simon Kelly
Aug 24, 2015 5:32pm

Good read. I've been playing it a lot lately and actually thought that people had forgotten how great this album is. I still prefer The Top though (well somebody's got to)

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Del Nelson
Aug 24, 2015 5:51pm

The Head on the Door is the album that got me into The Cure. I'd never heard anything so dreamy and diverse, so meaningful (to me) and complete, from the bands enigmatic imagery and their absurd videos, everything just seemed to make sense when I was sixteen. I bought up all their previous albums, quicky realising that apart from album tracks like All Cats Are Grey and A Strange Day, it was the best thing they'd done, like a best of album. There's something special about every Cure release. Have been waiting since Feb 2014 for the new album. Since it was announced, Fleetwood Mac, Pixies, New Order and even Pink Floyd have released stuff. Come on Robert! Im so excited about it.

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Amanda Walz
Aug 24, 2015 6:46pm

I often forget about this album, which I guess is strange because I listened to it to death as a teenager. And it's kind of cool how one short album can grow up with that teen listener. No other Cure album has shifted my perception so much over time. It still feels the same overall, but as a teenager, I adored the songs Six Different Ways and Screw, whereas today I can't get over the magnificence of Push and A Night Like This, for example. I always loved all of these songs, but which ones I liked for what reasons, and how I heard them changed many times over through the years. If Duran Duran's "fab five" is made up of Simon, Nick and the Taylors, then this quintet of a line up is what The Cure essentially is to me. Also, thanks for the a-ha Hunting High and Low reference at the end! Another great album!

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Aug 24, 2015 9:50pm

Thanks for this great article! Interesting point about which albums to recommend to a beginner to The Cure; I got started twenty years ago (my favourite uncle is a mega fan) with three albums: Faith, the Singles and Disintegration. A good choice in hindsight. I used to prefer the Live in Orange version of "a night like this" to the studio version, didn't get the sax at the time, until I discovered Roxy music and it all made sense...

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Aug 25, 2015 1:41am

sinking appropriately closed the head on the door as a bridge to disintegration, in many ways the song does not fit the recording but in many ways it's perfect.

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Aug 25, 2015 4:23am

I think the song that accurately and adequately sums them up is Just Like Heaven. It's the most perfect pop song ever written.

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Aug 25, 2015 4:28am

In reply to SY:

It means 'first among equals" ;)

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Aug 25, 2015 5:02am

A great review on a near-perfect album. This is their 'Sgt Peppers'. If I was on a desert island with one Cure album, it would be Head On The Door - easily.

Boris' drums are fantastic. Simon nails every baseline. Porl adds a melodic rhythm needed as a second guitarist and hints at his sonic awesomeness which reveals itself on Kiss Me. These songs are gems of the most treasured kinds. Thank you Robert and the Cure.

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Aug 25, 2015 12:41pm

As my friends would tell you if you bothered to ask, I'm rather obsessive in my love of The Cure.
Oddly though, much as I like (and in some cases love) all the songs on Head on the Door, it just doesn't work as an album for me. Never has done. I used to shuffle the songs around on tape or mix them up with the b sides to make a different version.
Don't get me wrong, it's far, far better than some of their other stuff (I'm looking at you, Wild Mood Swings) but there's something not quite right to it. Even 30 years after first hearing it, there's a nagging feeling that something is missing.

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Aug 25, 2015 3:14pm

thanks, great article.
the cure are one of those special bands for me, i love them deeply. so much so that i turned my siblings into cure tragics also (they had no chance really.)
this album sits right in the middle of their magic period for me. it's also one of the only albums i can put on at work beginning to end that doesn't annoy anyone (that says a lot!)
i came to the cure through disintergration and pornography, but it was when i heard this album and kiss me i was well and truely taken. a band that diverse yet so distinct, just blew my mind as a teenager.

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Aug 26, 2015 1:41pm

Nice article on a very, very good album. I give the edge slightly to Kiss Me x3 since it takes all this and blows it up widescreen, but can't really fault anyone who prefers this tighter, more concentrated version of The Cure.

"All that and it starts with a perfect drum fill by Williams" -

Williams provides several of "In Between Days"' embarrassment of hooks; not just the memorable fills, but the cymbal work, which I defy you not to think of right now (the "tsst-tsst" of the hi-hat, the little splash cymbals). Truly remarkable.

"The soaring 'Push', featuring a beautiful descending lead guitar melody that Smith only joins in on halfway through the song and then takes an echoed spotlight turn over"

I've always thought "Push" one of their great deep cuts, in that it's mostly unlike the rest of their stuff - that guitar is almost glammy.

But it occurs to me now that "Push" is almost a dry run for "Just Like Heaven", their big US breakthrough in which Smith shows what a fantastic songwriter he was (one of the best of his generation, for my money) by creating a perfect pop song that somehow has no chorus - or rather, ANOTHER lovely descending guitar riff doubles as its chorus (that, friends, is efficiency and economy - "Just Like Heaven" is what happens when the also-perfect pop of "Inbetween Days" has a baby with "Push").

Agreed that the horn-less original "Close To Me" always sounds unfinished without the horns now.

"Smith’s lyric, another portrayal of romantic collapse, is a tangled mess of emotion; despairing, angry and regretful. He delivers it winningly, vocals sometimes spiteful, sometimes calm, sometimes yearning."

Not only was Smith a hell of a songwriter (and no slouch as a guitarist & producer/arranger), he was also a highly-original singer and lyricist for this reason - his ability to examine micro-emotional states, and quickly slide between them with his slippery words and voice, was unprecedented and unparalleled.

It seems weird to think of Smith and The Cure as 'underrated', being that they are a humongously-successful and long-running act; but I really DO think that their popular image as black-clad miserabalists playing for eternal teenagers, does a real disservice to the astonishing breadth of their music. Smith absolutely deserves to be in the pantheon of amazing pop/rock songwriters and performers for his stellar and varied work in the eighties, and this album is as good an argument for that as any.

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Ned Raggett
Aug 26, 2015 3:04pm

In reply to Glyph:

Very nicely broken down and elaborated. Thanks indeed!

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Aug 26, 2015 3:48pm

In reply to Ned Raggett:

What other pop songwriters from the eighties can match Smith for originality, variety, and productivity? Prince, for sure. Anybody else even in the same league? Morrissey/Marr certainly have the originality and productivity (as much productivity as can be expected from such a comparatively-short 5-year run) but nowhere near the variety Smith did during that same time (= funk, flamenco, eastern, synth-dance, gloomy pop, happy pop, hard rock, and doomy dirges that sometimes went near metal).

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Aug 26, 2015 6:09pm

You're right about this album being short--odd considering the B-sides from this are as good (better in some cases) than the songs chosen. And sadly they remain unknown to most listeners. I agree it's their best work.

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Lem Lemsinovovich
Aug 26, 2015 11:42pm

You shouldn't put heads on doors, really.

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Aug 28, 2015 3:07am

I had listened to a few Cure tunes, but this is the album that hooked me - it came out just as I was starting college and I had immediately joined the campus radio station. This album, although short, but had so much variety. I have to disagree with many commenters, Close To Me was perfect as it was on the LP, I loved the sound of this song; tight and almost suffocating. I hated that they added horns to it later. Hated it! Now, I am ok with it, but still prefer the original. On WRHA (590 AM, broadcasting from the bowels of Bulger Hall at the University of Akron), we frequently played Close To Me, In Between Days, and also Push - I remember writing the long lead in time on the album cover so you would know how long you had to talk before Robert started singing. Good Times!

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Sep 3, 2015 2:42am

very nicely written. thanks for giving this album it's well-deserved due.

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David Dylan Malana Puzon.1V
Oct 23, 2015 3:57pm



"Head On The Door"is The Cure Album where Robert Smith is credited as the sole singer/songwriter.It was released in 1985 and it was the album that turned The Cure from a band with funny haircuts that was being laughed at to a band with funny haircuts which people wanted to emulate.It also was the album that welcomed original member,Porl Thompson who played Sax on the 1984 Album"The Top"as an official member of the band and it was also the time that they added Boris Williams,previously of The Thompson Twins as their drummer.It was also the return of Bassist Simon Gallup who left the Cure after a disastrous 1982 Tour supporting their album"Pornography"to form Fools Dance.The album is The Most Acessible Cure Record of All Time and its a combination/hybrid of "Pornography"(1982)and"Japanese Whispers"(1983).It contains The New Wave Classic"In Between Days"which has a bassline thats reminiscent of"Dreams Never End"by New Order and is one of The Best 80s Singles ever made.Vocalist Robert Smith admitted that its their first proper hit that he can be proud off because up until that song,most of the singles he released were dumb singles like"The Love Cats","The Walk"and"Lets Go To Bed".He also added that its the most simple thing that he ever composed after"Boys Don't Cry".It is the template in which other gems and treasures like"Just Like Heaven","Lovesong","Friday's I'm In Love"were taken.The lyrics are a nod to the "Pornography"era("Yesterday I got so scared I shivered like a child")but the negativity was covered by the gloss of the sparkling keyboards and acoustic guitar which invited everyone to just"Get Up and Dance".It also contains the second single"Close To Me"which upon close listening has a 1000 different melodies.The song has the sound of Heavy Breathing(like having sex hahahah),Handclaps and Christmas Toy Instruments.It features the band all inside a wardrobe at the edge of a cliff."Head On the Door" also has The Flamenco Inspired "The Blood"which garnered criticism from Christian Groups because of the lyrics"I've been paralyzed by the blood of Christ"but Robert made it clear that"The Blood of Christ"is actually"The Tears of Christ which is Portugese Cheap Wine that Portugese Workers love to buy at 20 cents a peace.Another fave is"Push"in which half of the 4 and a half minutes of the song is purely instrumental in the same mold as A Flock of Seagulls or U2.For me it is The Arena Rock song of The Group and last but not the least is"A Night Like This"which features saxophone by Ron Howe(also of Fools Dance).It is a song that inspires lighter raising moments with lyrics that goes"I'm coming to find you if it takes me all night which I'm for another girl"and the song wouldn't look out of place in any John Hughes Film.It is the template where the whole album"Disintegration"(1989)was taken.This album is important because it was the start of The Cure's Rise from becoming One of The Most Important Bands in The Face of The Earth.

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mark thomason
Aug 31, 2016 11:13am

i could never say a bad thing about the cure.....simply feel and hate.....[IF ONLY I COULD FILL MY HEART WITH LOVE]...THEY MADE MINE OVERFLOW.

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Sep 16, 2016 10:20am

Also worth mentioning that the 'Inbetween Days' b-side 'The Exploding Boy' is one of the finest b-sides by any band ever and bizarrely was not only originally set to be on the album but was the album's original title. God knows why it was cut.

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Dec 16, 2016 4:32am

Great article. Completely agree about Boris being the band's secret weapon during his tenure. My only niggle is that HOTD was Dave Allen's second time helping the band: he also worked on The Top the year before. Cheers!

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John Pesack
Mar 22, 2017 3:33pm

This is the best album review I've ever read, and it perfectly expresses my feelings toward this album.

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