Written by Caitlin Carlos
By the time The Cure had found their first significant American hit in 1987, the band had been playing together for over a decade, seemingly used to the ebb and flow of mainstream attention that had characterized their career. Simon Reynolds insightfully concluded in The Observer in 1992: “Alone of all the British bands born of punk, they’ve attained huge success without drastically watering down what they do.” That same year, NME declared the band: a goth hit machine… an international phenomenon and, yet, the most successful alternative band that ever shuffled disconsolately about the earth.” From their earliest days, Robert Smith and the band remained committed to creating the music that they wanted to create, much to the exasperation of record labels.
But in 1987, the band’s indie sound collided with a pop aesthetic that captured audiences and reminded the world that popular music could still be art. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (the band’s seventh studio album) gave the band their first top 40 album on the Billboard 200. In Barry Walsh’s review for Slant magazine, he compared the ambitious double-sided album to another eclectic and lengthy pop endeavor – the Beatles’ “White Album” – and concluded. “Cure gives the listener the kind of roller-coaster rush that only great pop can provide—they take you all the way through the amusement park, plying you with the sweetest cotton candy, until you wind up giddy and disoriented in the hall of mirrors.” Within this thrilling journey, the third single to be released from the album, “Just Like Heaven” gave the band their first top 40 single and first real American hit.
While “Just Like Heaven” was their biggest single of their career in the mid-eighties, it was not Smith’s first foray into writing a catchy pop song. His 1983 UK hit “The Lovecats” hit number seven in the UK but Smith disparaged the track saying “‘The Lovecats’ is far from being my favourite song: composed drunk, video filmed drunk, promotion made drunk. It was a joke.” However, with “Just Like Heaven,” Smith says “I knew as soon as I’d written it that it was a good pop song.” In fact, in 2003 he reflected even more positively upon the track calling it, “the best pop song The Cure has ever done… all the sounds meshed, it was one take, and it was perfect.”
“Just Like Heaven” came out of a dedicated effort of songwriting enacted by Smith that year:
“In 1987, my wife Mary and I lived in a small two-bedroomed flat in Maida Vale in North London. The other room was my music room. Just about the only discipline I had in my life was self-imposed. I set myself a regime of writing 15 days a month, otherwise I’d have just got up in the mid-afternoon and watched TV until the pubs opened, then gone out drinking.”
With his regimented practice, Smith found himself composing a catchy melody alongside an accessible and yet slightly surprising chord progression. When The Cure entered the studio in the South of France later that year, they picked up the tempo from the frontman’s personal demo. Smith told Blender in 2003: “My demo was slower, but I loved the way Boris did it, and he introduced a particularly nice drum fill as well, which is what gave me the idea of introducing the instruments one by one so the track builds up before the vocal comes in.” From there, the band had the start of an ear-catching track, but it was still instrumental. However, even without Smith’s powerful vocals, the track was entrancing. When the band was asked to provide a theme song for the french TV show, Les Enfants Du Rock, they provided the instrumental demo to “Just Like Heaven,” a prescient choice which would get the hook into European audience’s conscientious before the album would even be released.
It was in Miraval studios that the song’s lyrics came together. After a 94-second introduction layering in the individual instrumental tracks, Smith’s captivating descent on the words “show me, show me, show me…” emerges as the crowning stroke. The opening line cleverly balances on the edge between childish innocence and a more mature skill. Smith told Blender that he had used to learn magic tricks as a child and would show them off to his friend: “On one level, that’s what ‘Show me how you do that trick’ is about, but on another it’s about a seduction trick, from much later in my life.”
The inspiration for the song was his relationship with his now wife, Mary Poole., whom he had met when they were 14 at St. Wilfrid’s Comprehensive School in Crawley, England (the couple is still together today). Poole even makes an appearance in the song’s music video as Smith explained in 2003: “Mary dances with me in the video because she was the girl, so it had to be her.” Smith’s personal storytelling in “Just Like Heaven” not only brought the band significant commercial success with both the single and the album, but it also opened the door for an even bigger hit with “Lovesong” (a wedding present he wrote for Pool) in 1989. “Lovesong” catapulted off of the enormous success of “Just Like Heaven” reaching the number-two position on the Billboard Hot 100.
Perhaps one of the most brilliant aspects of the song is the fusion of Smith’s lyrics of uninhibited passion within a restrained sonic space. The repetitive strumming of Smith’s rhythm guitar underlies the simple, yet captivating, descent of the lead guitar. The song’s formal structure is deceptive in its irregularity. The constant pull of the rhythm guitar, decorated with the bright melodies of the keyboard or solo guitar, mask the fact that the song lacks a real chorus. Instead, audiences must rely on familiar lyric and melodic gestures ending each verse to reinforce a sense of return throughout the song. Even the song’s title lyrics “just like heaven” are unusual in that they appear only once, immediately before the song’s abrupt end. While the instrumental tracks hold the frame, the lyrics sing of losing one’s self in a moment of passion, which Smith declares is the point of everything: “The idea is that one night like that is worth a thousand hours of drudgery” While there’s no drudgery to be found within the song, “Just Like Heaven” both fulfills and challenges our expectations of what a love song – what a pop song – should sound like, and in doing so, captures that ineffable quality of the human experience.
With “Just Like Heaven” the Cure stepped away from a purely indie audience-base and into a mainstream spotlight – all while maintaining the artistic integrity that was so integral to their identity. Johnny Black observed that the song set them on a journey “which would take them from devoted cult status …and establish them as a huge stadium-busting live act.” In doing so, the band inspired generations of musicians to conceive of popular music as a viable vessel for artistic integrity.
Today, the Cure stands as one of the most important and influential acts of its era, and “Just Like Heaven” has remained an integral part of the band’s legacy. In 2019, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and performed “Just Like Heaven” at the ceremony. Reflecting on the Cure’s influence and the lasting influence of “Just Like Heaven,” Ben Folds declares: “everything about it—the songwriting, the music—is state of the art. It’s as good as it gets. Anytime I hear it on the radio or a mix tape, I jump around like a freak.” While the song may not be the band’s best selling track, it remains one of their most important. In the height eighties popular music, “Just Like Heaven,” Cure offered audiences a pop hit single that retained the Cure’s edginess and cool.
Watch the video below to learn more about how The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” changed music!