This haunting track from The Cure's second album was inspired by Franz Kafka's short story "At Night." The tale conjures a deceptively peaceful image of people asleep in the safety of their houses while watchmen, who know of the dangers that lurk in the dark, keep guard outside. In the song, Cure frontman Robert Smith is one of the keepers of the night.
He told Rockstar of the tune in 1984: "That song is inspired to Kafka, to the fact that there is a guardian - that is God's concept after all - that sees us. Coming back to the night, it recurs frequently in what I write because I prefer it to daylight by far. I usually work at night and sleep during the day. I don't know why, but it is so."
Smith told The Cure fanzine that the bleak track was a precursor to the tone of the band's third album, Faith.
Smith co-produced the album with Mike Hedges, the engineer on The Cure's debut album, Three Imaginary Boys. Hedges credited the Seventeen Seconds gig with generating interest in his work as a producer. He went on to helm albums by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Marc Almond, Travis, Manic Street Preachers, and U2, among others.
In a 1980 interview with Sound magazine, Cure bassist Simon Gallup said the band's songwriting process at the time started with rough lyrics by Robert Smith that were retooled with the rest of the band. This song, in particular, was cooked up during a long night in their manager's kitchen.
"When we play new songs live Robert ad libs a lot until he gets the feel of it," Gallup explained. "Then when we record it if it's still not right it means everyone sitting around Chris Parry's kitchen all night scrawling sheets and sheets of paper - for 'At Night' we got really desperate and finished up at six in the morning with Lol [Tolhurst, drummer] standing on the table pressing his head against the ceiling because he thought that might help."