Robert Smith's first concert was at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, the same one at which Jimi Hendrix gave one of the most memorable, and last, performances of his life. It was only natural that the young Smith, who was only 11 years old at the time, decided that Hendrix was the greatest and decided to become, at that very moment, a guitarist and singer. He was by no means the only one to whom the Wild Blue Angel put a guitar in his hands, but he was certainly one of the most original. While others decided to be content copying the master, Smith sought a totally different sound and achieved a sound all his own. If we add to that a huge talent for writing great songs and a legendary band, The Cure, to colour them, we have one of the most important musicians of the last 50 years. From Guitars Exchange we want to celebrate his birthday, on 21 April, by remembering our ten favourite songs from his career:
10. A Forest (1980)
The Cure began their career within the postulates of punk and New Wave with the album Three Imaginary Boys, but after a tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees in which Robert Smith ended up becoming their lead guitarist, the artist decided to change his approach and look for a darker and more anguished sound. His first such wonder was A Forest, with the particular sound of his Jazzmaster kicking off his gothic phase. The song seeks to create a claustrophobic atmosphere similar to other groups of the time such as Joy Division or Bauhaus, but - while the singers of these groups had a Germanic coldness - in Smith's voice there was a warmth that served as a perfect counterpoint to the chiaroscuro of the music and lyrics.
9. Catch (1987)
Catch may sound light but it's a perfect example of the melancholic pop that Smith seems to be able to write in his (probably nightmarish) dreams and the rest of us humans cannot. The song seems to speak of a relationship of privilege in which neither party knows the other's name, and to which he knows how to give it a tone of regret: "Yeah, sometimes I even tried to catch her, but I never got to know her name". Musically it's a marvel with that omnipresent violin and the beautiful guitar lines, plus those wah chords by Porl Thompson who, if the video is anything to go by, plays on his Gibson ES-345.
8. Friday I’m In Love (1992)
There was a time when the Cure sang as if it didn't matter that we were all going to die, because that's how they felt, which is why it's so incredible that Friday I'm In Love bears the same signature as a song like One Hundred Years. Robert Smith had already proved he was an excellent pop songwriter, but Friday I'm In Love came as a shock to his more darker-oriented fans who underestimated this luminous piece of melodic pop that was capable of putting a smile on the most sour face. In a way, it's his Shiny Happy People, his most infectious and hummable melody, one that Smith came up with in 15 minutes but that many hit-seekers spend a lifetime trying to find without succeeding. By the way, the guitar Smith used in this song is as classic as its melody, a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman.
7. Lullaby (1989)
Just the beginning of this song, with the two guitars of Robert Smith and Porl Thompson in dialogue, is terrifying. Lullaby is a lullaby about a much more menacing and hungry spider-man than Peter Parker. Smith doesn't sing but whispers darkly, as when he says "The spiderman is always... hungry!", giving way to violins that sound like a death threat, perfect for listening to before going to sleep. And, as Smith himself has pointed out, the lullabies that were sung to us as children before going to sleep were something very sinister, like the one that said "go to sleep child, go to sleep now, the bogeyman is coming and he'll eat you...". A monument made into a song, somewhere between Gothic and Baroque.
6. In Between Days (1985)
The Head On The Door was the album with which Robert Smith perfected his formula, knowing how to perfectly combine his fears and anxieties with his most melodic side. The song that best defines him is the one that served as the album's debut single, In Between Days, a sort of preview of Just Like Heaven in which he mixed a chord progression very similar to that of New Order's Dreams Never End with his own sound. Laden with melancholy and longing, it sounded fresh and inviting, trading the coldness of their previous albums for a warm and colourful production.
5. Lovesong (1989)
Lovesong is not just any song in the Cure's discography, it's Robert Smith's wedding gift to his fiancée and lifelong girlfriend. It is undistilled love made into a song, pure and magical but also aching and melancholic. Smith reveals himself in a song that he himself admitted took him ten years to reach the level of maturity to be able to sing without filters. It is also a very important song on Disintegration, as it is the song that serves as a counterpoint to the dark world of that masterpiece. Something like the ray of light in the depressive darkness of his most personal work (one that he was on the verge of recording solo).
4. Close To Me (1985)
Robert Smith has always liked to surprise and not give people what they expect from him. After being labelled as the spiritual leader of the goth movement, thanks to albums like Faith and Pornography, he decided to shock everyone with Let's Go to Bed, a song that was at the antipodes of that movement. Years later, he took it up a notch with one of his best songs, one that sounded both oppressive and joyful at the same time. It was Close to Me, and he closed it in style with an out-of-control horn section to the rhythm of New Orleans hot jazz.
3. Pictures Of You (1989)
I don't think there is a better song in the whole Cure repertoire that mixes so well its two parts, the dark and gothic, and the more pop, as this marvel of Disintegration in which Smith and Thompson's guitars, the former's Fender Bass VI and the latter's Hopf Saturn, come together to create a wonderful mantle of sound over which the singer's sad melody floats. The song portrays the protagonist’s almost fetishistic feelings for his lover's photographs, and is enveloped in a strong dark and melancholic feeling. The song that, in my opinion, best exemplifies this band's unique sound.
2. Boys Don’t Cry (1979)
Robert Smith's first electric guitar was a Japanese Woolworths Top 20, a cheap guitar that was constantly out of tune but which the singer was very fond of. So much so that when he went to record his first album and bought his legendary Fender Jazzmaster, he decided to fit the bridge pickup from his Woolworth Top 20 to preserve its unique rickety sound. It was a great move that gave him a sound all his own, as can be seen on his first masterpiece, Boys Don't Cry, which showed that, right from the start, he had an enormous facility for writing the most heartbreaking songs along with the catchiest melodies.
1. Just Like Heaven (1987)
This may be the best introduction to a pop song ever: the rhythm section, bass and drums enter, unstoppable and, little by little, the rest of the instruments join in, first with a light electric guitar and then Robert Smith's 12-string acoustic Ovation, and soon after Lol Tolhurst's keyboard riff. It finishes with Thompson's guitar arrangement, with his Guild Starfire - if the video is to be believed - until finally, after 50 seconds, Robert Smith's voice enters and confirms that we are listening to three of the most perfect minutes in the history of popular music. A marvellous song that is, as its name suggests, just like heaven.