It’s hard to pin down The Cure in many ways. They’ve kind of straddled the mainstream and alternative scenes since their genesis, aided endlessly by Robert Smiththe strange ear of for a poppy hook. Given their track record and popular success, however, they never lost their countercultural accolades. So what’s the secret? Smith, no doubt, has a great ear for melody and has developed the idea of the one-string riff perhaps further than most artists would ever dare.
When the Cures first entered a recording studio, they had… well… let’s say limited resources. It’s not just a commentary on their finances, but also a reflection of the technology readily available at the time. Smith started his career with a Woolworths guitar, before moving on to a Fender Jazzmaster, and when it came to effects, options paralysis was never going to be a problem. Chorus, delay, reverb and maybe a flanger were pretty much all you could easily find in guitar shops at the time. That, it turned out, wasn’t going to be a problem.
They came out of those early sessions with the controversial (for those who haven’t listened to it well) Killing an Arab, which was featured on their debut album Three Imaginary Boys under their arms. Although even Smith somewhat denounced this album as being a little too light for his taste, it laid the foundations for a new movement. He would go on to form the defining sound of goth-rock in popular music.
By the mid-1980s, they had mostly dropped their gothic tone, just as the genre was hitting its stride. Smith, however, was coming to the sound he always chased, melodic, dark, dark and evocative. This was aided by clever, sparse arrangements that exude atmosphere, aided by a spot application of reverb. All of this was achieved despite a fairly meager lineup of bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and vocals.
It’s important to point out that the Cure are not considered a traditional “guitar” band (try not to shout “duh” too loudly). A valuable lesson when considering their music is to think of the guitar not just as a riff machine, but also as a textural and melodic device. That’s not to say The Cure is short on riffs; Never Enough is pure ’90s guitar band goodness, replete with a blinding solo straight out of Neil Young’s playbook. But more on that later. Their seminal Disintegration – song and not album – exploits the six-string in a form much imitated by their post-punk peers. Guitarist Porl Thompson’s inventive contributions proved to be the perfect foil for Smith, as he had for most of his two tenures with the band.
Smith is often touted as an underrated guitarist by connoisseurs, and that certainly rings true. Maybe the synth textures are a distraction, or his striking image, or his posterboy status for angst, but he’s undoubtedly a tonal expeditionary and guitarist first. While he’s never a showboat, Smith’s chops as a guitarist and, ahem, hook-smith are unquestionable, and there aren’t many players who can’t benefit from learning his approach. of melody, experimentation and overall song service.
Despite being a musical expeditionary, Smith’s platform has always been surprisingly modest, eschewing flashy “boutique” instruments, amps and effects. Instead, the Cure platform consists mostly of off-the-shelf gear that’s accessible even to us mere mortals. If BOSS did, Smith probably used it at some point. Likewise, Roland has played an important role in the history of its equipment, including the legendary Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus and several Cube 80s for live use, with a recent move to the Line 6 Spider series. Barely out of reach, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The mantra of this lesson is that simplicity can be a limiting factor, but one that can inspire truly creative sonic choices. Let’s dive in and start exploring.
1. Just Like Heaven – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
If you had to play someone ONE song to sum up The Cure, it would surely be a contestant. OK, maybe Friday I’m In Love is a contender, but either way. This is one of the defining moments of the band’s career. Robert Smith’s tone and technique have inspired countless artists over the years. Browse your music library of choice and you’re sure to find evidence of their inspiration everywhere. A particular example can be found on Gaslight Anthem’s Old White Lincoln, which, while managing to pay more loving homage than outright appropriation, has a lot in common with Cure’s masterpiece.
The track itself is a dreamlike counterpoint to the anguished vocal melody and often painful lyrics, while the pre-chorus creates minor tension and rises to a fiery but hopeful major lift. The electric rhythm part mainly plays third intervals, the acoustic playing full chords. The synths are limited to single-note lines, allowing the simple, iconic chorus-colored lead lines to sing, and providing the emotional backbone of the track. When recently played live, the guitar is imbued with a little more dynamism than the studio performance, which gives an added edge, but even so, the elegant simplicity of the melody line is a lesson for us. all. Oh yeah…and there’s only five chords.
2. Never Enough – Mixed Up (1990)
The band had proven to be a mainstay on the charts by this point and had established themselves as global stars. Unlike most of Cure’s output at this time, it was entirely guitar-oriented, lacking any of the usual synth arrangements that had, until now, become something of a signature. The influences here are totally of their time, drawing on the musical cues of shoegaze and ‘baggy’ styles from the Madchester scene, but never losing a distinct Cure-ness.
The lack of synthesizers on the track only further proves Robert Smith’s ability to evoke texture, melody and good old feeling from a deliberately limited palate. In terms of complexity, it’s reminiscent of the early days of Three Imaginary Boys, but through the lens of a few miles down the road. Judicious use of dirt around the edges of guitars fills in the audio spaces typically taken up by fingerboards, which is an idea worth exploring, especially if you’re a player with a small range.
3. Kill an Arab – Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
Proof that the major locrian scale is not a crude term, nor something to be afraid of. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but there’s definitely an Arabic influence running through its veins. We’re not here to discuss its often confusing topic, but it’s worth discussing. This is a reference to a scene from Alber Camus The Stranger. Alright, with that out of the way…
Every element of the instrumentation, lyrics and delivery paints a picture and a valuable lesson in stepping back and seeing a song as more than the sum of its parts. It could so easily have slipped into pastiche, but the near-emptiness of the production is truly evocative of its subject matter. Becoming Japanese is not that. If you’re a composer or writer hoping to paint pictures, there’s some serious depths to explore here. This rubs shoulders with the sound images painted by Ennio Moricone. This guitar is lean and deadly, and is almost a sound design piece.
4. Pictures of You – Disintegration (1990)
To rule out anything from the disintegration of the 1990s would be…just…wrong. To call it a watershed moment would be an understatement. As pop writing it’s pretty untouchable, and as a piece of guitar music it’s criminally underrated. You could swear there are synths everywhere, but the reality is that with a tasteful dusting of reverb, delay and modulation, the listener is presented with a lush soundscape unparalleled in music. popular guitar.
It’s not a deep dive into The Cure’s entire catalog, but if you attempted to illustrate Smith’s approach to guitar, effects, and songwriting, you’d be hard-pressed to get past Pictures. The effects here are nothing particularly special (we talked about them earlier), but incredibly layered with a delicacy and smarts that really should be aspired to.
Though they moved away from what became an era-specific “goth-rock” sound that eventually became a cliché, The Cure still retain that emotional sincerity, creativity, and musical authenticity that keeps them relevant. as a voice in the popular landscape. Along with this, a continued exploration of sound and melody has placed Smith particularly firmly in the pantheon of unsung guitar legends.
5. Boys Don’t Cry – Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
There is a clear lineage on display here; from garage rock, punk, through new wave and arriving at post-punk to define the sound of a musical movement. You can hear the DNA of the Bobby Fuller Four (filtered through the Clash perhaps) with the pronounced descent at the end of the chorus line.
There are echoes of the minimalism and brutality of the Buddy Holly era, making the most of a sparse arrangement. There’s a hunger here and a punky sensibility, despite being firmly in the “post-punk” camp. As we’ve discussed, Smith himself thinks the album is undercooked, but there’s a sense of urgency that runs through every track, likely influenced by the fact that it was recorded in less than a week. .
There’s less going on here than your brain makes you think. It’s a master class in sleek simplicity. It may have been a product of necessity, but it’s living proof that resources don’t have to be a limit to greatness. Even the riff itself is lean and mean, but it’s absolutely maxed out in the arrangement.