“It was also during the formative years of his life that Smith first heard the mysterious, ill-fated singer/songwriter Nick Drake, whose downbeat moodscapes would have a significant and quite tangible impact on Smith’s early work with The Cure. Smith was 10 when he first listened to Drake’s 1969 album Five Leaves Left, courtesy, again, of his brother Richard. Just like Hendrix and ‘Purple Haze’, Smith’s conversion was quick and absolute, although Smith realised that Drake was ‘on the other side of the coin to Jimi Hendrix – he was very quiet and withdrawn’. As his musical career advanced, Smith would aspire to emulate Drake’s understated songwriting and singing. But at the age of 10, it was more Drake’s heartfelt style that swayed Robert Smith. To Smith, Drake’s depth of feeling felt convincingly real. ‘[He] wasn’t worried about what people thought of him. He wasn’t worried about being famous. I think also that because he had an untimely death like Jimi Hendrix, he was never able to compromise his early work. It’s a morbid romanticism [something Smith and The Cure could definitely relate to] but there is something attractive about it.'”
“But if a track such as ‘Another Day’, with its dimly lit, overcast mood, was some kind of pointer for the band’s musical future, then the album’s title track (based on a Robert Smith dream) may well have been the blueprint for what was to follow. As a vocalist, Smith had found a melancholic mood rarely heard this side of one of his teen favourites, Nick Drake, even if the band’s electric backing was much spikier than anything that could be found on Five Leaves Left. And such snatches of lyrics that include a plea for help, concern about the future and a deep feeling of emptiness would establish Smith’s reputation as the guru of gloom, the only man who could out-Morrissey Morrissey. Smith’s voice, which trailed off as the song drew to its close, sounded like a man lost in the wilderness. It was hardly the soundtrack to an afternoon of hedonistic bliss, but ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ was a brooding, evocative end to a muddled, misdirected album.”
“During the making of the album, Smith would play a cassette over and over again: it was virtually all he was listening to at the time. The tape contained four totally disparate and seemingly unrelated songs, which Smith later confessed all contained elements of what he was trying to recreate with The Cure’s second coming. One song was Van Morrison’s sprawling, mesmerising ‘Madame George’, from his landmark 1968 album Astral Weeks. This much praised work was a sustained study of introspection, a journey deep into the mystic from the bellicose bard of Belfast. The next track was ‘Fruit Tree’, a sadly beautiful cut from Nick Drake’s 1970 album Five Leaves Left. The sparse, dimly lit beauty of the song gelled perfectly with the heavy atmospherics Smith was trying to bring to life on Seventeen Seconds. “It’s a morbid romanticism,” Smith confessed when asked about his Nick Drake obsession, “but there is something attractive about that.”
The third track on Smith’s perfect mix tape was the Aram Khachaturian ballet piece, ‘Gayaneh Ballet Suite No. 1. Adagio’, that appeared on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was another bleak, minimalist masterpiece, much fancied by Smith. As with Nick Drake, it was Smith’s brother Richard (‘The Guru’) who’d turned him on to the seminal Kubrick odyssey. And the final track on the tape must have conjured up some mixed memories for Robert Smith – it was Jimi Hendrix’s live take on Dylan’s rock’n’roll Armageddon, ‘All Along The Watchtower’. The cut was taken from Hendrix’s UK swansong, his festival-closing set at the Isle of Wight Festival. That was also Smith’s first true rock’n’roll experience, an event he recalled as “two days of orange tent and dope smoke”. When not wearing out this four-track cassette, Smith also had Bowie’s Low on repeat. The high point of the Thin White Duke’s “Berlin phase”, whence he retreated to escape the coke-induced ennui of a prolonged spell in LA, the Brian Eno-produced Low fluctuated between such glorious high IQed pop as ‘Sound And Vision’ and introverted, experimental instrumentals. It was very clearly a key album for Smith and Seventeen Seconds, an epic downer that somehow still managed to sound startlingly original and icy cool.”
“I had to ask Bill not to come into the studio,” said Smith, “because he was try- ing to produce the record and I wanted to do it with Hedges. I knew exactly what sound I needed for Seventeen Seconds – I wanted it to be inspired by Nick Drake with the clear, finished sound of Bowie’s Low.” Smith was justifiably proud of his co-production efforts, to the extent that he sometimes forgot that Mike Hedges was seated alongside him. “We did it on our own,” he said in 1996, “and everything about it was exactly what I wanted. I produced it, although they [presumably Parry] said I wasn’t capable. Seventeen Seconds is a very personal record, and it’s also when I felt The Cure really started.”
“The following track, ‘This Is A Lie’, was Smith in darkly beautiful form, virtually reciting his lyrics while real, live strings ebbed and flowed behind him. This was the nearest that Smith had come to replicating the autumnal blues of Nick Drake, a perennial favourite. Then, suddenly, the band slipped into what Smith would de- scribe as a “sort of crackpot salsa vibe” for ‘The 13th’, a failed but brave experiment in redefining The Cure’s musical future. Such unexpected right-turns would lead to some of the worst press The Cure would ever cop when Wild Mood Swings finally appeared in mid-1996.
‘It was a shame, because it got slagged when it came out,’ said Smith. ‘Fans hated it as well. It’s the only time I’ve been hugely disappointed. I suppose it was because [‘The 13th’] was the first thing that they’d heard from the band in years, and I don’t think they gave it a chance after that.'”