The Cult is still with us. In 1999 the band toured, the set offering a couple of new songs. They are currently touring with Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes. In the last few weeks, lead singer Ian Astbury has released his first solo album (the fine Spirit / Speed / Light which sounds closer to his band the Holy Barbarians than to the Cult) and recently the band signed a deal with Atlantic Records. Nissan is currently hawking a car with the intro to “She Sells Sanctuary” in the background, one of those commercials that makes you scramble for the remote to test your little TV speaker (and further evidence that those of us who know the song are possibly old enough to afford a brand new Nissan). And finally, Beggars Banquet has released remastered versions of the band’s most popular CDs: Love, Electric, and Sonic Temple and there is another following the UK and European Pure Cult from 1995 and the US release High Octane greatest hits CD of the band.
Just as they did with the Bauhaus back catalog, Beggars Banquet has done right by fans. The remastered CDs sound great and each of them contains an essay about the album and band written by Pat Gilbert of Record Collector magazine. The packaging is better than before too, with brighter colors and pictures under the CD tray (the shot of the Cult beer cans in the Electric case is particularly welcome and amusing). Pure Cult looks and sounds fine too, and features an essay by Dominic Wills.
The record label must feel there is a market for these releases, and they are correct. The question is: why is there still a market for a band which seemed to change with each album to accommodate the latest tastes? In their very currency, didn’t the band doom itself to sound dated? (Here comes the curse: don’t they sound “eighties”?)
There is the temptation to kiss off your past. For children of the ‘80s, this means throwing out your teenage music along with Velcro shoes, Polo shirts, skateboards, and Camaro posters. Truly, the Cult’s music for many teens in the US functioned just as the work of Boston, Journey or Foreigner did 10 years earlier: music to play loud enough in your Camaro to make the other people at Sonic look at you. For others, the Cult’s music is a striking mixture of the banal and the spiritual that sounds great. The joy of rediscovering what you used to love, of realizing that you did have ‘taste’ in your youth, is a wonderful feeling, and not given easily. To be honest, I never really stopped listening to the Cult. These releases can stir memories certainly, but also allow you to discover the Cult for the first time.
Though these albums all come from the second half of the ‘80s, the band’s origins go back much further than that. In the ‘70s, Billy Duffy met a fellow named Morrissey who ran a New York Dolls fan club (the unjustly forgotten, Malcolm McLaren-managed band from the early ‘70s). Duffy and Morrissey helped form a new lineup of The Nosebleeds in late 1977. Duffy knocked around, eventually ending up in Theater of Hate. At the same time in 1981 Ian Astbury was in Southern Death Cult. The two met and became, along with bassist Jamie Stewart and one of countless drummers, Death Cult in 83. The Cult released Dreamtime in 1984 and were on their way.
On their way towards following in the footsteps of earlier rock outfits. Their instrumentation has remained constant. An organ makes an occasional appearance, but this is rock music; lead guitar, bass, drums and more lead, for me please. Astbury will shake a tambourine on record and in concert but the band is not interested in trumpets, flutes, mandolins, etc. (On Ceremony they bring in an orchestra for the surprisingly lovely “Sweet Salvation,” and on The Cult are more open to studio manipulation.) In their traditional rock instrumentation and continuation of rock’s great lyrical concerns—girls, cars, girls, and being a rebel—one can sense that the band is knowingly part of a tradition. Here we see yet another collection of Englishmen making their version of American blues. In concert, Astbury swings his mic around like Roger Daltrey and dances like Robert Plant. Duffy poses like Jimmy Page and does a nice windmill Pete Townshend must appreciate. Their recordings are similarly seen as faint shadows of work by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, et. al. which makes some fans feel guilty. This no doubt in part because the band has be subject to continued critical drubbings in their homeland (in particular) and in the States. The Rolling Stone Album Guide (1992) calls them “essentially a heavy metal band for folks who think they’re above such things” (171).
Astbury’s lyrics are a cause of a great deal of criticism. A confessed mystic with a lifelong interest in Native Americans and Native American culture, his lyrics unashamedly attempt to convey his concerns. Astbury is not the most poetic writer in rock, but he is usually clear in his intentions. He is guilty of being straightforward and sincere. Yes, sincere. Though perhaps not as sincere as vaunted UK punk band The Clash, (as Jimmy Smith and Mark Reiter will attest) the Cult’s lyrics are sincere, and you can dance to their songs. Singing “wake up time for freedom” is not great poetry but the idea is commendable and if a listener is spurred by Duffy’s guitar lick, well, all the better. And if one does not appreciate either the phrasing or the tone of Astbury’s lyrics, they can be ignored. How else can one listen to Oasis except by ignoring every rhyme that the Gallaghers spew forth? Even a very good band like (The) Catherine Wheel are sometimes more fully enjoyed without memorizing the lyric.
Seemingly in conflict with Astbury’s lyrical bent is Duffy’s fat rock guitar sound and flashy—but never too flashy—solos. The band is expert at the move from the sound of Astbury’s voice to Duffy’s guitar and employ the transition in several songs. Any differences are negated in these moments. And Astbury has a great rock voice. He says “yeah, yeah, yeah,” “baby,” and yells “shotgun” with uncanny conviction.
What struck many about the Cult in the ‘80s was how their fan base seemed to shift some from record to record. Listening to these albums now—and even examining their packaging—one is struck by apparent differences between these three releases. The three albums sound different and even look different. With each successive pose the band grew in popularity, regardless of whether they were following or creating trends.
Love is fairly gentle, compared to the expectations of a heavy sound from the Cult. The mostly black front cover features symbols which the back cover reveals to represent each song. The back cover lists and songs and symbols and suggests some sort of equation which ends up with “The Cult.” The album are not nearly that coherent of course but does show the range of the band’s music.
“Nirvana” is a terrific album opener, a feature all three of these releases share. The opening songs on Cult albums serve the same purpose as the liner note for Ziggy Stardust (and the Cure’s Disintegration and the title onscreen at the beginning of The Last Waltz): turn your stereo up as loud as you can stand. “Nirvana” soars, becoming heavenly as Astbury stretches the chorus opening “everyday” to last several seconds. The album would be stronger if the remainder was a uplifting as this song. “She Sells Sanctuary” is one of the band’s most famous songs, and “Rain” moves along nicely. But “Brother Wolf Sister Moon,” “Revolution,” and “Black Angel,” are deathly slow in comparison, and whatever the merits of each song, they tend to jar with the up tempo numbers. The latter songs bookend “Sanctuary,” dragging it down unnecessarily.
After Love the band began work on an album to be title Peace (songs from this work are available as the Manor Sessions). Unhappy with it, the band brought in Rick Rubin to make the record leaner and louder. It worked.
Electric is more, well, electric than Love. Duffy’s lead parts are a little more out in front and his sound is tougher—courtesy of producer Rubin. The cover features aggressively stylized lettering, and this—combined with the medieval looking fur hat on Astbury’s head—makes the album look like it could be a soundtrack for a Conan the Barbarian film. The members of the band look directly at the viewer, with Astbury looking scornfully down his nose. There is no love in his eyes here. The band looks like the sort who would pick a fight with James Dean outside a planetarium.
Women are more prevalent lyrically on this record than on Love and variously labeled “Wildflower,” “li’l Devil,” and “Love Removal Machine”: alluring, strong, slightly dangerous. Tracks nine and 10 however sum up the pose on this record: “Born to Be Wild” and “Outlaw.” Covering Steppenwolf’s “Born” is a brazen act, boneheaded even. But the band is proclaiming their willingness, their desire, to take up the rock mantle most bands didn’t want anything to do with in the mid-‘80s. “Outlaw” is a rebel come-on, with Astbury saying he is from the “badlands, baby.” “Aphrodisiac Jacket” features a great Duffy riff but Astbury’s lyrics—about Salvador Dali (!)—are less coherent than the painter’s works. “Peace Dog” shows him continuing to make statements about peace, love and understanding but with frustration in his voice.
Sonic Temple is a call to worship music (re: power chords and Marshall stacks) along with a crowd in a large auditorium. On the album’s cover Duffy strikes a guitar hero pose and in the background Astbury—dripping with sweat at a concert seemingly—throws his head back and triumphantly puts his fist in the air. The come-on worked and the band had its second consecutive platinum record and their biggest tour to that point.
“Sun King” is yet another throbbing album-opener, an invitation to the “Fire Woman” of the next song to share the singer’s “throne.” This album foregrounds the band’s interest in the US with songs like “American Horse” and “New York City.” “Wake Up Time for Freedom” is Astbury again trying to say something though the song isn’t particularly good. Even in the midst of what some dismiss as pandering, the Cult continues to set itself apart from the Bon Jovi’s of the world. The requisite power ballad “Edie” is a tribute to Edie Sedgewick from Warhol’s crowd who died (of course) from a drug overdose. And the straight forward rocker “New York City” features a little speech read by non other than Iggy Pop, a figure many arena rock bands would know only from his free speech MTV commercial.
The collection Pure Cult helps one appreciate the significance of The Cult in the second half of the ‘80s. “Fire Woman,” “Wildflower,” “She Sells Sanctuary,” and others were fixtures of radio stations in the US, UK and around the world. The singles also reminds one of Ceremony (Sonic Temple‘s stepchild) and the terrific self-titled album from 1994. Pure Cult is perhaps more Cult than most of us want in a single sitting, clocking in at 77 minutes and 19 tracks. This does allow the record to give nods to Dreamtime in the form of “Go West” and “Spiritwalker.” Several of the songs here are the edit versions, most noticeably “The Witch” which omits the fade out guitar solo—the best part of the song. Additionally, like many other bands, The Cult’s singles do not give a complete portrait of their musical range. Astbury’s concerns are not best seen in the singles collection for example.
“In the Clouds” appears on the singles CD as evidence the band continues to work. The band’s most current song is “Painted on My Heart” from the Gone in 60 Seconds soundtrack which admittedly does not make one yearn for the band’s next long player. Following in the footsteps of Aerosmith, the band has recorded a song written by Diane Warren for a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film. The song is painfully inoffensive and uninspired and makes one wonder if the Cult is done and the members just don’t know it yet. Maybe. Learning that Mick Jones (Foreigner) is co-writing the new material does not really excite most Cult fans either. I wonder if they can still find the right pose. I suspect that Jones is not it. But if the band can’t produce quality music in a third decade we can hardly complain.
A few other notes while I have your attention (let me assume you’re still with me. Perhaps you’re just idly scrolling down and looking at the pictures).
Please be aware that there are copies of Ceremony and The Cult for sale which display these stickers: “Special Edition. Remastered Sound. expanded packaging.” Do not believe these stickers. If the cd tray is a black opaque number the CD is the same as the earlier release. The sound is unchanged and the packaging has not been expanded in any way.
Beggar’s Banquet has plans to release a 6-CD box set of non album tracks: B-sides, demos, remixes. This will apparently include the album Peace (which, as noted above, became Electric). There is a sampler in circulation to promote the remasters and the box set which features “Go Go Guru” which must be an early version of “Memphis Hip Shake.” The set will probably be out of the price range of all but the devoted. I would encourage you to run it down or locate a friend willing to buy it. There will also be a Best of Rare Cult, which features 15 tracks, five of which are not on the box. Some of the Cult’s best work is not on their albums: “Wolf Child Blues,” “No. 13,” “Red Jesus.”
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