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
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
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
She Sells 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 Wild
Flower, Lil' 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 To Be Wild 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 (Ciao Baby) 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
The collection Pure Cult helps one appreciate the significance of The Cult in the second half
of the '80s. Fire Woman, Wild Flower, 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.
Beggars 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's Blues, No. 13, Red Jesus.
by P. Nelson Reinsch - PopMatters Film and Music Critic