The Cult - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
If you research enough bands, you start to get the very distinct, very severe impression that the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll is simply one vast, Rosicrucian conspiracy to determine which small committee of under-socialized individuals can behave with the most depravity, buffoonery, and drunken self-aggrandizement, in public, for as long as possible. (Especially if the band is British. See: Oasis.) Today’s case in point: The Cult. It’s Ian Astbury on vocals and Billy Duffy on guitar. It’s a four-piece band. Guess how many additional members they’ve had since 1983. Be generous, take exploding drummers into account, et cetera. What number seems reasonable – six? Eight? Try 24. That’s an entire platoon of rock dudes. What accounts for that degree of attrition? Are The Cult being shot as they advance through the surf at Omaha Beach, black cowboy hats pulled low, sleeveless jean jackets drenched in brine, bullets zipping and pinging off their turquoise-encrusted concho belts?
Okay, so evidently Astbury isn’t the easiest guy to work with; Duffy has been in and out of the lineup as well. There have been problems with alcohol. Once, while on tour in Australia, the band smashed $50,000 worth of gear. Astbury emulates Jim Morrison in any number of ways, including a shared obsession with Native American culture and shamanism. They’ve done the obligatory break-up/reunion thing – twice. Musically, there are similar rock clichés. I’d say The Cult wear their influences on their sleeves, except they don’t usually have sleeves because they rarely wear shirts. Basically, it’s equal parts goth, glam, and retro-metal. Take the three-chord repetition of AC/DC, add some Zeppelin flourishes, a smattering of psychedelia, and look and sound like Jim Morrison while you’re doing it, and you’ve got The Cult (to be fair, sometimes Astbury sounds like Robert Plant). And, they have a bunch of singles that are irresistibly catchy, and while they sound like a bunch of other bands, they also always sound just like The Cult.
First they were the Southern Death Cult, formed in 1981 with Astby and platoon members 25, 26, and 27. They did some Peel Sessions, which were released as Southern Death Cult (1983 Situation Two/Beggars Banquet). It’s gothy, screechy, post-punk stuff. They toured with Bauhaus and Theatre of Hate. Then in 1983, Billy Duffy joined. He had been in Theatre of Hate. Now it was just Death Cult. They toured Europe. The platoon suffered the first of many casualties soon after that campaign. They got their first television appearance in January, 1984, on the Channel 4 program, The Tube. Beforehand, to tone down the goth angle, they shortened the name again, to simply The Cult.
They recorded their first LP that same year, although not without some studio drama, as they had to switch producers in the middle of the session. The result, Dreamtime (1984 Beggars Banquet), is a limited success. They’re still a little too goth; Duffy hasn’t quite found his wall-of-guitars sound yet; and the production smacks of 1984, (e.g. the snare is louder than the guitarist or the lead singer). Nevertheless it did well in the UK; the LP went to #21, while the single “Spiritwalker” was a huge hit, #1. But the LP still has its problems.
You know those little chimes that only over-equipped prog drummers like Neil Peart add to their kits? They’re the size of cigarettes, and there are, like, 50 of them in a row? The first track on Dreamtime, “Horse Nation,” starts with those and whooshing wind sounds. Meanwhile the lyrics are lifted verbatim from the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. There is serious overkill on this LP with the whole Mojave Desert/Lizard King/peyote/Carlos Castenada vibe. I mean, “Spiritwalker” is about shamanism; another song is about Australian aborigines; “Butterflies” references a Hopi ceremonial dance. It’s a bit much. (How many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Seven. One to do it and the others to talk about how much better Neil Peart would have done it.)
Love (1985 Beggars Banquet) is an improvement. It’s louder and less gothy. There are some power ballads, but they retain enough of an edge to be tolerable. The LP was a hit, as were two singles: “Rain,” and the all-time classic “She Sells Sanctuary.” There are faint echoes of U2 and even Big Country; the guitars chime; Steve Brown’s production is good. It’s a big step away from Dreamtime. The Cult would be looking to make additional improvements in the summer of 1986, when they planned to record their next record, tentatively titled Peace. Yet more casualties in the meantime.
The band recorded twelve tracks for the Peace LP with Brown, and scrapped the entire thing. It wasn’t what they wanted. Then they made a savvy, savvy move. Who did they bring in to produce? Two words: Rick Rubin. Has there been a musical kingmaker in the last 20 years who holds a candle to Rick Rubin? The resulting LP, renamed Electric (1987 Beggars Banquet), blew the doors off. When it came out, there was a bunch of grousing that the record was derivative. Derivative? It absolutely steals from AC/DC and the Stones. Are you kidding me? And it’s awesome! It taunts those bands. On “Wild Flower,” Billy Duffy swipes Angus Young’s lunch money and dares him to take it back. “Memphis Hip Shake” is Zeppelin heavy. “L’il Devil” and “Love Removal Machine” pickpocket the swagger right of Mick Jagger’s back pocket. Covering “Born to Wild” was a hideous error (come on – it should have been “Magic Carpet Ride), but still, Electric is a blast, and it successfully repositioned The Cult as a hard-rock act. A lucrative hard-rock act.
They toured with Guns N’ Roses in 1987. Guns N’ Roses opened. A ton of casualties. Astbury and Duffy moved to LA. You know, standard rock-star stuff. Sonic Temple (1989 Beggars Banquet) was a hard-rock, top-10 hit. The material is a mélange of metal stylings, but mostly not standard 80s hair metal. I dogged on Astbury, but he’s great at this stuff – his voice swoops and soars and shimmies and shakes. Well, okay, the monstrous hit single, “Fire Woman,” is sort of conventional, but other tracks acquit themselves quite nicely; “American Horse” is several steps ahead of Soundgarden. But still, Sonic Temple is too baroque, and it lacks the visceral minimalism of Electric. And if “Memphis Hip Shake” is Led Zeppelin at their driving, romping best, “Edie (Ciao Baby)” is Zep at their most turgid, string-saturated worst.
Then it all sort of peters out. Grunge happens, and The Cult get lapped. Then the casualties turn into a massacre, and Astbury and Duffy are a duo. They go into the studio not speaking to each other. They emerge with Astbury’s aesthetically- and culturally-offensive concept album about Native Americans, Ceremony (1991 Beggars Banquet). They tour, and get blown away by opening act Lenny Kravitz. The Cult (1994 Beggars Banquet) bombs. They break up. They reunite. Beyond Good and Evil (2001 Atlantic). They break up. They reunite. Born Into This (2007 Roadrunner).
Finally, in Memorium, we salute the fallen heroes of The Cult:
Buzz Burrows, Barry Jepson, Aki Nawaz Qureshi, Les Warner, Ray Mondo, Nigel Preston, Jamie Stewart, Mark Brzezicki, Kid Chaos, John Webster, Chris Taylor, Eric Singer, Mickey Curry, Matt Sorum, Todd Hoffman, James Kottak, Charley Drayton, Michael Lee, Kinley Wolfe, John Sinclair, Craig Adams, Scott Garrett, Martyn LeNoble.
Rock in Peace.
Ha ha ha. Man oh man. I just went back and watched a bunch of videos of The Cult on YouTube, like “Love Removal Machine,” which induced a prolonged case of the giggles. Man, ignore me – they were a total hair-metal band. That’s okay; it’s laughable how foolish they look, but it’s also laughable how much that guitar solo rules. But the song is such a Led Zeppelin rip-off.
And dammit. I get paid a flat rate for these things, and I went way over my word count, which means I’m working for free, but I can’t submit this for publication without adding this tidbit: When The Doors reunited, they made Ian Astbury their lead singer. Because, you know, Jim Morrison is, well – he’s rather dead.
(What did the drummer get on his IQ test? Drool.) Okay. I’m done.