Buyer's Guide: The Cult

The Cult's Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury
Billy Duffy (left) and Ian Astbury
(Image: © Getty)

They may have come from the ‘alternative’ ghetto, and were goth mainstays for the first few years of their career, but by the mid-80s The Cult made rock fashionable again, arguably for the first time since punk, almost singlehandedly allowing the names of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to be dropped without fear of being jeered at by legions of shambling indie kids and preening new romantics.

It’s hard to believe that The Cult, as they mostly will be remembered – Billy Duffy, all leather trousers and legs akimbo on stage, his oppo Ian Astbury’s glorious mane topped with a skull-adorned stetson, howling at the moon – began life as Southern Death Cult, quintessential black-clad post-punks essaying a new form of alt.rock that soon earned the soubriquet ‘goth’. But listening to early SDC tracks such as Moya and its skeletal tribal rhythm, and the darkly mesmeric Fatman, you can hear a connection between the two entities. Still, SDC had about them an ascetic air that would be difficult to square with the all-drinking, all-shagging rock monster that The Cult became.

It was a chance encounter between Duffy and Astbury in 1983 – when the guitarist was still playing with Theatre Of Hate – at a Southern Death Cult gig at Keele University that changed everything.

“Ian came on with his mohawk and moccasins, his bells and self-made chaps, doing that weird little dance across the stage that he used to do,” Duffy recalled of Astbury’s Native American shtick. “And when he opened his mouth it was the loudest thing I heard in my life.”

First as Death Cult, then as The Cult (they changed their name before an appearance on Channel 4 music show The Tube), Duffy, Astbury and a Spinal Tap-rivalling array of bassists and drummers proceeded to make a lot of noise throughout the 80s, with the Love, Electric and Sonic Temple albums. The band – who once had Guns N’ Roses as their support – never quite managed to achieve their maximum potential, due to the usual potent cocktail of rampant egos and excessive indulgence. They entered the 90s, as they had the previous decade, as a cult band with a loyal following, as opposed to a globe-straddling behemoth. Once a cult, always a cult. But for a brief, shining moment they were up there with the gods.

ESSENTIAL - Classics

Electric, Beggars Banquet, 1987

It was originally going to be called Peace, until producer Rick Rubin became involved and the original sessions got scrapped. On their third album, The Cult’s metamorphosis from alternative chart minnows to mainstream beasts was complete.

Rubin gave their sound the requisite hard-rock lustre, perfectly framing Billy Duffy’s riffs and allowing Ian Astbury to unleash his inner wolverine. He also gave them permission to indulge their Zep and AC/DC fantasies on King Contrary Man and Lil’ Devil. Love Removal Machine’s rewrite of the Stones’ Start Me Up was less a sign of a dearth of inspiration, more sheer chutzpah. Electrifying.

Sonic Temple, Beggars Banquet, 1989

Sonic Temple was The Cult in their pomp, their ultimate bid to become the biggest band on the planet. They didn’t manage it, but they did leave behind this glorious monument to lyrical hubris and sonic excess.

Produced by Bob Rock, their fourth album took their usual preoccupations – glamorous losers on Edie (Ciao Baby), the suffering of indigenes on American Horse – and turned up the noise. Soul Asylum was pure Zep worship, Fire Woman their wailing, throbbing apotheosis, while Sun King seemed to acknowledge that The Cult knew they’d reached their limit (‘This is where it all ends’).

SUPERIOR - Reputation cementing

Love, Beggars Banquet, 1985

The Cult’s second album, Love caught the band in transition between their underground past and their stadium rock future. But this was no compromise release; this was a band realising their potential and revelling in it. Billy Duffy’s bright, spangly guitar seemed to shine a pathway out of goth stronghold The Batcave, while Ian Astbury was brazen in his identification with society’s dispossessed.

Love was full of riffs and hooks, from the pounding, tribal title track and psych-tinged Phoenix to Big Neon Glitter’s brooding call to arms, not forgetting the two mid-80s indie disco staples: the big, bold and ballsy She Sells Sanctuary and Rain.

Dreamtime, Beggars Banquet, 1984

The notion of The Cult as a secret sect, a cabal, was confirmed by this, their debut album. Nigel Preston’s rolling tribal drums seemed to invite the listener to a dark carnival in the forest. Once there, Ian Astbury was in full shamanic mode, his wail summoning all manner of unearthly forces. His invocation of the Indian nation would bring ridicule from the music press, but the beauty of The Cult was that they were so unapologetic. Still, they had nothing to be sorry for with this record, with Billy Duffy’s flashing, crystalline guitar pointing towards a commercial future, especially on the anthemic Spiritwalker.

Beyond Good And Evil, Atlantic, 2001

Beyond Good And Evil, their first album for six and a half years, had a working title of Demon Process, which makes sense because there are Sabbath-levels of satanic power surging through album opener War (The Process).

The riffs were dirtier this time, the sound murkier, serving as a reminder, perhaps, to the nu metal kids that The C102ult had no intention of vacating their position. Rise was more Pantera than Poison, while The Saint sounded like the work of a far younger band – and one with plenty to prove. There was no let-up, all the way to closing tumult My Bridges Burn.

Choice Of Weapon, Cooking Vinyl, 2012

Since the turn of the century Ian Astbury had been threatening to make each successive Cult album the last ever, but each time he would find the necessary will to record another.

Just as well in the case of 2012’s Choice Of Weapon, because their ninth album, their first since 2007’s Born Into This, showed no signs of flagging. In fact it was as energised as anything they’d recorded since Sonic Temple. Astbury’s voice may have been a little gnarled and ragged, but it seemed to suit the grainy power of the music, from the ferocious Honey From A Knife to the majestic Life.

GOOD - Worth exploring

Ceremony, Beggars Banquet, 1991

Their fifth album, Ceremony reached No.25 in the US, where it went platinum, but it was still difficult to shake off the feeling that The Cult should have been much bigger by this point in their career. It didn’t help that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released on exactly the same day.

Still, sonically at least, Ceremony was just fine, with the title-track opener evoking the ritual and incantatory with aplomb. And even though there was something of a sense of deja vu with some of the song titles (Wild Hearted Son, Sweet Salvation), and the lyrics were beginning to rely on a predictable vernacular, the band’s energy levels on the record remained high.

Born Into This, Roadrunner, 2007

After another six-year gap, after 2001’s Beyond Good And Evil, The Cult returned, with little ennui on their muse, notwithstanding the various line-up changes of the sort that had been a feature of their career.

Dirty Little Rockstar was the single, and although it didn’t chart it had all the flash and dazzle of a hit. Holy Mountain carried the magisterial gloom of an Iggy Pop ballad, even if Astbury’s voice sounded a little shaky. But Diamonds and Sound Of Destruction rocked hard, and the lyrics to Savages (‘They can’t take us, they’ll never break us’) read like a manifesto for The Cult’s grim determination to hang on.

Hidden City, Cooking Vinyl, 2016

For their 10th album (their first since 1994’s The Cult not to be recorded with bassist Chris Wyse) The Cult reunited with producer Bob Rock, with whom they’d had great success with Sonic Temple 17 years earlier.

In Blood suggested there might be a random Cult word generator, and Avalanche Of Light was as weak as anything in their catalogue. But for the most part – including the Bowie-ish Deeply Ordered Chaos and No Love Lost, the tribal beats of which recalled early Cult – Hidden City was a better album better than we had any right to expect from a band 35 years into their career. And G.O.A.T. served as a statement of the band’s powers of endurance.

AVOID

The Cult, Beggars Banquet, 1994

That this self-title album was also known as the Black Sheep album made a perverse sense, considering The Cult were virtual pariahs at this point, the height of grunge. Astbury, perhaps emboldened by Kurt Cobain et al’s autobiographical eviscerations, wrote some of his most personal lyrics to date, but unfortunately the music that accompanied them was less than gripping. Real Grrrl was propelled by the sort of tinny machine beat that had been popular circa ‘Madchester’, Naturally High was like tepid Jesus Jones, Joy lacked the feral power of yore, and Be Free (‘like the birds and the bees’) was a whimsical nadir.

THE CULT: THE ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

Fatman Southern Death Cult single
Ghost Dance Death Cult single
Spiritwalker Dreamtime
Rain Love
She Sells Sanctuary Love
Wild Flower Electric
Lil’ Devil Electric
Love Removal Machine Electric
Sun King Sonic Temple
Fire Woman Sonic Temple
Ceremony Ceremony
Gone The Cult
War (The Process) Beyond Good And Evil
Dirty Little Rockstar Born Into This
Honey From A Knife Choice Of Weapon
G.O.A.T. Hidden City

Listen to Classic Rock’s essential Cult playlist on Spotify