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The Cult – Electric: Album Of The Week Club Review

How and why did The Cult transform themselves from paisley-patterned goths into leather-clad rock beasts – and does the result still stand up today?

The Cult - Electric
The Cult - Electric

Wild Flower

Peace Dog

Lil' Devil

Aphrodisiac Jacket

Electric Ocean

Bad Fun

King Contrary Man

Love Removal Machine

Born to Be Wild

Outlaw

Memphis Hip Shake

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"It’s the summer of 1986," wrote Mick Wall in his Classic Rock piece about Electric,  "and rock is down the toilet. Not heavy metal (Iron Maiden are at their peak and Metallica are poised to overtake them), but good old-fashioned rock’n’roll, the kind pretty girls like too. You know, low-slung, sexy, catchy and, above all, c-o-o-l. Clad in stressed leather and daubed with morning-after make-up. Crotch-hugging, ass-shaking rock.

"Oh, there is Bon Jovi, but they’re like a boy band: fake smiles, poodle-haired, formulaic rock-by-numbers pretenders. Rock for people who don’t actually like rock; pop in rock clothing.

"So what can a poor boy do, except to go home and sit in a darkened room playing with knives? Make like Mötley Crüe is somehow real? Or Poison? Come on, man..."

And so it was for a generation who'd grown up after the 70s. Our big brothers could tells us about the thrills of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, or the outrage and attitude of punk – but what did we have? A bunch of dudes in make-up and bad hair singing power ballads. 

In the UK, the 80s were the time of civil unrest, high unemployment. There was the miners' strike, the Falklands conflict, the poll tax. If you were young and full of hell, Every Rose Has Its Thorn wasn't going to cut it. Punk had infused every musical genre with a new energy: metal had its NWOBHM rebirth, the Two-Tone bands merged ska and punk, psychobilly injected some piss-and-vinegar into old fashioned rock'n'roll and goth had emerged as the bastard punk-child of Bowie, Alice Cooper and the like: dark, theatrical, arty and disturbing.

The goth bands layered their guitar sounds in effects: chorus, flange, delay. They were psychedelic, intricate, lyrically obtuse at best, pantomime at worst. 

The Cult had come through all this. Their second album Love had brought them hit singles and adoring crowds. Follow-up Peace (Peace and Love, geddit?) was in the can when the band started to have doubts. "It was just… overblown," said bass player Jamie Stewart. "Overcooked. At the time I was trying to like it, but I played it to a few people and I thought: ‘All these tracks are too long and there’s an awful lot going on in them.’"

Singer Ian Astbury felt the same. Peace was scrapped, and the band made their way to New York to record with an upcoming producer called Rick Rubin and an approach that was to change their direction completely. A hip-hop producer, Electric was to be his first rock record. "All the music I listened to growing up was rock," said Rubin. "My goal with hip-hop was to bring more of that aesthetic to it. Electric was my first non-rap record – my first rock record! Everything I’d made up to then was created in the studio with machines and scratching, pretty much doing all the music myself. Electric was my first collaborative effort with a band. It ended up being more exciting. For the majority of time since, I’ve made more of those kinds of records."

But his background in hip-hop also informed the album: "The kick drum had to be out of proportion with everything else – that was from hip-hop. I remember [engineer Andy Wallace] would finish a mix, we’d listen and give our comments – and then I’d push the kick drum up five decibels. That’s what ended up on the record – ridiculous kick drum!"

Later, Rubin commented said of his technique, “When I’m producing a rock band, I try to create albums that sound as powerful as Highway To Hell. Whether it’s The Cult or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I apply the same basic formula: keep it sparse, make the guitar parts more rhythmic. It sounds simple, but what AC/DC did is almost impossible to duplicate.” 

On Electric, they gave it a good shot...

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Arguably, Electric reinvented rock music for a new generation. Here were riffs, solos, guitar sounds and vocal mannerisms that would be familiar to any fan of 70s rock. To 80s teenagers, though, it sounded fresh: not a revolution, maybe, but a revelation. Suddenly all that 'old rawk shit' that the music press had been sneering at made sense: you could have this or a bunch of dweebs in cardigans feeling sorry for themselves? No contest! The Cult's gigs at the time were mad, ecstatic affairs – a generation of rock'n'roll animals let off the leash. 

Electric was great fun - Bad Fun, as Astbury would have it - a guilt-free, unself-conscious celebration of classic rock music. L'il Devil swinging on a solid Phil Rudd beat and a delicious riff. Love Removal Machine nicked the riff from the Stones' Start Me Up (though most of the band's fans at the time didn't know – or care) but turned it into something else entirely. It opened the gates to a new wave of rock music (a new band called Guns N' Roses supported The Cult on their first UK gigs) – certainly the whole 'grebo' scene and bands like Zodiac Mindwarp & The Love Reaction are hard to imagine without Electric (though maybe we shouldn't blame them for that).

Other albums released in April 1987

  • Whitesnake - Whitesnake
  • Fleetwood Mac - Tango In The Night
  • Faith No More - Introduce Yourself
  • Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing
  • Testament - The Legacy
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)
  • David Bowie - Never Let Me Down
  • Happy Mondays - Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)
  • Public Enemy - Yo! Bum Rush the Show
  • The Young Gods - The Young Gods

What they said

"Though both band and album caught a lot of flak for their perceived wallowing in dinosaur sounds and styles, the end result is still a fist-punching yelp of energy that demands to be heard at maximum volume in arenas, with a brusque punch in Les Warner's drums to match Duffy's power-chord action. (AllMusic)

"Rick Rubin meets the doom fops of the former Southern Death Cult and concocts the metal dreams are made of - Zep for our time, supposedly. One reason it's a great joke is that in 2087 almost nobody will be able to tell it from the real thing. The other reason it's a great joke is that right now almost anybody can. Direct comparison reveals that Jimmy Page's thunderclap riffs, Robert Plant's banshee yowls, and John Bonham's ka-boom ka-boom are just as hard to replicate as you thought they were. I hear Steppenwolf (an unconvincing Born to Be Wild), Cream (Tales of Brave Ulysses as Aphrodisiac Jacket), and Aerosmith - fop but no fool, Ian Astbury apes Steve Tyler rather than the unapproachable Plant. I also hear lots of Zep simplified - no sagas, no tempo shifts, no blues. B PLUS" (Robert Christgau, The Village Voice)

What you said

Troy Geitman: A big fan of their previous release, Love, I had to admit that I was stunned when I first heard Love Removal Machine. Guitars and attitude turned up to eleven. It was great to hear a band drop the glossy production of the 80s and take a chance that it would even be heard on this side of the Atlantic – radio in America wasn’t playing anything heavy at this time. 

Maxwell Marco Martello:  Many tracks are based on unashamed riff rip-offs, but whenever Billy Duffy lifted something, he and the boys made sure to make up for it by coming up with an original arrangement. Besides, Jim Morrison never sung for AC/DC or The Rolling Stones, so these songs sound fresh anyway! Opener Wild Flower is entirely based on AC/DC's Rock and Roll Singer, but who cares? It’s awesome! Aphrodisiac Jacket becomes Cream’s Tales Of Brave Ulysses from 0.22, but, again, nobody in the 80s was referencing Cream anymore, so thanks for doing that! Love Removal Machine really is The Stones’ Start Me Up (whose riff’s intuition incidentally sounds pretty close to a riff featured in Mott’s 1975 By Tonight) and I’m glad it is! The rest of the tracks doesn’t bring to mind a one on one similarity, but the AC/DC overtone prevails most of the time. Bon Scott-era nitty gritty riffs and arrangements are spread all over. No wonder Mr. Rubin will go on to produce AC/DC’s Ballbreaker

Jarrod Henry: It’s certainly a far cry from Love and the abortive Peace sessions but Rubin captured the band in full throttle rock n roll mode. It still contains some of Ian’s best vocal deliveries and Billy’s amazing playing.

Brian Corry: It's the only album from The Cult I've ever really loved. Love was a bit too poppy, Sonic Temple was too slick... I haven't paid much attention since. I saw them on this tour with GN'R as the opener in Aug 1987. This record got a lot of play from me back then, and the band I was in at the time did covers of Wild Flower, L'il Devil and King Contrary Man. A great record.

Mike Knoop: Electric still gets regular play at Mike’s Haus. Sure, Wild Flower is a direct lift of AC/DC’s Rock 'N' Roll Singer. Sure, they cover (accidental) heavy metal anthem, Born to Be Wild. Sure, the Doors have a song called Peace Frog and the Cult have a song called Peace Dog. Sure, when I played Love Removal Machine in the car, after Ian Astbury howls, 'Baby baby baby baby baby,' my friends would always sing out, 'Do you like it?' a la Zep’s Misty Mountain Hop. But the Cult did what they did so damn well. As Pablo Picasso, who was never called an asshole, said, “When there's anything to steal, I steal." The Rick Rubin production didn’t hurt either.

John Davidson: After the classic Love, Electric always felt like a transitional album. Fair play for trying something different, but apart from the obvious standouts Lil' Devil, Wild flower and Love Removal Machine the rest of the album doesn't really deliver much more than a swagger and few too many "yeh yehs". Sonic Temple was the better effort at classic hard rock and Love will always be the sound I most associate with The Cult, Electric comes a poor third by comparison.

Juanjo Ordás: The Cult as band are the equivalent of David Bowie as a solo artist. Always changing, always evolving into something fresh, exciting and real. For another band Electric could have been a failure, an album made of second hand riffs and old fashioned macho attitude, but not for The Cult. Ian Astbury, Billy Duffy and producer Rick Rubin were streetwise and understood the power of primitive music as way to connect with the urban environment and regular people feelings. That's why Electric is such a great record that still sounds pure and truthful. Because it was made by people for people.

Iain Macaulay: Electric opened up the band to a success they would probably never have achieved if Peace had come out. Peace would have been seen by the British press as pompous and overindulgent, Electric was the right side step for the time. It’s not my favourite Cult album but I appreciate it a lot more now than I did back then. So, a divisive album, yes. A clever album.... not particularly. A career creating album? Hell yeah. A classic album? As a complete body of solid music, dodgy cover aside, .... let’s say... Everything before Electric is classic and Sanctuary will always be talked about. Will Electric? Hmmm. I’m not so sure. 

Ben L. Connor: I never understood how this became the ‘go to’ Cult album - when Love is far more distinctive, memorable, and has better songs. Compared to that, Electric sounds like AC/DC fan fiction.

James Praesto:  Somebody called this album by The Cult akin to “AC/DC fan fiction”, and it’s easy to see and hear the resemblance in sound and drive; however, I would rather call it a love letter to that rock’n’roll blueprint than anything else. Sure, the guitars could be a tad louder in the mix, and I wish the bass came to the forefront a little more, but the drum sound would make Phil Rudd proud. A remix probably wouldn’t hurt, but after the soaking wet reverberations of the 80s, with its synthetic and often bombastic sound, it was refreshing to hear bands get the Rubin treatment. 

Glenn Bannister: By 1987 AC/DC were in their wilderness years, too polished and MTV friendly. Electric did a pretty good job of filling the void, loud, gritty and with a live dirty sounding production. Astbury's vocals need a lyric sheet to be interpreted, even if they remain mostly incomprehensible even then, but there's enough shouty choruses to leave their mark. The singles are are cut above the rest of the album but in those joyous vinyl days, the 40 minutes running time passes in a joyous foot tapping, head nodding fashion.

Final Score: 8.03 ⁄10 (208 votes cast, with a total score of 1671)

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