Friday, May 29, 2009

What year is this? Vol. 1: The Cult

What year is this? The Cult are touring on their Love album, which was released in...1985! Okay, so the album has almost reached its 25th birthday, but so have many other '80s oddities. It seems that the band name "The Cult" is now 25, precipitating some sort of nostalgia for original band members Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy. But why would anyone care about that old record? Walk back in time with me.

1986. My first day of University, the sun is shining, the future is bright with possibilities, and friends want to go imbibe. Where do I go? The record shop across the street from the U of W. I bump into an old friend, who is purchasing a piece of vinyl by a band called The Cult. The Cult? Sounds ominous, gloomy, with connotations of brainwashing and soul-stealing. The cover depicts singer Ian Astbury in full leather regalia a la Jim Morrison, with his huge mane of raven hair completely obscuring his face. Billy Duffy still has short, spiky hair and doesn't look like the jaded rock star he would become. But the record, Live at the Lyceum, is selling for something like $2.99 (can't remember exactly - it was 23 years ago). My friend warns me that it's for fans only, I should buy Love instead, it's much more accessible. However, I'm a sucker for value-priced music, and the '80s weren't bad for taking a gamble on UK rock artists. So I buy it. That's what record stores were good for, talking to someone about music with 12-inch album covers right in front of you.

When I get it on the turntable, I soon realize that my friend was right - it's not very accessible or commercial, nor does it contain much hope of getting any airplay in North America. But I was still interested and curious, the album contained a few moments that sparked my musical hunger, tunes such as God's Zoo, Bad Medicine (waaaaaay before Bon Jovi), Go West, Dreamtime and especially Spiritwalker. Check out the video below. Astbury's vaguely Siouxsie Sioux-like hair and make-up should give you a good indication of what the guys were sprouting out of, which was not the hair metal scene that later embraced them.

Doesn't it look like Astbury is wearing a Michael Jackson uniform, right down to the short pants, black shoes and light-cloured socks? At any rate, a few interesting bits was not enough to make a newly-jaded college boy jump on the bandwagon. However, I soon heard Love, and I leaped on the swiftly-moving horse-drawn carriage. The album's vaguely goth atmosphere, neo-psychedelic undertones, and a few pages ripped from Jim Morrison's American native imagery fixation meshed to form a strangely compelling aural stew. Everyone's heard She Sells Sanctuary, it's been used in too many commercials and jammed on too many 80's compilations. But I'd argue that the song might contain some of the most popular guitar sounds to emerge from England in the mid-eighties era (How Soon is Now would probably be its sonic sibling in terms of familiarity). You may have forgotten the album's other single, Rain. Below is a live version from the original Love tour.

The rest of the album gives listeners a glammy stomper (Big Neon Glitter), a woozy ballad (Revolution), Tim Burton-style gloom with occasional bright colours (Brother Wolf; Sister Moon [pre-dating indie rock's current fixation with wolves in song titles and band names], Black Angel), a wah-wah guitar freakout (Phoenix), and a guitar pop gem (Hollow Man). Every song comes replete with inscrutable, slightly hippy-dippy lyrics such as; "It rained flowers when the music began", "Open the sky and let her come down", "Love, obviously, very soon, everybody". I defy you to to tell me what the hell She Sells Sanctuary is about. All in all, an enjoyable little record. But why tour on its back now?

Astbury recently told Billboard that the album "came off the back end of punk rock, and was one of the first MTV generation records—1985, it was on point. The Cult got away from the post-modern thing a little bit, when we got sort of lost in production, and made records like ‘Sonic Temple' and ‘Ceremony,' but the ‘Love' album was made with 100 percent pure earnestness. It's a pure album and it's so much more in harmony with where I'm at right now. I feel more connected to that record than probably any other record the Cult made.

"[Playing the album live] gives some context to what the Cult are, in terms of what we do have a claim to — building this post-modern world. We're one of the principal architects to that world, in a way. For me, it's kind of like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don't want my legacy to be ‘Sonic Temple.'"

Aaaah, now we get to it. Where did The Cult go after Love? Well, another one-syllable album, of course - Electric. Billy Duffy once said that the band went "a bit dumb" for Electric. The video reminds me of a Spinal Tap-worshipping cartoon rock band, especially the intro - beer can? Check. Scuffed motorcycle boots? Check. Excessive hairspray use? Check. Oversized Marshall stacks? Check. Of course, the outro speaks for itself.

Although Duffy admitted the Electric album contained no subtlety or sophistication, the aforementioned Astbury interview is the first time I've seen a confession of below-par output following it up. And hey, Love Removal Machine was fun, if a bit silly and regressive. But subsequent albums Sonic Temple and Ceremony were straightforward forays into uninspired arena rock. The "dumb" rock of Electric took Zep and AC/DC influences and mixed 'em up with amazingly ridiculous lyrics such as "Plastic fantastic, lobster telephone". But at least it was funny. The next albums saw the band taking themselves way too seriously as they churned out generic tracks. Nevertheless, Fire Woman, Edie (Ciao Baby), and Sweet Soul Sister kept garnering play on radio and video stations, though they're clearly lackluster efforts, with groupies, substances and rock god posturing taking precedence over the music.

After Electric it was all downhill. Well, some might argue after Love it was all downhill, because Electric is pretty spotty in retrospect; Wild Flower was more good dumb rock, Peace Dog halfway to quality, Lil' Devil contained some tasty tambourine, Aphrodisiac Jacket would have been a great Love track without the powerchord riffage, Bad Fun ain't so much fun, King Contrary Man is interesting just because Astbury tells a story (rare for the non-linear lyricist), Outlaw doesn't do much besides spell out the "dangerous rock and roll bad boys" image, and Electric's take on Born To Be Wild was just brutal, bar-band booziness.

You could see the downward spiral in person on the Electric tour. As seen in the video below, Astbury barely growls and groans through the old signature song. The band plays fine, but that's about it. When I saw the Winnipeg stop for this tour, Astbury stopped the show to berate the crowd way up in the seats of the arena, yelling at them to get out of their seats and make more noise.
"I'm not having fun," he fumed, ignoring those of us standing right in front of him. "Are you having fun Billy?"

Billy just shook his shaggy head. Astbury continued to rant, finally kicking a drumstick shard that narrowly missed puncturing my eye. If my buddy Mike hadn't used his lightning-fast reflexes to snatch the sharp projectile out of the smoky air, I'd look like a pirate today. I've never been able to listen to The Cult in the same way ever since.

A sidenote: the opening act for the Electric tour was Guns 'N' Roses' first big tour, and they may have served notice that Astbury and Co. were not the future of rock after all - maybe that's why the burgeoning rock stars were so pissed that night. Here's a version from before they crashed and burned.

The less said about the other Cult records, the better; same goes for Astbury playing Jim Morrison with surviving members of the Doors. I'd still like to see the band play Love.

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