The Cult story begins in early ’83, as the Southern Death Cult (from Bradford, actually a northern city, near Leeds) has just broken up without releasing an album; various sessions and live takes were, however, compiled for a posthumous LP. As such, The Southern Death Cult paints an inconsistent picture of ominous and dense doom-punks with a serious power supply and few original ideas. The songs aren’t much to brag about — drum- dominated drones at various tempos — and the performances, given their mongrel origins, are too muddy to really judge the band.
Singer Ian Astbury then formed Death Cult, which released two 1983 12-inches, one of them a four-songer containing “Brothers Grimm” and “Ghost Dance.” (The EP’s subsequent CD reissue contains the Death Cult’s entire six- song oeuvre.) The following year, with its name finally reduced to just the Cult, the quartet got around to releasing a proper album. Dreamtime, an extremely intense and well-produced (by John Brand) outing, reveals Astbury’s true intentions: hip heavy metal. Domineering drums blend with Billy Duffy’s layered lead guitar figures and Astbury’s drama-drenched vocals on pseudo-poetic songs that oddly connect with the Doors (which Astbury would later join!!!) and other bands of the first psychedelic era. Impressive in its clear-headed strength and attractive for its electric sound, Dreamtime is, like a lot of metal, exciting but empty and not a little stupid. (Initial quantities came with a bonus live LP.)
Love also chugs along enthusiastically, awash in Duffy’s guitars and Astbury’s sweeping vocals. The material — except for the atmospherically powerful and extremely catchy “She Sells Sanctuary” — is pretty naff, with simple chord riffs providing a loud bed for draggy melodies and too much pointless riffing. (A lot of the drive and precision is due to drummer Mark Brzezicki, on loan from Big Country.) The invocation of ’60s hard-rock and grunge-punk bands is subtle enough not to be obnoxious, but the Cult’s relevance to modern times remains marginal at best. A subsequent EP adds non-LP tracks to Love‘s “Revolution” (not the Beatles tune); The Love Mixes offers two variations on “She Sells Sanctuary” (including a dub dissection, complete with baying wolves) and remixes of “Revolution,” “Rain” and a track from the previous LP.
In these high concept times, it made perfect sense for the Cult to hook up with that great gazoo of ’70s revisionism Rick Rubin, the production svengali behind numerous rap and metal acts, including the Beastie Boys and Slayer. On Electric, Rubin kitted out the Cult with a gargantuan drum sound and a frenetic guitar maelstrom, partially succeeding in having the band mimic AC/DC, although the opening guitar of “Love Removal Machine” replicates the Stones’ “Start Me Up.” As sensually gratifying as it is cornball retro-moronic, Electric can lay claim to one of history’s worst versions of “Born to Be Wild.” Not too surprisingly, the first track, “Wild Flower,” is virtually a rewrite of “She Sells Sanctuary.” The Lil’ Devil EP contains the LP track, two live cuts (including “She Sells Sanctuary”) and the previously unreleased “Zap City.”
The Cult didn’t plan on making Electric with Rubin. After recording a dozen tracks with Steve Brown (the producer of Love), the band decided they didn’t like the results and asked Rubin for a remix, which turned into a redo. Left holding an entire alternate version of the record, the Cult used four tunes from it for B-sides and then put five remaining tracks out as The Manor Sessions. For what it’s worth, Brown’s work is less clearly articulated and focused than Rubin’s, but in truth the Cult is the Cult is the Cult. The Electric Mixes completes the collection with extended edits of “Love Removal Machine” and “Wild Flower,” another LP track and lumbering radio session takes on “King Contrary Man” and the non-LP “Conquistador.”
Fully anointed as major stars in the post-Zeppo hard- rock universe, the Cult parted ways with Rubin and drummer Les Warner, making the platinum Sonic Temple with a guest skin-beater and ex-Payola Bob Rock as producer. Beginning with a remark borrowed from Pete Townshend (as documented in Monterey Pop), the album is standard- issue Cult: Astbury bellows, Duffy squalls and bassist Jamie Stewart makes like John Paul Jones by doubling on keyboards. The closest the album comes to a stylistic groundbreaker — “Edie (Ciao Baby),” a pseudo-poetic tribute to Edie Sedgwick with strings and an acoustic guitar intro — is one of the stupidest songs in the Cult’s lowbrow compositional closet. Meanwhile, “Soul Asylum,” another idiotically clichéd lyrical display whose labored tempo makes it ideal for accompanying calisthenics, has nothing in common with the group of the same name.
The Cult always had a revolving drum chair, but Astbury and Duffy had to rely completely on hired hands to make the tedious Ceremony. With mainstream metal hack Richie Zito producing, such strangers to the genre as bassist Charlie Drayton and keyboardist Benmont Tench assist the two in recalling the lumbering roar of Mountain and indulging an intense interest in Native Americans. While Duffy lays on a hellish roar of cranked-up guitar slabbage, Astbury bellows his best Jim Morrison melodrama and Robert Plant “ooooobabybabybaby” pleading in nonsense like the mock-’70s title track (“Funky style music got you good now children”), the flamboyant power ballad “Sweet Salvation,” “Earth Mofo,” the cello-driven “Indian” (“Standing at the forest awaiting your penance”) and the even more ludicrous “Heart of Soul,” which announces, “You got to bleed a little while you sing / Less the words don’t mean a thing.” His dopey words ain’t gonna mean a thing, no matter how much he cuts himself.
Bob Rock (producer of Sonic Temple) keeps the Cult from sounding quite so stupid on The Cult, a harsh-edged (temporary) swan song. Duffy outdoes himself in filling every second with messy razor-burn noise; new drummer Scott Garrett clatters away on a horribly tuned kit. Over it all, Astbury sings wildly, as if he were being chased down a narrow alley. The chaotic results sound excited more than exciting, but there’s a compelling quality to the manic intensity of the sizzling mix. A few digressions — like the Plastic Ono Band guitar citation of the Doorsy “Joy” and the restrained ramble of “Universal You” — provide beneficial contrast to the mindless thunder. Despite the obligatory ’60s-fixation indulgences (the somber “Sacred Life” mentions Abbie Hoffman as well as River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain and Andrew Wood), Astbury’s reflexive lyrics are weirder and more intriguing than usual. It’s hard to suss what’s he’s on about, but a few songs (“Naturally High,” which also refers to friends dying young) suggest things that might actually be going on in his life. Live and let bleed.
A year after The Cult‘s release, Astbury and Duffy — having rebuilt their band from the sessionmen festival that was Ceremony — threw in the towel. Astbury started again, forming the Holy Barbarians with Garrett, his bassist brother Matt and American guitarist Patrick Sugg, using keyboard-type studio gear to make up for the new band’s diminished (not quite banished) heaviosity. Produced with a clumsy feel for ’80s prog-rock by Matt Hyde, Cream moves to affect mild airs of modern techno currency, trying to entice where the Cult could only bludgeon and bellow. No sale: even when he succeeds in reining in his vocal excesses, Astbury is mired by clumsy lyrics (“Space Junkie,” “Opium” and “Cream” all imply a drug obsession the fully conscious music doesn’t begin to match; “Bodhisattva” turns his attention to sex), flat, go-nowhere songs and his general melodic incapacity. It would be unfair to say that Billy Duffy was the Cult’s only crucial member, but Cream sure doesn’t taste the same without him.
Jamie Stewart, who was in on the formation of Death Cult and stuck with the Cult through 1989, began his musical career as the guitarist in a young Harrow post-punk band called Ritual. Following the 1982 “Mind Disease” 45, Kangaroo Court bears a strong resemblance to Theatre of Hate (a band which, coincidentally and simultaneously, included Billy Duffy for a year), with prominent sax riding over a simple doom drone. Ritual did record a full-length LP (Songs for a Dead King) which, like ToH and UK Decay, melded Brit-punk aggro and political/goth aesthetics; the record was never commercially released. While Stewart and drummer Raymondo jumped on board the Death Cult train, two other Ritualists hooked up with ex-UK Decay guitarist Spon in 1983 to form In Excelsis.