In the ’80s, the Cult went from Gothic post-punk, to neo-psych metal, to Sunset Strip cock rawk

By on June 28, 2017

This episode of Night Flight’s Flash Tracks — which features four videos by the Cult — originally aired on February 26, 1988, and you can now find it streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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Ian Astbury — who was born in Heswall, Cheshire, England, but from the age of eleven had been raised in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the son of a merchant seaman who dabbled in both painting and poetry — was always drawn to both music and fashion, dying his hair blue when he was ten years old because he wanted to be just like David Bowie.

A year later he met a Mohawk Indian kid, dressed in denim, who was wearing his long hair all the way down his back to the top of jeans, and that look made a huge impression on him.

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When he was sixteen, Astbury’s family moved back to Britain so that his mother, terminally ill with cancer, would be able to die with her family, who were living in Glasgow, Scotland at the time.

Then, in 1978, after realizing he was more attracted to what was going on in England — noting that the crowds at their rock concerts dressed up like the bands onstage, something that he didn’t see casually-dressed lazy-ass Americans doing at the time — and after witnessing on TV what was happening in the punk scene, he decided to move there to begin his own musical career.

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His first stop was Liverpool — home to Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teadrop Explodes and others — where he began going by the name “Ian Lindsay” (using his late mother’s maiden name).

Astbury joined several bands, including Send No Flowers, but when none of the bands broke out, he departed Merseyside for Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where he fronted a band called Children of Lust.

By 1981, he was living in Bradford, in West Yorkshire, in the foothills of the Pennines in north-central England, sharing a house with a bunch of like-minded punk rockers with whom he formed Southern Death Cult, a name derived from an archaic term for the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, a mound-building American Indian sub-culture.

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Astbury, who was by now finally going by his real surname, adopted a new look which featured American Indian accessories, feathers, jewelry, etc.

The rest of the band — drummer Haq Nawaz “Aky” Qureshi, guitarist David “Buzz” Burrows and bassist Barry Jepson — all had a look of their own, with frilly and fashionable New Romantic touches that would later become part of the Gothic post-punk rock scene epitomized by bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus, among others.

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Astbury’s vocals — occasionally veering into a full-throated tribal wail which could have been inspired by watching American Indians whooping and wailing while fighting off cowboys and soldiers in those old black & white westerns — were always passionate, and primal, often defiantly so, and although no one would ever claim that he is or even ever was one of rock’s best singers, he more than made up for it always with a god-like sensibility that was both bold and fashionable.

The band’s original look got to be a little dated-looking as time went on, though, and confusing too, especially with Astbury’s mixing of both Gothic and Edwardian influences, pointy-toed “Winklepickers” with knee-high suede boots and moccasins, and Knights of Malta crosses (often the “Iron Cross” was noted for its post-war use by the Third Reich) with crucifixes.

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Astbury’s interests, beyond Native American myth and culture, also focused on the power of nature, the concept of destiny and the survival of the species, as well as animal power symbols.

Even with all the cultural appropriation and adopting of shamanistic spiritual imagery, there was always an emphasis on the self-mythologizing Astbury and his band at least trying to look original, and you can’t fault anyone in rock for trying to stand out from the pack, even if they look a bit silly doing so.

Southern Death Cult’s first gig was on October 29, 1981, at the Queen’s Hall in Bradford.

In early ’82, one of the Southern Death Cult club gigs was filmed for a British TV show “What a Life,” and their first London show — opening for a band called Chelsea at the Marquee — was reviewed by the weekly UK music paper Sounds, who called them “the Second Coming.”

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Almost immediately afterwards, SDC were invited to go out on tour with Theatre of Hate (a band featuring guitarist Billy Duffy), and also with Bauhaus, and by the end of the 1982, they were selling out their own shows and in December ’82 they released their first single, “Fat Man”/”Moya,” on the Situation Two label, an offshoot of Beggar’s Banquet Records. (#43 UK, #1 UK Indy). The 12-inch single featured a third song, “The Girl.”

The single spent two weeks atop the Indy charts, and ticked off a bidding war among larger record labels, but Astbury didn’t think the blokes he was playing with were ready for the next step, and so he dissolved that band after a show in Manchester on February 26, 1983.

The other three ex-members of Southern Death Cult, augmented by vocalist Paul “Bee” Hampshire, formed Getting the Fear, who released just one single, “Last Salute,” before splitting up in 1985.

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By April of ’83, Astbury was ready to start another band, this one called Death Cult, which he formed with the man who’d become his longtime rock ‘n’ roll partner-in-crime, guitarist Billy Duffy of Theatre of Hate (he’d also played with Slaughter & the Dogs and the Nosebleeds, a band noted for featuring future Smiths lead singer Morrissey), drummer Ray Taylor-Smith (who went by the name “Ray Mondo”).

The band also featured bassist Jamie Stewart (sometimes erroneously spelled as “Stuart”), who had both been in a band called Ritual.

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Death Cult — who ended up recording just five songs under that name — signed to Beggar’s Banquet, who rushed the band into the studio to record a four-track EP titled Brothers Grimm (#2 UK Indy), and packed the band off to Oslo, Norway, for their first shows, the same week that they appeared on the cover of New Musical Express even though the new band hadn’t yet played any shows in England.

More shows followed, and a personnel change came when drummer Taylor-Smith was dropped for Nigel Preston, who had played with Duffy in Theatre of Hate.

Astbury decided at the time that having “death” in their name wasn’t going to help with the band’s marketing, and so it was truncated down to, simply, the Cult.

When the Cult appeared on The Tube on January 14, 1984, playing their latest single, “Spiritwalker” (#1 UK Indy), Astbury — with his face painted, wearing an bone choker necklace and a bright red jacket — looked like while he was still appropriating American Indian imagery (which he’d said he’d first seen and loved back in Canada) but he was simply putting together an iconic look of his own, which would not just set him apart from all of the other post-punk bands in the UK at the time but enshrine him as England’s new self-appointed Rock God.

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In August of ’84, Astbury and his band were playing their first shows in America, and watching the release of their debut album Dreamland climb the charts back in their home country (it topped out at #21 on the UK Album charts).

The album featured lyrics lifted straight from the pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, along with references here and there to Australian aborigines and Hopi ceremonial dance rituals.

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It would be nearly nine months before they would release the single that came to characterize their widescreen, arena-ready post-punk sound, which now had a glossier, proto-metal polished studio sheen, led by Billy Duffy, with his dyed-blonde spikey hair, black leather jacket and huge, hollow-bodied Gretsch White Falcon guitar, which had created yet another iconic look for the band while also adding a kind of dark, spaghetti western tinged electric vibe to the musical proceedings.

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Released in May 1985, the anthemic “She Sells Sanctuary” charted at #15 UK, and sold consistently over the next year, even entering the charts a second time later in ’85 after it had already dropped off once, without breaking into the Top Ten either time.

In a 2012, A.V. Club interview with Will Harris, Astbury discussed the song:

“She Sells Sanctuary” was probably referring to the power of finding solitude in a woman’s arms and the matriarchal energy, whether it be an actual physical person or in a spiritual sense, the greatest matriarch, and thinking of the cosmos as a female energy rather than a male energy. These are archetypal things I was picking up from discovering things like Joseph Campbell and Buffy Sainte-Marie or even Jim Morrison.”

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The video — featured in our “Flash Tracks” episode — was directed by Tony Van Den Ende, who also directed the Cult’s goth-like anthemic “Rain” (#17 UK), a follow-up single (the video was released in October ’85) that continued the expand the band’s audience in the U.S., which had become their new homeland after they’d played the legendary Danceteria in New York City.

“We arrived in New York in July 1984,” Astbury once said. “As soon as we landed, I knew I was home.”

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Another personnel change was made when Nigel Preston — whose long history with drugs started becoming too much for them to deal with — was replaced by drummer Mark Brzezicki, from Big Country (he would later be replaced by Les Warner, who had played drums with Julian Lennon’s band).

“She Sells Sanctuary” would in fact be the last song to feature Preston.

Later in ’85, the Cult added a touch more late 60s-era swirling psychedelia to their sound for their next album, Love, which sold more than 200,000 back in England, entering the album charts at #4 UK in October. The album added the Steve Brown-produced track “She Sells Sanctuary,” which had been recorded prior to the album.

Although they remained on Beggar’s Banquet for their UK releases, the Cult were now signed by Seymour Stein to Sire Records — home of Madonna, Talking Heads and the Ramones — for their U.S. releases.

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The critics hated this new direction, and probably no one did more than the UK-based Sounds, who had once called Astbury’s Southern Death Cult the “second coming,” but now the music paper’s genius headline for the Cult’s new album’s review said it all: “HATE ASTBURY.”

New Musical Express, meanwhile, noting Astbury’s fixation on American Indian mythology, took to referring to the singer as “Little Plum,” which was the name of a Native American cartoon character (full name: Little Plum Stealing Varmint) from Britain’s longest-running children’s comic, The Beano.

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Meanwhile, Love charted at only #87 on the U.S. album charts, but the album simply overwhelmed American audiences, who now accepting the British band as one of their own (even though most of their audience were still showing up to their concerts wearing mostly black or dark purple goth outfits).

Astbury, meanwhile, began giving interviews during this time espousing his view that civilization had raped and fenced-off Mother Earth and had toppled the mystical natural order of the world as it was meant to exist, telling rock journos he was actually a “Sun King” (later the name of a Cult single).

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After their Christmas 1985 appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — it was one of the few times that “SNL” booked two bands, the other being the Dream Academy — the Cult launched a massive tour of the states, where they were received by fans as a “second coming,” just as Sounds had predicted three years earlier.

Their first major world tour took them throughout the U.K. and Europe, Canada, and they played first-time concerts in Tokyo and Osaka.

The Cult’s next album, the Rick Rubin-produced Electric — recorded at New York City’s Electric Ladyland Studios and ultimately released in February of 1987 — arrived after a delay that had put them some four months behind schedule, due mainly to the fact that the difficult recording sessions had been troubled by Astbury’s ongoing alcohol problems.

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Rubin had been brought in to tighten up and toughen up their sound again, making them more like AC/DC, after the the neo-hippyish Love, giving Astbury lots to swagger about like the balls-out rock god he was always meant to be (and not just the one he’d imagined he’d become).

The first pass at the album — which was again produced by Steve Brown, and was supposed to bear the title Peace — was ultimately scrapped, and had to be re-recorded in November 1986 after it was determined that the problems with it couldn’t be fixed with a lot of clever track remixing.

Some of the abandoned Brown-produced tracks later showed up on UK b-sides.

Once again, the Cult’s new album charted at their lucky chart position, #4 UK, but this one also broke into the U.S. Top Forty (#38).

The first single from the album, “Love Removal Machine,” climbed the upper rungs of the UK Singles chart, landing at #18, and MTV added the swaggerific video to their heavy rotation.

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The video — directed by the legendary Storm Thorgerson, and released in February ’87 — featured wall-to-wall Marshall amps, denim and leather, and was meant as a way to separate themselves and make sure that they weren’t being lumped in with other English bands of the time, like U2, Simple Minds, New Order and others.

FM rock radio stations across the U.S., meanwhile, began playing the Cult’s singles alongside Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and the first recordings by a then-new band on the scene, Guns ‘n’ Roses, among others.

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For the band’s 1987 U.S. tour, bassist Jamie Stewart — who had originally played guitar in Ritual — became the Cult’s rhythm guitarist when they added Kid Chaos (ex-Zodiac Mindwarp) on bass.

Beginning in January of that year, the Cult headlined arenas in the U.K., Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, opened select dates for Iggy Pop and David Bowie, returning at the end of the year to sell out Wembley Arena and Brixton Academy in London.

A Doug Freel-directed video for the third single from Electric, called “Wild Flower” — released in June ’87, after an earlier single, “Li’l Devil” (#11 UK) — charted at #24 UK and kept the Cult in the spotlight, sensing that they fit right into slot that had been created when thrash metal began smoothing out to become the more-respectable face of what was now the new “metal.”

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The Cult sensed, almost diabolically, how they would fit into this new slot perfectly, and began moving even further away from their Gothic post-punk, neo-psych hessian metal sound, and towards a new (old) sound that saw them joining the ranks of other heavy west coast glammed-out Sunset Strip cock rawk bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica.

(The Cult, by the way, would be the first band to appear on MTV’s legendary “120 Minutes” and “Headbangers Ball,”simultaneously).

The Cult would headline their next 150-city tour with Guns ‘n’ Roses as an opening act, a tour that saw them destroying $40,000 worth of equipment and Astbury spending the night in jail in Vancouver, British Columbia, after jumping off-stage to attack security guards who were manhandling his fans.

By the time their hectic touring schedule came to an end in March of 1988, they were in shambles, a band who clearly couldn’t continue to go wherever strutting 70s-influenced cock rawk was heading at the end of the Eighties.

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Kid Chaos and Les Warner were sacked — they formed a new band, the Four Horsemen, and Chaos began calling himself “Haggis” — as were the band’s management team.

To mark yet another move in the band’s history, and after nearly seven years of non-stop touring and recording, Astbury, Duffy and Stewart all relocated to Los Angeles in 1988.

They sound found a new rhythm section, or made adjustments with what they already had — Stewart went back to playing bass, and they brought in a session drummer, Mick Curry, instead of finding a permanent replacement — for their next album recording sessions in Vancouver, Canada.

They also brought on board a new producer, Bob Rock, who had engineered some of Bon Jovi’s and Aerosmith’s 80s albums as well as producing Led Zeppelin-wannabes Kingdom Come.

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In the March 18, 1989 edition of Melody Maker, Astbury tried to honestly assess his career trek with the kind of clarity that comes from having gone to hell and back, saying:

“When I was in Southern Death Cult I had a false sense of security. There I was, 18 years of age, spouting out half-cooked romantic visions of American Indian spirituality and thinking everybody would be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about it as myself, and embrace it with open arms, and they did. When we did Love, I was doing the same thing and people just pissed on us from a great height. But now we’re confident enough to turn around to the people and say, ‘No, you’re wrong.'”

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“I used to think that what journalists were saying was valid, especially because of the age difference. They were usually older than me and they’d had more experience. Now I’m coming up to 27, I feel like I’m on par with them. I can deal with them face to face. I’ve had a bit more experience myself. I used to think I was sitting down with aware people, open-minded people. I didn’t realize how narrow-minded they were. I wonder what they do in their bedrooms? They do that soul-searching as well, they just do it in the dark.”

Sonic Temple — recorded in Canada, and released on April 10, 1989 — revealed that the Cult had by now fully embraced their obvious new direction, the always-eventual move towards full-on metal, which also brought them a brand new audience previously unaware of the band, of course.

The album, which ultimately scored them a #10 U.S. chart position (#3 UK), would be their most successful album to date, and so there was no turning back now.

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To promote the bombastic new album — featuring a handful of charting singles, the bouncy “Fire Woman” (a Top Ten in the U.S.), the power ballad “Edie (Ciao Baby),” the aforementioned “Sun King,” and “Sweet Soul Sister” — the Cult set out on their latest world tour on April 29, 1989, adding Guns N’ Roses’s Matt Sorum on drums, and kicking it all off by opening for Metallica on that band’s “Damaged Justice” tour before spinning off to headline their own shows.

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Astbury then got the idea to put together a traveling heavy rock festival, the Gathering of the Tribes, which was a rock concert at its heart accompanied by a village of tents and booths which sold all kinds of cross-cultural, counterculture-flavored products and offered up serviced immersed in the same world which encompassed a melding of music (including rock, rap & electronica), art and politics.

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He staged the first of those shows on October 1989 (inspiring, along the way, Perry Farrell’s similar vision for what became Lollapalooza), but by the end of the decade, the Cult — and Astbury in particular — had found themselves at a new all-time low, and suddenly the Cult were facing lawsuits and bankruptcies, and suffering the departure of both Sorum and longtime bassist Stewart, who’d said they’d had enough.

Watch this February 26, 1988 edition of Night Flight’s Flash Tracks over on on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.