My good buddy Jakob has just shared a piece of news with me: The Cult will be performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall in September. This has me rockin’ for a few reasons:
- The last time my favourite rock band performed in Toronto, it was a Thursday night and I had to work.
- That time was in a club. This time, it’s Massey Hall.
- The last time I saw The Cult live was 1989, at the Sudbury Arena. Before that, it was 1987 at the CNE Grandstand. It’s time to see Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy and the boys again.
- This isn’t just a concert: This is a live performance of the band’s pivotal, seminal 1985 album Love.
- I like the idea of bands playing full albums. Another favourite of mine, The Mission, did it last year in England, saying so long to fans by playing each of their LPs in full over a series of nights. I’d have loved to have been there.
- The Cult concert is a bit pricey, so I might have to sell a guitar or something.
What can I say about Love? Lots. This was the LP that introduced me to the band, via the still-intense single She Sells Sanctuary. According to my iTunes, it’s the most-played recording on my network. And that doesn’t count the multiple copies of the DVD I burned through. And cassettes. You know what’s on display right above my head, right now, on a shelf? The Love LP gatefold cover.
Love was the band’s breakthrough disc, but it came at a price. The next recording sessions were 1986′s Manor Sessions, which yielded an album called Peace that was never released. Instead, the band scrapped everything, headed to New York and used rented gear to crank out new versions of those songs under the bearded guru guidance of Rick Rubin. That album, Electric, was a radical change, a three-chord frenzy of short sharp shocks that opened The Cult up to a new audience but trampled all over their punky roots.
After that? Sonic Temple was a global megahit in 1989, but Astbury hated its commerciality. The 1991 followup, Ceremony, was the sound of two bandmates hating each other and hating what they were doing, and 1994′s self-titled disc was an all-Astbury experimentation that failed to sell and eventually ended the band.
In 1999, Ian and Billy reformed the group and roared back with 2001′s Beyond Good and Evil. Despite its lack of sales success, it’s still one of my favourite hard rock albums of all time, an underrated unknown gem. After a few years off while Ian fronted The Doors (or whatever they were called), they came back with 2007′s Born Into This, another experiment that came pretty close, but failed, to capture the energy of the early days.
I’m entering my 40s, but I still cling to the music of my teenaged years. Sad, I know. But it’s what resonates for me. And there is no recording that matters more than Love. Let me break it down for you:
- Nirvana: Love opens with this searing, soaring guitar workout that captures exactly why and how Billy Duffy changed the sound of alternative rock. Long before he settled back into a career based on fat chunky riffs, he used a Gretsch White Falcon, its body stuffed with spray foam, to heap layer after layer of British buzz over a driving rhythm. Young bands, take note: This is how you open an album
- Big Neon Glitter: The Cult has a tradition of opening big, then taking a left turn with track number 2. In this case, Big Neon Glitter is a very different track than its predecessor, and is very much Astbury’s turn to let us hear that epic rock howl. “Sex from the hip at the crack of a whip?” Indeed.
- Love: The title track gives it all back to Billy, who may have gone and purchased every effects pedal available in London just before recording it. This is the song I used to use to try to sell my metalhead friends on The Cult, but it rarely worked. My only beef with it is the heavy echo on Ian’s voice; at the time I suppose it worked in the context of Billy’s psychedelic wah-fest, but now it sounds a bit tinny in digital form. But stay tuned. When it comes to psychedelica, Billy was just getting started.
- Brother Wolf, Sister Moon: This is a moody, dramatic semi-ballad that highlights Astbury’s over-the-t0p lyrics. He’s often described as writing “enigmatic” songs, but I’ve never thought so. He sings things pretty straightforward, telling you what he’s thinking. And this, despite all the attempts to figure out what the hell’s going on, sounds to me like a young Englishman’s attempt to write about First Nations mythology.
- Rain: One of the album’s standouts is also its second single. Duffy dives back into his effects rack as Astbury howls one of his catchiest, most memorable vocal hooks. I also have a 12-inch remix of this called (Here Comes The) Rain which is even better. Buried under the heavily layered mix, though, there’s a chugging little power riff that hints at what The Cult would evolve into in the future.
- The Phoenix: Side 2 (yeah, I still think of albums that way) opens with Duffy’s most sinister guitar work yet, a twitching wah-wah workout that sounds like the soundtrack to a movie about punk rockers in hell. This is the song that most sounds like something a band called The Cult would record.
- Hollow Man: Here’s my least favourite song on the album, and I often skip it. Again, this is Astbury indulging his literary leanings over a track I suspect Duffy churned out in a day or two.
- Revolution: The album’s second single was not a favourite of mine at the time. It’s a mid-tempo ballad, very gentle, very subtle. As the years went by, though, and as I got older and stuff, it grew on me more and more. I still listen to it a lot on its own. There’s nothing exceptional about it, really, and I suspect it was released as a single because somebody thought it had commercial appeal. It didn’t.
- She Sells Sanctuary: Ah, the big gun. I like how it’s buried at the end of the LP. Sanctuary wasn’t recorded as part of the Love sessions; it was a one-off single recorded with drummer Nigel Preston, who was turfed before the rest of the LP was recorded. I am not going to dwell on She Sells Sanctuary here. It is a perfect pop song, a perfect rock song, and one of the most iconic recordings of the 20th century. I own about 20 different remixes of it, and they’re all fantastic.
- Black Angel: The Love album closes with this oddity, a dirge about death. This is a pretty depressing tune, one that sounds the most like the band’s roots in Southern Death Cult. I can guarantee you that it’s never been played at a wedding.
There are several other tunes that sometimes pop up on versions of Love, as well as on the various (seemingly endless) 12-inch remix singles, EPs and 45s: Judith, Sunrise, All Souls Avenue, Little Face, No. 13, The Snake, etc. Of these, it’s pretty clear why they didn’t make the final cut, although Little Face has always been a favourite of mine.
And, like I mentioned, there are remixes galore. The Cult loved to issue extra discs featuring outtakes, new versions, remixes, etc. Back when I still had my Cult collection intact, the LPs took up a whole shelf on my wall: six actual albums, along with four or five 12-inch singles per album … it was insane.
I’m looking forward to The Cult’s show, not just to hear these songs live again — some of them haven’t been played since the Love tour 25 years ago — but to remember what it was like to be a kid in blue-collar Northern Ontario who liked this weird band from England. A lot of my hair mistakes of the 80s can be linked to all of this.
For more on The Cult, check out this episode of Big Bad Hair, featuring Jakob. Jakob can also be found here.