Going The Whole Hog: The Cult’s Sonic Temple Revisited

Val Siebert looks back a three decades to when Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy were staging a fight back with their biggest selling album to date

There are not many singers who can match Ian Astbury’s vocal strengths. He of growling baritone and masterful wail; of masculine power and viscous vibrato. At a time when the charts preferred their rock singers screeching in a ball-squeezing falsetto, his distinctive croon was a deep and resonating departure from the norm. The Cult were often seen as outsiders in the late 80s, a fact that was confirmed during the band’s tour in support of Electric, the album preceding Sonic Temple, which featured Guns N’Roses as the opening act. By the end of the dates Guns were outselling the headliners (in terms of record sales) in a mind-boggling fashion. Whether any of this added to the band’s motivations is hard to say, but coming off that tour they would go in to the studio to produce the biggest selling album of their career. Not that this would be a particular diversion from Their Sound – even guitarist Billy Duffy would describe Sonic Temple as a mix of the previous Love and Electric albums – but it was more refined. Duffy, who once claimed to not even be among the best guitarists on his street as a lad, was only getting better. Up until this point he had an interesting and distinctive style, but he wasn’t what you would call a guitar god. That was soon to change on Sonic Temple, where the riffs got chunkier and the solos became more fluid and numerous. It was here where he, along with the rest of the band, wrenched their boots from the labels that dogged them early on.

A couple of years ago I delved into the history of the Batcave club, the so-called birthplace of the goth movement and a regular hang out for the young Ian Astbury, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch and a whole host of other enigmatic figures who were part of the dark aesthetic of the early 80s. David J of Bauhaus had some particularly enlightening things to say about the movement. Especially given his band’s initial hatred of the label, it was fascinating to hear about the underlying aspects of the subculture that even he was able to respect so many years later. "The thing that runs through it still is the essential romantic impulse – that dark, romantic impulse." Although specifically referring to the movement that erupted from the Batcave, this can be equally applied to the early influences of goth music. In particular, The Doors influenced most of the darker post punk bands including Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. For that time in the late 60s, it was this permeating dark romantic quality that set The Doors apart from all of their contemporaries. Jim Morrison was obviously a preacher of the darker side of romance and Ian Astbury was one of his disciples. Upon hearing ‘The End’ while watching Apocalypse Now! as a teen, Astbury was struck on a spiritual level and would consistently channel Morrison’s brooding charisma in live performance and on record throughout his career. It didn’t hurt that he more than slightly resembled the Lizard King.

Carrying that admiration, Astbury easily fitted into the post-punk/goth scene oozing out of Britain’s underground clubs and found a great foil in Duffy, the Manc who had already played a role in the formation of The Smiths. Together they built a sound that quickly began evolving, from post punk, to psychedelia and finally to hard rock (thanks to the coaxing of producer Rick Rubin during the making of Electric). Though diverse it was not, the album harkened a fascinating and potentially surprising new step for the band. Despite slotting neatly into a very of-the-time trend at its inception, The Cult began moving backwards in influence with Electric, arguably becoming more true to their roots. There are two Cults, the one before Electric and the one after. This often splits the fanbase as well.

Sonic Temple is rarely the die-hard fan favourite, but it was the band’s most commercially successful. It is the apex of their brand of strutting, ripping rock, while still maintaining a modicum of the post punk identity they started with. It’s Cult Mark 2 at the height of its powers. They always had the potential (take out the drone created by his alternated plucking of the open D string on ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, add some more distortion and a lot of volume and you have the makings of a stadium rocker) but Sonic Temple is where they really perfected the sound. They moved into the realms of mainstream hard rock while the glam rock scene was erupting, but they were something else. Astbury sits somewhere between the bleak outlook of Peter Murphy and the larger-than-life Steven Tyler. Not as tongue in cheek but equal in magnitude and charisma. The machismo isn’t caricaturized; the women of Astbury’s lyrics have power over him, rather than the other way around. Astbury could never have written ‘Girls Girls Girls’ or ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady)’, he was far too serious. Nor could he have pulled the likes of ‘Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores’ or ‘Stigmata Martyr’ from the ether. I don’t think he would have wanted to write any of these songs anyway.

The Cult did however make good use of a very of-the-time producer. Bob Rock, who would incur the bile of more than a few music lovers later in his career, was brought in to produce Sonic Temple. He would go on to also work with Motley Crue and Bon Jovi but is especially maligned for the ‘ruining’ of Metallica (at least according to early fans of the band). However, he does a stellar job with The Cult on this record and captures their energy wonderfully. The production is thick and muddy, which may not be the preference of some fans, but here it allows the post punk atmospheric effects to mesh seamlessly with the ball-busting rock & roll power. No other album of the time sounds like it.

Lyrically, Sonic Temple plays on many of the most pervading Astbury infatuations. ‘American Horse’ is a classic depiction of the American native peoples’ oppression. His preoccupation with the Warhol superstars also shines through with ‘Edie (Ciao Baby)’, an ode to the tragic, pixie-haired model Edie Sedgwick who was born into riches and plucked from the crowds as an ‘it girl’. ‘Edie’ is a huge highlight for the record and one of a few tunes Astbury would dedicate to The Factory (he also would also later write songs about Nico). It was written in New York City, in one of many examples of Astbury’s locale-based writing processes. The most obvious of these is the hard-hitting, well, ‘New York City’, about the 24-hour culture rounding up on the murder of John Lennon and featuring Iggy Pop in a speaking role.

Album opener ‘Sun King’ was inspired by a stint in France and named for Louis XIV. Described as a "he dog song" by Astbury, it announces the band’s arrival with the bravado of a sovereign surveying his kingdom, but also shows the Sun King to be a slave to his lust and decadent trappings. The soaring ‘Sweet Soul Sister’ was also written in Paris, describing the Americanisation of Europe and beginning with a hymnal organ before launching into a stadium-worthy blues rocker full of Duffy schizophrenia; pinch harmonics, drones, and classic rock ripping.

The best known and most successful track on Sonic Temple is unquestionably ‘Fire Woman’, with Ian at his wailing and ad-libbing best. It harks back to ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, but adds immensity, power and pop sensibility. The video was constantly on rotation at MTV and as a result, features the most popular image of the band: leather trousers, Astbury’s glorious mane under a skull-adorned Stetson and Billy Duffy ripping in stances one (stood knees apart and bent) and two (stood knees apart and bent with headstock pointing upward). The opening and closing arpeggiated riffs also frame the hard rock within some late 60s Byrds-worthy jangling.

‘Soul Asylum’ is the token underrated track, with its dramatic building and unapologetic headbanging procession. Billy Duffy interjects delicate licks over the vocals and chunky fuzz riffing that trudges along ominously underneath. The only track approaching filler has to be ‘Wake Up Time For Freedom’, which is apparently about a recurring dream involving an arrest, but with the chanting of the title it comes across more as a power-to-the-people preacher tune.

The four singles off the album all scored within the top 20 of the US rock charts and brought the band a windfall of new fans. They would try to replicate the success of Sonic Temple on the band’s next album Ceremony, but the record didn’t seem to carry the same weight. It was too glossy and overthought. Sonic Temple was a moment where the band’s peak of songwriting was met with a tightening grip on their roots. But this was a different band altogether than the group that launched from England’s gothic/post punk underground. The Cult may have risen from a very particular scene, but looking at Sonic Temple onwards, it’s clear that they would never be a true part of that scene again. Sonic Temple proves that this version of The Cult is a rock band that owed more to the late 60s and early 70s moody heavy rock than to either the early 80s post punk or to the mid to late 80s glam rock scene. This is the band that still exists today; The Cult of pre-Electric is never coming back. But if you are a fan who falls more heavily on the later, meatier side of this division, Sonic Temple is the whole hog.

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