Ian Astbury has forged a career in music since 1981 when he formed Southern Death Cult, who lead the charge for what was to become known as Goth. When the band split up, Astbury formed Death Cult with ex-Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy, before shortening their name again and becoming conquering rock titans The Cult.
Southern Death Cult were effectively the standard-bearers for a new musical movement, known at first as Positive Punk, before picking up the Goth tag. People came to their shows, met like minded souls and formed their own bands. Their importance on this emerging scene is difficult to overestimate, without Southern Death Cult, music may have taken quite a different path in the early 80s.
But before all this began, he seemed to shuttle between Canada and the UK. His family relocated to Canada when Astbury in 1973 when he was 11, and he returned under his own steam in 1980. In between these times, punk had exploded in Britain and Astbury wanted to experience it for himself, something he did to spectacular effect.
He chose Liverpool as the place where he could immerse himself in the new world created by punk, although his absence meant that he had some ground to make up. His time here has been quite undocumented, the experiences that fed into his young mind are largely unknown.
But to gain some more insight into Astbury’s wilderness years, Louder Than War has spoken to one Mark Jordan, who gave Ian Astbury and his brother Brian a place to stay, along with friendship. This generous move was repaid when Brian Astbury later told Jordan that if he hadn’t had offered them his home, the pair may well have returned to Canada and Southern Death Cult would not have existed, at least as we knew them.
To be honest, given the number of questions I was actually able to ask, this is more of a commentary than an interview. Mark Jordan is chatty and blessed with an excellent memory.
So here is the story of Ian Astbury’s time in Liverpool, told from the unique perspective of someone who shared his home and his life with the Astbury Brothers.
I suppose the first question is where did you meet?
“Well Doreen [Allen – worked at Eric’s in Liverpool] says that she remembers him and his brother when they would come into Eric’s, but I think they were still in Canada at that time, so I’m gonna say Lincoln’s Inn. I can’t think of any other venues besides Brady’s in that period that were open for punks.
And we all knew each other from Eric’s there, so I remember someone new turning up. And they looked quite aghast or fascinated. They looked like they’d found where they wanted to be in this punk place. So I think I just went over and started gabbing to them.
At this time Ian was living in the small bedsit in Birkenhead. In those days that seemed like quite a far distance away from Liverpool for some of us. It might have been the same night or the night after I went over to stay there and play records and stuff like that.
He loved Echo Beach by Martha and the and I remember he had a Genesis album. [Laughs] You realise later on that if you weren’t in London you could miss out on stuff, but being in Canada must have been even harder to access things that are happening. You’re getting things on the 3rd wave or 4th wave. It’s not as easy to transmit as it was for us on a small island.
Brian went to Glasgow and Ian went back to Canada for a while. When he came back and I was living in my own in Ivanhoe Road behind Lark Lane. I won’t say which number it was because it might end up like Strawberry Fields with a blue plaque and lots of Japanese tourists outside. [Laughs]
It was only a small two-room thing, but I think I was the earliest of our gang to have our own flat, so it became a bit of a meeting place for us all. And then I got an airmail letter from Ian asking of he could stay at mine. Brian wanted to come down from Glasgow as well, I think Liverpool must have seemed quite exciting at the time, with lots going on.
Ian was always likely to go off somewhere, he liked to go on little trips and adventures. He was quite adventurous even then, he had an adventurous spirit. To leave the comfort of Canada behind and come over to England with his brother was quite a big step at that age, I don’t think many of us would do that.“
When was this?
“I was about 19/20, it would have been about 1980. We were all branching off really, because Eric’s had shut down and we were sort of transposing from punk to like either flaptops or other post-punk stuff like Bauhaus. I was trying to look like Pete Murphy, so I gave Ian most of my Seditionaries tops and stuff like that.
I was thinking the other night about how he got into his American Indian look, and I guess it must have been his time in Canada, I’m sure he would have had some thoughts about there and we had both read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and Black Elk Speaks.
He went to live with Crass for a while in Dial House, left his stuff at mine and went down there. He was obviously soaking up a lot of things. Or catching up maybe, maybe that’s what he was doing.
Ian was chosen by Lin and Paul Sangster to be the singer in [Liverpool band] Send No Flowers, but that didn’t happen and I became the singer instead. That lasted one gig! [Laughs]
I knew I would have to leave for London to go to art college, so I knew I’d be leaving the flat. I had some friends in Bradford, called Joolz and Justin, and they were still collecting the waifs and strays of the punk scene in their house, so Ian moved to Bradford and was sending me letters and photographs of himself with his native American haircut and telling me he was in a band called Southern Death Cult.
It was one of those times when everyone you knew was in a band, so when Ian told me he was in one it wasn’t a big thing, you never expected that 30 odd years down the line we’d still be talking about them.
Then they were on the Oxford Road Show and The Tube and you could see thy were getting a really good following, and not just from our age, but a lot of younger ones. I think Southern Death Cult fans, and then later on Death Cult fans, had a real love for and a real resonance with that time. I’ve never met a Southern Death Cult fan who said ‘oh yeah, I used to like them’ it’s always ‘I love them and I love everything about them’.
When I was living in London, I saw that Southern Death Cult were playing at Heaven, I think with Bauhaus. I remember I was backstage talking to Ian and Brian and somebody burst through the door shouting ‘U2, U2 are here!’ and it seemed like they were about to be co-opted into that kind of thing.
And then about 1985, I was leaving the Ritz club in Manchester and as I was about to get in somebody’s car, Ian came up to me and started talking, saying how great it was to see me. And I said ‘yeah, but I’ve got to go, I’m getting a lift’, that stupid kind of ‘I’ll see you later’ kind of attitude. And then you don’t see them later at all, but you don’t know that at the time.
Then I didn’t see Ian for a while. Not because I didn’t want to, but everybody has plans to stay in touch and then other things just take over don’t they?
But I found Brian on the Internet about 10/15 years ago and we got talking, asking him how he was doing, and he said ‘if you had never offered us your place to live in Liverpool, Ian wouldn’t have come back from Canada and there’d have been no Southern Death Cult and no Cult.
And that’s one of those Sliding Doors kind of moments, where something did happen that made a difference.
But whatever Ian’s done, he’s done off his own back. No one can take away the fact that he pursued or created the images he had and the music he’s written. And it’s really crossed into so many genres and bands and reached so many people.
How amazing is it to think that one minute he’s living in someone’s flat off Lark Lane listening to The End by The Doors, and the next minute he’s singing it on stage with them.”
How would you describe him as a youngster, what was he like?
“He was fine, he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed really. I think he found something to get him out of the rut he was in, and later on, when he started to meet new people I think he liked that acceptance and being part of a tribe.
He was obviously intelligent, he was obviously creative and he was quite brave to embrace the Native American image in somewhere like Bradford. You think of that kind of thing only happening in London, but I think that was a brave and visually impressive thing to do.”
Southern Death Cult were the standard bearers and the catalyst for what was to become Goth. What do you think would have happened to all that if Ian hadn’t come back from Canada and the band never got together?
“Well, I don’t know, it’s a hard one to say. But knowing Ian and knowing how far he’s come with it all, I can’t see him just taking a job in a supermarket or something, because obviously the drive was in him to do something. You know, he travelled to a strange city then he went to another strange city and he’d not been afraid to take those chances and those steps.
I dislike the term goth for the likes of Joy Division, Siouxsie or Southern Death Cult. I don’t mind it for the later groups, but I don’t think Ian would consider himself to be goth in any way, shape or form.
And look how long he’s been going, he’s seen bands come and go while he’s been doing this.”
Mark’s memory gives the impression of a young man wanting to join in with something that he had perhaps missed out on when living in a different continent. But join in Ian Astbury most certainly did. He became on of the prime movers and shakers of his age, a testament to his drive, his determination and his talent.
Sometimes life can hinge on a certain point in time, and the offer of a place to bed down in Liverpool seems to have been such a moment for Ian Astbury. Thankfully for a generation of music fans, the sliding door opened and let him in. And for that, a whole tribe is thankful.
Southern Death Cult can be found on Facebook here
More work by Banjo is available on his profile here