The Cult: Electric (Beggars Banquet)
LP/CD/DL (& Tape)
Available since 1987
The Cult’s current Electric 13 tour prompts Frazer Cooke to reminiscence about his first encounter with the seminal album in the humdrum surroundings of a school lesson.
This is one of those reviews where I’m supposed to start off saying something like “hoary rock gods The Cult are currently touring their classic album Electric ….” or similar but that feels incongruous as I’m being encouraged to reflect on a time in 1987 when they were far from gods, not quite rock and the music press wasn’t sure what to make of Electric.
Retrospective reviews proclaim The Cult’s third album as a stylistic shift that heralded their reinvention as an America conquering stadium rock band. My first exposure to Electric was in the less monumental surrounds of Mr Broad’s maths class. Absent mindedly graffiting my exercise book with a biro rendering of the Beastie Boyslogo I received a poke in the ribs. As I turned to face the culprit he shoved a cassette at me.
“Lend us that Beastie Boys album and you can borrow this”.
My schoolmate proffered me his recently purchased copy of Electric. I would have been happy to lend him my copy of Licensed to Ill without a reciprocal exchange but he was insistent.
“It’s just hippy rubbish isn’t it?” I asked, my teenage mind taking a too literal view of band names and getting confused about musical genres.
“Nah, they’ve gone heavy metal” he assured me.
Looking at the cover I wasn’t convinced, the fanged logo had the required heavy metal virility, but the photo of the band and the trippy song titles still said “hippy goth” (I didn’t really know what hippies or goths were).
I don’t recall what my initial impressions were when I first popped the tape in the player and heard Billy Duffy’s rubber riffing on Wildflower. It’s an oft used cliché of music writing to talk about how a first hearing of an album sent the author’s life on a different course that still partially defines who they are today. In my case I don’t think it did. I eventually became a big fan of The Cult but that was probably when I became exposed to their wider discography rather than an instant conversion after hearing ‘Electric’. It did, however, clearly pique my interest.
It’s a well worn tale that the band, unhappy with the first recording of the album, shipped to New York to get Rick Rubin to mix the first single. He convinced them to record the whole album again from scratch. The opening track Wildflower has been described as the best song AC/DC never wrote. It’s true the album bears stylistic hallmarks of “classic” hard rock but the description does The Cult a disservice, they’re a better band than AC/DC, whose long history undoubtedly has moments of sheer brilliance but is threaded through with puerile euphemisms and the endless repetition of a stylistic formula. The Cult did one album in the style of AC/DC then moved on.
It’s an experimental album, which is paradoxical, considering it’s one built on very simple ideas. It’s the raw sound of four instruments – guitar, bass, drums and vocals – and songs constructed from iron clad riffs. An experiment in how far that template can be stretched. Rubin was early in his production career and had formed his skills on hip-hop (ironically including the aforementioned Licensed To Ill which went the other way in the math’s class tape trade). I’ve argued before that AC/DC’s Back In Black is a hip-hop record and it’s clear Rubin applied AC/DC’s production aesthetic to his work. On Electric he got to apply that style, refracted through hip-hop, to a ‘classic’ rock line up. The album production is crisp, direct and unadorned by excessive effects. Considering, that in the history of The Cult the various bass players and drummers have been marginalised behind the Astbury/Duffy duopoly, the rhythm section is unusually prominent in the mix. Bass and drums are up front and the guitars and vocals are made to work for attention. Billy Duffy isn’t allowed any flowery overdubs or phased effects; songs stand or fall on solid riffs. Ian Astbury too isn’t afforded any special favours in the mix democracy, he is not simply an orator of lyrics but his voice is an instrument in its own right and the words reflect this, the record contains every combination of “baby”, “baby”, “baby” and “child”. Words are not used because they make sense but because they sound good. Something XC-NN simultaneously understood even as they mocked, when they sampled Love Removal Machine (without permission) on Young, Stupid and White.
Yes, the lyrics are sometimes absurdly hilarious – Peace Dog contains the lines “War, she’s a whore” and “B52 baby, way up in the sky, come drop your lovin’ on me, child” – but they work and it’s fun. You won’t get much poetic insight from analysing the lyrics, the songs are mostly tales of women who are analogous with bombers, plants or ….. um …. an apparatus for the extraction of affection. Astbury, though, is one of the great rock vocalists, with a better range than Brian Johnson or Bon Scott’s hoarse shouting and a more muscular timbre than Steven Tyler’s feline squeal.
For the majority of the album, the experiment works. There are no other instruments allowed, no mandolin interludes, acoustic intros or cello accompaniments. The lead riff has to carry the song in the way AC/DC’s Back In Black or Aerosmith’s Walk This Way does. Rhythmically it varies from the simple 4/4 beats of the lead singles to more intricate drumming on Peace Dog and Bad Fun. The album photo wasn’t the only evidence that not all of The Cult’s gothic rock sensibilities had been jettisoned, Love Removal Machine alongside its psychedelic title also rides a bassline of the sort that defined the post punk sound of Killing Joke and Joy Division. The same kind of rumbling groove that characterised their earlier singles Rain and She Sells Sanctuary but with guitars that granulate rather than jangle. Early on in the album sequence Electric Ocean just about gets away with reprising the Wildflower riff but by Born To Be Wild – which is a competent but not essential cover of the Steppenwolf classic – the musical template has been stretched thin and the last couple of tracks sound tired. It’s an album I’ve revisited intermittently throughout the years, its lack of complexity meaning the weaker songs don’t have anything more to offer and lack the longevity of the singles – but those singles are solid enough to stand for an eternity.
It was never going to impress the British music press because it’s ultimately an album constructed to entertain, one that was made to be played loud and played live, which is why the band’s decision to go out on the road this autumn and play it in its entirety for the first time is destined to be enormously entertaining and an experience you should certainly seize.
All words by Frazer Cooke. More of Frazer’s ramblings on Louder Than War can be found here. Frazer is a founder member of Shankfist Wreckage Technique, currently the only hip-hop collective boasting members from New York, Berlin, London and Macclesfield.