The 1989 MTV Music Awards was the Cult's chance to conquer the world. The success of its fourth album, Sonic Temple, had assured the English band a prime spot on the immensely popular broadcast. But prior to that night, Ian Astbury the Cult's lead singer, whose unpredictability and stage presence recalled Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop decided he would not bend to the winds that were thought to control his behavior. Instead, he would do the exact opposite. If they mostly his management, he felt wanted him to exude rebellion, freedom, and sensuality in a sit, roll-over, and beg fashion, they had another thing coming.
The stage director pointed his finger, and the world waited for Astbury to explode like a firecracker. Instead, he chose, as he had so many times in his life, to go against the grain. If they wanted Morrison in Miami, he would give them Pat Boone in Myrtle Beach. While the anticlimactic performance may have seemed like an opportunity blown at the time, Astbury's defiance helped to maintain a semblance of the Cult's integrity when arena rockers were sent packing in the early '90s.
Born in England and transplanted to Canada with his family when he was twelve, Astbury felt like an outsider. His English accent and different look made him an outcast. He rebelled against the jock cliques by smoking pot and listening to David Bowie and Iggy Pop. He tells a story that sounds very similar to Jim Morrison's tale of being possessed by an Indian at an early age. Astbury claims that, on a school field trip to the Six Nations Reservation in Canada, he too was possessed by an elder American Indian. He says he hasn't been the same since. Whether fact or fiction, it explains Astbury's obsession with tribal culture, spiritualism, and feathers.
After losing his mother to cancer when he was seventeen, Astbury became a wild child. He left Canada and lived the punk-rock lifestyle in Belfast, Ireland another homeless, mohawked, lost youth. Within a year, he surfaced in London and channeled his anger and his energy into music. Astbury's first band, the Southern Death Cult, is considered an early member of the Goth scene. In fact, Astbury even takes credit for coining the term "Goth." Andi Sex Gang, lead singer of the early '80s band Sex Gang Children, was notorious for wearing theatrical clothing, holing himself inside of his tenement, and watching television all day in the dark. His big eyebrows and white face gave Astbury the inspiration to call him "Count Busy Goth." The bands who followed, including Siouxsie & the Banshees, were called Gothic whores.
By the time Astbury hooked up with Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy in 1983, the music scene in London was in transition. Punk rock was growing stagnant. The Cult hoped to jump on the pendulum as it swung back toward the guitar rock sound of the late '60s and early '70s. "Punk rock was like Year Zero," says Astbury. "The decks were cleared. A lot of our reference points were pre-punk rock. We were aspiring to get out, away from that. I think a record that we were listening to a lot was Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones. A song like "Go West" [from the Cult's 1984 release Dreamtime] was more reminiscent of the opening of "Gimme Shelter." We wanted to know how the music was really made. Three chords weren't enough for us."
While the Sex Pistols and Clash were considered scripture at the time, the Cult included guitar solos and arena-rock riffs built layer upon layer. As if to signal their anti-anti-establishment viewpoint, they titled their 1985 record Love, which contains the timeless track "She Sells Sanctuary." For Love's follow-up, the Cult sought a new musical direction. The yearlong recording session was supposed to yield a project titled Peace. "We were going to have a B-52 bomber and peace sign" on the cover, Astbury says.
Unhappy with what they had recorded (it sounded like Love Part II), Astbury and Duffy went to New York to work with burgeoning producer Rick Rubin, who had helped shape the unique sounds of Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. "When I heard Rubin's production, it was, like, dry and raw and really exciting," Astbury says. "It really captured the character of the musicians. That's how I looked at original rock and roll. It's the real power of the musicians and their own sensuality. We just went "Wow.' That was a great way to record this band."
The Peace material was re-recorded at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York and retitled Electric. The 1987 release, which is considered by many to be the band's best, featured testosterone-fueled anthems like "Wild Flower" and "Love Removal Machine."
The band's next release, Sonic Temple, was embraced by the Whitesnake and Aerosmith crowds, which didn't sit too well with its diehard audience. "It was the most highly visual, commercially successful Cult record," Astbury says. "Once everybody saw that, that is what we were nailed on. A lot of people weren't aware of our past and the journey to Sonic Temple. So a lot of people were like "Oh, God, how can they be doing that?' The thing about the Cult was, we had evolved into kind of like sensual things. I was trying to define the sensual experience to journalists, and they weren't getting it, because it was something that had to be experienced. I was thinking, "Why aren't they getting it? Why are they just looking at this as some monolithic, crass, rock and roll thing?' They were looking at very superficial elements, which were very easy to pick apart."
As with Morrison and Iggy Pop, Astbury began to pay a heavy price for sacrificing his soul on stage night after night. Reality and fantasy blurred, and the tightly wound Astbury began to implode. His father's death and the band's growing success added to the pressures, making his behavior highly unpredictable. In his mind, he was rebelling against what he perceived to be attempts to control him. He now understands what a burden he was, especially to Duffy.
"It must have been an incredible pressure to be around me when I was like that," Astbury says. "It must have been really difficult not to know what was coming next that sort of classic, self-inflicted thing. I was getting carted out to jail in performances. For whatever reason, people seemed to really get off on it. They really liked the idea that I was this self-destructive, fuckin' esoteric fool who would go out and say these things and explode. It was this wild, intoxicated, dramatic theatrical thing that was happening. I was really caught up in it. I really believe in music and the power of music."
The 1991 album Ceremony began the Cult's descent, which culminated in 1995 with the band's breakup. By that time, most fans hadn't known the Cult was still together. Needing a break from being Ian Astbury the rock star, he traveled the world Tibet, Nepal, Cuba exploring other cultures in hopes of finding a better understanding of his own life. Upon his return, Astbury recorded a solo debut, which is ready for release. However, Astbury isn't necessarily ready to be a solo artist just yet. He and Duffy are together again, touring with Matt Sorum on drums and Martyn LeNoble on bass.
"I think the Cult was definitely unfinished business," Astbury says. "I think, because of my inconsistency with my behavior, it was always nagging in the back of my mind that I walked away from something prematurely. I didn't really embrace the full concept of having a partner. I never really embraced Billy or completely honored him. Whereas now, in time of reflection, I realize how much I need him in terms of a full experience, because he balances me up and I balance him up.
"I don't think we've done our best work together. There is nobody else I want to play with. When I finished my solo record, I thought, What do I want to do? I want to be in a fucking rock and roll band. I miss it."