As The Cult head back to the studio, we thought it was high time to have a closer look at what was once one of the first post punk supergroups. Ian Cheek looks back on The Southern Death Cult, Death Cult, and their final incarnation as The Cult.
“The fatman takes away what isn’t is/He weakens you me/ Lust of his life/ Money/ Life/ Your money is his life” Fatman – Southern Death Cult.
Mere words. Simple words. But in the early eighties they and the band that wrote them meant the world to me. There were other bands, naturally, who fired the burning, directionless passions of a young, isolated, otherwise disillusioned teenager, but nobody spoke to me like Southern Death Cult. We had Killing Joke and their incredible power but were alienated by their violence. We had Bauhaus and their seducing drama but the studious, serious aura allowed little room for fun. We had Theatre of Hate then Spear of Destiny and their sheer pleasure of witnessing both but were troubled by their imagery. Mostly, to a young teenager growing up in a village fifteen miles north of Leeds, they were all Southerners and I could never feel like I belonged. Southern Death Cult were from Bradford. Of all places, Bradford. Nine miles away. They may have come via several other cities, even countries, but Southern Death Cult were now in Bradford. And they spoke with Northern accents.
It’s difficult to recall exactly when I first saw Southern Death Cult, but I remember it was in Keighley, just outside Bradford, I remember who I went with and how we got there, I remember the place was half empty, I remember I told my mum I was going to the Youth Club with Dean, and I remember to this day the uplifting, jubilant, tearful effect it had on me. Here was a band who had lived a little, despite their youth, who between them had suffered the isolation of the military, of racism, of spending a childhood being whisked from city to city, nation to nation, but who had come together in celebration of life and damnation of oppression. Southern Death Cult were never just another band.
They had formed in 1981 at a time when I began to discover there really was more to life than school and football, albeit never as important as the latter. We were proud we had found them. It was an accidental discovery admittedly, but we were in the right place at the right time and we took them to our hearts. There were numerous, joyous nights in their company, long before the rest of the company, long before the rest of the country sat up and took notice. They were ours and in our celebration we shouted it from the roof tops. Just as the teenagers of the fifties had James Dean, those of the sixties had Elvis and those of the seventies had the Sex Pistols and Che Guevara, to the naive and adolescent teenager in the early eighties, Southern Death Cult were the noble honourable Indians, fighting for their land, their freedom, their future. And we were their tribe. The rest of the world, with their greed, their power and their oppression, were never more than John Wayne and his slavering fascist fools.’
Ian Astbury, born in Merseyside before moving to Canada with his family during his early teens, was always the focal point. His outspoken lyrics and flamboyant attire would always ensure the limelight, but Southern Death Cult were never less than a gathering of four like minded souls. Barry Jepson was the quietly spoken, impossibly handsome bassist who spoke little but eerily commanded attention whenever he did. Buzz Burrows played guitar like the Devil was sat on his shoulder, his blonde, ludicrous, lopsided hair hiding the concentration on his face. The boys liked Ian, the girls like Barry, the Goths dreamt of Buzz. But to those who had witnessed, throughout their youth, the strength and the courage of the Asian communities of Bradford, in the face of seemingly endless violence, oppression, fire bombing and petty day by day racism, the real hero was Aki Nawaz Quereshi, a drummer with modest talent but incredible will. He turned his back on the meek, accepting the fate of any typical Asian youth in a town like Bradford, and stood up to be counted. I witnessed first hand some of the insults and slurs he suffered at the hands of supposed followers of the band and never once did I see him crack. We can never know the entire effect of his courage, but slowly Southern Death Cult’s audience became a celebration of youth, Black, White, and Asain, rejoicing together in a climate where racism was otherwise heartbreakingly acceptable. Aki’s contribution, just by being there was immense.
Their debut single arrived in 1982, a double A-side featuring ‘Fatman’ and ‘Moya’ on Situation Two Records, not only the band’s two finest songs but almost a statement of intent. ‘Fatman’ spoke of greed, of ugly commerce; ‘Moya’ celebrated the culture of North American Indians and denounced their oppression. Listening to the songs now it’s almost inescapable how weak they sound, but that 7″ single stayed at the top of the indie charts week upon week and announced the arrival of Southern Death Cult to the world. It was to be their only official release but a compilation, simply called ‘Southern Death Cult’, emerged the following year on Beggars Banquet, featuring tracks from Radio One sessions for John Peel and David Jensen, a couple of live throwaways, and alternative versions of ‘Fatman’ and ‘Moya’. The record company courted the album as an ‘official bootleg’, but it was really never more than cashing in on a band who had captured the hearts and imaginations of sizeable following.
“The Southern Death Cult have a future because they acknowledge the past” Melody Maker in early 1983 Ian Astbury, citing the musical limitations of the band and acknowledging his persual of a harder rock sound, split the Southern Death Cult. Almost immediately, the birth of the Death Cult was announced. Astbury enlisted the services of former Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy, and bassist Jamie Stewart and drummer Ray Mondo from the little known Ritual. Although sad to see the demise of Barry, Buzz and Aki and those fond, familiar memories of the band, any misgivings about the new direction and personnel were quickly shunned once the new material was heard.
The first Death Cult release, the ‘Brothers Grimm’ EP, featuring the title track, ‘Ghost Dance’, ‘Horse Nation’ and ‘Christians’, emerged on Situation Two in July 1983 and immediately positioned itself at the top of the indie charts. Having chosen to play their first gigs in Europe and Scotland, far away from the critical eye of the London press it was two months before they played their debut show in the capital. Those initial dates, majestic though they were, failed to mask the fact that the band had moved away from their roots. had forsaken the days of intimate club gigs and had now become, despite their reluctance, an indie supergroup. The songs remained as thrilling as ever, the message as vivid as before, but something had been left behind, something we cherished.
Their second single, ‘God’s Zoo’, again on Situation Two, was released in October 1983 and witnessed the first recording session involving new drummer Nigel Preston, like Duffy a former member of Theatre of Hate and, doubtless to his shame, the Sex Gang Children. These two singles marked the extent of the band’s entire record output, although another Radio One session for the David Jensen programme spawned four further recordings: ‘A Flower in the Desert’, a radically different version of the song later defined by the Cult; ‘Butterflies’; ‘Too Young’, which eventually became ‘Rider in the Snow’; and ‘With Love’, which surfaced many years later as ‘Sea and Sky’.
“Ian Astbury would look a complete prat if he didn’t sound so frantically urgent, so chronically wound up” Melody Maker . Barely a year after the initial name change, the band shortended it further and became the Cult on 13th February 1984. By this time, the image had degenerated into a troubled fusion of Spandau Ballet and Adam and the Ants, one small step from feather cuts and boas. Much of their early audience had become disillusioned with the band’s direction, one that favoured a harder, bluesier, more psychedelic rock and had moved on, leaving a new, substantial audience to tread their path. Where once Astbury had highlighted the plight of the oppressor, he now sang of wearing his hair long as if it were the ultimate defiance. The band revelled in drugs, they trashed machinery and smashed liquor stores, adopted the imagery of the Vietnam Conflict and, most shameful of all, undertook a full UK tour as support to Big Country. The excesses took their toll and Astbury himself seemed determined to put on the weight and live out the life of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, his new found heros.
The Cult’s debut single, ‘Spiritwalker’, released in April 1984 on Situation Two, became an anthem for legions of disaffected Goth rockers, for whom masking their ugliness with layers of make-up and tassels became something of an art. The song itself seemed indicative of the band’s dispiriting direction, a diluted and cursory glance at North American Indian culture amid waves of Westernised, hallucinogenic rock. The second single, ‘Go West’, released by parent company Beggars Banquet in August of the same year, thankfully eschewed the excesses of rock and gave hope for the band’s first album.
That album, ‘Dreamtime’, emerged in the same month and remains to this day the finest recorded work by any of the band’s incarnations, bridging the gap between the impassioned aura of Southern Death Cult and the Superior musical and recording ability of the Cult. Opening with the immense ‘Horse Nation’, a song resurrected from the days of the Death Cult, it stumbles through ‘Spiritwalker’, then launches into a sequence of tracks, including the chilling ’83rd Dream’, the matured ‘Flower in the Desert’, and the haunting ‘Rider in the Snow’, that make most of their other recordings almost worthless in comparison. The title track, admittedly, is psychedelic rock by numbers, but the album closes with the incredible ‘Bad Medicine Waltz’, a harrowing trawl through drug addiction and paranoia, with what probably stands as Astbury’s finest ever lyric: “It’s funny how people stare/when your back’s against the wall/ I reach out my hand/ For that bad medicine/ It’s dirty and it’s raining and the porno burns my eyes/ Wipe away the tears with the skin from my eyes”. It may lose something in the cold light of day, but the pain and the passion is so evident you can almost touch it.
The Cult naturally released a truck load of other singles and albums since that momentous debut, but with the honourable exception of ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, the first single after the ‘Dreamtime’ album and the occasional worthy inclusion on the second album, ‘Love’, none of them need concern us. Rather than scour the diseased remnants of a band gone horribly wrong, or even reflect on how the mighty have fallen as Astbury trawls up and down the country’s toilets with the Holy Barbarians, it’s preferable to recall the memories that live on to this day.
The time when I skipped double Geography to go interview Southern Death Cult at Ian’s house in Bradford for my fanzine, walked up his path, slipped on ice and met him at the door with blood running down my leg and drenched from head to toe. And still in my school uniform. The time when my mum insisted on taking photos of Chris, Pat and myself, all dressed up for a Southern Death Cult show when she thought we were going to a school fancy dress party. The times when the band would sneak as many people into the gig as possible via the dressing room doors or windows before the promoter realised what was going on. The times when you’d hijack the school’s record player from the Human League fans and play ‘Fatman’ and ‘Moya’ over and over again every single lunchtime. And mostly, the times when Southern Death Club played with such passion and conviction and faith, and you felt so joyous and important and fortunate, that it took everything you had not to break down and cry. It’s for those memories that Southern Death Cult will always, always remain special.
On the back of the capsule releases and unprecedented demand from THE CULT faithful, the band has announced that it is back in the studio with producer Chris Goss (QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, MASTERS OF REALITY) at the controls once again. An early fall release is expected.
“I feel we have reached our zenith in terms of our writing and performing skills,” singer Ian Astbury said. “We intend to deliver on all levels.”
THE CULT‘s “Capsule 2: New Blood Deep Cuts” featured new songs “Embers” and “Until The Light Takes Us”, live recordings of some of the band’s huge hits and an intimate look into THE CULT‘s rehearsal space, with a never-before-seen warm-up performance of “Black Angel”.
Rather than revisit the traditional method of releasing a long form CD, the band pioneered a new way of providing material. Capsules span multiple media formats including vinyl, digital, USB, CD and DVD formats, and can be purchased at CultCapsuleStore.com.