Albums Revisited: The Cult’s ‘Love’ Turns 30: A look back at the breakthrough album that shaped the future of alternative rock on its 30th anniversary.
By the mid 80’s, rock music had become a fractured beast: the sub-genres of glam metal, thrash, New Wave, Goth, college rock, etc, had created a confusing subculture of musical cliques.
Macho hair metal fans deemed anything remotely New Wave’ish as effeminate (funny given they all looked like Sunset Strip call girls), while folks of the alternative variety deemed cock rock fans knuckle dragging neanderthals.
So where did The Cult fit in? While the group had emerged from their former Goth incarnation Death Cult, they had a dirty little secret: they loved classic rock.
And with their sophomore album Love (which celebrates its 30th anniversary on October 18th, 2015), the UK rockers kicked the door down for a cross-pollination that would influence Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains, to name but a few.
Oddly enough, the album’s dark swirling stew was crafted by Steve Brown, best known as the producer of Wham.
But he proved an able collaborator, layering guitarist Billy Duffy’s serpentine riffs and atmospheric flourishes into a rich tapestry, while also tapping into vocalist Ian Astbury’s impressive lung power.
This was in full effect on the album’s breakout single She Sells Sanctuary. With its iconic droning Middle Eastern riff and Astbury’s sonorous vocals it hit their native England by storm and the US followed shortly thereafter. It was a multifaceted beast, equally fitting in at dance clubs and hard rock radio.
But it’s a testament to the group’s winning synergy that Love is strong throughout: the album opener Nirvana set the tone, with Asbury’s muted 1,2,3,4 count-off kicking into a swaggering riff and disco drums courtesy of Big Country summer Mark Brzezicki (replacing troubled drummer Nigel Preston).
Astbury’s lyrics perfectly capture a band fully in touch with the transformative communal power of live music:
I don’t think there’s an easy way out of here/But when the music is loud, we all get down!
The album’s other big hit was Rain, sharing a similar chord structure as Sanctuary (which Duffy would also replicate in later hits like Love Removal Machine and Fire Woman). But it had a meaner, edgier sound and one of Duffy’s most aggressive solos.
The band would go full Hendrix on the follow-up track Phoenix, with Duffy stomping the hell out of his Wah-Wah pedal while Astbury conjured psychedelic visions:
Like a kiss from the lips of Ra that burns on
The pleasures getting wilder
Circling ever higher
A servant of desire
Less discussed, but equally vibrant, are the album’s slower moments: Brother Wolf, Sister Moon is a gorgeous Gothic ballad with Spaghetti Western atmosphere (aided by bassist Jamie Stewart’s added strings and keyboard flourishes).
Astbury indulges his fascination with Native American culture with his evocative lyrics expressing a ritual of great consequence for its title characters.
Hang your head no more
And beg no more
Your time has come
Likewise the ballad Black Angel, the album’s closer, shows a fascination with death with its somber folk tale:
The sirens call a sailor to die/Enchanted by the sound, his desires have been found…He’s turning old, he shall never return/Sail on to the eternal reward
And let’s not forget that title track: at 5 minutes and 30 seconds, it’s one of The Cult’s most expansive works, with a killer spectral riff and hypnotic cowbell colliding with Astbury’s wail.
Love eventually sold 2.5 million copies, setting the band on the path to rock stardom. But with success came a price: the typically bitchy British rock press took the band to task for their love of Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, and their retro-stage garb.
Astbury elaborated on this in the liner notes for the Love remastered edition:
“I’d be walking around with a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt on and being laughed at for being this complete esoteric freak. The media thought I was completely potty – they just didn’t get it.
It was taboo because no one wanted to put the nail in the coffin for punk, they didn’t want it to die. We were too young to have seen the Sex Pistols. We were the next generation.”
While Astbury took the criticism harder than most, it seemed to fuel their inner middle finger. Their Rick Rubin produced 1987 follow-up Electric, further blurred the lines between stadium rock and alternative. And 1989’s Sonic Temple offered even more flagrant cock rock touches, fittingly culminating in a clash of rock-star egos and shameless excess.
But their love of retro-riffing mixed with post-punk efficiency planted a seed in the musical consciousness. They took Guns N’Roses on the road in their infancy. And the 90’s grunge scene would appropriate similar elements, and bands like Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden felt emboldened and inspired by The Cult’s success.
While The Cult were never given their full due for becoming alternative taste makers, Love was a big deal. It’s one of the best albums of the 80’s, and depending on which Cult fan you ask, their finest work.
There are few groups who draw a more diverse crowd than the Cult. Head-bangers, Goths, and Punks are all welcome. Love showed they could coexist peacefully with a sound intoxicating enough to bring them altogether, cliques be damned.
For a music fan like myself, who bridled at music purist snobbery, this was life changing. I’ve made many lifelong friends who love The Cult, who dig their energy and lack of easy classification. Good music is good music. And Love is some ass-kicking magical shit.