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For much of their recording career during the 1980s the Cult reveled in the heavy metal thunder of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When asymmetrical haircuts and drum machines were in, the band sported long hippie locks and songs rife with then-passe guitar solos. "The big rock sound they created for themselves a decade ago now fits snugly within the Nirvana-Pearl Jam-Soundgarden zeitgeist of the '90s," Spin contributor Steve Appleford observed in a 1995 article. But critical acclaim for the Cult never matched their fans' adoration. By the time grunge swept into alternative fashion in the early 1990s, the band was somehow too far behind, too overproduced, too serious. As their fortunes dwindled, tensions escalated within the group; an already bad situation was exacerbated by substance abuse problems. Record, then ticket sales fell off, and after only two scheduled dates into an American tour, the Cult disbanded in the spring of 1995.

The Cult formed from the ashes of two bands in the north of England in the early 1980s. Ian Astbury was a singer in the Southern Death Cult, while Billy Duffy played guitar in an outfit called Theater of Hate. The two found common ground in the rejection of the then-current musical trends exemplified by bands like Depeche Mode and Bauhaus, preferring instead the thundering vintage style of Led Zeppelin and Free--acts almost nobody professed to liking at that time.

Early gigs together as Death Cult, and later just the Cult--which coalesced when Jamie Stewart and Les Warner signed on--attracted fans, but the British music press was merciless. Rock critics could not understand why a band would look backward in time for inspiration at a moment when so much new was happening in music, and Astbury tried, often unsuccessfully, to explain the Cult in rambling, nearly incomprehensible interviews.

Despite the journalistic snipes, the Cult built up a solid fan base in the U.K. before hitting it big with their American debut, Love, also their first full-length LP. When it hit American shores in late 1985--after a 19-week stint on the British charts with the single "She Sells Sanctuary"--Rolling Stone contributor David Fricke dismissed it as "just leaden Zeppelin." But stateside sales for the record were phenomenal, as were concert grosses when the Cult arrived for tour dates. Astbury's divine rock-god looks also seemed to be part of the equation for success. "Pop hits, platinum albums, and surging crowds suddenly launched Astbury into the role of the beautiful young sex deity, a new [flamboyant Doors frontman] Jim Morrison on the scene with photo spreads in Vogue," wrote Appleford in Spin.

The band went into the studio in 1986 to record a second album, but they were forced to scrap almost the entire effort. "Three quarters of the way through, these bad vibes started rearing themselves," Duffy explained to Melody Maker contributor Carol Clark about the creative process. "It was like an unspoken thing. It just wasn't right." To remedy the situation, the Cult enlisted the talents of production prodigy Rick Rubin, who had already made a name for himself with behind-the-boards work for the Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C. Soon the band was rerecording in the New York City studio founded by Jimi Hendrix. The result was Electric, released in 1987 to both critical acclaim and explosive sales buoyed by the success of the track "Love Removal Machine." Rolling Stone reviewer Robin J. Schwartz asserted the record "swaggers, crunches and howls all right, but it does so with irreverence." As in the band's previous work, Astbury and Duffy remained the creative personnel, cowriting all the songs except a cover of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."

However, the success of Electric--and well-attended concert dates in support of it--began to take their toll on the band. In Vancouver, British Columbia, Astbury was arrested after tussling with security forces; in Texas, he faced charges of onstage obscenity. The singer seemed to heading down the very road already traversed by Jim Morrison. "The pressure manifested itself in many ways," he said of the disastrous 1987 tour a few years later in an interview with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Goldberg. "Alcohol was one. Self-destructive behavior was another. Arrests. Fornication. After we finished, there was nothing left."

Despite the problems--and the growing animosity rumored between Astbury and Duffy--the Cult headed back into the studio to record yet another successful album, 1989's Sonic Temple. Some personnel changes had taken place, with Matt Sorum replacing Les Warner on drums. Iggy Pop expressed his admiration for the band by guesting on backing vocals for one track, and cuts like "Fire Woman" and "Edie (Ciao Baby)" were instant hits; the record went platinum. Kim Neely of Rolling Stone felt Sonic Temple merged the band's earlier stylistic incarnations--the psychedelic aspect of Love with the bare-bones thunder of Electric--and noted in a review that "the best moments artfully embrace the two distinct musical styles that have marked the Cult's finest work, and its worst moments simply make you wonder why the band didn't stick to one or the other."

When it came time to tour again, Astbury and Duffy seemed to have kicked their bad habits, and the band looked to be back in business. But things soon went downhill. Like so many reviewers, Appleford deemed Ceremony, released in 1991, "disastrous, irrelevant, and unheard," noting that the band's perennial substance abuse problems seemed to have been a factor in the album's failure. After a few years on hiatus, more personnel changes occurred: Sorum was replaced by a former jazz drummer, Scott Garrett, while Stewart's bass slot was taken by Craig Adams, an old friend of Astbury and Duffy. Together the new formation worked on a more enigmatic release, 1994's The Cult, recorded in Vancouver with producer Bob Rock.

"Gone are the old gothic rock-star costumes, the helmets of perfect long hair, the pounds of jewelry," Appleford said of the Cult's new incarnation. "There is nothing left to distract from the music, which roars on the new album ... like an assault on their own bad reputation." Astbury reflected on his difficult family life as a teenager and the superstar treatment he received during the band's heyday in the mid-1980s, telling Appleford that much of his self-destructive behavior stemmed from those two sources. The singer admitted he had come to terms with some of his demons, and the slaying was helped in part by writing cathartic songs for The Cult like "Gone."

By early 1995 Astbury and Duffy had worked through some of their problems. Yet The Cult was not doing well in stores and received only scant critical attention for an act of their standing. North American tour dates were announced, and the group played two shows in April before Beggars Banquet, their label in the U.K., announced that they had disbanded. "It really was more of an Ian thing," an anonymous source at the company told Melody Maker. "He broke down and couldn't muster the stamina to carry on." The company asserted that scheduled shows had been sold out, but the magazine hinted that ticket sales had been dismal. Astbury and Duffy reportedly planned to pursue work on their own separate musical projects.

by Carol Brennan

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