Cult Fiction

For Ian Astbury, The Cult has something of the power of a cult; not a homogenising hippy-ish commune, with robes and hidden sexual practices. Although that sounds like a cracking basis for any rock-troupe, I really just mean that he’s seemingly been unable to leave—name changes, two reunions and tens of members later he’s still creating.

The band’s forthcoming tour (Wolverhampton Civic on Jan 26th) gives Midland fans a slim window of opportunity to snatch and re-programme the singer, should you want to, I have a cricket bat you can borrow. But if you’re happy to see the mystic-rock continue for another 25 years, then you don’t need to do anything—except go along and hear the, pretty stunning, new material.

Last time The Cult were playing live it was in support of the remastered Love album, and doing the increasingly fashionable “play the whole of an old album” thing, including a huge show at the Albert Hall with former members turning up for the encore. Fans were ecstatic, but Astbury? Not quite so much: “The Love Live tour was from Billy [Duffy, the other main Cult-ist],…he wanted to do something to celebrate the album and we’d kinda missed the 20th anniversary so it was 25 years. I’m not a fan of nostalgia or anniversaries
so I kinda compromised with him, and all he wanted to do was play the Albert Hall. Then it just grew from there into a World Tour. I’d sort of acquiesced, but it worked out really really well.”

“It was strange… Mark Brzezicki I hadn’t seen since we’d made the record and Jamie [Stewart] usually turns up if we’re playing some shows in the UK but I rarely speak to him. You get to rediscover things, songs feel like old sketches…we’ve been playing ‘White’ from Ceremony—which I don’t think was one of our better records—it’s become a really important part of our set. It has so much more guts.”

Not being a Cult completist, I’d been listening to that back catalogue on Spotify before talking to Ian, I could feel the lineage of that crisp chiming guitar across the albums and Ian’s vocals are never less than the heir to Jim Morrisson that he briefly became. And when they get it all right at once, it’s epic in all the right ways.

All except their short rock opera about the latest news from British Gas, that was shit.

Ian Astbury isn’t a man who the race forward of technology bothers, however. Driving through the early morning on the way to Michigan he’s reading Area on his iPad and planning different ways to do music.

“Pre-internet, pre-new-formats, pre-iTunes, older artists can get entrenched in a way of doing things: tour, album, tour, album. It drives the way you create. Writing a single for the radio? It doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s a dead format.”

“The bands that are really important are what I call the ‘wilderness bands’, it’s happening in the wilderness, in the fringes.”

“Billy and I are from the North West, but we came up through Brixton doing shows, Punk was incredibly important, it touched everybody…but that’s all gone, that’s all gone…maybe we wouldn’t have made the Love album if we’d had computers, there may not have been that need to escape.”

“We came up with the idea of the capsule, something a lot fresher—writing songs and releasing them as we go along. The idea of sitting in a studio for a year and a half chiselling out an album for a commercial market is something we just don’t subscribe to anymore. We don’t even have a record company.”

“The twenty-first century is a level playing field. Here’s the wonderful thing—I’m sitting on a bus driving from Cleveland to Grand Rapids and I’m looking at Area online, being exposed to artists in the Midlands. It doesn’t matter where you are, you have access to information. It’s all down to what you—what creative people—chose to do with it.”

“Tony Iommi [Ian worked on his recent solo album] is rapidly becoming the poster boy for the twenty first century… Black Sabbath were for real. Black Sabbath volume four is one of best pieces of work ever, I’d like to see an exhibit purely to Black Sabbath vol 4… I get excited when I hear it.”

The capsule is a single, of sorts, but more so—each one has a lead track, live and other music and a film, produced by Astbury himself and comes downloadable or in increasingly lavishly packaged CD and collectors editions. It’s making the most of what you’ve got, and the most of the “true fans” that will still pay for music these days.

I get the feeling that Ian Astbury is happy at the way his life and art works at the moment, he’s not only relaxed and enjoying the extra freedom that not being forced to create on schedule provides, but just freedom in general:

“The Cult have been going for years, and we live in such an ageist culture that you’re meant to be irrelevant after the age of 28. But most of my heroes didn’t start producing their best work until their forties…like Mark Rothko… you need that experience to have a broader palette to draw from. As an artist if you don’t exploit that you’re doing yourself and your audience a disservice.”

“I can make films, I can interact with artists from all over the World. When I come off tour I’m going to Tokyo to work with Boris, then I’m going back to California to make another film, as well as being in the studio with the Cult. Maybe more music with UNKLE.”

Doing just what he wants to do seems to agree with him.

Originally published in Area Magazine.

Morrissey and me have history

Morrissey and me have history, or rather I have histories. Rogan’s massive tome on The Smiths of course, but five or six Moz companions of varying degrees of cash raking, muck raking and queer power agendas. But I care only for him. his strong arms and Dino-esque ability to make you feel safe with an aside.

But first, I am to be searched for contraband, suspended above Birmingham on a vat of lard (or whatever it is that’s meant to make Symphony Hall acoustically perfect) and encouraged to watch Doll and the Kicks. Encouraged mainly it has to be said by it being three quid for a bottle of lager.

Doll and the Kicks are the latest in a line of Moz support bands hand-picked by our hero because, theoretically, they’ve got everything. Doll teeters about having forgotten to put her skirt on in a way not seen since Daisy Chainsaw, the Kicks are amphetamine skinny — which takes real work these days, what with there being no decent speed about. Alas they have no tunes, or at least no tunes that also have decent songs attached. They have a tune called “What Goes Around Comes Around”, which is about, like, khama or something.

Led to a darkened stage by torchlight, overlooked by a vast projection of some who may or may not be Reggie Kray, Moz spends the next hour battering his past into various shapes. A breakneck “How Sound Is Now” makes you think about how The Smiths at their most rock, were still sedate, “Cemetry Gates” [sic] pumped by stand-up bass is fast enough to make SPM stumble over the words.

It’s still astonishing that The Greatest Lyricist of his Generation™ gives his words so much space, when there’s nothing to improve on an anguished yodel says more than any number of extra lines. This stands out even more when the set includes — as it does — album tracks from his 22 year solo period. There are words here than only the obsessed know, all the better to bellow with your arms outstretched, and a B-sides collection to flog, to the extent of having a vinyl copy to show us as if he’s on Des O’Connor, there’s ample reason for the obscure tracks.

Where the band are at home, on tracks from “the comeback” recent three albums, the sound is complex and epic. Boz Boorer changes guitars mid-song, the drummer has a gong he’s not afraid to crash, lights pump and Morrissey sings about intimate feelings that fill a room as big as you like. He could throw his arms around Paris, he could hug the world, but so often doesn’t want to.

Moz, Symphony Hall, 23/10/10

Originally published by Area Magazine
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Sweet Surrender

If pop stars were sweets, which ones would they be?

Noddy Holder — Cadbury’s Crème Eggs

Zooming out of Birmingham, wrapped in shiny paper, our Nod is a cultural icon. He is only seen once every year, re-appearing with monotonous regularity before a major religious holiday. (It’s Cerrristmasssssss! ) Can be found all year round in obscure places, dusty old Confectioner / Tobacconist / Newsagents in out-of-the-way suburbs, and for Noddy, musty old independent local radio and obscure satellite TV gameshows. It’s great to be reminded of Slade, but too much swiftly makes you sick.

Lightning Seeds — Mars Bars

No one can remember a time when they weren’t around, solid, sell a vast amount of sweet stuff to the middle aged, and Mars Bars are quite popular too. For some unknown reason they became associated with sport, leading beery thirtysomethings to try to recapture lost youth. Both are a uniquely British experience, difficult to swallow a lot in one go, and are well liked without being anyone’s actual favourite. Also come in king size, or The Beatles are they’re known.

New Order — Kit Kats

Built to be separated into four parts, providing an enjoyable but not satisfying experience. The separate fingers, Hooky, Bernard, cannot produce something as good when apart, leaving you wanting more. Comes in a variety of special editions, ‘True Faith ’98’, mint, and orange, all interesting but without the class of the original. Monaco are of course the Time Out bar, a poor imitation that fills a gap without ever coming close to being essential.

Paul Weller — Wurther’s Originals

The beige, butter sweet could be Weller’s doppelganger, and not just because of its popularity with grandparents. Paul is obsessed with keeping it real and old fashioned and light brown corduroy, tending to evoke the same memories of trees and slow train journeys. He seems to think that he’s passing something important down the generations, but all right-minded people prefer their sweets / music a bit more interesting. The modfather will also have the same problem staying popular as his fans contract Alzheimer’s and forget how to shop.

Happy Mondays — Flake

Stuffed with innuendo, the Mondays are the Flake of the pop world. Inherently sexy but difficult to keep in one piece, they are best taken mixed, with Paul Oakenfold as the vanilla ice cream to stick them in. They are both packaged in an unusual way, dancer Bez being analogous to those twisty bits at the end of the wrapper. Does current reformation indicate that Cadbury’s are launching a Flake with Nuts?

5ive — Penny Chews

Cheaply manufactured and struggling to keep their own identity amongst a glut of similar products, 5ive are sold in Woolworth’s nation wide. They are put together in ‘mix-ups’ (“I’ll have a singer, a rapper, a good looking one and the one with spiky hair, please mister.”) and are far too sugary and bad for you. On closer inspection they are surprisingly old, and have been left on the shelf in unsanitary conditions, but were strangely popular with kids. Far too cheep for solo success.

Oasis —  Space Dust

Explosive in a chemically enhanced and slightly toxic manner, Oasis have got to be the musical equivalent of ‘popping candy’. It all seemed great when you were younger, but had no real content and very little taste. Didn’t have the staying power of a sherbet fountain and now are increasingly difficult to find. Stories abound of their volatile nature and are especially dangerous when mixed with fizzy drink.

John Lydon — Spangles

Johnny Rotten will be forever associated with the seventies, fluorescent colours and acting like you’re on a sugar rush. His commercial potential cannot be ignored amongst the nostalgia generation so he periodically relaunches for financial gain. Despite changes in content, remixed versions or strange packaging neither the Pistols, PiL, nor the sweet can ever hope to capture anything like previous status.

I wrote this back in 1997 or thereabouts for now defunct music weekly Flipside. I discovered it on my laptop the other day along with a few other pieces from the era. 

Beards in Rock

Facial follicles in popular music, is a hairy chin an indication of greatness or does the music deteriorate along with the increasing number and luxuriousness of beards in bands?

George Michael

The only pop star to have patented two styles of facial hair, the designer stubble Wham! look and then his solo half-finished goatee, (beloved of those whose beards won’t grow in a proper circle). The first was more a case of five o’clock shadow, 9am TV appearances, and looking back it’s the hand clapping and skipping antics (akin to Morris dancing) that have become a source of embarrassment. However, the smoother the beard, the cooler the artist and George’s Ming The Merciless look elevated him to celebrity status. But with embarrassing toilet liaisons ensuing, will the beard return?

Bob Dylan

The solo artist is always prone to chin growth, lots of time spent alone creating in basements with few mirrors, personal hygiene can go out of the window. Although Bob has toyed with various degrees of wispy beard throughout his career, the angry peoples’ poet disappeared, as did his lower face, on Infidels. A dull album of Christian rock with all the musical invention of a person who models his face fungus on Brian Blessed. Enjoyed creative revival as soon as someone got him a shaver. (See also Costello, Elvis.)

The Who

The demise of The Who was more due to Pete Townshend auditioning for Planet Of The Apes than his invention of the rock-opera. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind, to walk round looking like you’re being attacked by a couple of loose mink. From fresh faced young mods to indulgent prog-rockers in the time it took to grow whiskers that even eight out of ten cats couldn’t prefer. John Entwistle grew one too, looking more like a buffalo than an ox. Thankfully though, Roger Daltrey had used up his hair allocation on top of his head and Keith Moon was too busy learning to drive underwater.

Liam Gallagher

While the smart money was on Noel attempting to be John Lennon, it only took the overnight growth of thatch around Liam’s gob to possess him with the spirit of the great walrus. Within no time at all he’d married a publicity-seeking woman who threatened to split up the band. It must have been catching as well because, despite Liam not writing the songs, all Oasis music since has been self-indulgent shite.

Bee Gees

The toothsome trio have flirted with face fleeces in the same way they flirted with disco. That is smoothed them over and added populist appeal long after fashion has moved on. Giving hope to all men with weird mouths, and harming Victor Kiam’s profits into the bargain. Their current popularity has lead to many pop acts covering their songs, fine as long as they don’t cover their chins at the same time.

U2

The Dublin dad-zone were always going to be prime candidates for confusing serious art with serious beards. The band is at it’s most pompous when Bono’s lost his bic. The Edge can be excused, at least his ‘tache provokes discussion of the Zaptta/Village People variety. When Bono lets his chin pubes get out of control disaster, and looking like Robin Cook, is only an Eno collaboration away. The terrible Passengers album included Pavarotti, a man using a huge expanse of hair to hide his huge expanse of chins.

ZZ Top

Without doubt the most famous rock beards, (and currently challenging Madonna’s breasts for all time top musical appendage). They solved all problems of the band ageing gracefully, since they looked a hundred to start with. It’s a fantastic ploy, there could be anyone under those neck warmers, forget Kraftwerk sending mannequins to gigs, ZZ Top could send Bill Clinton, Richard Whiteley and Cher and no-one would notice. No matter how many times you hear it it’s still hilarious that the clean shaven one is called Frank Beard.

Manic Street Preachers

Not so much beards as a collective decision not to shave very often, the Manics have been rocking the sports casual wino look since the release of Everything Must Go. Less ‘Australia’, more chins that look like a dingo’s backside. It’s worked in terms of record sales however, proving that looking a bit old, fat and scruffy is no barrier to a number one hit (take heart Peter Hook and Monaco). If only they’d thrown away their razors earlier, Richey might still be around.

Barry White

The walrus of lurve’s beard is a classic of sorts, and can be imitated by shaving around a saucer, combining with a thin chinstrap motif. It’s a high-maintenance goatee though, and the many copyists (Huey out of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals for example) haven’t the time or the army of ‘personal assistants’ to carry it off.

I wrote this back in 1997 or thereabouts for now defunct music weekly Flipside. I discovered it on my laptop the other day along with a few other pieces from the era.