Music News

Sucking In The Seventies

Surely the meeting of the king of Seventies rock, Robert Plant, and the clown prince of Eighties rock, Cult singer Ian Astbury, has to qualify as one of the more ironic pop music encounters. It was 1986, and the Cult was laying tracks for its Electric LP while, in the same North London studio, the former Led Zeppelin wailer rehearsed with his new Now and Zen band. It's not like anything dramatic occurred when the lead throats crossed paths. The erstwhile Zep head just popped into the Cult session, listened for a couple of minutes and complimented Astbury on his singing before splitting.

Still, after listening to the cut- and-paste of Zeppelin cliches on Electric, you'd think Plant was there for divine inspiration. So did the Seventies rock god pick up on the similarities to vintage Zeppelin while eavesdropping on the Cult session? "He didn't say," shrugs bassist- keyboardist Jamie Stewart in a recent phone interview. "He just said, `Keep up the good work.'"

During the conception of 1987's Electric, the Cult wasn't just studying up on its Zeppelin; the band was also pouring over the back catalogues of Aerosmith, AC/DC and a litany of other Seventies cock-rock legends. "Seventies stuff," notes Stewart, "was the direction we were going in. We just thought that there was a hell of a lot of music out there that was previously unhip--that you wouldn't have thought of listening to ten years ago--but that was actually really good."

The Cult's quest to resurrect Seventies metal and make it hip once more required, among other things, adding lengthy guitar solos to Electric, affecting a swaggering machismo and having Astbury don hip-huggin' flares. "We were on a voyage of discovery back through the Seventies," reflects Stewart.

The Cult's metal-morphosis was nothing if not controversial. The band, which began life in the gloomy goth- rock incarnations of Southern Death Cult and Death Cult, was accused of betraying its punk roots. How does Stewart respond to the charge that the group's latent headbanging went against everything punk stood for? "I wasn't a particularly punk-rock kind of chap anymore," states the bassist unapologetically. "That was a scene that happened ten years ago. People move on."

Electric may have lost the old Cult its fan club of black-clad gloomsters, but it won the new Cult over to a larger, mainstream-metal legion. The LP's Seventies sound also proved to be vastly influential to bands like TSOL, which subsequently went the punk-turned-metalhead route.

While Electric put the Cult in the running alongside Kingdom Come as the most blatant Led rip-off of all time, Stewart emphasizes that the band's derivative days are through. "I don't think that there are a lot of Seventies influences on Sonic Temple," asserts the bassist about the Cult's latest LP. "It's distinctive. It may have tinges of Seventies in it, but I think it's the Cult in 1989. We've found our own sound and our own style."

Huh? Is Stewart talking about the same Sonic Temple that plays like Invasion of the Riff Snatchers? If anything, the band raids the rock archives even more shamelessly on the new disc: There's a little bit of Queen in the chorus of "Wake Up Time for Freedom," a hint of "Kashmir"-era Zeppelin on "Soul Asylum," and a slew of other references to bands from the decade that good taste forgot.

Of course, this isn't to say that Sonic Temple's Seventies stew is unlistenable. The metal marauders cop only the most hummable melodies, and their choruses are catchier than the ones on most pop albums from last year. You've also got to applaud Astbury for spitting out cliches like "Hot damn, mercy ma'am" with real relish.

When compared to Electric, Sonic Temple has a looser, more energetic-- if equally unoriginal--sound. The bassist gives the credit to Temple producer Bob (Kingdom Come) Rock, who he claims was a less dictatorial presence behind the controls than Beastie Boys Svengali Rick Rubin, who did the knob-twirling on Electric. Anybody who's ever listened to Kingdom Come may have a hard time buying the notion of Mr. Rock as a subtle producer, but Stewart swears it's true.

"Rick's aim was to make the band sound like he wanted," explains the bassist. "And if that entailed rewriting stuff, that's what he did. Bob was more into bringing out the best aspects of the band. He wasn't trying to re-create his own album."

It could be argued that the Cult simply had more in common with Rock, who's worked with the commercial-metal likes of Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, than with Def Jam impresario Rubin, whose tastes lie in more of a hip-hop vein. After all, the Cultists have always claimed that rap--in fact, black music in general--leaves them cold. Astbury even went so far as to tell Spin magazine a couple of years back, "All rock means to us is good white music." Although he doesn't want to be perceived as a racist rocker, Stewart tends to agree.

"We aren't particularly influenced by funk or R&B," notes the bassist. "The closest thing we get to black music is Muddy Waters. These days black music is mainly dance-oriented, and white music--in America, at least--is your Bon Jovis and your Kingdom Comes."

The Cult members see no reason to be ashamed that they grew up listening to Zeppelin instead of James Brown. It's now cool for groups to proudly acknowledge their Seventies metal forefathers--something Stewart feels the Cult made possible. "I think our music opened a few doors for people," brags the bassist. "We've recognized some of the decent music from the Seventies. And I think that we've allowed people who like Seventies hard rock to get it into their music without feeling completely stupid."

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John Blanco