The Cult’s Sonic Boom 30 Years Later
April 17, 2019 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
The recently released Mötley Crüe Netflix original The Dirt has made a lot of hardworking, tax-paying citizens do something they probably didn’t really want to do: figure out if it’s truly worth compartmentalizing Mötley Crüe and that whole Sunset Boulevard 80s hair metal scene into anything we should really care about in 2019. I saw the movie and to me it was just further proof that whole scene needs to be left to die and rot in the gutter behind the Rainbow Room; but it did get one big thing right, and that’s placing the entire focus of the film on the attitude and ethos of the era.
If there’s one thing the punk explosion of the late 70s/early 80s likely fucking despises, it’s how that movement has a very clear-cut connection to the hair metal that directly followed it. It’s really not that difficult to observe how bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison took the FM rock infrastructure and just sort of made the songs a little faster and raunchier, which is not super far off from what punk was doing around this time. What probably kills those aging punks the most, however, is how their sneering attitude, which provided them with so much cultural leverage, was not just lifted. It also ruthlessly re-assigned it into some pretty self-serving directions that would end up representing some alpha hedonistic garbage existing on the almost complete opposite end of the middle-finger spectrum that got punk so far.
That big “fuck you” to the world sort of remained, but these Hollywood bands honed it a bit to suit their versions of backstage blitzkrieg. “Fuck you” was still there alright, but now it was pointed squarely at girls who didn’t flash them at shows, or guys who had already read Hammer of the Gods years before and no longer thought snorting coke off a stripper’s ass or throwing furniture out hotel windows was all that exciting.
As it should be, the music was a total afterthought in The Dirt movie. The closest the viewer comes to understanding any more about how famous songs were written or conceptualized, was Tommy Lee standing beside a big advertisement for a hot dog, pretending it was his cock, under a “Girls Girls Girls” sign. Not that I needed any more, I’m sure this was a sufficiently complete song-origin story that told us all we needed to know about one of their biggest tracks that helped shoot them to number one in the charts. Now I know “Girls Girls Girls” wouldn’t have existed without that giant hot dog, please excuse me while I go stoically make my bed in a pathetic attempt to exert some control over this cruel passage of time we call life.
Ultimately, this was the 80s hair metal scene in a nutshell and, while I didn’t love the movie, the relentless hedonism The Dirt focused on reminded people what they liked about these bands (or thought they did). More importantly, “Nothing But a Good Time” was not just a big single of that time, it’s a really how everyone remembers it. After watching this movie (and if you’ve read the book, honestly, don’t waste your time with this thing), I was effectively brought back to this fairly revolting time in popular music. But I was also randomly reminded of one of my favorite, perhaps my only favorite, big guitar band of the 80s: The Cult. And specifically, one of their biggest albums Sonic Temple, which just turned 30 years old.
The Cult was ostensibly planted firmly within the soaring, bombastic chorus’ blueprint that characterized almost all of the genre’s biggest songs, but they also managed to stand awkwardly outside the secret 8-ball handshake club with songs about Edie Sedgwick and Shaman rain gods or something. Sometimes truly clever bands can observe a big, loud trend, pivot around it, and carve out beautifully mutant territory nobody really has the confidence to invade. Radiohead liked enough about the grunge era to loosely connect themselves to it, but ultimately claimed their adjacent weirdo street corner with The Bends. Ministry hitched their star to industrial’s wagon, but “Jesus Built My Hotrod” laid waste to all those skinny goth kids who were still digging those Wax Trax! albums.
Unfortunately for The Cult, they didn’t do enough to fully separate themselves from their contemporaries nor did they have any intention of being any part of hair metal. This left them in a very tough spot in terms of nabbing a target audience. Hair metal fans probably wouldn’t hate their music, but wouldn’t gravitate towards something so inherently disconnected from the fetishized good-times-at-all-costs addiction sweeping the mainstream metal scene at that time. And it’s probably safe to say a fair amount of fans did appreciate how The Cult represented something different from the usual party-brigade, but still felt lead guitarist Billy Duffy’s blockbuster riffs weren’t quite blockbuster or snarly enough.
For the most part, this grey area probably did prevent them from obtaining elite stadium tour status. The Cult did manage to stake out a pretty sizeable chunk of an audience, those who maybe liked the scope of those other big metal bands but not all the baggage that came with it. That’s a nice way of saying they were stuck in a friendless no-man’s land. That’s just what happens when you’re a band that basically cherry picked and in some ways neutered the most identifiable aspects of both the monumentally big party riffage we saw in the big 80s rock bands, as well as the more contemplative acts taking on more thoughtful topics (R.E.M., U2 to name a couple). The Cult put themselves a stone's throw away from both camps and, as a result, it was relatively easy for both sides to take potshots at them. Intentional or not, this band pissed in both pools.
For better or worse that’s just the reality of this group. As a longtime fan of this band, it still feels like such a strange reality, nobody knows quite how to react when I admit my affection for them, mostly because they really can’t be definitively tethered to any major rock movement of the 80s. So basically that blank look on my friend’s faces was a direct result of The Cult being one of the few bands isolated from the musical identity politics that defined so many people in that decade.
None of this is to argue their assimilation of two disparate 80s FM vantage points martyred them. The Cult still sold a shit-ton of copies, and Sonic Temple was one of the biggest reasons why this happened. Furthermore, I don’t think anybody would argue this was an act of valor. The Cult’s odd approach to songwriting likely contained far less gallantry. Duffy was influenced by bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin. His legacy would also prove to be forever connected to an extremely talented frontman named Ian Astbury who liked Jim Morrison a little too much (to the point where he later acted as frontman for the reformed Doors lounge act in the early 2000s, The Doors of the 21st Century), and held an odd fixation with the American Indian Genocide.
Supporters found his frequent references to this and the related cultural connections sorta moving, while some of the more cynical detractors might compare it to the fictional and culturally exploitative “African Child” album put out by Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek, but I won’t take either side here. Ultimately this fixation was a mostly harmless attempt at pesky meaningfulness, albeit cringe-inducing at many moments over The Cult’s lifespan But if nothing else, it did serve as a very weirdly surreal separation from all the other good-time rock bands singing about groupies and banging their teachers.
“Hey, this band rocks! Wait, who the fuck is Cochise?”
That was the push-pull foundation of The Cult, and Sonic Temple was the crystallization of this formula, for better or worse. The worst parts are still there, the worst parts will always still be there with this band as long as Astbury is a part of the group. You just know he would’ve been an annoying kid to babysit. His vocals constantly aim for the grandiose, even when the song doesn’t call for it, but often come off as lumpish and even pallid at the most silly moments on the record.
It’s also one of the most insanely front-loaded albums of the 80s. The first half consists of nothing but absolute bangers. If you wanted to get an idea of how good The Cult could be (within their strange framework, anyways), look no further than the zooming melodies of those five songs. The last half can come off as a shoddy souvenir shop, something you have to go through to get to the parking lot.
Perhaps that’s overly harsh. Many would argue the shift shouldn’t be seen as jarring, instead serving as a fun, brave split into a grounded, less anthemic Cult, a version of the band we hadn’t seen before and wouldn’t really see again. Personally, I get both arguments. If you plant your flag on a side, you’re missing the point. And if you have any shot of loving Sonic Temple, you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of hedging your bets.
Thirty years later, Sonic Temple still absolutely rips. I love this record, as it connects me to a fairly ugly and stupid era of rock 'n’ roll, but still plants me down to a silly and properly loud terraform version of it. Both halves are wildly different, but they also have different ways of connecting you to that 80s rock scene you were pretty sure you wanted to like but without a Camaro or eyeliner, you never really stood a chance. Sonic Temple gives you an asterisks, a loose connection to some bigger-than-life songs, but doesn’t make you join the party bus for it to make sense to you.
You dug how The Scorpions “Rock You Like a Hurricane” seemingly legitimized your most basic fist-pumping impulses but found yourself annoyed by how easy it was to attach the song to Whitesnake? And all your friends told you how “Paradise City” was the answer to that problem but you kept finding yourself standing alone on Sunset, wondering where it all went wrong? The first half of Sonic Temple is your safe house. You can indulge in the best parts of the aural excess the public embraced without aligning yourself with a musical movement that acted like they were 13-year-old boys who just found a Playboy for the first time in their lives.
And if you liked the grounded approach of early 80s Aerosmith, but couldn’t really find a way to get on board with how intensely theatrical they always wanted to be? You’re in luck as the last half of Sonic Temple is where you wanna go.
At the end of the day it probably is a very good album, and it’s definitely not a bad one. But it does serve as one of the only truly Frankenstein-y albums of the 80s, a decade dominated by MTV, rigid genre classifications, and a widespread corporate realignment piggishly focused on how they could absorb/spit out those two interconnected developments for profit. Sonic Temple miraculously navigated this terrifying minefield with an epic and fun form of authoritativeness. It came with some costs (see the cover art for Ceremony, their follow up to Sonic Temple, for proof of this), but the cold, hard truth is that clumsiness is what part of makes The Cult so goddamn fun when they are on their game. Against all odds, The Cult managed to carve out their own peerless sovereign territory, and still somehow made it a blast to listen to without latching onto any of those genre-specific developments for gain.
Sonic Temple is not a perfect rock album, and it can probably be viewed as low-hanging fruit for anybody who wants to pick an easy target when it comes to bashing the ultimate irrelevance of big 80s rock albums. And sure, it is largely irrelevant now. But it does stand completely on its own — that simply cannot be disputed. It’s not glam metal, thrash metal, post-punk, new-wave, synthpop… it’s just The Cult being The Cult. They cobbled this thing together that doesn’t make any kind of sense, but that’s kind of the point isn’t it? Plus it sounds pretty awesome when cranked up.
This truly is the album for all of us who wanted to like 80s rock but couldn’t quite put ourselves in a spot to fully surrender to the good-time ethos. We knew we wanted to feel good, but maybe not that good. We wanted to party but didn’t want to go to that party. Sonic Temple stumbles into a pretty goddamn great cost-benefit analysis that lets us have our Sunset Strip cake and eat it, too. Three decades and the formula still gives us a way to have fun, pretend we are doing it in a socially conscious way for an hour or so, and not have to do a keg stand before you leave. There is really only one temple in 80s music, and its sonic.
Listen to Sonic Temple (full album)