30 Years Ago: The Cult Turn to Big Rock on ‘Electric’
Having fully come into their own on the 1985 album Love, while at the same time grabbing the attention of the States, there was a great expectancy as to where the Cult would go next. The ride wasn’t easy to get there, but the end result was what many consider their catalog highlight, Electric, which was released April 6, 1987.
The band had been working on the album with Love producer Steve Brown, and the new material was continuing in the natural progression of the band’s sound. There was a lot of the airy, new wave Goth sound that had been so prevalent on Love songs like “Big Neon Glitter” and “Rain” rearing its head in “Zap City” and an early version of “Wild Flower,” with some punchier rock on “Peace Dog.” It was shaping up to be a solid companion piece to its predecessor, then frontman Ian Astbury got wind of what producer Rick Rubin was doing with the upstart label Def Jam.
“As soon as I heard Rick's work, I was like, 'Stop everything – let's go to New York and find this guy!'" Astbury told Rolling Stone.
Many rock records up until then had been stuck in the ‘70s mindset of layering elements over and over. Rubin was using less effects, instead preferring to use more raw material, perhaps most notably on the Beastie Boys’ debut LP Licensed to Ill. And the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath samples permeating that album led Astbury to seek out the producer, who wanted to point the Cult in a different direction.
“I loved Ian's voice, but the music had this meandering, New Wave-y softness,” Rubin told Rolling Stone. “I wanted to feel it more. That was Electric's goal: to connect with that rock energy.”
He made Billy Duffy leave his effects pedals at home and keep the guitarist’s solos shorter and focused, making them that much more effective and in-your-face. The outcome was a primordial string of songs with memorable riff after memorable riff. It was like Rubin bottled the guitar sounds that made AC/DC (“Peace Dog”) and Led Zeppelin (“Memphis Hip Shake”) so appealing and spoon-fed it to Duffy.
Astbury’s howl on Electric is the definition of rock star swagger, with his shouting and screaming inflections coming in all the right places on songs “King Contrary Man” and “Love Removal Machine.” He was brimming with confidence and pushed his vocals to the limit, solidifying him as one of the preeminent vocalists to come out of the ‘80s. This has left the music near timeless.
“I like these songs because they're rooted in three-chords and blues-rock elements,” Astbury told Esquire as the Cult were about to embark on the "Electric 13" tour in 2013, where the album would be played nearly in full. “They're on a dark cycle and really come from an organic force. They may not be current in the sense of what's popular but in terms of human action, they're archetypal. They'll always be fresh.”
The only stumble on Electric was the decision to cover Steppenwolf’s classic “Born to Be Wild,” which came at Rubin’s suggestion, but feels shambolic and uninspired, like the group was being forced to eat their proverbial peas and carrots before leaving the dinner table. It was the one song from the album that absolutely wasn’t going to be performed on the "Electric 13" jaunt.
“When we came out with Electric, we felt like we had to authenticate ourselves in some way as having rock and roll in our blood and thought that “Born to Be Wild” would be a good way to authenticate it,” Astbury told Vanyaland. “I said that it didn’t feel right, but Rick said to give it a go and I said, ‘Ok cool, let’s give it a go, I’m open to it,’ so it ended up on the record. We didn’t need it, and it never felt right, but you’re kids and you try things out.”
In 2013, the Cult released Electric Peace, which featured many of the same songs from Electric as they were recorded during the initial Steve Brown sessions. Our buddies at CLRVYNT wrote an excellent story comparing the two albums.
50 Rock Facts You May Not Know