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The Cult: Dreamtime (1984)

February 25, 2013

The Cult Dreamtime reissue cover

Roll: 2-5-9
Album: The Cult, Dreamtime

The Cult‘s 1984 debut of pitch-perfect post-punk psychedelia, Dreamtime, was not my introduction to the band. Nor did I particularly like it. In fact, I thought it stunk and I only hung onto the cassette so that my collection wouldn’t have a hole in it.

Like most Canadian kids, my first exposure to the band was the video for their break-out single, “She Sells Sanctuary” from the follow-up album, Love (1985). I remember Samantha Taylor from CBC’s after-school rock video show, Video Hits, introducing them as one of the “young British bands bringing back the sights, and sounds, of the 60’s”.

I didn’t think that was particularly accurate as far as the “sound” went, because I wasn’t much of a fan of boring old ’60s hippie psychedelic shit. Still, I liked what I heard on the video and soon, along with Love and Rockets and The Mission, my otherwise hair-metal cassette collection began to develop a pocket of “weirdo” music that I didn’t really understand was actually psychedelic. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand what the term even meant outside of wah-wah pedals, love beads and tie-dyed T-shirts.

I’m not sure I understand the term any better today, actually.

But it wasn’t until Electric was released in 1987 that The Cult got some serious Walkman time and became the latest in a string of groups I considered my band.

A my band was always a group from the relative fringes that none of my friends seemed to like quite as much as I did (and if they did, I’d refuse to acknowledge it). While everyone else wrote Mötely Crüe on their binder, I would write W.A.S.P. instead. When Metallica became huge, Anthrax was my brand of metal and while U2 were the socially conscious band du jour, I backed Midnight Oil.  It was never an obscure  group from the underground but always one just a tick removed from whoever was generally considered to be the coolest by my peer group at the time. Whether this was willful or subconscious on my part I can’t remember, but apparently I was a contrarian hipster even then.

Anyway, aside from being slightly left-of-the-dial, there was also a delicious mystique surrounding The Cult’s history. There was this debut album called Dreamtime that was pretty much impossible to obtain in the average small town. And before that, apparently they had ties to these even more arcane and esoteric bands called The Southern Death Cult and Theatre of Hate. And how freakin’ cool did those names sound to a thirteen or  fourteen-year-old boy?

As Electric began to take off, Dreamtime started getting stocked in small stores like Grennan’s Records & Tapes in small towns like Parksville, BC. There was a girl named Kira (Kyra?) working at Grennan’s who was a few years older than me (she was probably in grade 11 or 12). Her interest in what were then known as “alternative” bands definitely had a lot to do with the development of my musical tastes. It was, after all, my interest in bands like Love and Rockets and The Cult that made her pay attention to me.

After months of Saturday afternoons spent in the store, I was convinced we had this deep, spiritual bond based on music. I convinced myself that it was only due to the vast, unbridgeable gap in our ages that nothing could come of this undeniable, simmering mutual attraction. Of course, in reality, she would have merely thought it was cute or amusing that this middle school kid liked British alternative bands, but I believed otherwise. Surely she suffered in silence just as I did, knowing we could never be together but looking forward to our Saturday afternoons with the keen, euphoric ache that’s unique to a teenage crush.

But crushes are so named for a reason, especially when you’re fourteen, and I was crushed with this very realization on the Saturday afternoon I bought the Dreamtime cassette.

She’d just stepped out from behind the counter, the beautiful smile that I dreamed about on Friday nights lighting up her face, when I tried to catch her attention by pulling an LP copy of Dreamtime out of the rack and sticking it in her face. I pointed out how short Ian Astbury‘s hair was in the picture on the back of the sleeve. Her expression flickered from that beguiling smile to a look of confused annoyance as she distractedly answered, “Uh, yeah. A far cry from how they look now,” and pointed to a poster of The Cult on the wall.

Without breaking her stride, she skipped on to the rotating cassette racks staff needed to unlock for customers with that brilliant smile back in place. The smile was for the benefit of a boy about her own age or possibly older whose presence seemed to cause her voice to raise an octave higher and be more full of giggles than I’d ever heard it. In my memory cartoon pink hearts radiated from her chest like atomic popcorn but this probably didn’t actually happen.

With a sick, sinking feeling, I looked back at the poster. It was a poster for Love, two years old by then, not how they looked currently and not really a “far cry” from how they looked on the back of the Dreamtime LP. She hadn’t really been paying attention to me at all. I paid for the tape and left before she was finished talking to her friend.

When I got home and put the tape on, it sounded sour, thin and listless to my ears. I’m pretty sure hearing it for the first time with a crushed heart is the reason that, for years, I didn’t think much of Dreamtime. I considered it not as refined as Love or Electric (by “refined” I meant “rock”) yet not as primal or naively ingenious as The Southern Death Cult either. I felt it was the worst of both worlds.

Somewhere in the early 2000’s I realized I’d never given the album a fair shake. Though, in the context of their discography, Dreamtime does have to be considered a “transitional” album, it’s not one in the ignominious sense that the term is usually applied. It’s not the record of a band finding their feet, it’s the record of a band kicking their feet in the air with utter, creative abandon.

Three main factors coalesced and helped the Dreamtime sessions flourish into a brilliant album:

  1. The material had the kinks worked out by being road-tested and “demoed” as previous singles and BBC sessions during their interim incarnation as The Death Cult.
  2. The band still weren’t able, as musicians and artists, to create the sound they were actually striving for (see Sonic Temple, 1989, and later releases).
  3. It was pure happenstance they went into the right studio at the right time with the right producer before the magic moment, they were actively trying to leave behind them, had passed.

Truly inspired rock and roll bands (especially post-punk and art-rock bands) generally have a limited shelf. Inevitably they lose the spark made them special. It’s not that they lose their youthful passion, but rather that they gain something detrimental: proficiency and skill. Basically, the secret ingredient to the most captivating, enthralling, progressive and exploratory bands isn’t a sublime genius but the inability to accurately translate the whatever genius they hear in their heads through their fingers and out their instruments.

For instance, Lou Reed didn’t lose his ability to write good songs when he left The Velvet Underground, but he lost the ability to leave them half-finished and perform them with ham-fisted, simplistic, cave man guitar. He’d learned too much and was now able to surround himself with proper players to properly execute his vision. The same thing would eventually happen to all the artists famously inspired by The Velvet Underground to start bands of their own.

As their repertoire of chords increases from one to two to three, they always loose something along the way. When a musician doesn’t know how to play an instrument, their naivete forces them to figure out their own way to make a tune on it. If they’re lucky, it’s in a way no other person ever has ever hit on before. Eventually, they seek out or stumble upon the “proper” methods for playing an instrument or fashioning a tune—the same methods every other musician on the planet uses. Once they discover that fourth chord, it’s game over. Everything begins to sound like The Beatles.

Dreamtime is The Cult’s “Sister Ray” or “Waiting For The Man“. It’s the most “The Cult” they’d ever sound because—though you can hear them striving for it—they hadn’t yet figured out how to write Led Zeppelin songs. They can imitate the sounds and textures to a certain extent, but don’t quite know the right scales or chords. Five years later (with Sonic Temple), Billy Duffy‘s apprenticeship under Jimmy Page would be complete and The Cult would cease to exist as a unique and exciting artistic entity. They’d become just another blues-influenced hard rock band in tight pants trying as hard as they could to sound like Zeppelin and, unfortunately, more or less succeeding (Hey, Zeppelin’s great, but we already have a perfectly fine, completely original Zeppelin).

But in 1984 Astbury still howled his lyrics in a unique way, Duffy created swirling, serpentine guitar lines unlike anyone else’s, Nigel Preston‘s (or rumored to be original producer Joe Julian‘s) tom-heavy drumming was innovative and outside the traditional rock framework, and Jamie Stewart still had enough room in the mix to add interesting, funky textures on bass.

All the pieces fit so perfectly on Dreamtime that perhaps Astbury and Duffy had few options but to start removing and replacing them with each additional album. It’s a shame that would happen, but not as much of a shame as me not immediately appreciating Dreamtime for what it is on that Saturday afternoon I first heard it.

Notes on this edition:

Compared to the quiet and slightly muddy master of the original CD edition, the 1999 remaster brings out the sparkling sheen of Duffy’s guitar while giving the rhythm section extra punch. It doesn’t however include any of the B-sides included in previous editions. “Sea and Sky”, “Bonebag” and, most notably, “Resurrection Joe” are all sorely missed.

For some reason, the artwork goes under the knife yet again . The original artwork (below, left) does has some obvious flaws (that terribly rendered painting of the figure in flames and nearly illegible text), but these issues were corrected with later CD editions (below, right). The shadow box image was replaced with a detail of its top right corner and the text was made clearer, yet basically retaining the original typographic style. For some reason this wasn’t deemed good enough for the remastered edition (see above). The iconic snakeskin background has been omitted completely in exchange for a blown-up picture of the head from the shadowbox. This is vaguely understandable as snakeskin tends to hold a certain “too 80’s” cache for a lot of people, but for some reason the band name and title are rendered in a boring sans serif font right across carving’s face, making it difficult to read. A baffling choice since there’s enough black negative space on the top and bottom of the image. Curiouser still, this is the only album in the remaster series to be subjected to this kind of revisionism.

dreamtime revisionism

Note on the artwork

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