Early days: Gothic scene and debut (1981-1984)

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In 1981, singer Ian Astbury joined a local, singer-less band, and renamed the outfit “Southern Death Cult“, after an obscure Indian tribe around the Mississippi delta area in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Southern Death Cult’s first ever performance was at the Queen’s Hall in Bradford, England, on 29 October 1981. This quartet toured and recorded for about 16 months, releasing one single (“Moya”) before breaking up in early 1983. Shortly thereafter, Astbury teamed up with guitarist Billy Duffy to form Death Cult, a name the two men have since said they decided on because they could not think of any other name for the band. Duffy had previously been in The Nosebleeds and then Theatre of Hate, a band that Southern Death Cult had toured with in October 1982.

Death Cult existed on the fringes of the Gothic scene in London, and originally consisted of Ian Astbury (vocals), Billy Duffy (guitar), Jamie Stewart (bass) and Raymond Taylor Smith (aka Ray Mondo) (drums), the latter two having come from the Harrow, London based post punk band Ritual. Death Cult released the Death Cult EP in July 1983, then toured throughout Europe on an admittedly shoestring budget. In September 1983, Mondo was deported to his home country of Sierra Leone, and replaced by drummer Nigel Preston. The single “God’s Zoo” was released in October 1983. Another European tour, with UK dates, followed later that autumn. To tone down the Gothic connotations of their name, and to gain broader appeal, the band changed its name simply to “The Cult” on January 13 1984, immediately before appearing on Channel 4 television show The Tube.

The Cult’s first studio record was recorded at Rockfield Studios, in Monmouth, Wales in late March and early April 1984. The record was originally being produced by Joe Julian, but after having recorded the drum tracks the band decided to replace him, and Beggars Banquet suggested John Brand. The record was ultimately produced by Brand, but guitarist Billy Duffy has said that the drum tracks used on the record were those produced by Julian, as Nigel Preston by that time had become too unreliable.

The band recorded the songs which later became known as: “Butterflies”, “(The) Gimmick”, “A Flower in the Desert”, “Horse Nation”, “Spiritwalker”, “Bad Medicine (Waltz)”, “Dreamtime”, “With Love” (later known as “Ship of Fools”, ultimately “Sea and Sky”), “Bone Bag”, “Too Young”, “83rd Dream”, and one untitled outtake. It is unknown what the outtake was, or whether it was developed into a song at a later date. Songs like “Horse Nation” showed Astbury’s already intense interest in Native American issues, with the lyrics to “Horse Nation” (“See them prancing, they come neighing, to a horse nation”) taken almost verbatim from the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, while “Spiritwalker” dealt with shamanism, and the record’s title and title track are overtly influenced by Australian Aboriginal beliefs.

On 4 April 1984 The Cult released the single “Spiritwalker”, which reached #1 on the independent charts in the UK, and acted as a teaser for their forthcoming album Dreamtime. This was followed by a second single, “Go West (Crazy Spinning Cirles)” that summer, before the release of Dreamtime in September, an album which reached UK #21, and sold over 100,000 copies in Britain alone. On 12 July, the band performed five songs live on the BBC, Madia Vale 5 studio. Both before and after the album’s release, The Cult toured extensively throughout Europe and England before recording another single, “Resurrection Joe” (UK #74), released that December. Following a Christmas support slot with Big Country, The Cult toured Europe with support from the Sisterhood (soon to become The Mission). The Dreamtime album was released initially only in Britain, but after its success, and as The Cult’s popularity worldwide grew, it was issued later in nearly 30 countries.