Sometimes I almost cringe at what I say. I am aware that it is totally within my powers to come across as a bit of a music snob.
I am going to try to avoid that particular pitfall today, but it won’t be easy. The reason for all this preamble is that today I am looking at another classic lost album, this one being Dreamtime Live at the Lyceum by The Cult. And the thing that I am trying hard not to say is that The Cult were a brilliant, brilliant band up until the point they released their debut album.
Yes, I am aware that this falls well within the “I liked them before you” sphere of musical snobbishness and even incorporates the “their early singles were their best work” line as well but, to my mind, it is also completely true.
The importance of Southern Death Cult to what was the nascent goth scene cannot be overstated, as we have mentioned before. They were the band a whole scene coalesced around, flag bearers for a new tribe. But their flame was to burn only briefly and the band split up before they could even release an album. Singer Ian Astbury quickly formed Death Cult with ex-Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy, a partnership that survives to the present day, releasing their unutterably wonderful debut EP (which we have also looked at before).
Before long they slimmed their name down even further to simply The Cult and became the best live band in the entire world. I saw them live as often as I could, an allegiance that involved a lot of travel and nights spent sleeping in unlikely places, and they quickly overtook The Fall and Joy Division as the band I had seen live the most (that’s a terrible sentence, but you know what I mean).
Seeing The Cult live was more than just a gig, it was a celebration. The band and their fans were a riot of colour, energy and the joy of youth, their gigs were a place to both meet and make friends, as we recognised each other from previous gigs. They were everything that was good about music and about life.
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And what a soundtrack we had. Songs that have now become recognised as classics; Spiritwalker, God’s Zoo, Dreamtime performed by a band at the absolute peak of their powers, before concerns such as chart placings and record company pressures raised their heads. They were the best band playing the best songs at the best time. Sometimes things just line up perfectly and that’s exactly how it felt whenever we saw them live.
The band at the time was made up of incredible musicians – Ian Astbury was a frenetic shaman of a frontman, Billy Duffy played his soul out with spaghetti western influenced guitar lines, before power chords took him over, Jamie Stewart provided treble rich bass lines that added groove and even a few funk licks and in Nigel Preston they had one of the best drummers ever to walk the planet. Many changes were in store, but for me, this particular line-up is one the best bands ever to take to the stage.
For their debut album, Dreamtime, it was decided that the first 30,000 copies would come with a free live album, recorded at London’s Lyceum and it is this that we are looking at as a lost album. It has since been rereleased in a number of formats, but for a while only the faithful followers were able to snap up a copy.
The studio album sounds like it was produced to appeal to a more mainstream audience, with some of the rough edges smoothed away. This is not necessarily a bad thing, any record company would want their bands to be successful, but it did detract from the energy the songs had live. Dreamtime Live at the Lyceum kept these edges and sounded all the better for it. It captures the vitality the studio album sought to remove and, as such, is the superior version of the album.
Dreamtime Live at the Lyceum starts with the atmospheric 83rd Dream, as their gigs generally did. A slow building song that sees the band members come in almost one by one, starting with Stewart’s heavily chorused bass. Then in comes Duffy’s picked guitar followed by Astbury’s vocals. When Preston kicks in on the drums, the song takes off, marking the point for the audience to start hurling themselves around. The band are tight and mesh together perfectly, each member’s contribution coming together to form a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
God’s Zoo is next and here the star is Duffy’s guitar. In contrast to what was to come, the guitar parts are picked out and there are no strummed chords in the whole song. Instead we get an incredible performance that borders on virtuoso. Personally, I hated The Cult’s descent into heavy rock, and one of the main reasons for that was the loss of subtlety in Billy Duffy’s guitar playing. To me it seemed he dumbed down and it is a great shame.
Gimmick is further proof of this and also of what a superb band The Cult were. It is perhaps one of their least celebrated songs but the power they release in this live version is just incredible. They also manage to make their songs so damn catchy, they get under the skin in a way very few bands have ever managed.
Listening back now it sounds like The Cult were reinventing rock music, creating a new way for it to develop, which again makes it a shame that they retreated into aping older musical styles. For a moment there a glorious future seemed possible.
Bad Medicine Waltz slowed things down with a gentler blues sound before heading into a chorus that can only be described as epic. Astbury is in fine voice and the band behind him prove they are not only capable of bruising rock songs, but are just as adept at nuance and restraint.
Flower in the Desert is a Southern Death Cult song that Astbury chose to take with him, but it sounds to all intents and purposes exactly like a Cult song in these hands. The song is again an epic and flows towards the chorus for yet more dancefloor mayhem. Go West will be more familiar to people as it was released as a single and features a superb chorus with Astbury singing “We can offer you everything”. Astbury also features briefly on rhythm guitar, allowing Duffy to again fill the song with delicately picked chords.
Butterflies starts slowly before building into a swirling rock song courtesy of the interplay between Nigel Preston and Billy Duffy. While we’re on the subject, the fact that Preston isn’t recognised as one of music’s finest drummers is another thing that niggles when listening back to this album.
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Dreamtime makes the most of its minimal lyrics by backing them with a wall of sound. The Cult were quite capable of bringing The Storm into their music when they wanted to. Christians is another song that survived the transition to The Cult, this time from Death Cult’s only EP. It is an absolute stormer of a song, only made more ferocious in this live recording.
Next up is The Hit, Spiritwalker. If this was the only record The Cult released their immortality would be assured as there surely cannot be a single ‘Alternative ’80s’ compilation that does not feature this song. The version recorded here is a lot faster than the studio version and Astbury sometimes sounds as if he’s struggling to keep up with the pace and intensity the band deliver.
Horse Nation finishes the main set, another track from the Death Cult EP. Everything sounds busy about this song and I can’t think of another band who would have been capable of writing such a song or doing it justice live. An incredible end to a live set.
There are of course encores, starting with Bone Bag, another slow bluesy number looking at growing old, with Astbury telling us he’s “only 21 but feels like 99 sometimes.” We can only assume he feels worse now, but (inevitable jokes about aging aside) this is an incredible look at how the turmoil of being in a band that commanded such attention affected the young Astbury. It is perhaps here that we can first see the direction that would lead The Cult to a more traditional rock sound, especially during Duffy’s guitar solo.
From here we are back into full on energy with another Death Cult EP track, Ghost Dance. There is a reason this made it into our look at the best EPs ever made, it is an absolute classic, containing 4 killer tracks of stunning, inventive rock music. The second encore complete the tracks from this EP with Brothers Grimm, with guitar heroics, a rumbling anchor of a bass line and a storm being ripped up on the drums. Even with all this going on, the Cult are still able to find space in a song to let it pause and breathe before unleashing their full fury again.
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The live set finishes, as it has to, with Moya, Southern Death Cult’s most famous song and one that holds a special place in the hearts of many on old road warrior. The version here has its sound beefed up considerably from SDC days and provides a highlight for the band to go out on and for the audience to feel well treated.
And that completes a typical set from what was, at the time, the best live band in the world. They have displayed artistry, skill and an energy unmatched by their peers. For this one glorious, shining moment, we had a band who were rewriting what rock music could do and providing glorious events for their fans. We have never known their like since and, despite my dislike of what was to follow, The Cult will always hold a special place in my heart and in my mind, from my Death Cult rose tattoo to the memories, photographs and recordings I made.
Without any musical snobbishness, at the time this recording was made, The Cult were the only band that really mattered. With the wisdom of increasing years, I am aware that peaks like this can only be maintained for so long and that bands have to change and develop.
And they have left us with this, a document that captures them and freezes them in amber as a band who summed up everything that is good about music, about tribes and about life.
Even if we do all feel like 99 again.
One reply on “The Cult: Live at the Lyceum”
Think this is how I felt about them at the release of ele tric. I was trying to get away from American hair metal! Then I got over it all and just enjoyed the band for what they are. Im still grateful they are producing new tunes and we are lucky to have them! CFFC!
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