This is an expanded CD of the earlier vinyl release by Beggar’s Banquet of various recordings by Southern Death Cult during their brief but beautiful career, a collection comprising tracks from the band’s 12” single (their only release), their Radio One sessions for John Peel & David Jensen, live tracks from a performance at Rafters and recordings at Manchester Square for EMI and The Playground (remixed). In addition, there is a slightly expanded (though still minimal) booklet complete with extra black and white photos of the band, including 4 appropriately moody shots by Anton Corbijn. It is also an absolutely essential release which, in a just world, would have outsold ‘Thriller’, ‘Brothers In Arms’ and Celine Dion’s entire back catalogue put together. Sadly, and somewhat inexplicably, SDC languish in obscurity, though its members did do quite well later in other bands. The erroneous consensus seems therefore to be that SDC were a training ground for later greatness, nice enough in their way but of no great artistic merit. Dismiss this idea immediately. SDC represents infinitely more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about this release is that, unlike most other ‘compilation albums’, this sounds like a real album - it flows. Southern Death Cult had their own unique sound and, despite the liner notes’ apologies for master tape quality, it is magnificently showcased here. Ian’s voice, both husky and sharp, does not so much follow the beat as wind around the bass-heavy rhythms and staccato guitar wail, while the almost tribal drumming (particularly evident on ‘The Crypt’ and ‘Crow‘) seems to force the music towards its conclusion with a kind of desperate urgency. A powerful, energising experience, Southern Death Cult indeed have few direct musical comparisons (except, perhaps, UK Decay) but were undeniably influential in their brief existence, not least on their own work, as many SDC elements are clearly present on The Cult’s ‘Dreamtime’ album, though well-documented later shifts towards a more mainstream rock ethos diluted this somewhat.
Interestingly, in contrast to many bands at the time, the music’s subtle aggression is in no way undermined by the lyrics and this was for the band members (except Aky Nawaz) their most intelligent political period. Ian Astbury’s concern with the genocide of American Indians is normally seen as the band’s primary lyrical obsession (‘Moya’, ‘Apache’) but the desire to tackle other ‘big’ issues such as state control (‘Fatman’), nationalism (‘All Glory’) and religion as the instigator of warfare (‘Faith’) is often overlooked. Fortunately, SDC were never going to be an embarrassing ‘political’ band who wore their doctrines on their sleeves but it is undeniable that, if their music shows anything, it is that they cared - about the quality of their music as much as the aforementioned issues - and they are one of the few bands about which it can be said, with a completely straight face, that they have a kind of purity about their work. That this went largely unappreciated at the time was undoubtedly a factor in their rapid demise.
The real treat on this CD, which makes it worth owning even if you already have the album on vinyl, is the inclusion of no less than 5 extra tracks. Additional versions of ‘Fatman’ and ‘Moya’ from their 1982 single on Situation Two are accompanied by ‘The Girl’, also from the single, a dark piece in the vein of ‘The Crypt’ which could almost be seen as an anti-love song or, at least, a cautious love song - note the lyric “all the people lost in love/should never lose their souls” - and has the remarkable inclusion of an almost-strangled semi-chorus of “oooh oooh/ooooooooh ooh”s, which might lead one to suspect that Ian was sending up the inanity of the traditionally banal pop lyric of the “ooh ooh / I love you” variety, perhaps in the same spirit that the Rolling Stones included cheerful “woo woo”s on ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and Lou Reed had the chorus of “doo/dee doo/doo/doo dee doo” on ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. The other two ‘new’ songs, ‘Flowers In The Forest’ and ‘Patriot’ came from the same Radio One session which produced the excellent ‘False Faces’ and ‘Apache’ and are of notably high sound quality, leading one to wonder why they were not included on the original vinyl release. ‘Flowers…’ is a truly beautiful track, my personal favourite, both for its surprisingly poignant lyrics (e.g. “as Babylon crumbles to sand / a flower blossoms in my hand”) and for the absolute musical cohesion it displays. To my mind, it is quintessential Southern Death Cult and there is no doubt that the Jensen session showcased the band at their regrettably brief zenith. ‘Patroit’, another thoughtful piece, edges in lyrical terms towards the territory of ‘All Glory’, while the music moves towards a slightly more guitar-heavy formula with drums being subtler and less immediate, though the bass still plays a heavy part. This could simply be due to the difference in quality between the various recordings or it could be seen as early evidence of the band’s progress from the rougher, more self-consciously ‘punky’ thrills of ‘Vivisection’ and ‘Crow’ to a more refined sound which would later appear in a very similar form on early ‘Cult’ recordings. The beginning of the end or a welcome maturity? Only the listener can decide.
In a sense, it seems almost impossible to me to describe the true force and beauty of SDC as they were so much their own creation and so very different from their contemporaries. Indeed, it is surprising both how fresh and original this album still sounds and how little-heard the band remain, often dismissed (incorrectly, by people who haven’t heard them) as depressing, self-indulgent early goth rubbish. All I can do is urge you to buy this amazing CD and explore it. You will still be listening to it many years from now. On that, I give you my word.