The Song of a Generation?
“She Sells Sanctuary” — The Cult (1985)
“She Sells Sanctuary” — The Cult (1985)
NOTE: I am defining “Song of a Generation” as any song that takes from the past, applies it to the present, and serves as a harbinger of what will follow.
That said, let me call out a few things:
I am not a big fan of The Cult. I like them for a few songs, this being one of them.
I admit that this is a wildly subjective assertion.
The generation I am referring to would be Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980. The song is not exclusive to that generation. I would argue that any person of any generation would like the song (provided they like rock and roll). Unless you’re one of those contrarian eyesholes who will say it’s awful or won’t listen out of spite. For those folks — guess which finger I’m holding up?
This isn’t an article about Love, the album on which this song is found. I don’t think that’s a great album. There, that’s my review of the album.
Lastly, I am not saying this is the definitive song of Generation X in the way that “The Times They Are A-Changin'” by Bob Dylan or “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield may represent Baby Boomers. Although, if I were to pick that song for Generation X, I would submit “It’s The End of The World (and I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.
Generation X witnessed a sonic bukkake of popular musical genres during our life. There were all the rocks of the 70s— soft, psychedelic, southern, country, punk (and any others I’ve missed)— disco, then the MTV & New Romanticism, then hip-hop/rap, then college rock, and then finally grunge. And within all of those are the exhaustive myriad of sub-genres.
What Gen X experienced is perhaps not as singularly groundbreaking as the British Invasion. Still, The Beatles and The Rollings Stones, et al. are a once-in-a-lifetime event …but so are Public Enemy and Nirvana, et al. Nonetheless, Generation X was exposed to a sonic Jackson Pollack-esque landscape.
By the time nu-metal (and all of its shitty subsidiaries) and the Disney kids (N’Synch, Brittney, Christina, etc.) hit in the mid to late 90s, I’d argue most Gen X’ers had firmly established their musical tastes. I would also argue that it didn’t include too much nu-metal or Disney kids.
So, why The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary”?
Released in May of 1985, “She Sells Sanctuary” peaked at #15 on the UK Singles Chart made it to #15 on the British Singles Chart, and here in the states, it landed at #36 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs and #43 on Billboard’s Dance Single Sales.
It wasn’t a huge hit by any measure.
Also happening by the time 1985 rolled around, the New Romantic period that yielded bands like Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club, etc., was beginning to wane. Those bands and their stranglehold of the MTV generation were lessening.
Those New Romantics had slowly been usurped by the Sunset Strip/Aquanet bands like Poison, Ratt, and Motley Crue, with the gutter rats Guns-n-Roses circling the cloud of hairspray.
And bubbling just underneath it all in 1985 was the scrappy college rock contingency with bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, and The Pixies, et al..
What makes “She Sells Sanctuary” unique is that it has elements of many genres that preceded it. To be clear, “She Sells Sanctuary” isn’t its own thing in such a way that it defies any categorization. It’s a rock and roll song, IMHO.
What makes the song so interesting is that it blends everything.
Lyrically, The Cult takes a page from not only all of pop music but also one of the core tenants of New Romanticism, love:
The sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive
And the sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive, keeps me alive
And then add in Billy Duffy’s guitar and Steve Brown’s original “big” production and boy-howdy!
Brown seems to be borrowing a page from the bombastic sound of Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois’s production of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” from U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and Steve Lillywhites production on its predecessor, War (1983).
Like “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “She Sells Sanctuary” sounds like it was made to play in arenas and stadiums.
I refer to Brown’s original production because “She Sells Sanctuary” would go on to have other producers take a stab at it over the years — like Butch Vig and Youth. However, for me, the crown jewel remains Brown’s from 1985.
The other element of the song that is often overlooked is just how ballsy of a rock and roll song it is. “She Sells Sanctuary” is as rock and roll as anything off Appetite for Destruction, and yet it sounds nothing like it. It’s got the guitar and has an atmospheric vibe that is a straight line to Joy Division.
I know I sound effusive about this song. And I am.
I can think of only ONE other song I have heard as much and never tire of — “A Murder of One” by Counting Crows. I have heard these two songs THOUSANDS of times, and I never get tired of them.
It’s worth noting three things here:
The Cult must’ve read the writing on the wall because they hired Rick Rubin to produce the follow-up to the atmospheric Love. The resulting album, the appropriately titled Electric, released in April of 1987, offered up a sound that would never be mistaken for “Gothic” or “post-punk.”
Guns-n-Roses would release Appetite for Destruction in July of 1987.
Before Appetite made Guns-n-Roses the biggest band in the world, they clocked time opening for The Cult.
“She Sells Sanctuary” is an amalgam of the best of New Romanticism, the marginal fustian qualities of college rock, and the big blustering production, or sound, that Guns-n-Roses (among others) would soon take all over the globe. The song has a finger in each of those things without losing any sense of its own sound.
Is this the best song of that era?
No, probably not.
But that’d be just as speculative and subjective as this that you’re reading.
For me, it’s “She Sells Sanctuary” that blends many of the sounds we as Gen X’ers were exposed to growing up.
I’m sure one or two of you must be thinking: “Are the members of The Cult Gen X’ers?” The answer is no.
The two principals of The Cult, singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, would be categorized as Boomers (born 1946–1964), being born in 1962 and 61 respectively.
I don’t know what that means exactly because I have two friends, born four months apart in 1981 — one is steadfast she’s a Gen X’er, the other identifies as a millennial. I think you are what you identify with, and I can’t speak for Astubruy or Duffy.
If they’re categorized as Boomers, they wrote a helluva song for us Gen X’ers.
At the end of the day, I think if you ask most Gen X’ers, they’ll say the lion’s share of the music they like will come from that mid to late-80s to mid to late-90s range. That’s not to say we Gen X’ers don’t like other artists from different periods; of course, we do. I also won’t argue that the late 80s through the late 90s were the halcyon years of music, regardless of genre …but I will say they’re as close as we got.
I would bet dollars to donuts that if you played “She Sells Sanctuary” for anyone who has never heard it, they wouldn’t know the song is almost 40 years old.
Let that marinate.
It’s an amazing accomplishment to create a song that can still sound original almost 40 years later. Now, I can’t say the same about all of the other songs on Love. Or even many of the songs and albums from that era.
So what then is “She Sells Sanctuary”? As I mentioned earlier, the answer is simple — it’s a rock and roll song. And the best rock and roll songs transcend their era, genre, and generation and ultimately will sound just as relevant today as they did in 1985 and as they will in 2050.
For me, The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” is just as important and historically significant as “Hound Dog,” “She Loves You,” “Brown Sugar,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Train in Vain,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Fight the Power,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
While there can be no one song that captures the essence of a generation, The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” comes close. I admit that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is in the same category, but “She Sells Sanctuary” wins by a hair on this one.
Is there another song that you’re thinking of that may capture what “She Sells Sanctuary” does? What say ye — Rob Janicke Terry Barr Jessica Lee McMillan Jeff Bezos (why not) Kevin Alexander Paul Combs Pierce McIntyre Chris Zappa David Acaster Reuben Salsa Alexander Briseño If Ever You’re Listening Pierce McIntyre Christopher Robin and anyone else? Have at it!