Billy Duffy of the Cult on punk's influence and playing with Morrisey in the Nosebleeds

Many people heard the Cult after its breakthrough album, Love, which contained the classic single "She Sells Sanctuary," was released in 1985. But the Cult increasingly became a worldwide phenomenon with its following two albums, Electric and Sonic Temple.

Although credited as being an early gothic-rock band, there was never anything particularly dark about the Cult, and its songs are often uplifting or at least energized rock-and-roll numbers with densely moody atmospheres. With a charismatic, brooding frontman in Ian Astbury and a guitarist equally comfortable with screaming guitar pyrotechnics and ethereal psychedelia in Billy Duffy, the Cult could never be strictly pegged as a gothic-rock band or a metal band, nor would the all-encompassing "hard rock" fit.

The act has a distinct sound. You don't hear a Cult song and confuse it with another band. After a hiatus in 1995, the group returned with a series of albums, and in a recent interview in Blabbermouth, Astbury announced that the band didn't intend to release another album, but instead was changing with the times regarding the release of its new music.

Astbury and Duffy have both expressed that this way of operating has renewed for them the freshness and excitement of making music, and the results can certainly be heard on the Cult's latest release, Capsule 1. We spoke with Duffy about his background and his own storied history as a musician, as well as the origins of the band that would make him famous.

Were you one of the people at that Sex Pistols show in June of 1977 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall? How did that show impact your life?

Very good questions. Actually, yes, but there were two shows. I was at the second one. There were a couple hundred people; three bands played, same venue, three weeks later. I think it was June 26th. I actually have a poster and two tickets from the gig. It cost one pound to get in. I knew it was kind of important.

It's fundamental to the DNA of the Cult to know that punk thing is there with me and Ian. Not that we ever wanted to be in punk bands ourselves, but the kind of punk mentality and attitude that sort of swept in Britain from '76 to '78 was fundamental to our band, and it doesn't always come out. It didn't mean we wanted to be the Sex Pistols or the Banshees or the Clash, but we understood, related to and liked a lot of the bands they liked.

I was at the second gig, believe it or not. It was The Buzzcocks' first-ever show. They arranged the shows, but they didn't play the first one as per the movie Control. That's absolutely true. They did, in fact, play the second show, and I immediately went out and bought the EP they had called Spiral Scratch, which is a four-track vinyl. It's definitely a big part of my DNA and Ian's. As well as loving rock music, punk was a big thing to us.

How did you end up joining the Nosebleeds, and what was it like being in a band with those guys?

The Nosebleeds thing was just that they were a local neighborhood band where I was from in south Manchester, and I aspired to be their guitar roadie because I wanted to be anywhere near a real live band. What the punk thing did was, suddenly, bands would sort of pop up and play in local bars and pubs.

Prior to that, it was just these godlike creatures that would play rock shows in castles, or bands would play enormous venues that would hold 2,000 people, which is what I used to go to in Manchester. All the guys from New Order and Morrissey and the Smiths and a bunch of those bands, we all went to see gigs. We were massive fans of music. Coincidentally, punk happened to a generation of people, a lot of whom, I guess, were creative.

The Nosebleeds -- I just aspired to be their guitar roadie, and one day, two of the guys left the band, and the drummer and the bass player were left with the name. The singer left, and the guitar player left, and I just got the audition.

They said, "If you can play this song, you're in the band." I was young and cocky, and I auditioned. I'll always remember -- this was my big break into the music business -- I auditioned the bass player, Peter Crookes, in his mom's house, which was kind of a council house where I was from, which is a small suburb of Manchester called Wythenshawe.

All I remember is I sat in his kitchen with my guitar plugged into a little amp and played the intro to this quite complicated punk song they had. I mean, I was sixteen, I think. Their guitar player, who had left, was Vinnie Riley, and he became the Durutti Column, which is in the movie 24 Hour Party People. He was a long-haired hippie guy who was in a punk band for five minutes.

It was kind of weird, so I got the gig. I remember he had a dog that was running around, and it had really bad gas, and it was putting me off. That was my big break in the music business: trying not to gag on some little Welsh corgi's digestive problems to play this complicated intro to "I Ain't Been in No Music School." I had a decent attitude and a half-decent haircut, and I was a game fellow, and so I was in.

They asked me if I knew any singers. This was, I think, 1978, and it was still full-on punk, and I said, "I know this guy I've been going to gigs with named Stephen Morrissey. But he's not really kind of like an aggressive punk guy. He's kind of got this New York Dolls thing that we like."

Everybody in Manchester liked the Dolls and Iggy, the Doors, Roxy Music, Bowie, as well as punk. That was that whole scene. It wasn't really about safety pins and trying to look like Sid Vicious. That really wasn't anything to do with the punk I knew. We liked the Pistols, and we liked Generation X, the Clash and the Banshees -- the music we related to.

So they gave Morrissey a shot, and we did two gigs together. Me and him wrote some songs, and to the credit of the two guys in the Nosebleeds -- Toby Tomanov, the drummer, and Pete Crookes -- we did two gigs and didn't do any old Nosebleeds songs. The only thing we did was keep the name. It was a completely new band.

We did all our new songs, and we did one gig opening for Magazine, which was Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks' new band, at the Ritz in Manchester. We also did a show for Rabid Records, which was an indie label in England -- because that's what was big at the time, little independent record labels.

We got one review in the New Musical Express by a famous journalist, who is still going, called Paul Morley. He was a huge Manchester journalist, and he reviewed us. I used to have it cut out, because it was my first review in the papers. I used to have it in my wallet, and it said: "Only their name can prevent them from being an enormous band. So Morley spotted it. Morrissey is unquestionably a genius."

It was very quick thing. It lasted six or seven months, circumstances changed, I moved to London and got another opportunity. It was just unfortunate. But things turned out well for Morrissey and pretty much everybody involved in the whole thing.

How did you join Theater of Hate, and what was the catalyst for you and Ian Astbury working together in the Cult?

Theater of Hate was similar to my becoming involved with the Nosebleeds. I was in London, and I knew Boy George; he worked in a clothes shop. I worked in London, and to make money, I was selling clothes in King's Road, which was kind of a trendy, hip area to get clothing in London. It sort of still is. Boy George was knocking around, and he worked in The World's End shop around the corner, Vivienne Westwood's store. I worked about four doors away in more of a rock-and-roll kind of store called Johnson's, which sold clothes to rock bands. I was kind of the Saturday boy. I used to go to clubs a lot. I was out one night in a club, and Boy George was chasing me around, as usual, because he had a crush on me, which is kind of awkward because he's very big. It's in his book. He's great, George was always cool, but it's a little scary when you're a little guy being chased around by a big drag queen.

Anyway, he pointed out this guy in the club and said, "There's a guy over there who's got a very similar haircut to you, and I know you play guitar; he's in a great band - they've just done a new album produced by Mick Jones from the Clash - but they need a guitarist live. The singer played on the album, but they can't do it live. They're looking for a guitar player; you look like you should be in that band. You wear the same kind of clothes."

It was that pseudo-rockabilly military look that was going on in London in 1981. I talked to the guy and said, "I heard you're looking for a guitar player." And we took it from there. I auditioned the next day. I got the job. I was playing gigs within seven days, and I had to give up my regular job. The next thing I knew, I was playing gigs in Berlin and recording a live album. I still didn't even know the names of the songs. I just learned them as musical pieces. I learned fourteen or fifteen songs and went from a part-time musician working in a clothes shop to a full time touring guitar player, within about eight days.

We recorded the album next to the Berlin Wall. There was a festival at Check Point Charlie. I just toured with that band, Theater of Hate; it was a great band. Really cool. It wasn't my band, it wasn't my music, but I really loved them. During that period, Ian Astbury was the singer in an up-and-coming pop band called Southern Death Cult. They were the opening act on one of our tours in 1982.

I met Ian and became friendly with him and all the guys, kind of as my relationship with Theater of Hate was wearing out. We weren't jiving personality-wise, because I'm kind of an alpha male and it wasn't my band. It was someone else's band and a good band. But I couldn't keep my opinions to myself. I'm not one of those guys. So there was friction.

I met Ian and became friendly with the Southern Death Cult guys, and they were, geographically, from the north of England, where I'm from. And Theater of Hate were all guys from London or the south. It's not a massive deal, but if you can imagine someone from Chicago being in a band with someone from Atlanta, it's that kind of slightly different, minor cultural differences. So I gravitated toward the guys from my part of the world.

The Southern Death Cult thing didn't work out for Ian. They were a hot and up-and-coming band. They were going to be the next big thing, and he didn't feel comfortable in the band and sought me out. He came and found me where I was living in a squalid little flat in Brixton. He said to me, "I'm not really happy with Southern Death Cult, the way it's going." I said, "Are you sure?"

They were the new hot band, and they were getting all this attention. He said, "The chemistry's not right. We won't last five minutes. Are you interested in doing something?" It took me about four seconds, and I said, "Yup!" And that was it. That was sometime in March of '83. That was kind of the beginning of the Cult. We sat down and wrote some songs in my room in the flat.

The Cult, with The Black Ryder, 8 p.m. Saturday, September 25, Ogden Theater, 935 E. Colfax, $35-$40-$75 (VIP), 16+, 303-830-8497.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.