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45 at 33: The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary

Before they veered into hoary Doors-y blues-rock on Electric (the band‘s third album from 1987, featuring the preposterous Love Removal Machine), Bradford boys The Cult were more into deeply romanticised goth-flavoured indie alternatives on albums like Dreamtime and their triumphant sophomore set, 1985‘s Love. Ready for Sanctuary?

With Ian Astbury’s swagger (somewhere between Bowie*, Freddie Mercury and Jim Morrison) and blond Billy Duffy’s guitar prowess, The Cult possessed a talented core to work their emotional and melancholy alchemy. The blistering and breathless stomp of She Sells Sanctuary, the first of three hit singles from second LP Love, was the undisputed breakthrough for the band. It’s a hard-charging rocker practically dripping with testosterone. It’s very clear what kind of sanctuary the singer is seeking to relieve the pressures of everyday existence. Sun, sea and… sangria, perhaps?

”What‘s the song about? Sex. Plain and simple, it‘s about sex. I‘ve had sex and I‘m very proud of that fact,” said Ian Astbury, with a straight face in 1994. In a 2012 A.V. Club interview with Will Harris, the frontman was a little less braggart:

“She Sells Sanctuary was probably referring to the power of finding solitude in a woman’s arms and the matriarchal energy, whether it be an actual physical person or in a spiritual sense, the greatest matriarch, and thinking of the cosmos as a female energy rather than a male energy. These are archetypal things I was picking up from discovering things like Joseph Campbell and Buffy Sainte-Marie or even Jim Morrison.” 

Duffy opens with stands of psychedelic guitar and plays a searing riff throughout the song, with an acoustic rhythm guitar providing the foundation along with Jamie Stewart’s bass and Nigel Preston’s drums (it was the last recording with the band for Preston, who was unceremoniously fired soon after).

Astbury’s voice is as potent as usual, his blood red and hot coursing through his veins as he contemplates the object of his lust: “The fire in your eyes / Keeps me alive / I’m sure in her you’ll find / The sanctuary!”

SSS hit No. 15 on the UK singles chart in July and August of 1985, the Cult’s second-highest placement behind 1987’s less good Lil’ Devil which reached eleven, though it doesn’t have anything like the legs of Sanctuary.

Steve Pafford


The Cult opened for the Dame at the Paris stop of the Glass Spider tour, of whom Duffy recalls, “Bowie was an omnipresent god in the UK long before he blew up in America. He was like a huge underground star, which was bizarre because in England he was literally as big as you could get. He sort of helped shape and push boundaries in the UK in the early ’70s.”

*Name-drop alert: Ian Astbury also was a Bowie fan, acknowledging that the Dame “served as one of the most formative teachers in my life.” Shame that didn’t extend to personal space as, in 1995, Ian clumsily walked into this writer and knocked my drink over me backstage at one of David’s Outside shows at Wembley Arena. He was most apologetic (though, cringily, he said “Sos!” instead of sorry) but didn’t offer to get me a replacement, even though it was a free bar. The rotter.

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