The Age of Electric: How The Cult Launched a Hard Rock Renaissance

“I’m a wolf child, girl, howlin’ for you! Wild flower!” When these lines appeared 50 seconds into The Cult’s Electric, nothing would ever be the same—even if it sounded pretty much like it always had.

Future historians may prefer a more phonetic rendering of the song’s title, which sounds more like “wiiillldd flllowww-ahh!” coming out of Ian Astbury’s mouth. Married to Billy Duffy’s crunchy riffage, the singer’s schtick was gloriously, even knowingly, dumb. But critics at the time were unkind to our hero. In a Spin review of the more absurd follow-up album, Sonic Temple, writer David Sprague pondered whether Astbury was indeed the Jerry Lee Lewis of rock, ridiculing the former goth band’s bald-faced lifts from Led Zeppelin, Queen, and The Doors (who were fronted by Astbury’s true god, Jim Morrison).

Hard as it may be for present-day aficionados of cock rock to believe, all of the genre’s bands were largely treated as objects of ridicule when Electric was delivered into the greedy hands of teenagers 30 years ago this month. After all, classic rock radio was just becoming a thing, and with thrash and hardcore yet to go overground and Hüsker Dü and The Replacements left stuck on the dial, what passed for hard rock in the mainstream was hair metal’s limp glam pop pastiche. Machine-tooled to perfection by Rick Rubin, Electric did a lot to change that.

So did Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, which arrived just a few months later. Soon, the scene on both sides of the Atlantic would be thick with Jack-swilling, bandana-clad he-men schooled in Zeppelin, Sabbath, Aerosmith, and the newly resurgent AC/DC. Even former hair metal lightweights like Cinderella did all they could to toughen up.

Having set the gold standard first with Slayer and then The Cult, Rubin continued to put his Midas touch on bands like Masters of Reality and The Four Horsemen, two lesser lights who still churned out some monster jams. Meanwhile, the hip-hop/mega rock merger that Rubin first devised would soon reach maximum overdrive when Public Enemy sampled Slayer and teamed up with Anthrax. Deep in the Pacific Northwest, there were rumblings of the grunge to come, though back in the late ’80s, it took a discerning ear to hear any hard line between Soundgarden and German Zep wannabes Kingdom Come. Which is to say they were both awesome.

Tragically, this period of magnificence came to an end, right around the same time Nevermind arrived alongside GnR’s bloated Use Your Illusion in September of 1991 (oddly, Ozzy Osbourne’s final solo masterpiece, No More Tears, came out the same month). To commentators at the time, Nirvana’s conquest signaled rock’s new relevance; a narrative that made sense, seeing as the genre’s popularity had sagged so much that not a single rock album topped the charts the year before.

But that’s dead wrong now, what with the age of gods ushered in by Electric replaced by the lumpen likes of Creed, Staind, and Nickelback—if Astbury was hard rock’s Jerry Lee Lewis, surely Chad Kroeger is its Rob Schneider. Saddled in between the ass-end of hair metal and the rise of grunge, this era has rarely gotten its due. Hell, classic rock radio rarely touches the stuff—it’s too damn gnarly. But make no mistake: This wolf child is still howlin’ for you.