For Billy deciding which songs to play and what order to play them in is a crucial part of any gig with The Cult. With a new tour now announced Billy talks about the importance of set lists, not playing cover versions, how the touring days of the 1980s influenced the songs on ‘Electric’ and looks forward to taking it out on the road with ‘Electric 13’.
“Historically with The Cult it was usually my responsibility to decide the songs that we played and to create the set list. In the old days I was hand writing the set lists in a marker pen as you can see from the early examples on the Set Lists page here on my site. You could say that he Magic Marker has been essential to Rock and Roll communication! Back then they were only really for the band and the sound guy so we only needed a few for each gig. But as the tours got bigger so did the team and you find that all the crew want one so they know about any potential guitar changes or lighting cues. When you’re a club band its just a lot more low key.
Essentially it means the older set lists are much rarer as the there were only ever a few for each gig, and they were hand written, whereas now there’s a big stack of them at each gig as they’re run off on machines. Sometimes they’re even printed out but then changed as we’ve looked at them and then thought ‘that’s not right’ and it’s easy to just click a button and the tour manager prints out the new version. Consequently there are probably sets lists kicking around that we’ve never played.
These days it’s more of team effort between me, Ian and our manager Tom as to what songs get included in the set. It’s got to the point where we have so much material that the biggest challenge is trying to decide what not to play. We also found that we needed a little bit of objectivity on that which is where Tom comes in. You have to remember that when we started out as Death Cult back in ’83 it was just a case of trying to have enough songs to play in a set.
99% of the time bands just stick to a strict set list and for stadium bands going out on a big tour with a full production keeping a strict set is really important but for a band like The Cult it’s not the necessary for us and we usually make the set up on the night and then stick to that for the gig.
There are bands that have been playing and touring for so long that the lead singer can just call songs out and play anything from their catalogue, but that’s really an exception. Back in the history of music guys like Chuck Berry would tour around and pick up a local band where ever he went. He’d show up with his guitar, get his money, walk on stage and yell ‘Johnny B Good in G’ and the local house band hired by the promoter would play and back him up. That was the 1950s and 60s when people would do three or four sets a night. Nowadays bands like to have a set list to follow just so that everyone is on the same page. It’s funny how it’s become such an important thing but I guess it’s just an evolution.
Before we go out on tour we’ll get together as a band for pre production where we’ll rehearse and to arrange the set. We usually play blocks of songs to see how things feel and help us decide the best running order.
When we’re working out the set for a tour we don’t usually change it that much from country to country or town to town as we’ve always thought globally and it’s more about what songs feel right for us at that time. Throughout The Cult’s history co-inciding with each album release there have been different phases and different eras and there are songs that come and go in the sets. Usually the only time we will radically change the set whilst out on tour is if we’re doing a festival. When you’re then playing to a mixed crowd, some who have no interest in The Cult and some who have a lot, it’s wiser to play your better known songs. Then when your out playing to your own fans you can be more adventurous, but it’s always been important to me and Ian that we really want the gig to be a great night out and we want people to be entertained and stimulated. That’s why it’s so important to get the right mix of songs as I’ve been in crowds watching bands play too many new or odd songs and it can kill the atmosphere.
When we play live it’s like a group consciousness with a few thousand people together and the audience become kind of like an animal in some respects so if people are going to go out and spend their hard earned money to come and see us then we want to give them a good time and not be too indulgent.
On the Choice of Weapon tour we were really enthused that the new songs just fitted right in with the hits fairly seamlessly and there wasn’t a big drop or lull in the vibe.
Once in a while we do like to dig up an old song and put that in the set if it feels right… just to titillate The Cult die-hards.
Also despite people shouting out for obscure songs during gigs it’s not very often that we will play a song that isn’t on the set list but it happened on the last tour.
There was a little girl in the crowd who was called Edie and her mum was calling for us to play ‘Edie’ so I just went into it and we did the first verse and chorus, just Ian and me on the guitar and I remember it was a particularly excellent moment. It was fun and its something I think I’d like to do more of but when I get out there with The Cult it’s game face and I don’t treat is as a laugh. Being in The Cult is a serious business to me and it always has been.
A lot of bands like to play cover versions in their sets but generally with The Cult we’ve avoided them and it stemmed from a feeling I had back in the 1980s that I wanted to keep myself pure on a creative level. By that I mean that I didn’t want to become too versed in other people’s songs because I felt it might dilute the purity of my own music.
From day one when me and Ian got together we didn’t sit in my bedroom in Brixton and say ‘hey lets play an Adam and the Ants song’ or ‘lets play the Pistols’ it was what you got, what you got, lets write. Ian was fresh from Southern Death Cult and I’d come from Theatre of Hate but I didn’t write songs with them. I liked Kirk Brandon’s songwriting and I was a big fan of that music so I was quite inspired by being in Theatre of Hate and I’d really enjoyed and learnt a lot from playing his songs. It showed me completely different style of music from what I’d known to that point, which was glam rock, rock n roll, punk rock.
When we started we used to play a couple of Southern Death Cult songs; ‘Flower in the Desert’ and ‘Moya’ because those songs were primarily Ian’s so weren’t really covers.
Later when we evolved into this hard drinking bunch of young men pirating our way around the world fueled on vodka and whatever, it did lead to us adding a couple of covers to the set.
From the Love tour and the Love album we were just getting more and more rock n roll and more and more drunk and that’s why Electric evolved in the way that it did. We needed music that to me represented how we were feeling and how we were behaving at the time. During that time “Born To Be Wild’ came up and was something we did live at the end of the set for fun. Co-incidently when I was in my first band at high school we used to cover ‘Born to be wild’ back then.
With The Cult also did ‘Wild Thing/Louie Louie’ which again was knocked up in a soundcheck for a laugh, we played it in one gig and it went down really well and we could smash all the gear up! Ironically being The Cult we never really listened to the originals and what happened was I played Wild Thing and Ian sang Louie Louie and then I played Louie Louie and Ian sang Wild Thing so it ended up as this hybrid rock n roll jam right at the point where the booze kicked in!
Also, whilst not a cover as such, for the end of ‘Love Removal Machine’ we were looking to create something really fast to go mental to on stage. It encompassed the spirit of high energy early Zeppelin, ACDC, early Aerosmith or whatever we were listening to at the time. We just wanted a song that exploded and it was all part of that same thing came out of the live experience influencing the song writing.
Over time though I’ve changed my opinion on covers and that’s partly through doing a lot of them in the different bands I’ve played in when The Cult have been on breaks and I’ve really enjoyed that. Strangely that has given me a new lease of life, completely contradicting my 1980s philosophy as a young man. By playing other peoples stuff it showed me a million different ways that songs are put together and widened my palette. What worked in the 80s was great for then but that kind of run out and it was a great way to re-energize myself and purely by co-incidence.
That said it doesn’t mean we’re likely to start playing covers with The Cult. Ian and I are both massive fans of music but our go to mindset is always to create new music as The Cult together. We really enjoy other music outside of that but it’s been rare that we bring it into The Cult as it just doesn’t feel right.
When you look at the set lists on my site we’ve pretty much always planned in encores as a matter of course. The exception is festivals where we never want to assume that we’ll get to play one but we always like to think we’ll earn the right to play one. At some gigs, especially festivals, it can be a bit ridiculous in trying to get off then back on the stage so you end up saying “well that was the set… and this is the encore”. I suppose it’s a gig tradition but it depends on the individual show.
We plan on the encores mainly to give ourselves a little mental break, re-group and once in a blue moon if the crowd is super mental we’ll dig up a special song. I remember a gig at the Milky Way (Melkweg) in Amsterdam doing ‘Sun King’ because the crowd were literally crazy so I felt like I wanted to reward them with something unique. So it really is the ‘louder you scream the faster we go’ unless of course we’re up against some ridiculous curfew, which is sometimes the case.
Last year’s tour felt like a perfect balance of what The Cult is about, which is new music (a really great album in ‘Choice of Weapon’) played with a mix of the classics. But it will be interesting on this next tour because we’re going to play the whole Electric album and it will be great to celebrate it with the fans in the same spirit as we did with the ‘Love Live’ tour a few years back. We’ve talked about it for a while and we’re feeling it now so we’re here with ‘Electric 13’. Ironically because its such an out there rocking album we’ve played nearly all the songs live at some point though mainly on the ‘Electric’ Tours in 1987. One song I’m not sure about is ‘Aphrodisiac Jacket’ but in 26 years there’s been a lot of gigs! I’m sure that if we have played it someone out there will let me know!
Obviously ‘Wild Flower’, ‘Lil Devil’ and ‘Love Removal Machine’ have stayed in the set throughout our career as they were all hit singles.
I can remember bringing back ‘Electric Ocean’ in the mid 2000s and ‘Peace Dog’ was a set staple for a long time until we retired it to bring other newer songs in. Recently we also did ‘King Contrary Man’ at a New York show as one of those special encore songs, mainly because Johnny Tempesta and Chris Wyse wanted to do it.
Electric was never written to be played back to back as it’s not a concept album, it’s a collection of high energy rock n roll songs that embodied the pirate lifestyle that we were leading at the time. It’s the soundtrack to our hedonism of the 1980s it was never meant to be played in a specific order. In fact the Love album probably has more of a flow and a poetry when it comes to the order of the ten songs. We won’t decide until we get together for pre production for the tour but when we play the whole album live we may rearrange the order. Nowadays with iPods the concept of 5 songs in a row and then you flip it and have another 5 songs is a bit old fashioned.
Finally I’d like to thank everyone who sent in the set lists from various times in my career and helped inspire this story, and remember the next time you get to one of our gigs ‘the louder you scream the faster we’ll go’!”
Billy Duffy – May 2013