The Cult have just released their new studio album ‘Choice of Weapon‘, and while they no longer possess chart-busting popularity, it would be wildly wrong to suggest they’re far from being done as a musical force, still being able to pull in huge crowds the world over and their standing as a quality rock unit far from diminished. Their 2001 album, ‘Beyond Good and Evil‘, was a quality album, lacking in label backing and packing real understated stadium rock anthems, including the track ‘Nico’, which really is deserving of wider acclaim.
‘Nico’ celebrates the life of the German singer, musician, fashion model and actress Christa ‘Nico’ Päffgen, famous for her role with The Velvet Underground on their debut album ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico‘ before becoming an accomplished solo artist and forging an acting career in French cinema through her relationship with director Phillipe Garrel. She died in 1988 of a severe cerebral haemorrhage while on holiday in Ibiza. Credited as a huge influence on the likes of Morrissey, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bjork and many others, she still commands reverence today. The Cult, through the song ‘Nico’, count as one of the many to have celebrated her in song.
Opening with the riff that gently guides the verses through their course, it sounds every bit the stadium anthem you’d expect from a band of such status. Most lines of each verse begin ‘Hey Nico‘, initially softly spoken but then almost joyously sung by Astbury. The most poignant line in the song comes during the chorus, when Astbury sings ‘I watched your spirit fly/across the velvet sky/the secrets that you hide‘; a sure reference the aforementioned collaboration between The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The Cult – Nico
The mid-section takes a slightly darker turn, with Astbury repeating the line ‘And then you fell/straight to hell‘. What this may refer to is something I’m not too sure about, given that if there is a heaven and a hell, judging from the sheer praise Nico received in death, she’d be practically a saint. In an online chat transcript available on the Cult’s website, conducted with Astbury and drummer Matt Sorum in 2001, they answered one fan’s question about the influence two songs on ‘Beyond Good and Evil‘ drew from Nico and another star of the Andy Warhol camp, Edie Sedgwick. The Cult responded regarding ‘Nico’, describing it as ‘…more complex. Nico is one part Nico, one part my girlfriend Rachel, one part an assassin‘. I don’t know jack about Astbury’s personal life, so will not even attempt to analyse that lyric in this way – although I can perhaps see how falling to hell might represent the assassin in Astbury’s view of the song – particularly through the line ‘the secrets that you hide’. The mood soon lifts back up and there’s one more triumphant verse and chorus before the song plays into fadeout.
However, despite charting solidly in America, Spain and Canada, ‘Beyond Good and Evil‘ only sold around half a million copies as sales began to drop. The album and indeed ‘Nico’ are destined to remain one of those overlooked classics thanks to the atrocious handling of the album and the band by then label Atlantic Records. Astbury has claimed in the past that Atlantic attempted to choose singles from the record, the record cover, and even apparently tried to tamper with the lyrics.
‘Beyond Good and Evil‘ was released roughly around the time I was getting into rock. Someone had lent the CD to my brother and I remember he seemed to like it at the time, and by fledgling interest led to me to give it a listen. Those days don’t half bring back some personal memories. Days when downloading hadn’t truly taken off yet, streaming wasn’t quite possible as broadband had yet to take off. I was still in college, spending my free time wandering around the streets of West Yorkshire, often wandering invariably towards record shops that existed at the time. Yes, record shops! Halifax had Bradley’s Records, Revo Records and Wall of Sound (still around today, now the brilliantly named Vinyl Tap in Huddersfield); Huddersfield had an MVC, a Virgin store (not quite a Megastore) and possibly a HMV, all pre-Kingsgate, and maybe one or two others as well. Summer days were often drifting around these town centre, complete with personal CD player or even Walkman (this was the advent of MP3, after all). Amidst the popular nu-metal of the time, coupled with the odd Slayer or Foo Fighters track, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ often found a place on my mixtapes, and usually in the form of ‘Nico’ or ‘War (The Process)’.
Those two remain among my favourite songs off the record, and ‘Nico’ almost invariably ends up getting shuffled to my MP3 player of choice more often than not these days, as if it has some strange sort of allure to my ears. I’ve never tired of the song at all and remains one of my favourite songs to date. For me, ‘Beyond Good and Evil‘ is a period from the Cult’s history worth exploring further, even if its not considered their classic material. When you can write songs as good as ‘Nico’, who cares if it was a hit or not, deserving as it should have been?