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May 24th, 2012

The Cult Mentality Is A Frightening One And The Polyphonic Spree Will Bring It Tomorrow Night At The TLA


Our friend Bryan Bierman wrote a great story for the Philadelphia Weekly this week about cult bands. But before we force-feed you his thoughts, here are some other thoughts. Did you know about this film that’s playing at the Ritz called Sound of My Voice? It’s a wild one and, truly, a bit unsettling and leaves you wondering for days afterwards about what you’ve seen. It’s about a young couple in Silver Lake who hear about a woman who claims she’s from the future and the ‘cult’ that’s been growing around her. Maggie is gorgeous, a wispy hippie-like blond who says she’s from 2054 (isn’t it funny how the year that people have to say they’re from has to jump by huge numbers as the world continues to make future movies?). Peter and Lorna, a suspicious and adventure-seeking duo, want to check it out and that’s about all you’re gonna get. Needless to say, the cult mentality is explored: there are people who truly, deeply believe in it all. Your cult leader asks you to shave your head? Gimme the clippers. Wear these Nikes? I’mma size 10. Ask no questions? Yes, ma’am. It’s these people that died in Heaven’s Gate. Cult leaders can, and generally should, be regarded as dangerous creatures. And that’s something Mr. Bierman touches on here, and wonders why all those robe-wearing Polyphonic Spree singers are always so damn happy:

When a band has a small, yet very devoted fan base, some people—mainly music writers—describe them as having a “cult following.” Presumably, this analogy upset actual cults in the late ’60s, as a few then began flirting with the music biz (Charles Manson, the Process Church of the Final Judgment, Peoples Temple) before realizing they should stick to their crazy day jobs. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, over the years a handful of groups have highlighted the similarities between rock bands and cults. In advance of Friday’s Polyphonic Spree show at the TLA, here are a few artists who truly blur the line.

The Polyphonic Spree
The most famous “cult” band around, this choir-pop act features almost two dozen members, including “leader” Tim DeLaughter. Although New Jersey’s Danielson Famile did it first, the Spree have adopted the matching robes synonymous of religious groups, consider themselves a “family,” and are always happy. Sunshine-y pop tunes? Identical garments? An appearance on Scrubs? Definitely a cult.

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band
During the year leading up to the recording of their über-unique and essential Trout Mask Replica album in 1969, the Magic Band lived on a commune in California, where they would rehearse for 14 hours a day with barely any food or contact with the outside world. Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, would routinely attack the band members mentally and physically until they obeyed his commands. Oddly enough, it worked—the group was so tight that they recorded most of the double album, which would go on to be viewed by most as an avant-garde masterpiece, in a little over six hours. So if you look past the deep emotional scars, it was worth it.

Up With People
Since forming in 1965, teenage song-and-dance group Up With People have spread their squeaky clean pep all over the world, performing for popes, presidents and at Super Bowls. Designed to provide an upstanding, red-blooded American alternative to the hippie-ridden ’60s, the group was backed by the ultra right-wing group Moral Re-Armament (which purportedly had Nazi ties), as well as giant corporations such as Exxon, Enron and Halliburton, which benefitted from their “everything is perfectly fine” message. According to the 2009 documentary Smile ‘Til It Hurts , the rotating casts of young members (who pay a large tuition to join) were not only barred from sitting next to the opposite sex, but were persuaded into joining arranged marriages that controlled the number of children they could have. In other words: Cult!

The Ramones
Think about it: They looked the same, their names were the same, even a lot of the songs were the same. Any new recruits were forced to obey these rules, brainwashed by the chants of “Gabba Gabba Hey!” “I Wanna Be Sedated” is a song about accepting, zombie-like, these rules. Honest.

Polyphonic Spree perform Fri., May 25. 7pm. $18. With Sweet Lee Morrow. TLA, 334 South St. 215.922.1011.

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