Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

List ‘Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

on November 30, 2011, 1:05pm
view all

list em carefully banner List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

The fans, the fans, the fans. It’s who all bands take the time to acknowledge. At concerts, artists will always shout out partially histrionic statements like, “We couldn’t do this without you…the fans!” And as a result, every fan’s devotion soars through the roof (if not eternally). It’s somewhat silly, though, not to realize that the fans do make everything possible. People like bands, so they buy their records, see their shows, sometimes blog about them (hey there), “Like” their Facebook pages, live chat with them on Twitter, and on super-rare occasions, even get to meet them. It’s all fine and dandy, but sometimes simple fandom turns into lifestyle choices and obsession.

There are a chunk of bands out there whose fans should never be referred to merely as fans. These fan bases are more or less a cult. Somehow, over the years, a few musical acts have completely shaped people’s worlds. Liking them on Facebook just isn’t enough; their followers have to paint their faces or attend every show the band plays. Some of these cult acts you might understand and think, I can see why people like them. And others make little to no sense at all; in fact, you wonder how the hell somebody got into them in the first place.

It’s simple. It’s called loyalty.

-Ted Maider
Media Specialist

X Japan

x japan List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Sure, you don’t see them make surprise appearances to wow audiences at Bonnaroo, but X Japan is a group of Japanese metal freaks who have the Eastern Hemisphere stoked. For over 30 years, drummer/pianist Yoshiki and vocalist/guitarist Toshi have been successfully issuing metal records. The even stranger, more alluring facet of the group is their stylistic choice. X Japan specialize in making glam metal that is reminiscent of stuff like KISS, or even Iron Maiden.

This is one band that has become too big for Japan. On X Japan’s Facebook, thousands of people leave remarks proclaiming undying love and how happy they were to see them live. Meanwhile, people in Malaysia are stating they’ve been waiting 20 years just to see them on stage! One reason for this may be because X Japan mainly tour Asia; in fact, it was only a little over a year ago that they first hit the States. Because of this, they might not even hit your country. This leaves fans plenty of time to obsess over old records while desperately awaiting their heroes’ return. It’s almost like poetry…

The Smiths

the smiths List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Morrissey has an uncanny ability. He can make your day turn into absolute shit with just a simple lyric.

There is a great quote at the end of 24 Hour Party People where “God” tells Tony Wilson, “It’s a shame you didn’t sign the Smiths,” and I couldn’t agree more. Had Tony Wilson discovered them, maybe Morrissey would have been a little more cheery. (Wilson was kind of funny.) Most people regard The Smiths as two things: 1) a unique 80s act and 2) the most depressing band on the planet. But there is a sub-group of society that believes The Smiths were (or, are) the greatest thing to ever happen in music. They made some good albums and recorded plenty of good songs, but that just isn’t enough for some people.

Morrissey has gone solo, still plays Smiths songs, and his fans eat it up like Jack in the Box. They love him no matter what. Meanwhile, Johnny Marr spends his time with Issac Brock, The Cribs, or Hans Zimmer. The former Smiths apparently hate each other, too, which makes the cult around them somewhat complex. People are constantly praying for Smiths reunions, and if you don’t believe me, go read the Coachella message board. To pass the time, there are Morrissey conventions that are headlined by Smiths cover bands. Bottom line: The Smiths may never play again, and that in no way satisfies the people who get down on their knees, pray, and listen to “How Soon Is Now?” while asking for a  reunion.

Primus

primus img01 select1 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

The cult of [Les] Claypool is a pretty diverse one. You can find just about any type of “_____ music fan” in a Primus crowd. This includes metal-heads, hippies, stoners, e-tard jamtronica kids, hipsters, and on a good day, a couple gangsters. Primus and its whacky-yet-talented frontman Les Claypool have established themselves as one of the strangest popular rock bands of the past 20 years. How a band whose motto is “Primus Sucks” got so far is crazy to consider. One minute they’re popping up in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and the next they’re showing up onstage with Phish. Primus has released a total of just seven albums (five of which are amazing) in over 20 years, but people are still devoted to their lunacy.

It took Primus 12 years to release their latest work, Green Naugahyde, and in between, the cult of Primus still thrived strong. Whenever Claypool brought back the mighty trio, though, the Primus fans came out of the woodwork. Their return show at the Great American Music Hall just one year ago sold out in lighting speed. So it would seem that the less Primus do, the more in demand they are by their nuttiest of worshippers. And now that they’re back and touring regularly, there is more time for the cult of Claypool to further deform and mutate for future generations.

Claypool will inevitably go down in history as the only bass player to lead the masses. Primus certainly do not suck.

Dave Matthews

dmbc 388 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Here’s something you probably already know: Dave Matthews and his band have made millions off bros, hippies, Abercrombie models, and college kids alike. Over the years, Matthews has become less a musician and moreover a pal to ring up on a rainy day. Most fans feel comfortable enough to call him simply “Dave”; you know, because they’re longtime pals. Somehow, the South African frontman has exuded enough friendly pheromones to keep an amassing cult following.

As a result, wherever “Dave” goes, they go. Just take a look at their live shows. The band hasn’t been Billboard royalty in ages, yet they continue to sell out gigs in every city. They’re a live wunderkind, as diehards will tell you. Whether it’s a solo gig, a headlining set with Tim Reynolds, or the band’s own shindig, aptly titled the DMB Caravan, you’re bound to see the same teary-eyed fans – whom all skipped classes to grab tickets, no doubt. To quote Carmine Falcone a la 2005’s Batman Begins, “That’s power you can’t buy.”

Some may never understand Dave Matthews, or his music, but a hell of a lot of other people sure do.

Elvis Presley

elvisfeature List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Some people believe the world’s flat, others think Elvis Presley never croaked. To borrow from Jim Morrison, “People are strange.” There’s a reason for the latter, though. No musical artist has left a legacy greater than the King of Rock. Elvis arguably set the standards for what a “cool rock star” is supposed to be. He abused narcotics, he ripped off his superiors, he had an unbelievable live show, he danced sexually, he starred in movies, he sang like an angel, and he had a signature hairdo/slogan. Few in the genre have been as iconic. Note: That’s as iconic.

When Elvis died on August 16, 1977, he left behind the biggest cult of crazies any artist could ever hope to have. Let’s just start off with the tip of the iceberg: His home in Memphis is referred to as “Graceland”. Not even Kanye West would be that bold. His legacy is continued by two different factions of devoted fans. The first you can find anywhere in Las Vegas. Across the sin city, men pose as Elvis and engage in a number of different moneymaking activities, including performances. The other subset consists of obsessed women who feel they should have been born years ago just to have a shot at sleeping with the King. People love him so much that they even make movies about his legacy that have nothing to do with Elvis (e.g. 3000 Miles to Graceland, the underrated classic Rock-A-Doodle).

Salma Hayek once said, “That’s why [Elvis] is the King, and you’re a schmuck.” We’re all schmucks compared to the King; that’s why we worship him.

Radiohead

Radiohead

It’s hard to brand any band that is considered one of the biggest in the world as having a cult following, but the cult of Radiohead certainly exists. In their time, they’ve released three game-changing records (OK Computer, Kid A, In Rainbows), and have only continued to excel in creativity, diversity, and overall uniqueness. There has never been, and probably never will be, a band like Radiohead.

The Radiohead Cult, on the other hand, believes half of the above paragraph. Die-hard fans constantly post setlists online to show how unique their Radiohead show was (thank you, 58hours.com). They also don’t believe Radiohead released three amazing albums; they believe Radiohead has released nothing but amazing albums to a point where they will argue the legitimacy of Pablo Honey all night until you want to kill them. They’re those people you hate who constantly claim “they are the best band in the world.”

It’s hard for this writer to disagree on that one, but that’s because he got his membership card years ago.

Black Flag

blackflag1 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Members of the Black Flag cult include just about every famous rock star of the past two decades (like Kurt Cobain), every SoCal skate punk since 1981, Daniel Dassario from Freaks and Geeks, and actual members of the band (Henry Rollins was a huge fan before he was their singer). Black Flag is most notorious for doing the unthinkable: touring the nation with no money, no fame, no agents, and playing in whatever shithole club would allow them to. Today, every band that is on MySpace tries to follow that template. They made some pretty good punk records, most notably 1981’s Damaged, all of which reshaped the sonic assault of punk rock. People even branded punk as something else after that: hardcore.

Nowadays, every punk who takes themselves seriously belongs to the cult of Black Flag. While the band will undoubtedly never reunite again, they still get the respect and credit of any other cult band. Any cult members who have a band today cover their songs ad-infinitum (usually the song “Six Pack”). Many punks, including their singer Henry Rollins, have the Black Flag bars tattooed on their body somewhere. And the thing is, the Black Flag cult isn’t necessarily underground anymore like it was in the ’80s. People proudly pledge allegiance to Black Flag by getting ink, reading the (many) books about them, cranking “Rise Above” when they’re feeling blue, and seeing any former member’s side project if they can.

As long as punk lives, people will buy Black Flag records.

Wu-Tang Clan

 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

When you have nine members in your group, it’s kind of difficult not to get a following. Logic would dictate that at least one person has to be good. The Wu, though, defied all logic; almost all of them were good. Wu-Tang have made some moves in the music industry that are admirable and clearly the ideas of a moneymaking genius (RZA). They have changed the sound of underground hip-hop, released far too many records to count, and are still living large after almost two decades. The only other rappers who have done that well at this point are Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and Dr. Dre,

The reason the Wu-Tang Clan have remained so successful is this: Their fans, or Wu-Disciples, will buy just about anything they stamp that huge W on. Aside from records, Wu-Tang have issued: re-released kung fu movies, video games, comic books, and books with titles like The Way of the Wu. Not to mention a few of them have made appearances in film and television (Ghostface on 30 Rock was just one of hundreds of highlights). Their Disciples buy all that stuff, along with the insane number of solo records that exist beneath the streets. People follow these ninjas blindly through Shaolin, and life, and don’t stop to question where the group is at now.

They have followed the way of the Wu for so long, they don’t know any other rap lifestyle to live.

deadmau5

deadmau5 9 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

I don’t think Joel Zimmerman, aka deadmau5, had any intention of leading masses to his glowing cube for the past few years, but if you light it up, they will come. Deadmau5 has had the best past few years any musical act could ask for, despite the fact he only has one commercial album. You don’t see his poster hyping up a new release at Best Buy, but his fans are certainly always waiting for more. He has done it all at this point, including DJing the VMAs, heading the top tiers of music festivals, and slaying the evil Chtulhu with Harley Morenstein and Muscles-Glasses.

The fans of deadmau5 are what constantly make his shows an experience worth remembering. For one, they love to dance, and they know his songs all too well. They know when to jump, grind, and scream perfectly. And people don’t go to his shows to hear him “spin” for hours. No, they go to hear actual songs like “Ghosts N Stuff” and “SOFI Needs a Ladder”. What really separates deadmau5 from many other cult acts, though, is that his fans like to sport his headgear. At any of his shows, you will find Mau5 helmets in different shapes, colors, sizes, and all with different abilities (some have LED blinking eyes). One such fan recently informed me he spent 40 hours on his helmet! Hey man, ask Zimmerman for a job with that kind of dedication!

Soon those helmets will start to be mass-produced, and that will certainly open the floodgates for more members to join the cult of Mau5.

Misfits

misfits1 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

I wish I could have been alive to enjoy the benefits of the Fiend Club. When New Jersey muscle-heads and horror geeks Glenn Anzalone (Danzig) Jerry Caiafa (Jerry Only) formed a punk band in the Caiafa family basement, they probably didn’t see their legacy stretching much further than that. Here we are, though, 30 years later, and the Misfits remain one of America’s most notorious cult acts. In their time, The Misfits played a brand of “hardcore punk” that essentially started with the pop sensibility of a Blink 182 riff. Their recordings were low quality, and the songs were simplistic. The lyrical content was a bit on the weird side, and their stage show complimented all of that perfectly, all the way down to their signature Crimson Ghost logo and devilock hairstyle.

As it turns out, most people in the Misfits cult enjoy two things: 1) Danzig and 2) ripping off the Misfits (see: Metallica). The Misfits cult, though, is more a dress code- and attitude-based society rather than a legion that follows them to every show. Lots of darker skateboarders idolize them (e.g. Jamie Thomas, Bam Margera, Adrian Lopez, etc.), goth kids appreciate them, and even the Aqua Teen Hunger Force seems to like Danzig, if not fear him. The Crimson Ghost is still everywhere (like the hood of Bam’s car) in America and is sold on t-shirts at Hot Topic. Some people even wear their clothes without knowing what that skull really means.

I once told a friend that I considered the Crimson Ghost to be “the Stealy of punk rock.” Considering how fiends nod to each other in passing when they see the mark, I feel that remark holds some validity.

Minor Threat

minorthreat2 big List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

I once got to hear Ian MacKaye speak and, almost predictably, the first question anybody asked was “How do you feel about what the straight edge movement is today?” He replied by saying this was the most commonly asked question in his life.

Ian MacKaye is one of those “accidental rock stars.” He didn’t necessarily want to be famous, but he is, and he also turned a few thousand heads along the way. When he responded to the question stated above, he replied, “I didn’t think we’d be talking about this now. I wrote that song for my friends and myself.” The cult of Minor Threat is one that involves a lifestyle change for sure; you have to be completely substance free. MacKaye started Minor Threat in the mid-80s, and they quickly blew up as one of hardcore’s most influential (and valid) acts. They wrote songs about the things kids went through, the pressures of the Reagan world, and how staying above the influence could help you remain on top.

The best part is that people believed it then and still believe it to this day. The straight edge movement is still at large and will always seem to have a home in punk counterculture. Minor Threat didn’t just get fans to like their music; they got them to completely change their lives. Chuck Klosterman once laughed about a guy who said, “Punk saved my life,” but for some people strung out on H all the time, straight edge music might have legitimately saved them. It showed people that even the toughest and meanest kids on the block could have a good time by drinking milk. Ian MacKaye didn’t just create a cult; he created a movement.

Insane Clown Posse

insane clown posse List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Two videos have been released recently to convince me that Juggalos are not as bad as we think. One is a documentary on Vimeo, entitled American Juggalo, which chronicles a weekend at the infamous Gathering. The second is the Juggalo episode of Workaholics, Comedy Central’s mashup of Always Sunny and The Office. Insane Clown Posse is one of the most mocked, hated, and somehow slightly underrated rap groups of our time (The Great Milenko is a freaking 90s classic). This isn’t surprising considering they dress like clowns and talk about decapitating bitches. Their words, not mine.

What is admirable, though, is how dedicated their Juggalo fans are, not just to them, but to every band they are affiliated with (Kottonmouth Kings, Twiztid, Dark Lotus, Tech N9ne… I could go on forever). They spend oodles of cash, not just on CDs and tickets, but on jerseys, Hatchet-Man chains, and an over-abundance of tattoos. The Hatchet-Man is pretty much everywhere, whether spray painted on your local 7-11 or staring at you from somebody’s back windshield. The Juggalos have no problem with their undying love for two white-trash knuckleheads from Detroit and go out of their way to prove their loyalty. Sometimes, this involves painting your face and going to the mall.

Consider the Gathering of the Juggalos on this writer’s bucket list. There are apparently 0 conflicts there.

Phish

phish5 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

Phish’s annual string of New Year’s Eve shows at Madison Square Garden don’t just sell out every once in awhile. They sell out almost every single year — most of the time in under 10 minutes!

There have never been fans more ruthless than those obsessed with Phish. The Phans are all out of their mind. Phish is working their way even further up the ladder of jam-band success, and there is a possibility they will some day surpass the Grateful Dead. Their live shows are indeed astounding, complete with a spectacular light show, sporadic song choices, and glow stick wars. Phans (now thanks to the internet) are constantly swapping sets, but that’s even becoming less of a need as the band posts all of them on their site. It’s almost as though they are trying to lure you in. After all, Phish like bait.

While the Phans might appear all hippy-dippy, do not be deceived; they are absolutely ruthless. One such Phish Phriend of mine paid $700 for two Telluride tickets, and he considered that a good deal. That’s dedication. At any festival the band plays (Bonnaroo particularly), the crowd closest to the front goes into lockdown mode, takes a seat, and ensures nobody will get in front of them. The Phish lot scene consists of loads of shirts, all made by different groups of Phans, usually to fund their drug-induced tour of America as they follow the band. And that’s the other thing: People follow the band. Everywhere. If they don’t have tickets, they find a way in. And if they don’t find one, they will sit in the parking lot and listen. That definitely happens way more than you think, considering their shows always sell out.

KISS

kiss1979 List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

If you don’t believe this article, then go watch 1999’s Detroit Rock City.

People who love KISS, love them. Sure, they’re gimmicky, but they’re also skilled musicians and have a stage presence even some 30 years later. (Think about it: Who wants to follow a guy who spews blood and hangs above fire?) Their acclaimed live album, 1975’s Alive, remains a staple amongst the bravest rock aficionados and still motivates kids to pick up axes themselves. But above all, their escapist rock ‘n’ roll fantasies are responsible for one of the biggest cults of the genre: the KISS Army.

During the late ’70s, KISS legitimately owned America. They started as openers for acclaimed rock acts, but that didn’t last too long. In due time, their spell washed over millions of sex-crazed souls, thanks in part to the band’s seminal hit “Rock and Roll All Nite”. The craze spread everywhere. KISS released movies, Christmas specials, comics, lunchboxes, and all sorts of ridiculous merchandise, and the KISS Army continued to arm themselves to the teeth with the memorabilia.

Today, the KISS Army isn’t nearly as strong as it was back in the days of disco, but some embers in the fire remain. The band still cops a pretty penny when they tour (even without two of its original members), Gene Simmons has his own reality TV show (and cologne), and Peter Griffin threatened to divorce Lois on the grounds of not knowing KISS lyrics. Not too shabby.

The Grateful Dead

the grateful dead List Em Carefully: The Top 15 Cult Acts

The original name for the kings of the jam scene was the Warlocks, a title that seems far too fitting. Jerry Garcia certainly was some sort of magical pied piper, as he was able to lead thousands of hippies all over the world. The Grateful Dead are probably the first band to have such a devoted cult following, and rightfully so. Over their 30-year career, the band played well over 2,000 shows! And even though Jerry Garcia died in 1995, people are still following any Dead offshoots, side projects, and former members to this day. The most recent offshoot, Furthur, even headlined multiple festivals last year and continue to tour with full support from Dead Heads around the world.

The Dead Heads are more than your ordinary supporting cult; they go to great lengths to stay devoted. Some of them give up their homes, cars, diet, and all sorts of belongings to stay on tour with the Dead. People usually eat a lot of drugs, which also compliments the chaotic lifestyle the actual band lived back in the day. And unlike any of the other bands listed here, people follow them around the world. In 1978, the band played a huge show at the Egyptian Pyramids, and yes, people followed them there, too. Dead Heads know no boundaries on this planet; they are all about universal harmony and good vibes.

As long as there is music, people will listen to the Grateful Dead. Even if their music someday becomes totally irrelevant, the grandchildren of hippies will keep alive their grandparents’ legacy of taking blotter acid in San Francisco at Ken Kesey’s parties. The Dead Head cult will always take new members, and that’s a beautiful thing, because everyone is always welcome.

view all