Retrospective: She Sells Sanctuary

“What’s the song about? Sex. Plain and simple.” (Ian Astbury, lead vocalist for The Cult)

Astbury hated artistic pretension, but sometimes he sold himself short obsessing his libido. While it’s true that “She Sells Sanctuary” (1985) is a rather straightforward and uncomplicated track, it also — like all the tracks on Love — has things to suggest about wider human experiences, including spiritualism. The song depicts a man finding solitude in a woman’s arms, but also teases a metaphor of the cosmos as a simmering feminine energy.

But yes, it is about a good fuck, and Astbury said the same thing about the song “Rain” from the same album; that it’s purely about sex. In “Rain” the lyrics are even less subtle than “She Sells Sanctuary’s”:

Hot sticky scenes, you know what I mean
Like a desert sun that burns my skin
I’ve been waiting for her, for so long
Open the sky and let her come down

“Rain” was the second biggest hit from Love, so either The Cult’s fans are sex-crazed, or the sex-crazy songs just happen to be the good ones.

Honestly, when I first heard “She Sells Sanctuary” I couldn’t understand a word Astbury was singing, aside from the two lines starting with either “the sparkle in your eyes” or “the fire in your eyes”. I thought most of the lyrics were in another language. I could make out “sanctuary” two or three times, but no sense of what surrounded it. (And I don’t believe those who claim that verses like “make my back burn” or “the world drags me down” are decipherable as such without being told in advance.) For me, the song was even more simple than its content: it was the best damn hook I’d ever heard, and still is today.

I could play “She Sells Sanctuary” any day of the week. Unlike most earworms that offend on too much replay, “Sanctuary”  never dulls. It’s a constant reset. In spite of that, the band has released enough alternative versions to fill an LP. After the original came The Long Version (with an extended prelude), The Howling Mix (nice guitar riffs), Assault on Sanctuary (an awful techno-mix), The Sundance version (decent), The Dog Star Rising remix (a horrendous dance version), and The Olympic Rough Mix (fair).

The Cult still enjoys performing it. They’re touring right now in 2020 (scheduled to play in Mississippi and Florida in two weeks, if the Covid quarantines are lifted by then), and guitarist Bill Duffy has said that ” ‘Sanctuary’ is always a joy to play, and I’m happy we’ve got a song like that. Something like ‘Fire Woman’ [from 1989’s Sonic Temple album] is a very popular song around the world but it’s very challenging to play and sing and do. It’s not one that we like playing! That’s a bit of a chore to play, just the way it was written and constructed. ‘Sanctuary’ is just fun and rolls along.”

Fun, yes, and it has an honest-to-God vitality that keeps me alive — to steal the song’s verse — no matter how badly the world drags me down. I’ve blasted it more than a few times in quarantine.

 

Listen here (for the original and best version) and sing.

🎶

Oh, the heads that turn
Make my back burn
And those heads that turn
Make my back, make my back burn

The sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive
And the sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive, keeps me alive

The world
Oh, the world turns around
The world and the world, yeah
The world drags me down

Oh, the heads that turn
Make my back burn
And those heads that turn
Make my back, make my back burn, yeah
Hey yeah hey, yeah hey
Hey yeah hey, yeah hey

The fire in your eyes keeps me alive
And the fire in your eyes keeps me alive
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary

And the world, the world turns around
And the world, and the world, the world drags me down
And the world, and the world, and the world, the world turns around
And the world, and the world, and the world, and the world, the world drags me down

Ah-ahhhhhhhhh……

Hey yeah, hey
Hey yeah, hey
And the world (hey yeah, hey),
And the world turns around (hey yeah, hey)
And the world, and the world (hey yeah, hey)
Yeah, the world drags me down (hey yeah, hey)
And the world (hey yeah, hey)
Yeah, the world turns around (hey yeah, hey)
And the world, and the world (hey yeah, hey)
The world drags me down (hey yeah, hey)

Yeah hey, hey yeah
Hey yeah, hey
Sanctuary, hey
Sanctuary, hey

🎶

From the album Love, 1985.

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