Friday, September 11, 2009

A Short History of Goth

Well, tonight is cold, rainy and oppressive- what better time to get out the old Goth videos? Like so many memes from my youth, Goth has now been mainstreamed, particularly with the smash success of Twilight and True Blood. Which brings it all full circle, since the Goth aesthetic drew heavily on vampire mythology and Hammer horror films. I'll be delving into my hare-brained theories on the vampire archetype in the future, but now I just wanna rock and roll...

Believe it or not, Goth wasn't originally about sensitive art students posing drearily with their clove cigarettes- it was pretty fierce back in the day. Originally a subgenre of Punk, Goth was for fans who thought the Pistols and the Clash were too conservative. The godmother of it all is Susan Ballion, aka Siouxsie Sioux, the long-limbed, omnisexual ice queen who formed the Banshees with then-boyfriend Steve Severin. Siouxsie had a very clear vision in her mind, combining the Velvet Underground's more extreme musical adventures and Grace Slick's twisted sensuality with Hammer horror movies and a heaping helping of witchery. The guitar sound of John's McKay and McGeoch was explicitly influenced by the shrieking string sections in horror flicks like Psycho.

This is a Goth two-for: Cure guitarist Robert Smith during one of his stints as a Banshee. This song, "Painted Bird," is off A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, which also features "Slowdive," one of Rock's greatest paeans to oral sex.

Then there was the mighty Bauhaus, one of the greatest singles bands of all time. Essentially a Bowie tribute band at heart, as evidenced by this awesome clip. Bauhaus added the requisite dose of Hammer horror and post-punk yowling and then broke up way too soon. They have since reformed a couple times to remind young pretenders how it's done.

Then there's this band, who longtime Secret Sun readers are well-acquainted with. Killing Joke brought a serious interest in occultism to Goth, as well as heavy doses of metal guitar, dub bass and tribal drums. Probably one of the most influential bands of their time. As with Bauhaus, their early concerts were not for the faint of heart.

Goth waxed and waned throughout the 80s. The second wave came with the Batcave scene, which peaked in 1983. Note that alien themes started to blend in with the usual vampire imagery.

As with this band, Alien Sex Fiend. As with Goth in general, the Fiends were heavily influenced by Alice Cooper and similarly made up for their lack of chops with their extreme exuberance. In many ways, the Fiends were the definitive Batcave band. For some completely inexplicable reason, some journalist tagged the new Goth scene "positive Punk," which sort of stuck even though it made no sense to anyone.

And speaking of aliens, the Cocteau Twins caucused with the Batcavers before their camomile-and-patchouli makeover in the late 80s. Liz is almost unrecognizable here in her Goth gear and Siouxsie-esque warble. But it just goes to show that the Banshees seemed to strike a particularly strong chord in Scotland (see Altered Images, Shirley Manson, etc.) Bonus factoid: The Twins were opening for Killing Joke at this gig.

Goth made a big impact in Europe as well, eventually having a major influence on the Black Metal scene of the 90s. This is Germany's X-Mal Deutschland, who were signed to 4AD, along with the Cocteaux and Bauhaus. Listening to their early records you'd have no idea their lead singer was so ridiculously hot.

Australia's Dead Can Dance were signed to 4AD as well, and brought a heavy dose of Medieval mysticism to their Banshees/Cocteaux knockoffs. They dropped the postpunk in pretty short order, but ultimately morphed into another tedious world music outfit before their initial brekup. Singer Lisa Gerrard co-wrote the soundtrack to Gladiator, among other films.

Cock-rock journeymen The Cult began their career as Southern Death Cult, eventually dropping the "Southern" and the "Death" along with every band member save Ian Astbury. For me the entire enterprise peaked with Love, which I still count as one of the greatest albums of the 80s.

With bands like the Cult, All About Eve and the Mission, Goth went mainstream in the UK and Europe. One of the bands keeping the old faith was Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, who were heavily influenced by proto-Goth post-punks Joy Division. A good thing too, since JD survivors New Order were warbling monotone disco songs at the time.

Then there were the Sisters of Mercy, who started out as a parody band, got serious, went through several reformations, then ended up as an unintentional parody, working with Sigue Sigue poseur Tony James and Meatloaf maestro Jim Steinman in 1990. Here's their greatest song, one of the crucial cuts from Goth's Golden Age.

As with Punk, Goth took hold in the ostensibly hostile soil of LA, and pretty early on at that. Punk bands like TSOL, 45 Grave and Christian Death all traded in leather and guyliner, but for my money this Kommunity FK track was the definitive LA Goth anthem. FK singer Patrick Mata had an amazing voice, and they get extra authenticity brownie points for naming their debut LP after Crowley's memoirs of his fiddling with Enochian magic.

What do get when you cross Siouxsie Sioux with Eddie Van Halen? Why, you get Jane's Addiction, whose best numbers were all built around Eric Avery's Banshee-esque basslines. Jane's paid their debt to their forebears when they brought the Banshees along on the first Lollapalooza.

Brooklyn's mighty Type O Negative took one part Black Sabbath, one part Sisters of Mercy and one part old-school 4AD and have put out a lot of killer music with that recipe. This video is interesting because it shows how Goth left the Punk/Art sphere and moved into the RenFaire/Fantasy/D&D realm and never looked back. Not necessarily Type O themselves, but certainly the movement.

Since the mid-90s Goth has itself splintered into a number of different permutations, and even launched a retail chain. In the interim we saw Marilyn Manson and the expected hysteria and rumor panic in the wake of Columbine. And as mentioned before we now have all of this vampire stuff out there, a lot of which is inspired by The Hunger, which featured not only Bauhaus in the opening credits, but proto-Goth godfather David Bowie. But it's the underpinnings of that archetype that fascinate me, as well as its antithesis- the zombie archetype. Both have their roots in deep sociopolitical mass psychology, as I'll rant and rave about sometime.


  1. Now, here's something I actually know very little about, sadly... I didn't even know Killing Joke was classified as Goth, I love their music but I never quite put 2 and 2 together. I think part of my avoidance of the sub-culture was the meme of the "stereotypical goth", someone who was into it entirely for the fashion and faked all their problems (like most of the Twilight dorks) and I guess that misconception of the entire scene overshadowed the great music behind it. The word "goth" was a blanket statement throughout the 90s for anyone who is antisocial, quiet and smart, often as an insult by the louder, dumber humans. I just never had any exposure to the music growing up, only the "look", but I remember wanting to check it out.

  2. It's funny how language is debased- kind of like how Hipster now describes the kind of pampered bohos that were the opposite of the 50s hipsters.

  3. Nice mini-history, but you left out one of the more important occult-goth bands other than Killing Joke (and my own favorite other than Siouxsie), Fields of the Nephilim.

  4. Say Chris, while we're on the subject of punk rock, are you the same Chris Knowles that used to write about the Clash on the internet 9 or 10 years ago? Just wonderin'.

  5. Chris - Exactly! I don't understand why people use that term to describe idiots (usually my age or a little older) who do heroin and cocaine and listen to crappy, crappy music (and are usually trust-fund babies). I have a friend who uses that term constantly, and it always irritates me. It's the same mindset as "all middle-eastern types are terrorists" or "all liberal thinkers are socialists/commies". They're not "hipsters", they're just spoiled and make horrible life decisions because of that. So, we have a new form of the corrupted "goth" in "hipster". Excellent connection there. What's sad is that my little sister's friends are into that whole scene, only 17 years old and already doing heroin... :(

    Personally, I think the new indie/"hipster" scene is a cash grab, since most of them don't really even shop at thrift stores anymore since the mall chains carry clothes that cater to them.

  6. Does Peter Murphy play any part in this history?

  7. Man, this song just ooozes alpha waves

    Indigo Eyes

  8. IMHO the greatest Goth song of them all Alphaville

  9. Ok some I'm an old guy but we had goth before goth had kids..

  10. It's like "emo". I'm 27 and to me emo is just a loosely defined strain of hardcore punk that runs from Rites of Spring through to Jawbreaker to say the Get Up Kids... I don't know.

    At some point early in the decade it became a mainstream word for mallpunk blended with nu metal and goth. Hot Topic/Alternative Press rock.

    It's used by high school kids now in the generic way "goth" was used in the late 90s, or "alternative" in the early and mid 90s.

  11. Thanxz, Knowlesy, sumptuous. I'd've expected nothing less. Peter? Mr Murphy's Bauhaus was the opening act (CAGED, btw) in the opening scene ((filmed in the long defunct Peppermint Lounge)) in the screen adaptation of real-life abductee Whitley Strieber's "The Hunger" as the lovely Catherine Deneuve, playing the 6,000-years-young vampyress Miriam Blaylock & her thrall David Bowie (((soon in the story to undergo a rapid deterioration))) scan the attending audience for their night's meal.

    An Elder Goth, always,
    Anadæ Effro (•8-)}

    PS ~ Synchro catch? this thyme my wv is merin & I'm geneaologically proven to be descended from the Merovingians. Hey! Let's go swimming, y'all.…

  12. Sisters of mercy - Alice

    FTW actually... :^(

  13. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry...awesome. I think theres a heavy tinge of goth in the early Bunnymen records, but honestly they were just more psych-pop (in the best possible way IMO) Although their second album , Heaven Up Here, is extremely dark and trippy. The crossover influences of that post punk era are so amazing, my buddies and I were hugely influenced by all these bands and tried to chart it all out! Its a web of insanity!!!!!!!!

  14. I'm surprised you missed this two-for Chris. Our favorite x junkie singing a song on the Twilight soundtrack. I just didn't think a nice jewish man like Perry would want to sing on some mormon infused vampire movie.,+mormonism&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

    I'm surprised you didn't post this one two.

    You know how I feel about Dave, but even I wouldn't compare him to this tired old meth head.

    Even Dave had enough respect for himself to get cleaned up and turn himself into the metrosexual he is today. How long do you think it takes him to wax those eyebrows.

    Thank you for writing about all my other favorite bands. LONG LIVE KILLING JOKE! I can't wait for their new album with the original line up. Also wondered if you heard about this.

    I guess I owe you this since I've been kind of mean, maybe even stupid. I apologize, cause your blog is one the best. So here it is my favorite Jane's member who still does some quality music. Mr. Stephen Perkins. Can't forget my other favorite in this band too Mike Watt.


  15. I second faoladh's mention of Fields of the Nephilim.

    Singer Carl McCoy was seriously into the occult (still is I assume) and a lot of the songs were inspired by it, especially Crowley (songs on Elizuim include Crowley samples) but he draws on a range of esoteric ideas. I say them live in 1988/89 and he had a striking stage presence.

    Another aspect that interests me is that the videos were directed by Richard Stanley (Hardware and Dust Devil). It is criminal that he hasn't gone on to great success.

  16. hi chris,

    x-mal deutschland is pretty cool, i'll have to check them out. Had never heard of them. thx

  17. Guys- this is awesome. But listen- I'm fighting the clock on the deadline or my next book and have to concentrate on that. You should see my poor hands- all done up in wrist splits and lidocaine patches. Yikes. Anyway- I really like reading about your own memories and faves-keep rocking it.

    I gotta check out that Twilight soundtrack story now...

  18. I think this is great, but you haven't gone far enough back. You need to go back to the existentialist, nihilist beatniks of the early 50s. This movement evolved into proto-punk, which was developing even as early as the flowering (pun intended) of the hippie counterculture. I went to my first punk club in 1967, and Goth is a child of punk.

    All of this initially sprang from Sartre and other post-WW II European philosophers whose dark view of existance is understandable given their experience of the Nazis and the War.

    It's interesting that today's young people have latched on so strongly to the vampire mythology. I know this must say something significant about the generation, but I think it might be too early yet to articulate what that could be.

    Nevertheless, this is more evidence that the dark outsider self-identification has firmly taken hold in popular culture and is still thriving over half a century from its birth.

  19. Just a reminder to y'all- this is the "short" history...

  20. Great writeup, CK. Love it when you tackle music.

    Hey, I ran across this today, not sure if you've seen it but thought it might be up your alley:


  21. for those people bringing up bands like the Velvet Underground (excellent, by the way) and such, keep in mind that the first band described as "gothic rock" (in 1967, no less) was…

    the Doors.

    (also, in that article, one can learn that David Bowie described 1974's Diamond Dogs as "gothic".)

  22. oh, and since the link in that article to the Doors article is dead, here is the link to the Internet Archive version:

  23. Fantastic post Christopher! All time favorites here...the inclusion of Kommunity FK was a delight, you obviously know your stuff!

  24. So looking forward to the upcoming "rant and rave". Excellent set-up. I'm always looking into what subcultures to explore further and I've only got a taste of goth. I think mainly from catching gold on VH1 Classic... which for this particular brand is getting more and more rare. I very eagerly await...

  25. Swans? They didn't seem too goth at the time, but they sure sound like it now.

    Influences on goth so pervasive, they've become an almost invisible presence:

    Kate Bush (theatrical female sexuality and classic literature)
    Syd Barret
    (early) Roxy Music
    Joy Divison (the doom!)
    Public Image LTD. (those basslines!)
    The Fall (all those ghosts, demons, madrigal basslines, Lovecraft references? The Birthday Party crudely ripped them off!)

    As the above demonstrate, goth is decidedly Anglophile and literary. Fakers like NIN and Manson are way too Hollywood and tabloid to truly qualify.

  26. ... oh, and of course:

    Black Sabbath!

    They got so indentified with metal, doomcore, grunge etc. its easy to forget that they were uber-goth.

  27. Gotta Love The Onion

    How to Stay Goth Past 50