A Study of Gothic Subculture

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Alternative Press
November 1994 issue
By Dave Thompson and Jo-Ann Greene

Undead Undead Undead

Ten years after its heyday, Gothic Rock is scratching at the surface again. Now, as then, this atmospheric music takes many styles and shifts them into whole new shapes entirely. Dave Thompson and JO-Ann Greene spoke with the progenitors of goth to trace this cycle of undeath and rebirth.

"No, we didn't think of ourselves as Goth There was no movement." -- Dave Roberts [Sex Gang Children]

"We weren't Goth, we were a straight-ahead rock and roll band who dressed like the New York Dolls." -- Rocco [Flesh for Lulu]

"We absolutely didn't start as a Goth band." -- Michael Aston [Gene Loves Jezebel]

"I've never been a Goth, not in the traditional sense, although there was a short period where I wore heavier make-up." -- Gitane Demone [Christian Death]

"Siouxsie, the Cramps and Bauhaus, even the Cure to an extent, were more archetypal [Goth] than we were." -- Wayne Hussey [Sisters of Mercy, The Mission]

"We never consciously focused on, or identified with any movement or any dialogue other than our own." -- Peter Murphy [Bauhaus]

"We never considered ourselves part of the goth thing." -- Ian Astbury [Southern Death Cult]

"I've often wondered why I've ever been entered into the Goth category!" -- Johnny Indovina [Human Drama]

"The moment a Goth band says, 'We are not a Goth band,' that's the end of their career." -- Mick Mercer [Author, Gothic Rock]

"But I don't think anybody with any self-respect would admit to being Goth" -- Rozz Williams [Christian Death, Shadow Project]

At the end of the day, we spoke with a lot of very self-respecting people, but not a single Goth In fact, it was all beginning to feel like a bad night in an opium den. Maybe we dreamt it all -- the swirling black dresses, the long, teased rats nest hairdos, the overabundant eyeliner and lipstick, the bone earrings and belts, the death-pale faces. But no, they were real enough, and there were crowds of them, shrouding the clubs in London in murky gloom, staring at the stage... But at whom did they stare? At all those self-respecting bands, of course, not of whom were gothic.

Nico recorded the first truly gothic album, either The Marble Index or The End. Then came the Banshees, and after thatů Press Peter Murphy hard enough and he'll confess, "It was us" -- us being Bauhaus, and it, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." It started as a joke, but it spawned an entire genre, an art-school arty project which clicked and clacked and rattled its chains, then spread them across a 12-inch single which has still to make it onto a Bauhaus album. And it didn't matter what they did afterwards either -- it was never the same as "Bela." Murphy lives in Turkey today, although he's currently recording his latest (fifth) solo album in Spain. And like the band he fronted for five incandescent years at the dawn of the last decade, he has never shaken "Bela" away. "People still ask me about it," he marvels.

Sketching the story of gothic in his 1991 book Gothic Rock, author Mick Mercer dated the movement's genesis to just three bands, Bauhaus, Theatre of Hate and Killing Joke. "But it was what came after that that was the fun, rough and tumble of it all -- all in the shadow, wake or under the protective wing of U.K. Decay -- Sex Gang Children, Ritual Danse Society, Ausgang, Specimen, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death... all irresistibly different bands."

And maybe that's what was so special, that within so narrowly closeted a musical form, working from so few specific motives and modes, there was so much variety. And that gothic itself would still be vibrant today. Check the rise of Rosetta Stone, Nosferatu, The Wake and behind them the floodgates are screaming -- Switchblade Symphony, Love Like Blood, Liers in Wait, Screams for Tina... What is this, a sideshow? Or a shopping list?

In purely historical terms, Goth developed outside of, but very much dependent upon, an increasing preoccupation within what was already (1978) being labeled the post-punk school of gloomy introspection. It was an age which opened with Dave Vanian's [of The Damned] vampire-chic stage shtick and the Banshees' much-delayed first album (The Scream was positively the last first-generation punk album to appear); which peaked with the rise of Joy Division ("Love Will Tear Us Apart" went Top 20 in June, 1980); and which exploded over-ground with the Cure (the rainsoaked cathedral of shadow of Faith) the following year. It was an age in which Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash could look around and realize, "Suddenly there were all these bands with shaven eyebrows." But it was also an age in which earlier rock values were reborn -- divorce Black Sabbath from their heavy metallic connotations and you could cull a killer Goth album from their first five LP's, with every future reference point and requirement intact.

"Our influences," say the Banshees' Steven Severin (and pretty much everyone else confirms), "were the Roxy Musics, David Bowies, T. Rex's -- a twisted sexuality, a black humor which was different." And how did all that contort in to the archetypal Goth sound which permeates the first two Banshees' albums -- and beyond? "We didn't tell John [original guitarist McKay] 'Oh, you have to play an A-sharp minor there, and it'll be really spooky.' We'd say, 'Make it a cross between the Velvet Underground and the scene from Psycho.'"

"We were certainly in the same room as the Banshees," remembers Daniel Ash.

"Nico was in there, too," Ian Astbury confirms. "Because there's a lineage between the Velvets [The Velvet Underground] and punk. But Nico just ended up in Manchester on heroin. Southern Death Cult supported Bauhaus at Salford University when she did 'Waiting for the Man' with them, and Pete Murphy had to hold her up, she was so smacked out!"

Murphy himself sensed something else, though. "Nico was gothic, but she was Mary Shelley gothic to everyone else's Hammer horror film gothic. They both did Frankenstein, but Nico's was real."

At first, the movement which sprang from this burgeoning bucket of archetypes was nameless. "It took about a year and a half [for the media to catch on]," continues Peter Murphy. "And about a year for us to realize that we were actually drawing quite a large audience, post-punks who were getting into something which we called Wildebeests. Really! We played a festival [Futurama], and we toddled on-stage to do our little bit -- make way for the headliners -- and suddenly there was this noise like a distant stampede coming towards us that there they all were, flooding in. And we just thought, 'My God! What have we done?'"

"The Goth tag was a bit of a joke," insists Ian Astbury. "One of the groups coming up at the same time as [Southern Death Cult] was Sex Gang Children, and Andi -- he used to dress like a Banshees fan, and I used to call him the Gothic Goblin because he was a little guy, and he's dark. He used to like Edith Piaf and this macabre music, and he lived in a building in Brixton called Visigoth Towers. So he was the little Gothic Goblin, and his followers were Goths. That's where Goth came from."

"It was paradoxical," Murphy continues, "because on one hand, it was an audience which we had created through our own efforts, but on the other we were a little perturbed, curious, and nicely confused -- why does our audience look like this?" One evening before a show, Murphy was walking through Camden Town with Bauhaus' lighting guy, watching the audience flit to the venue. "I turned 'round and said, 'God, people really do look strange these days,' and he just laughed -- 'You're saying other people look strange?'"

"The first time I saw Bauhaus," says author Mick Mercer, "they were supporting Gloria Mundi [late 70's punk glamsters with a line in psychosis best remembered as a nasty Joy Division] and they were wearing t-shirts and jeans. The next time I saw them they were all in black and looked very much like Gloria Mundi." Which made a change from looking like Siouxsie Sioux. "That really spectacular long hairdo, and those photos she did with the walking cane," Mercer enthuses. "That's when it started, because it was the most perfect Goth image you've ever seen."<

"But it's only one look out of many that she's had, " counters Severin. "I don't know why it's stuck in everyone's head as the definitive one." Siouxsie herself remains of two minds about the legion of fossilized Siouxs on the loose -- "She waxes and wanes between it being flattering and disgusting."

"Musically, the Banshees were the archetypes," Ian Astbury agrees. "Then the Cramps, for the imagery and the clothing, and Bauhaus..."

"...for the makeup!" cackles Murphy. "They took the make-up!"

"Bela Lugosi's Dead" was released in mid-1979. It was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before, or anything anyone had ever done before. "It was a very tongue-in-cheek song," Murphy insists, "Which sounded extremely serious, very heavy-weight and quite dark. But the essence of the song, if you peel back the first layer, is very tongue-in-cheek -- 'Bela Lugosi's dead, undead' -- it's hilarious. The mistake we made is that we performed it with naive seriousness! That's what pushed the audience into it as a much more serious thing. The intense intention going into the performance actually overshadowed the humor of it." But having taken that first step, there was no going back. "Because of that, the gothic tag was always there, and of course we eventually found ourselves playing to our reputation. That's really why Bauhaus didn't have a longevity, because we were just clicking with energy. But when it came down to thinking about what we were doing, we realized that we were pandering to the audience, to what we thought the audience would like."

When Specimen opened the Batcave in London in Spring 1982, the black-slicked audience which formed funeral processions down the length of Dean Street was the farthest thing from their minds. The first Batcave compilation album, two years later, featured contributions from as musically far afield as Killing Joke bassist Youth's new band Brilliant and industrialists Test Department, alongside the expected Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend.

Nik and Mrs. Fiend formed Alien Sex Fiend in late 1982, debuting at the Batcave on December first. Nik recalls, "The Batcave really was an alternative to whatever else was happening at the time, an alternative independent, it was the perfect outlet for doing something that made no sense. I was always into Alice Cooper, but I was also into Salvador Dali, so for me it was an opportunity to do something that was visually exciting, to an audience which was equally visually exciting."

Arguably, Goth had two good years, mid-1982 -- when the press first started courting the emergent bands, and Southern Death Cult were being heralded as the next Second Coming -- through mid-1984, by which time UK Decay and Bauhaus had splintered, the ex-Southern, former-Death Cult were preparing to unleash Dreamtime and even Sex Gang were crumbling, with Andi preparing to record what became Arco Valley. Newly reissued by Triple X, Andi's Mick Ronson-produced solo debut remains, er, interesting.

The second wave, too, had crashed upon the beach.

"The Batcave was marvelous," enthuses Nik Fiend. "I wouldn't change a day about it. It was this mental idea of loads of people -- photographers, clothes designers, musicians, artists, people from all different walks of life all thrown together -- everybody helps everybody through." But the puring was distilled, first by the media, then by its sheer popularity. By the time the first goth outfits turned up in department store windows, Specimen (whose guitarist, John Klein, is now a Banshee) and Sex Fiend were already viewed as cabaret jokes -- even though, in the latter case, the best was still to come.

The 4AD enclave of the Cocteaus [Cocteau Twins], Dead Can Dance and X-Mal Deutschland flirted with the imagery, but swiftly moved away again. As the casualty list increased, it suddenly seemed like there was only one band left -- the Sisters of Mercy.

"All the time the Goth thing was growing up alongside us, we were doing something completely different to what the audience imagined we were doing," Severin says, not only on the Banshees' behalf, but also for the likes of Dalis Car (Peter Murphy and Japan's Mick Karn), Tones on Tail (Bauhaus' Ash and Haskins), the Cult, the Lulus [Flesh for Lulu], the Jezzies [Gene Loves Jezebel], all the bands who had epitomized goth by their very disparity. "So they started doing it themselves. With the Sisters of Mercy... suddenly the audience was onstage itself."

Where was America through all this? Turn left at Greenland....

Leaving the aborted foetus of L.A.'s death-rock scene behind them, Christian Death had relocated to Europe, with Rozz Williams now working alongside Pompeii 99 in a band he originally wanted to call Daucus Karota. 45 Grave had one foot in their name, Castration Squad were losing their balls, and the Speed Queens were metamorphosing into the Superheroines.

Then the Sisters of Mercy arrived.

"The Sisters probably were the consummate Goth band," agrees Murphy. "You could probably lump the Cure in with that as well, except the Cure were going pre-Goth, they were an indie band who continued an indie path."

Wayne Hussey, Eldrich's co-writer throughout the band's most fruitful period, agrees. "The Sisters probably were Goth, and the early Mission too... Songs like 'Sacrilege' and 'Serpent's Kiss' were pretty incriminating, weren't they?" The success of the Sisters, so easily scything across generic lines, was inevitable from the start. "It's well documented that Andrew [Eldritch] and I didn't get on," Hussey explains. "But it was a fruitful relationship, and we did realize that what we had was very strong, both visually and musically." And though he acknowledges, "We probably were guilty of taking ourselves too seriously, occasionally," it was that strength which sounded the death knell for the first generation of Goth bands.

"In the old days, it was Goth with a capital 'G,'" recalls Mick Mercer. "Then [as the Sisters got bigger], it became gothic rock with a capital 'R.' And that's where all your Missions, All About Eves and Fields of the Nephilim come from. And all the imagery of death which had been used in all the fanzines, record sleeves... that kind of creeps in and fits that because what we're talking about now is an underground version of rock.

"It all ties in, becomes homogenized, and that's where you get the fact that everybody's in black. And that's the image which everyone knows, because it becomes quite easy; it's easier to identify, easier to slip into, and it's dead cozy for everyone."

There are countless manifestations of this popularization/commercialization at work, first deifying, but ultimately crucifying, a band's reputation, but none so pressing as the fate that awaited the Christian Death catalogue. It's been recycled so many times that Gitane Demone now swears, "It's fucking embarrassing, all these rehashes come out purely for monetary purposes, not thinking that there's people out there who'll buy anything simply because it's got Christian Death on it."

Rozz Williams, too, wears the ex-Christian Death crown with increasing discomfort. "People tell me I'm an influence, but I don't want to take too much responsibility. Now, it's so strange, it's become a way of life for so many people. How do these people maintain it? 'Wake up, put in my fangs, do my hair, make it down to the graveyard before it closes...'"

Nevertheless Christian Death's appeal remained cult-oriented. It took the commercial emergence of Bauhaus (eight U.K. hit singles between 1981 - 83) and, after their demise, the Sisters (celebrating a decade of chart entries this year) to truly push Goth into the mainstream. Indeed had the Sisters not imploded following their 1985 American tour, they could have become the biggest thing ever. As it was, with the band member themselves striking out in whole new directions -- Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams for the Mission; and Andrew Eldritch for the Sisterhood, and Floodland -- er, First, Last and Always, became the sound of the "real" Sisters -- and of everyone who rose in their wake. Of the original Sister's all-pervading influence, Wayne Hussey says, "That's always gonna be the way. Every time there's any kind of new movement, there's always gonna be a nod to the past, and there's always gonna be prime movers."

It's just that the Sisters were more prime than most, as Cleopatra Records chief Brian Perera affirms. "The Sisters represent Goth in the same way as the Rolling Stones represented rock." And their impact has been about the same.

"I don't know how things went from death rock to Goth," muses Rozz Williams, "but I think the Sisters had something to do with it."

Eva O (whose latest album was produced by Human Drama's Johnny Indovina) agrees. "Suddenly, it was a drum machine, somebody playing a two-stringed guitar, and if it's a boy singing, it's the Sisters sound, and if it's a girl, it's the Banshees."

"We never got a new David Bowie," sighs Indovina. "We got a Morrissey instead. We'll never get a new Sisters either - so why don't people stop trying to be one?"

"Gothic music in itself, and the kind of music that audience is going for, it's really so stale," complains Gitane Demone. "It's just rehash after rehash of the Sisters or Christian Death or the Mission or whatever, it's so stale! I don't mind keeping the [Goth] audience, but what I've been trying to do in Europe is bring along some different sounds, and maybe in that way Goth won't be so laughable, it won't be Goth, it'll just be atmospheric music. There's got to be a change, it's been going on since 1980, 1979, and it's stayed the same!"

Porl King of Rosetta Stone, perhaps the Goth band of the 1990's, and certainly the one which kicked the new scene into motion, seemingly agrees. "When we were growing up, the music we were listening to was the Sisters, March Violets, etc. So we took a great deal of influence from that time. Because after that, there was nothing that was around making a change, nothing to influence us that we really liked." There was an almost three-year period, King claims, during which he didn't buy a single new record. During this time those bands that did rise from goth's grinning tomb so swiftly moved on that by the time anyone heard them, self-confessed Bauhaus nuts Soundgarden, for instance, they'd already moved on. Now Soundgarden are Black Sabbath -- funny how circular things become!

Eva O sensed the same stagnation. "When Rozz and I started Shadow Project, we got stuck in the gothic category, and I originally felt we had a much different style to what I'd perceived Goth to be." But like King, she has since recanted. "Then I realized there were a lot of different sound coming out of there."

Christoph, vocalist with one of the new wave of modern Goth bands, Seattle's Black Atmosphere, agrees. "I myself don't think it's at all true about musical stagnation, I think there's a helluva lot of Goth bands who are coming up, who have a whole new perspective on Goth, mixing the punk or the industrial edge. I think there's a lot of talented Goth musicians and people involved in the scene, they just haven't been recognized yet."

Mick Mercer shares his optimism. "Normally, no underground scene goes on developing after its first few years, but Goth has. Partly it's because of blind, pig-ignorant stupidity that it blunders on when nothing creative is happening. There has been too much lumpen, clod-hopping around trying to sound like the Sisters and having a deep voice, and people do get bored with that. But that also leads into some really good periods. Goth will get a few good years, then a couple of fallow years, and that's what keeps it interesting."