A Study of Gothic Subculture

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Updated 3-12-2009
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Origins of Gothic

There's a very thorough article about the history and growth of the gothic movement called Undead Undead Undead that appeared in Alternative Press in November of 1994. This article is posted in the News Articles section.

Two musicians most often credited as the "Grandfather" and "Grandmother" of Goth: Peter Murphy (formerly of Bauhaus, now doing solo work) and Siouxsie Sioux (formerly of Siouxsie and the Banshees, now with The Creatures). Bauhaus released their first single in 1979. Siouxsie and the Banshees first formed in a haphazard fashion in 1976 and released their first single in 1978. The statement is often made that Sioux was the one who coined the term "gothic" when she mentioned it was the new direction the band was taking. Entranced: the Siouxsie and the Banshees Story suggests that the music press, not Sioux, were the ones who tagged Siouxsie and the Banshees with the label "gothic."

History of the Gothic Subculture


The date of origin is usually placed in 1979 when Bauhaus released the song "Bela Lugosi's Dead." The band originally intended the song to be tongue-in-cheek; however, many young fans latched onto this mysterious, eerie sound as inspiration for the budding gothic subculture. The first generation of the gothic movement emerged mostly in the UK in the late seventies and early eighties as a splinter from the punk movement. Punk music was breathing its last breath as this gloomy, introspective mutation gained momentum. Bands like The Damned, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees characterize the first generation. These bands were called Gothic later on, but most did not consider themselves Gothic at the time. There is a great deal of uncertainty about who coined the term "gothic" and how it got attached to this dark music. The British music press seems to be most responsible for making the label stick.

In the early 1980s, the gothic movement thrived with bands like the Sisters of Mercy at the forefront. However, by the mid to late 1980s, the movement was waning. In the late eighties and early nineties, a new, second generation of gothic bands emerged to breathe new life into the scene. They distinguished themselves by being the first to regularly call themselves Gothic. Examples would include The Shroud, Rosetta Stone, and London After Midnight. This time period is when the US Goth movement grew significantly, and Gothic became recognized as a distinct subculture. Through this period, gothic music and culture grew and branched out into various subsets, pushing the boundaries of what had previously been considered gothic.

Recently, widespread mainstream interest in the gothic subculture is apparent. Many gothic cultural quirks have filtered into mainstream culture, such as an interest in the supernatural and dark aesthetics. Historically, a dark leaning is prevalent towards the end of a century. That leaning has been more pronounced due to the close of a millennium.

As the second generation now ages into their mid to late 20's, they usually become less interested in participating in the gothic social scene. A distinct third generation emerged in the late 90's to shape the future progression of the gothic movement. The third generation represents an explosion in the number of people referring to themselves as gothic. Many of them have learned about gothic culture because of the present widespread commercial availability. The huge popularity of "shock rock" act Marilyn Manson has thrown the spotlight onto this subculture. Marilyn Manson is far more similar to the heavy metal theatricality of Alice Cooper than the mysterious desolation of Bauhaus. Many Goths wish to disassociate themselves from the younger, over-ardent followers of Manson who seem to dress and act like him purely for rebellious shock value. The term often used for these youths is "spooky kids."

First and second generation Goths look suspiciously upon the new generation, doubting their authenticity and disliking the exposure they give to a subculture which would prefer to remain underground. The new generation is not presently well received by their elders, but time may prove otherwise. It would be difficult to predict what the future holds for the Gothic movement. After over 20 years, it continues to change, grow, mutate and adapt, making it one of the longest surviving youth subcultures in existence.

Taken from alt.gothic.FAQ [My comments included in red.]

The term "Goth" was used by Ian Astbury [front man of The Cult -- first called the Southern Death Cult when formed in 1981] who described Andi Sex Gang [of Sex Gang Children] as a "gothic pixie." It was popularized by the UK music magazines New Musical Express (NME) and Sounds and was used to describe a class of music. For some people that music became the basis for a "way of life". They brought their own backgrounds and interests along and a subculture was formed. It took for itself the name Gothic.

NME and Sounds reputedly took the term Gothic from Siouxsie Sioux (of the Banshees) who used it to describe the new direction for her band. However the earliest significant usage of the term (as applied to music) was by Anthony H. Wilson who was overcome by a rare moment of lucidity on a 1978 BBC TV program when he described Joy Division as Gothic compared to the pop mainstream. Perhaps Joy Division (whom he was managing) are not what we now think of as Goth, but it is possible that they are at the source of the term. Bauhaus was labeled as Gothic as early as 1979 when they released Bela Lugosi's Dead. [Read the lyrics to "Bela Lugosi's Dead" below.]

The pop journalists were quick to latch onto the term and they applied it in a nasty sort of pigeonholing way to a number of bands that were around in the early 80's -- most of which did not sound much like the Banshees (or anyone else for that matter). The journalists were more concerned with looks. The (Southern Death) Cult was foremost amongst these bands. Like the Banshees, they wore a lot of black and silver and had extreme black hair. The Sisters of Mercy were also labeled gothic. When they split, Wayne Hussey founded the Mission, and they [the Mission] carried the label with them, despite being different musically. Finally, The Fields of the Nephilim appeared. They (perhaps) consciously and deliberately got themselves labeled Gothic despite looking and sounding quite different from what had previously been labeled Goth.

The fans of bands like the Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees liked to dress up in a lot of black. The music they liked was something of a backlash against the colorful disco music of the seventies. The Banshees were a punk band before they mellowed. Punk was breathing its last breath as Gothdom gathered speed, so one could claim Gothdom grew out of punk. The music of Joy Division, the Sisters and Bauhaus was angst-ridden, but all their hatred was turned inward. The music was typified by introspective lyrics. Many of the new Goth followers were introspective too. Some were a bit confused by the label and started to think that the label Goth was in some way connected with the Victorian Gothic revival and Gothic horror. Because enough of them thought that, it eventually became true. [Why would anyone use the term gothic to describe this new angst-filled, mysterious, introspective music? It is because this music created a mood reminiscent of the Victorian era Gothic writers. There is no other applicable usage of the term. Its original descriptive intentions were obviously meant to refer to the Victorian-related definition of gothic.]

NME and Sounds were not oblivious to this and produced many hilarious articles poking fun at the Goths amongst their readers. They said that being Goth was about sitting around in circles on the floor of pubs (bars) smoking a lot and talking about being a bat. Some readers get angry at this list. Luckily, most Goths have a good enough sense of humor to laugh at themselves once in a while. The first generation Goths complain that second and third generation Goths often seem to think that Gothdom is about wearing the blackest black, with a lot of silver jewelry and looking as thin and pale as possible. In common with their older brethren, they avoid the crass commercialism of mainstream rock and gather together to share their woes. They read Bram Stoker and Anne Rice and talk about being vampires. They read H.P. Lovecraft and talk about the end of the world. The sounds that were described as Gothic were appearing in other countries besides the UK in the late seventies, but I have yet to see any evidence that they were using the word... Today Goth is about music, literature, art and clothes. [Many will argue that it is also a mind set. See Critical Analysis for more.]

From Gothic in the Early Days: as remembered by Jonathan Grey featured in issue 6 of a zine called The Web

In observing the newest generation of Goths as they make their shadowy way through life, I have been struck by the fact that the origins of Goth may have been lost in the mists of time. Speaking as one who was a part of the original divine madness, I'd like to present my view of the Beginning. Gothic, at least, British and German Gothic, didn't begin in the late seventies with Bauhaus, et al. Rather, it originated in the mid-seventies, with groups like Ultravox, Gary Numan, and (of course) The Damned. They dark visions of these early bands filled many a young mind with thoughts of deviance and corruption. The first generation were not, as some seem to think, so many depressive whiners. Of course there was a certain tragic beauty to our music and actions, but anyone who participated in the Batcave's dark celebrations could not possibly view us in the same light as the doom and gloom crowd. The early Goths kept more to the spirit of historical and literary Gothic...

Comments by Robert Smith of The Cure in an interview featured in the Fall 1992 issue #19 of Propaganda magazine

"It's like it happened yesterday," he sighs. "I felt a special camaraderie with certain bands like [Siouxsie and] the Banshees and Joy Division. The first crop of punk bands [like the Sex Pistols] had faded from the scene, and a new crop came up 'round '79 and '80, who were much darker and moodier -- less anarchic. Bands like Joy Division, us [The Cure], Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen. The only early punk bands who survived were the ones able to make that transition, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned..."

Bela Lugosi's Dead: A song released in 1979 on the Small Wonder label by the band Bauhaus. The lyrics are:

White on white
translucent black capes
back on the rack.
Bela Lugosi's dead.
The bats have left the bell tower,
the victims have been bled,
red velvet lines the black box.

Bela Lugosi's dead.
Undead Undead Undead.

The virginal brides
file past his tomb,
strewn with time's dead flowers,
bereft in deathly bloom,
alone in a darkened room
the count.

Bela Lugosi's dead.
Undead Undead Undead.

Oh Bela, Bela's undead.