t was the worst of times, it was the... worst of times. Iron Lady Thatcher ruled the roost, punk rock had proven a ideological dead-end, the Cold War kept on shivering and AIDS only helped to seal the state of frigidity. Luckily, drum machines were cheap and dry ice plentiful, amphetamine sulfate abounded and black still went with anything. Well, anything black. Join Stylus' own dark horde as we scrape away the cobwebs and uncover the truth behind the genre that dare not speak its name...
I. Paint It, (All) Black
II. Pressure Lines & Graceless Heirs
III. New Christian Music
IV. Above The Chemist
V. Left On Mission and Revenge
VI. Essential Goth Recordings
As the stubbled face of punk loomed large over England in the late 70's, scurrying like rats in its shadow were the fomenting currents of new ideas, new sounds, and new inspirations taken from outside the three-chord Bible. "Post-punk" is viewed these days as a somewhat monolithic concept, an alternate canon to be thumped against one's chest like any other. Scratch the surface a bit and something entirely different emerges—a far-flung avalanche of artists and voices wildly divergent, all perhaps drawing inspiration from a similar locus point of energy, but plying said inspiration into a million different endeavors. The overflow of sounds would spill its way even into the most mannered of pop artists in the early 80's. Duran Duran, seen as the epitome of tasteless artifice, were in fact attempting to fuse punk with disco—whether or not they succeeded is hardly the point. What matters is the feckless raw cunning of that move—idealistic, guileless, utterly naive. Forget the defiant know-it-all stereotype of punk. Its children applied their English dreaming into forms far more deviant and brave.
With the 70's drawing to a close and punk dry-humping its own corpse for want of inspiration, the bands with the wit to forge ahead (the Clash, Wire, Joy Division, the Damned, etc.) began to temper their sound with elements of outside styles and earlier eras. Some, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus most notably, drew inspiration from glam and other forms lurking about at the start of the decade. Others, such as the Cure and the Buzzcocks, stripped down to the primal, using a bare-bones pop form to explore interior space and emotional terrain rather than the tired wasted youth / scorched-earth dynamic. As the decade turned, bands who had little sonically in common but played the same venues and shared an overlap in audience began to be considered a movement, as usually is inevitable.
A series of signifiers emerged—a love of theater, an arty bent in lyric and presentation, a sexual amorphousness inspired by the pre-punk pioneers, a desire to create an overwhelming atmosphere at the expense of catchy pop ditties or easily-absorbed manifestos, and a devotion to a cadre of bands that pre-dated the punk explosion: the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Bowie, Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and Suicide. This hearkening back to artists viewed at that point as dinosaurs was but a preamble to further excavations of image and music that owed nothing to timeliness. Under the arc of Bauhaus' dramatic puissance and Siouxsie's technicolor sensuality, the bands that would become “Goth” felt the courage to explore such no-go areas as film noir, Romantic-era poetry, horror schtick, psychedelic wistfulness, leather-clad perversity, and corset-wrapped fantasy. In other words, everything fabulous and forbidden, everything marked and mysterious. To wit—Bauhaus, the Virgin Prunes, Southern Death Cult, Sex Gang Children, Christian Death, Specimen, Ausgang, and so on.
In the years that followed the initial heady rush of the prime goth period ('81-'84), strands of dour pomp and paisley joss-stick waving came to dominate, as the Sisters of Mercy and their offspring became the only goths standing. Bands like Fields of the Nephilim, the Mission, and All About Eve gained worldwide followings and scored minor hits. The odd raconteur (Alien Sex Fiend spring to mind) soldiered on, but most mutated—the Cult and Flesh for Lulu sporting rocktastic makeovers, Theatre of Hate popping out as Spear of Destiny, the non-singing portion of Bauhaus glamming and hamming it up as Love & Rockets, and so on. As the early period became a cobwebby memory, the inevitable revival reared its head—the 90's saw books, (mostly) crap CD compilations, and unlikely imitators enter the fold. Since that time, Goth has solidified as a “scene”—a series of clubnight playlists, wardrobe must-haves, and role-playing foibles, everything the dynamism of the early bands was supposed to supplant. Reduced to a reel of stock footage, the Goth tag has been applied to everyone from pop-punk poseurs AFI and Good Charlotte to pompous metal goons like Evanescence. All, in short, that it wasn't—as though eyeliner and lyrics about death made for a tangible connection with the spiky likes of UK Decay or 45 Grave.
So with an ear to the past and a soul impossibly blackened, it is with deepest sadness and a carafe of blood-red wine that we, the darkling hordes of Stylus, recall the prehistoric days of Goth's first emergence from the crypt. See! The startling makeup choices of Siouxsie, Dave Vanian, and Johnny Slut! Tremble! At the bone-rattling sounds of Southern Death Cult, Alien Sex Fiend, the March Violets, and the Bolshoi! Fear! As the Sisters of Mercy play Dolly Parton's "Jolene" with a straight face and meth-benumbed nostrils! And cringe! As we have the temerity to discuss Fields of the Nephilim without bursting into peals of laughter! Or have we...?
Our macabre tale begins with the proverbial whodunit. Who do we have to blame for all this black-clad nonsense? Where does the signifier “Gothic” move from suggesting flying buttresses and consumptive heroines and towards fog-shrouded rock bands with drum machines? We shall see...
“This is the way / Step inside…”
Like most key figures from the era, Siouxsie Sioux often tries to deny all knowledge of ever having participated in, helped create or even flirted with the concept of “the g word.” So standard has the avoidance of being lumped into any part of the-genre-which-must-not-be-named become, that it seems almost part of a game to writhe in uncomfortable irritation at the mere suggestion by any unfortunate interviewers. Usually whilst the interviewee is wearing heavy eyeliner and dressed in all black, of course.
This is a slightly curious twist in the tale. As far as I’m aware, no Goth bands were ever involved in any serious crimes against humanity (yes, just make your own joke up at this point). It would be simple enough to still remain proud of certain musical achievements, while at the same time decrying the nightmarish parody world of contemporary offspring. Perhaps it is merely an understandable case of wishing to avoid the feather-lined horror of a hole that a pigeon may occasionally inhabit. Whatever the case, it’s not stepping too far off reality’s kerb to suggest that, at times, the Banshees doth protest too much.
The initial punk credentials are pretty hot (regrettable brush with swastikas, lurking behind The Sex Pistols during “that” Bill Grundy appearance, forming a band for a laugh), but it would quickly become clear that things operated a little differently in Banshee-world. By all accounts the first gig takes place on September 20,1976. Bottom of the bill at the 100 Club. No rehearsals. No soundcheck. Sid Vicious trying his hand at drumming. So far, so punk mythology. Tellingly, the group name is hastily constructed from Hammer Horror’s Cry of the Banshee; even at this early stage hinting that a freakish punk-goth stew is starting to ferment.
One droning, shambolic performance of “The Lord’s Prayer” later and the Banshees are fully on the scene. But wait, what scene is this anyway? Siouxsie claims to have been wearing some kind of all black bondage-fetish ensemble with “... for some reason, a pair of scissors around my neck” accompanied by Clockwork Orange style makeup. Feedback-drenched and monotonous, the pseudo-arty appearance and chaotic tone seem to owe far more to The Velvet Underground than phlegm-covered, three chord antics. A different rule of three is born—religion, sex, and death. It may not have been a new branch poking out from the withering tree of musical history, but it was arguably some different colored leaves.
Despite the Hammer-pilfering for their moniker, a campy-vampy direction is not adopted. Instead, track after track recreates the psychological edge of a Hitchcockian thriller. An approach typified by in-between-albums single “The Staircase (Mystery)”; a song which does little to dissuade the hypothesis that the Banshees were busily soundtracking an imaginary psycho-drama which existed only inside their own minds. And gloriously so. It’s a whirl of taut guitar, forcefully mixed with an ascending-descending bassline; cementing the band vision in magnificent black and white.
If a point must be found where the goth label is slapped on and triple laminated, the Juju album is the prime candidate. Pulling back from the synth-twiddling, occasionally pop-flirting direction of Kaleidoscope, the album builds upon those early, shower-stabbing thrills and overlays even darker subject matter. John McGeoch brings his icy-cold Magazine guitar riffs to the party. The lyrics take on a distinctly Poe-like vibe. Though the doom and gloom remains subtle and psychological, preferring to dabble in disquieting juxtaposition rather than theatrical shock-horror, it’s too late to escape. With the Cure’s Pornography (amongst others) appearing in the same year, there is now an easy tag to apply to anything with eyeliner, whether distinctions can be made or not.
The Banshees would continue to morph and shift throughout the years to come, whilst still ploughing their own identifiable furrow and merrily borrowing from punk, glam, and 60’s pop to do it. Nonetheless, their admirable affection for the trappings of classic gothic literature and an image which never strayed far from a thorough backcombing remained amongst their most striking features. They ceaselessly pursued their own vision, but that vision undeniably overlapped the genre they can now be seen to deny. Banshee fingerprints are all over the goth-gun, but it would be a miscarriage of justice to suggest they pulled the trigger.
The Spirit of '76: three blokes attend a Sex Pistols show in Manchester and are compelled to start a band. Disco's death was prolonged, dragged the length of the decade, a last whimpered threat to crawl into the '80's ass. Suddenly point proffered counterpoint: the 'Pistols arguably birthed Warsaw—it would have been all too easy for Sumner, Hook, Mason and Curtis to discharge the same ordinance as the 'Pistols. That sort of sneering Elvisian cocksucker scowl spread across rock 'n' roll primitivism's fault-line would not only have been the easiest way in, it would have also proved omnipotent—Curtis wearing Rotten's iconoclastic incisors would have made for the fatal bite, the sort of chew that churns up enough cultural strata to leave enlightenment's wattage waning like a fritizing insect zapper.
It was not to be, as each outfit was working from an antithetical style, attitude, and presentation. Joy Division, by contrast, was [nearly] lifeless, worm-ridden passivity realized via on-stage St. Vitus dance. Punk Rock's true opposite, this was sad sack introversion—tranced out despair longing for an object to empty its ennui into.
No Future's noose shredded into fibrous nothingness, those pretty and vacant enough attacked their own attributes; preservation and upkeep fed on by a vampiric nihilism, bloodless shells began to accumulate in the food courts of malls, at house parties, in tight black knots amidst innumerable stone gardens. Unknown Pleasures became a license for sexual discovery and repression, languid mall moping, gender smashing cross-dressing.
"Submission" takes a wrong psychotropic turn and becomes "She's Lost Control." "Anarchy in the U.K." enables the big-tent emporium of "Atrocity Exhibition." Siouxsie encased herself in black leather, donned the film noir death mask; hair rose and frayed in an Aquanet shock. Bauhaus, Christian Death, 45 Grave, The Damned—in some instances the dread overflowed; subgenre was set up to catch the drip. Before Death Rock placed its engineer booted heel on its own fledgling sound, Curtis' shadow still danced a cataleptic tarantella, powered by Morris' pulmonary percussion. Prodded by Pop's The Idiot, Curtis took to the noose. With the frontman's grief in the grave, a martyr was made. There was no influence, no aping of crass DIY attitude. This was song as horror show; pure negative transference, flat black apprehension destined to find itself marketed as a nail polish color. "Goth."
Making up was making down. Eyes were pounded with eyeliner lead, pallor as alabaster, physique starved and withered—the man and woman macabre. Eras Victorian, Edwardian; film noir, the sating terror of the gothic novel all worked to the same end, to empower the powerless, a legion of high-schoolers working out life changes while aping the walking dead. Puberty—sexual awareness, despondency, and depression were all draped over teenage drones caught in chrysalis content with stasis. As Curtis stunned an audience by invoking Rudolf Hess, Goths worked in similar fashion, either falsely encapsulated by the meaninglessness of Columbine or spilling crocodile tears for unopened arms. Goth never pretended to the political; it was always aesthetics, where the scene seemingly predated the sound. Being in the Nothingness was only one fashion acquisition away, no matter how glum chums sounded on the stage. Another "imported" sound sent across the pond to infect the willing, emotionally fragile horde, the so-called Spirit of '76 could no longer celebrate its enslavement from Fair England.
The Cure are considered by some pundits to be, like Depeche Mode and clove cigarettes, a "gateway drug" to Goth. And just as one hit off a joint in the back of your buddy's Chevy Nova doesn't necessitate you shooting speedballs by the next weekend, listening the Cure won't immediately have you gunning it to Hot Topic to stock up on lace gloves and Bloody Kisses lipstick. Prolonged exposure, however, may lead to your curiosity being piqued about just what lieth behind that heavy iron door... An early purchase of Mixed Up had whetted my appetite for all things quasi-glooomy that you could make out to (or at this point, imagine making out to), and when I saw them on the cover of a glossy 'zine called Propaganda (cue laugh track) at a record store in Red Bank, New Jersey (actually the one they live above in Chasing Amy), I leafed through it innocently enough, thinking "maybe some of these other bands sound something like the Cure..."
Well, really they didn't, and really they still don't. The Cure were always a pop band meddling in darker waters, never having much to do with the scene that came kicking and screaming out of places like London and Leeds. Initially, they were just another three-chord gang emerging from the Anarchy UK tour, sketching a similar pop-punk route as the Buzzcocks and trading in the usual hackneyed Pistols-isms (witness Roberts' hilarious Johnny Rotten impression on "I Want to Be Old"). At the same time, the Cure drew from the get-go on both English-student angst and Jimi Hendrix riffs, rockstar dreams as well as existential nightmares.
And though they've oft been accused of being sharply derivative of Joy Division in their transition from punk-power-poppers to greyscale gloom gurus, recently unearthed early demos indicate both bands were making the shift from brio to brooding around the same time. Most significantly, the Cure and Joy Division delineated their downer-ism in quite different ways. Where Ian Curtis' despair was a palpable observation of the modern soul dangling on the edge of the abyss, Smith dealt in a sadness more clearly linked to adolescent frustration, the sound of literary-minded teenagers full of woe. Not that this made the Cure's depressive world a facile one, as any one who's nursed their loneliness with a well-worn copy of Faith or Disintegration can attest. It simply gave it a wider purview—something that would work handily with the never fully renounced flirtations of Smith and company with accessible, buoyant pop.
But Goth, as we'll see, was an underground, nightclub-based and touring-band nurtured sound. The Cure's indifference to a following and their mercurial pop-courting nature would prove more influential to new wave and indie crossover acts than those who worshipped at the incense-scented altar of Southern Death Cult and the Sisters of Mercy. So, while the Cure may have been what prodded some latecomers down the black rose-laden path of Goth, they never truly owned those tattered threads, nor were they ever completely embraced by the burgeoning community of artists and trainspotters finding a new identity by fusing elements of glam, new wave romanticism, punky idealism, and noir aesthetics. As outsiders learned to call the scene “Goth,” the Cure would be suggesting we take a walk, maybe go to bed, and in the process winning an international audience. Meanwhile, the genres real movers and boneshakers were dipping into waters of a decidedly icier nature.
“What came first, the cheekbones or the egg?” -- Mick Mercer, Gothic Rock.
Now that we've addressed what Goth wasn't, well then what the devil was it? As early as 1967 (!) “gothic” was used to refer to rock music with a gloomy, doomy bent. When Joy Division arrived on the scene, the term was first used to describe post-punk artists. Whether it was some NME bon vivant or producer Martin Hannet who applied it to them earlier is uncertain, debated and of about as much importance as whether or not Peter Murphy prefers his eggs scrambled or poached (we already know how he prepares his fish cakes...).
Though dust cloaked atmospherics and a brittle, propulsive sound were a popular mix as the 70's swung to a close, it was a number of groups loosely centered around the London scene who would dress up post-punk in tattered velvet and lace and take it for a stroll through the graveyard. Eschewing the gloominess of seminal but unrelated bands like Magazine and the Comsat Angels, the earliest "Goth" bands were more horror-as-schtick than horrified sick. We can safely call them Goth because no one else has made room for them—too polychromatic for punk (not to mention toying around with electronics, clearly unacceptable to diehards) and too clearly wedded to onstage dramatics to be lumped in with the emerging "indie" movement. So who were they?
While Killing Joke, early Ultravox, and virtual unknowns Gloria Mundi are often touted as progenitors, Bauhaus deserve the credit (blame?) for being the hot ones out the gate. "Bela Lugosi's Dead" remains a bewildering first single and an uncharacteristic sound for the boys, and though it may (or may not) all be a joke, it's an undeniably odd record: both stark and penetrating, capable of choking the light out of a room and at the same time providing an escape route via tense, hazy fantasy. But they were hardly alone in the dark—Ireland's Virgin Prunes were working at a similar (though undoubtedly more manic) fusion of theater and warped sonics, whilst Luton's UK Decay piloted a course out of punk redundancy by frothing up their style (and shepherding many lesser lights as well), and Theatre of Hate emerged from the Pack as a walloping, writhing beast.
Into this flurry of sound and vision would come a band that would bring the scene to a boil—Southern Death Cult. Never quite able to fulfill the ridiculous expectations of their audience, they were simply the hottest-tipped band in the land for a brief, sparkling moment. Cementing the burgeoning idea of "followings" (Grateful Dead-like groups of hardcore devotees that literally followed the group around the country) and regarding their audience as partners in an almost, well, cult-like fashion, they coasted into 1983 on a frenzied tidal wave of energy and hype. So what happened? Well, they stuffed it and vanished is what happened. OK, so maybe they didn't vanish. OK, so maybe they became the Cult, of all things.
But first up in our "cruel garden of dark delights," the band so often hit with the G-stick…
One of the most criminally maligned of bands, Bauhaus have suffered the scorn of proper rockers and critics alike since their earliest releases. I'm going to tell you why right off the bat (ha!), by whipping out the one word that no writer on the band can resist using: theatrical. Yes, Bauhaus were very theatrical. Now let's move on.
There's a great moment that occurs early on in the original Bauhaus video collection Shadow of Light—the band are trouncing through a live version of "Bela," all fixed-glare restraint and cadaver-cool charisma. Suddenly, without the slightest of segue way, we're dropped into the clip for "Telegram Sam," and it's a whole different ball of candle wax—Peter Murphy playing the role of demented mime via St. Sebastian, Kevin Haskins looking like a straight James Dean, a red-headed David J. recalling an even more masculine Laurie Anderson and a dressed-down Daniel Ash caught in street-punk simplicity. You'd be forgiven for thinking they were having fun. This balance of extremes was the particular tightrope the band walked—art-school tendencies held in check by sharp muscularity; unadorned celebration of the horrific against sardonic reveling in the silly and downright weird; Vincent Price in Cry of the Banshee vs. Vincent Price on The Muppet Show.
The anchor of the band lay in its trio of brilliant musicians—Daniel Ash's Manzanera-esque extravagance; David J's dubsoaked bubbly bass (up against Pete Hook's for most influential four-string of the era); funky drummer Kevin Haskins, who deserves paragraphs more praise than we have space to provide. Capable of wrenching all manner of sounds from his kit, he supplied texture and weight to the band's more atmospheric moments, yet could still bang and thud along with the best of 'em when gristly glampunk was the order of the day. As for Peter Murphy—he's often been pegged as a Bowie clone, but if so he was an astonishingly poor one. Old Pete was undoubtedly his own creation—perhaps because he never exhibited an ounce of the restraint that enabled Bowie to fashion shards of eccentricity into careerism. His obsessions were always a good deal weirder and darker—Bowie's spaceman motifs could be easily traced to rock and roll / genderbending tradition, while Murphy's were just... well, from space. Catch his recondite imagery on "In the Flat Field"—"Yin and yang lumber punch / Go taste a tart then eat my lunch / And force my slender thin and lean / In this solemn place of fill wetting dreams." Sounds great, Pete, I'll be... out back. Hiding. From you.
Initially, they were at their best at their most pretentious (the wonderful breath of fetid air that is "Nerves") or their most abrasive (slicing up garage-rock cliches to carve their own "Dark Entries"). But as time went on, the inherent doomclock wedded to any fusion of the two began to tick. While Murphy grew increasingly dissolute and uncertain of his own peculiarities in the face of an audience heaping hosannas and demands at his feet, the band emerged as a tighter, more focused unit—moving from brewing their own patch of post-punk storm clouds to becoming a band that others could (and would) imitate. It's a common fallacy to suggest that Bauhaus were an underground band toiling away until their hit version of "Ziggy Stardust" propelled them into becoming an indie cause celebre. "Ziggy" destroyed Bauhaus—intended as a snipe against those who accused the group of secondhand Bowie-isms, the note-for-note gasp-for-gasp cover was accompanied by a video clip alternating between shots of the band onstage about to be devoured by a rabid queue of fans and Peter Murphy in a cage, crooning along. It's a disturbingly apt image—the creative core of the band was ruptured by the inability of critics or fans to grasp how firmly tongue sought lining of cheek in the best of their work. Which is not to suggest that there weren't moments, such as the faery nocturne of "Hollow Hills," in which they were entirely transparent in their intent. But after "Ziggy," all bets were off—Bauhaus became, albeit gradually and not without a fight, the victim of their own audience. Quite a sharp contrast from the confrontational early period, when Murphy would often sashay directly into the crowd, all stripped-to-the-waist menace, and grab a concertgoer by the collar.
In their final hours, the separate and irreconcilable portions of the band began to tear away from each other and reveal a seam that exposed "goth" for the unsteady alliance that it was. A union of disparate elements welded together and slapped with a coat of greasepaint, appearing tonight at a grotty club and shortly to sod off into gloom-caked cliche; to disappear up alternate avenues of pop, hard-rock, or synthetic cabaret; or merely to vanish with a poof amongst the dry ice. The breakup of Bauhaus was more than just the end of one brightly incisive group amongst many—it signaled the dissolving of what we can (without too much rule-bending) describe as the First Wave of Goth.
Their early fellow-travellers have been granted much less leniency. Though equally as well-regarded by the fanbase in the halcyon days of Goff Mk. I, bands such as Theatre of Hate, UK Decay, and the Southern Death Cult have escaped even the scorn that keeps Bauhaus' name, at least, in circulation. But these groups and many others formed a multifarious scene that owed more to squatter politics and Burundi drumming than it did to vampire chic or noir posturing. Shall we... ?
UK Decay came straight outta Luton and began messing about with staid punk rock traditionalism almost immediately. Serving up brash, trouncing sides heaped up with helpings of brooding sex and sullen menace, massive sales in the underground and a seminal legacy should have been theirs. Instead, the band guided by well-meaning leader Abbo (later to manage EMF!) miffed audiences, carefully avoided Next Big Thing status, kept DIY production values close to their hearts, and generally made a bloody great racket, but to no avail. Perhaps they were before their time—a misguided connection with the early punk crusties made for a lot of head-scratching at gigs, as dirge-y, complex numbers unravelled before an audience still trying to pogo. Abbo unwittingly became the first of the new scene to explicitly use the word gothic in a self-referential light, joking about gargoyle-shaped LPs and gigging in cathedrals. Turns out the joke was on him—later groups would appropriate the style but the substance got lost in the translation, and UK Decay dwindled just as their offspring began to sprout like thorny black shrubs amongst the tombstones. Highly regarded by the scene they helped to foster, they've been ill-served ever since—even in the archive-happy heyday of the early '90s, no CD compilation appeared to document their contributions.
The Virgin Prunes’ first 7" "Twenty Tens" was sheer springy lunacy, the New Form of Beauty and Heresie releases decidedly more experimental, in both sound and packaging. As such, The Virgin Prunes were always more a case of fitting in with Goth by virtue of not fitting in anywhere else. By the time of their debut album proper in '82, they were playing it straight enough and Goth was playing it odd enough that the Prunes could ratchet up not one nightclub smash, but two. Rhythmic pounding, Celtic chants, the war dance of the pagan sex fiend, onstage simulated oral action, the murkiest permutations of outsider art and strange rumblings from the underworld. What a strange and beautiful place the early Goth scene was at times...
Peddling a mix of cabaret, performance art shock tactics, sexual deviancy, and Baudelaire, the Virgin Prunes were never going to be mainstream or even indie heroes (though one of their number was in an early incarnation of U2! Ghastly!). But the Prunes were at least guilty of wearing their hearts on their sleeves—their rarities collection is, after all, called artfuck—and making no bones about their outrageous intent to meld music and theater.
But all things must come to an end, even carnivalesque road shows aiming to shock and delight the listless world, even stridently non-commercial collectives performing their shrilly-voiced, almost oppressively-percussive meld of post-punk thunder and Weimar dress-up whilst wearing frocks and cavorting about with dead animals. See them in their unhinged prime performing the mantralike “Caucasian Walk” here. Gavin Friday has since moved towards a slightly more conventional career, in keeping with his strong attachment to all things loony and croon-y. God bless the Virgin Prunes. I doubt anyone else will.
Somewhat of a difficult pill to swallow, Theatre of Hate blended a refreshingly dynamic and accomplished band with one of the most unpalatable singers in the history of popular music. Even amongst the "Legion" of startlingly high-pitched vocalists fronting their peers, Kirk Brandon stood out like Edith Piaf at Ozzfest. Possessed of a voice even a mother couldn't love, it retains a certain garish charm by virtue of its nakedly-unhinged qualities. If Gavin Friday strikes one as a ridiculous blend of operatic tension and dogged amateurism, Brandon just sounds like someone's got his balls in a vice grip. But, oh, that band. Despite the typical filtering-through of members (Luke Rendle of Crisis on drums was replaced by Nigel Preston, whom Billy Duffy would prance off with to Death Cult, yadda yadda yadda), the sound remained consistent and marvelously undidactic.
In some ways the archetypical band of the early period, Theatre of Hate chiseled out a unbeatable combo of sharply-twisting drama and defiant urgency, forceful in spades and a million miles away from Bauhaus or UK Decay. What ToH brought to the table that so many missed was a navigable sparseness, a sense of spaciousness and economy that allowed for the genuine lack of strong melodies to become an asset rather than a hindrance. Instead of bopping you in the head with tunefulness, they let rhythm and clean, audible lines come to the fore—Stan Stammers' rudimentary-but-crisp bass playing, John Lennard's anything-but-rudimentary blasts of saxophone. Bands like Sex Gang Children, Blood & Roses, Southern Death Cult, and Skeletal Family would later carve careers out of ToH's tribal-drums and atmospheric-washes blueprint, but none would surpass them in originality. Nor would any craft a hit so leftfield (with the possible exception of Sex Gang's "Maurita Mayer") as "Do You Believe in the Westworld," which, for the record, also marks the beginning of Goth's bizarre Old West fixation. Enjoy a rather surreal Top of the Pops performance of said song here, featuring an inspiring intro by John Peel!
Before the rollicking economy of Death Cult, before the watered-down R 'n R fantasies of the Cult, and long long long before the ridiculous apparition that is “the Doors 2K" or whatever they're calling themselves, there was an exciting band stirring up noise and inspiring a diehard cadre of raggedy young things to traipse about the country, muck about in a sweltering haze of drums and dry ice, and dress up like Crazy Horse. Well perhaps not so much of the latter.
We're told it never really materialized on record, but, well, we're told a lot of things—a cursory listen to the "Fatman" / "Moya" single on Beggar's Banquet reveals at least something unusual lurking in the shadows. (See a shaky promo clip for “Fatman” here.) Building quite naturally on the rhythmic core of Theatre of Hate, Southern Death Cult cultivated an aura of mystery based mainly around the fact that absolutely no one had a fucking clue what Ian Astbury was on about. Sure, he implied depths of profundity revolving around a Red Indian obsession and a basic beef with Big Bad America-y, but for the most part it was the suggestion of some shrouded, mystical agenda that impelled people to follow the band, tongues wagging, pants around ankles.
Their album emerged, a ludicrously lopsided thing with several good notions spread across far too many tracks and any number of potential sideroutes untaken in order to achieve some sort of aura that would appease their pre-sold audience. Whether they were victimized by their fans or just short of ideas is hardly the point. As the layers began to be peeled back and the band was exposed as proper charlatans, the following drifted away. Amused at first by the face-painted antics of Astbury, bobbing about like a silly bobbing thing, a bit puzzled when he chopped off first one word of the band’s name, then another, they would ultimately register only tedium as the Cult emerged as... well... the Cult. Dull widescreen cock-and-roll might be the opiate of the masses, but the early Goth audience demonstrated itself as something a bit more demanding and difficult to please than all that.
In fact the sounds sparking up excitement amongst the kiddies were already beginning to mutate…
“I spoke to the Devil, I told him to go to Hell!”
In February of 1983, the NME ran an article by Richard North on minor London-based bands Blood & Roses and Brigandage, with some mention given to the (more important for our spooky purposes here) likes of Southern Death Cult and the Sex Gang Children:
With wild-coloured spiked hair freezing the eye, and even more vivid clothes to spice the imagination—faces, thoughts and actions—the atmosphere's infused with a charge of excitement, an air of abandon underlined with a sense of purpose.North was innocent enough in his intentions—seeking only to draw attention to a handful of local bands (one of whom he'd soon join, coincidentally or not), and having no desire to coin any media catchphrases or label something so indefinable as a "movement." Unfortunately, it was a slow week—"Positive Punk" (or "posipunk" or whatever cumbersome phrase one used to describe it) made the cover, North turned several shades of red and the NME got deservedly spanked for its naughtiness.
Something stirs again in this land of fetid, directionless sludgery, this land of pretend optimism and grim reality. Theory and practice are being synthesised under the golden umbrella of a two-hour long ideal.
Welcome to the new positive punk.
"Positive punk" was an obvious gaffe—sounds almost defensive, doesn't it? But they did get one thing right. Stormclouds were indeed gathering above London, and in the distance, the flapping of wings could be heard...
Originally conceived as a retro-glam night chased with a shot of Hammer Horror, a new London club night called the Batcave opened on Dean Street in July of 1082—timed perfectly with the heyday of the original Goth bands. As the early arc of Goth Mk. I slowly began to fall, another scene, slightly different but inextricably intertwined, was on the rise—centered around several groups that would become Batcave mainstays. The followings of bands like Theatre of Hate and Southern Death Cult gravitated to these new bucks—encouraged by a shared sense of energy and drama and ensnared by the posh locale.
From the start, there was a very different atmosphere to the Batcave, one that arose from the fetishes of the day, but also one which would eventually be classified as Goth, for better or worse. Piles of stiff, Easter egg dyed-hair, studs, chains, bondage and leather gear, piercings and tatts, canes and capes, feathers, top hats, and ridiculous extensions. At the onset, it owed more to Gotham City than Gothic melodrama—but as the grim aura of the Thatcher era droned on and smoke machines became affordable, the tone changed from B-movie schlock to dirge-y doom rock. Accordingly, misinterpretation and miscegenation took the trademark quirks of the Batcave-based scene and twisted them into something farcical. But all that would come later...
The house band at the Batcave was a fairly hopeless lot called Specimen—brainchild of the not-very-frighteningly-named "Ollie." Johnny Slut, the rakish figure to the right, however, was the fashion God of the era. Representing the early look at its most glammy and spectacular, he stood as a male counterpart to Siouxsie. Slut was stylish enough to inspire a rash of imitators (the Johnny Slut "clones") and almost startling enough to give Specimen a fighting chance as an actual band. He remains the iconic example of everything Goth actually was that outsiders think it wasn't. Quite an accomplishment for someone whose musical contributions were limited to winsome pursed-lips glances and the tapping of handily-stickered keys at preordained moments. Not that Specimen the band were completely disposable—but their propulsive, heady, sugar-sheathed pop hardly defined the particular combination of shriek and shtick that was Cave-era Goth at its finest.
Were I feeling hyperbolic (luckily I am) I would call Alien Sex Fiend the penultimate example of the paradox of Goth. In retrospect, it should have been completely obvious—they were doomed from the start. Much akin to the Fiends’ main inspiration, Alice Cooper, there was simply no way the world of rock music would accept this kind of unhinged lunacy as legitimate. It would be one thing to force the sober-minded to digest a band with such a ludicrous name in the first place—it's another matter entirely to expect them to choke down said band featuring a frontman who appears on stage in corpse-paint, wielding a giant inflatable banana. Well, if you can't "Ignore the Machine," then join it, I say.
Luckily, ASF were an all-inclusive lot. Where other groups would obfuscate their intent with smoke, mirrors, drum machines, and cryptic lyrics, Nik Fiend and company left nothing to the imagination. Shock tactics? Please. Bereft of the intent to frighten or provoke, the Fiend Family tree never forked in directions twisted or bent, however thickly eyeliner may have been applied—it was all clearly in the name of fun. Akin to the Adamses, but far more kooky than spooky, Mr. & Mrs. Fiend represented a parental unit we all longed for back in the day. If only we could all have been raised by a couple of Alien Sex Fiends, then maybe we'd all be...
Ah, yes. The little band who couldn't.
The name came by way of the Culture Club (discarded by Boy George for a slightly more commercial tag) by way of Bow Wow Wow (discarded by Malcolm Mclaren for something slightly less pedophilic), but the notions and sprightly energy brewing in Andi Sexgang and Dave Roberts cauldron were entirely their own. Sex Gang Children stirred this kettle into a simmering, shimmering landscape flexing with equal parts glee and menace, topped with the most ridiculously indecipherable vocals on the planet, bar none. I shan't soon forget the first time I heard them—it was "Sebastiane," played in my friend Stacey's dorm room—"Wow, lovely strings," thought I. "But what the Christ is that nutter saying?" Andi, bless his little heart, had one gift and one gift alone to share with the eager world—stabbing at half-formed syllables with all the rabid enthusiasm of Augustus Gloop at the buffet table.
For a time, as truly odd as their sound was, it seemed as though they might take up the mantle so recently discarded by Southern Death Cult—singles placed high on the indie charts, Peel sessions, effusive concert-goers. So what went wrong? Well, being a cantankerous lot, they passed on several reputable support gigs to pursue their own jagged path. Internal disputes (lead singer vs. rest of band, natch) did for the rest of it—Dave Roberts sodded off to form the non-entity that was Carcrash International, Rob... did whatever it is Robs do when no one's around to take notes, and the whole thing dissolved in less time than it takes your average baby-goth to apply his first coat of foundation. Andi assembled the excellent Blind album with hired guns, and it soon became apparent where the real talent lay. Unfortunately, his solo career stumbled with his misguided attempt at a fusion of Edith Piaf and T. Rex.
Other groups worthy of mention that made it onto the stages and DJ playlists of clubs like the Batcave and the Zig-Zag Club included more rhythmic, European-inflected groups such as Xymox, Germany's X-Mal Deutschland, and Danse Society. Earlier holdovers from the punk / UK Decay-dominated era such as Play Dead, Ritual, Ausgang, Blood & Roses, and the like also withered as the more synthetic, programmed sound began to dominate and leave casualties behind.
By 1984, the Batcave had begun the slide from seminal to farcical, with pseudo-goth celebrities such as Nick Cave and Robert Smith putting in appearances, journalists making all kinds of ho-hum eye-rolling gestures, and the breadwinners of the scene wondering if, in fact, life could exist outside of London. The sound of the club narrowed from a wide-ranging blend of the nascent Goth artists, NYC electro, old-school glam, and New Wave to a playlist largely comprised of local and current scene-bred bands. Luckily, some dark work was afoot in two other cities whose names just happened to begin with an "L," one an ocean and a continent away, another slightly north of town...
Los Angeles, California.
Home to smog, ridiculously bad traffic, Hollywood and... loads of gormy Goths!
The LA scene, though short-lived, threw up a number of groups—Kommunity FK, Voodoo Church, Superheroines, etc. who would delve into dark or horror-based themes. The Gun Club, who were also active at the time, had a grim sound but one which was rooted more in the blues—sharing much the same relationship with Death Rock that the Birthday Party had with UK Goth. Elements of serious / campy B-movie gloom and doom had been seen in the US punk scene before, of course—most notably in the Cramps and Misfits, but they would take on a whole new level with the following two bands:
Simply put, the seminal US Goth act.
Their original lineup recorded only one record—1982's Only Theatre of Pain, but it remains a fascinating collision of punk spunk with drug-addled mindbending visuals, confrontational imagery, diffuse Biblical allusions, and a scratchy, musty sound that reeks of an open sepulcher. Founder Rozz Williams then parted ways with the punkier elements of the band and joined up with Valor Kand, Gitane Demone, and David Glass for the most artistically successful period of the group's history, trading in an immense, almost neo-classical opaqueness that still owed much to glam and the visceral thrust of rock. After the rollicking Catastrophe Ballet and the more chamber-goth Ashes, the band once again fractured and Valor took the band towards a more conventional, rocky sound and relying on deliberately tasteless sleeve graphics and themes in proto-Marilyn Manson fashion.
Williams eventually challenged Valor for use of the name, and at one point they existed as two touring and recording entities. Rozz Williams’ tragic 1998 heroin-related suicide ended any disputes surrounding the name.
There's a legend buried somewhere in LA that Death Rock owes its genesis to the 1980 overdose of Germs lead singer Darby Crash—that the colors of mourning led to the scene's fascination with horror films, the occult, and general bargain-bin spookiness. Whether or not this is true, shortly after the Germs dissolved drummer Don Bolles recruited Rob Graves and vocalist Dinah Cancer to form .45 Grave, a decidedly darker affair. Initially rather abrasive and chugging, they soon blossomed into a tongue-in-cheek surf-glam-punk outfit, capable of vampy goofs like "Riboflavin," with its ode to "polyunsaturated blood," or a straight-faced cover of "School's Out." At their best when balancing silly and sombre, they were unfortunately short-lived, disbanding in 1985.
In order to exhibit the level of statistical research that you have come to expect from prestigious Stylus articles such as these, the following graphical presentation has been lovingly produced:
Combined with an influx of TR-808 Drum Machines washing up on the East Coast of England and smuggled by night into major urban areas, the inevitable was about to occur. Sadly, Geoff Boycott never recorded a single (though “Nine While Nine” may refer to one of his more epic stints at the crease). Many others did. These bands may have nurtured a certain sound, they may have dressed in a certain style, they may just have been unfortunate enough to be retrospectively lumped into a “Leeds scene” and felt bitter about it ever since; but they’re all under the same dreaded banner for one reason or another. Let’s meet them and learn of their frighteningly incestuous ways.
It's all a matter of technique. We have it, and you don't, so if you shut the fuck up, we'll play some songs and everyone'll be happy.
Ahh yes, pesky issues already abound. Described variously as “legendary techno rock gods,” “top intellectual thrash skiffle outfit,” and “a rock and roll band,” most men in the street would recall them as “those bloody Goths.” One must keep in mind that men in the street are generally not to be trusted with anything, least of all law and order legislation or shorthand descriptions of popular beat combos. So. The Sisters: Goth or not? The eternal debate.
Something of a paradox is tricky to avoid when considering this conundrum. Those early singles exhibit a variety of influences, perhaps most notably The Stooges and Suicide. They also, in varying degrees and production-permitting, tend to exhibit a desire to make a lot of noise and encourage impressionable youngsters to dance their tits off. Nothing particularly damning about any of that. And yet, taken as a body of work they encompass a sound which is now unavoidably associated with the genre-that-dare-not-speak-its-name; Craig Adams’ bass assault and the multi-talented rhythmic thumping of Doktor Avalanche being particularly prominent. Twinned with Mr. Eldritch’s “send help Lassie, I’m trapped down here” vocals, which would launch scores of unwanted, inferior darkling imitators in swirly capes, the group’s historical fate was largely sealed. Unfair, perhaps, to impose the sins of inept clones upon the original, but such things must be taken into account. Anyway, here’s a visual aid from the dying embers of the early Sisters incarnation—judge for your good selves:
Nice hat, I’m sure you’ll agree.
A far more interesting question is surely this; the Sisters: serious or not? Great swathes of their work are wrapped in so many conflicting levels of irony and subterfuge, it can be difficult to know where to look. In certain lights the 1990 Vision Thing album could be considered a devious subversion of preening cock-rock aesthetics bolted on to some serious savaging of the American invasion of Nicaragua, CIA-sponsored drug-running, and other such political intricacies. In other hues, any supposed pastiche is obscured and the whole record comes across as merely rather ... limp. Any and all interpretations are presumably acceptable.
It’s easy, as a fan, to get sucked into the dense layers of literary allusions—from Shelley to Shakespeare to Eliot and back again—to ponder upon the meaning of the Francis Bacon imagery on 12” record covers and to soak up every nugget of knowledge from the fearsomely clever (and now defunct) magazine-of-the-series Underneath the Rock. Perhaps this is all simply part of the joke too. The group are not lacking in an acquired form of humour—those who have ever been in proximity of the debut single “The Damage Done” can attest to that. Going on strike for seven years before (allegedly) pulling off a handy, contract-ending album scam under the name “Screw Shareholder Value—not so much a band as another opportunity to waste money on drugs and ammunition, courtesy of the idiots at Time Warner” cannot realistically be viewed as anything less than hilarious. Likewise, the active pursuit of making it extraordinarily difficult for admirers to buy any merchandise from their own “Reptile House” line triggers a certain perverted chuckle or two.
Whether the redoubtable Andrew Eldritch wishes to deny it or not, the Sisters left a loud and deeply groovy gash in the writhing body of Goth rock; not least because they spawned and inspired a whole host of other entertaining ensembles. However, to accept the band as part of a lifestyle choice is to miss the point entirely. To view them as an intellectual exercise may also be a mistake, though it can be a fun lark. Accepting them as a rock and roll band might just do the trick.
Accepting them as a great rock and roll band is even better.
I still believe in god ... but god no longer believes in me.
Thus begins our first clumsy shimmy up an extremely tangled family tree. Wayne “Wayne” Hussey dallied around with the Sisters for a couple of years and splashed his distinctive 12-string guitar sound all over First and Last and Always, before fleeing as a refugee with Craig Adams’ bass in tow. Fancying a “proper” drummer, Mike Brown (of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, more about them later) was also roped in. Simon Hinkler took up the extra guitar duties. As is the way of these things, this line-up would gradually change beyond all recognition. But that’s not particularly important right now.
The important thing is that Craig and Wayne (not the gothiest of gothic names ever to emerge from Leeds, it must be said) had scarpered with a bundle of Sisters songs still in their heads and were clearly intent on using them. Evidently not best pleased by this, or by their desire to use the name “The Sisterhood,” that man Eldritch chucked out a couple of wacky numbers full of lengthy descriptions of aircraft design specifications under the name ... The Sisterhood. Oh, what a wizard jape! The unreleased songs, however, remained in the hands of the newly christened Mission.
Subsequently, “Dance on Glass” and “Garden of Delight” popped up on Gods Own Medicine, a record characterized by frowning comparisons to Led Zeppelin and a preponderance of mystical-hippy nonsense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It quickly became clear that the Mission’s lyrics would not necessarily hit the cerebral heights (random sample: “Stay with me / Lay with me / Take me deep inside”). Still, it also quickly became obvious that the band were largely in this game to have a party and live the dreams of stardom (i.e. get pissed). Not for them the poker-faced intrigue of the Sisters. And they still had that 12-string guitar sound, which really was lovely.
Amidst these shimmering trills, Celtic symbols and long hair, the Hussey love train would record a couple of immense (and slightly silly) anthemic hits—namely “Tower of Strength” and “Deliverance”—forever marking their place in the newly fashioned Hippy-Goth-Zeppelin genre. Or Led Goppy, if you prefer. Though they would still be classed alongside the Sisters, this comparison rapidly lost all meaning. If the Sisters were rational scientific analysis, the Mission were alternative medicine. Where the Sisters were calling to mind vast industrial workshops of coal and steel, the Mission retired to forests and made daisy chains. The largely monochrome tones of the “This Corrosion” video came up against the technicolor acid trip of “Tower of Strength.”
Life after the Sisters was not just possible, it could be paved with considerable chart success. The Mission would not be the last splinter group to try their luck.
The flowers in your kitchen / They weeeeeeep for you
But first a band who seemed to take this whole goth thing very, very seriously indeed. Bookending tracks with Aleister Crowley clips (Prince of triangular hats ... and evil) is nothing if not a statement of the upmost solemnity. Likewise, naming yourself after the supernatural spawn of some kinky human-on-angel biblical action suggests a rather high opinion of your own talents. Most telling though, was lead vocalist Carl McCoy’s adoption of a sort of unearthly demonic growl, making Andrew Eldritch seem quite fluffy by comparison. It is now accepted fact that the spookiness of a singer can be directly ascertained by the part of the throat he or she sings from—hence Black Metal. This is all Carl’s fault.
The Neph’s special gimmick (aside from the aforementioned seriousness) was ... well, it was dressing up as cowboys. So, just to clarify, their schtick was BEING VERY SERIOUS GOTHS and DRESSING UP AS COWBOYS. Others had flirted with this look (not least Eldritch and Hussey), but the town was only big enough for true banditos. Or, more likely, the Fields had exhausted the costume shop before anyone else could get there.
It takes a special kind of dedication to be able to convincingly get away with that, but these chaps just about managed it. So earnestly did they believe in their image that packets of flour were vigorously employed before gigs in order to give those long leather coats an authentic “dusty” appearance. Serious dedication, you see. Stetson hats off to them.
For a while, the dress-up-box aesthetics made a weird sort of sense. The band had developed an Ennio Morricone-inspired feel to their guitar lines (perhaps most obvious on the track “Preacher Man”) and appeared to be flirting with the idea of providing the soundtrack to an as yet unwritten Vampire Western. Alas, this approach seemed to gradually fade with each successive album and later works were characterised by heretical majicks rather than harassed marshals. By the time Elizium came around, the group had practically lain down their six-shooters and were instead structuring multi-part epics with traditional gothic elements galore.
It’s easy (really easy, believe me) to mock the Nephilim, yet whether we conclude that their look was utterly bonkers or secretly admit that in the right circumstances they appear to be kind of badass, they, of all the groups, embraced the darkness most convincingly. While others distanced themselves from becoming Grand Viziers of Satanology (or were never interested in the first place), McCoy lit up the black candles, covered his lyrics with occult references and genuinely tried to be very spooky indeed. And lo, it came to pass that when the moon is full and the barrow wights clamber from their earthy tombs in search of fresh souls, Fields of the Nephilim records can almost sound convincingly scary. For a bit. Until you find the light switch. It's all very well poring over magic sigils and prophecies, but at the heart of the matter we're still dealing with a man who put flour over himself for atmospheric effect.
That was a terrible sub-heading, for which I apologize profusely.
*Ahem*, so, those are our top three Leeds candidates. Deemed thus due to highly subjective values such as longevity, influence, and sales; but mostly by how likely they are to show up on the shelf alongside that half-arsed DVD release of Blade Runner and a moth-eaten Lovecraft novel. Consider them to be teams in the upper strata of the FA Premier League (albeit less diabolically evil). If you don’t know what that means, do some research and then consider them to be teams in the upper strata of the FA Premier League (albeit less diabolically evil). Much like football sides, the bands would merrily transfer players amongst one another (as we’ve already seen) and, again like the beloved ball game, the “smaller” sides could be relied upon to produce a sublime performance every once in a while.
Before Hussey and Adams gambled gaily off to pastures new there was another Sisters escapee (more history, I hope you’re taking notes). Gary Marx and Eldritch had originally formed the band with the shared objective of hearing a single of their own making on the radio. In the most literal of senses, this project was a success. In a creative sense “The Damage Done” was less than impressive, though it does serve as a curiosity piece. Marx is also responsible for those wonderful guitar-type sounds across the early Sisters singles and the words to at least one track (“Poison Door”). He left prior to an era-closing Royal Albert Hall gig (captured on the no longer available Wake video), possibly due to some kind of health complications related to standing in copious amounts of dry ice.
As luck would have it, Anne Marie Hurst was leaving Skeletal Family around the same time. With the traditional oddly-named drum machine (“Pandora”) secured, Ghost Dance were off and running. Well, actually it was more of a jog. Interrupted by frequent cigarette breaks. After a string of fairly interesting singles which wedded Hurst’s siren-like vocal talents to that by-now-familiar thump and grind, they released the lackluster Stop the World album. Tainted by in-fighting and record company pressure to produce a “commercial” sound, the final release found few fans and the Ghosties fizzled out. A shame, as early 12” releases like “River of No Return,” although derivative, had shown a certain degree of promise in perpetuating a Leeds-based gothic “sound.” That particular vinyl sleeve, depicting a wispy maiden slumped in a boat and probably slowly wasting away—most likely something awfully romantic like a broken heart or loneliness or typhoid—would be sadly missed.
Skeletal Family themselves were actually not from Leeds at all, but Keighley was a close enough location for them to spread their influence into the fellow West Yorkshire set. Exciting pronunciation fact #32: Keighley is pronounced “Keith-ley”—what a wonderfully obtuse language English can be. The Skeletals, however, were definitely pronounced “Goth.” Borrowing (let’s be generous) a thick, tribal drumming sound from the Southern Death Cult, overlaying some interesting twiddly keyboard effects and allowing Anne Marie to sing in whatever pitch she happened to feel like, was a winning formula. Indeed, Hurst was at her most expressive with this band, given free reign to wail, gasp, cry, utter piercing screams, and generally play a slightly unhinged character. Without her peculiar vocal style (lost when she departed to team up with Gary Marx) the band struggled, before eventually beginning a lengthy period of hibernation that would not end until 2002.
Back in the land of the programmed box-o-beats were an energetic little mob who, for a time, appeared on the Sisters’ own Merciful Release label. One could suggest that the defining feature of The March Violets was their exciting male-female vocal interplay, or maybe Simon Denbigh’s beard; perhaps even the sheer number of flower-based puns they attracted. All reasonable suggestions. All incorrect. The defining Violets feature was that they were very, very strange indeed. Fantastically so. Playful insanity shines gloriously forth from their work, from the chipmunks-on-amphetamines sound of “Bon Bon Babies” (repeat title in funny voice to fade), to the twisted genetic nightmare of “Crow Baby” (weird babies were clearly a favorite theme). The tracks attack at breakneck speed, frothing at the mouth and scrabbling at the door, a tightly coiled fusion of seemingly disconnected lyrics and unkempt emotion. Until the lure of success gradually turned them into shrinking Violets (oh come on, I’m allowed one), and halted their march (ok, two), this lot were a blooming great main-stamen (yeesh) of the M62 collective. Simon D. can now be spotted tending to Doktor Avalanche’s every whim whenever the Andrew Eldritch Mercenary Squad venture out on tour.
In contrast, the tongue-twistingly taut Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (rejected names: Fuzzy Duck, She Sells Sea Shells) cut rather more somber figures. Whilst still employing similarly dense structural rhythms to the Violets, the Lorries distributed them in slightly less eccentric ways; preferring to twist the knife in a coolly detached fashion, as opposed to flipping out and kicking your face off while laughing. Theirs was a more cynical, sardonic world. Dogged by slightly baffling comparisons to Joy Division and considered part of the gothic set thanks to the gruff-voiced Chris Reed and his love for the more disenchanting aspects of life, the Lorries pounded out four albums—including the Old West tinged “Paint Your Wagon.” Quite why this theme was so ubiquitous is something of a mystery. Was Ian Astbury continually badgering everyone about it when they happened to meet up for drinks? Maybe this was the surreal payment he would demand in return for studio time and loaned equipment? Whatever. The infatuation mercifully passed, as Reed and chums expanded their range—even trying their hand at a few wonky ballads on the final album, “Blow.” Despite a considerable number of tunes that could be held responsible for mid-80’s earthquakes in far-off regions, the band remain shamefully overlooked. They should not be. Go forth and investigate.
There were others in this sweeping narrative. Salvation were notable for working with both Eldritch and Hussey, who produced their first and second singles respectively. After showing early promise, during which time they perhaps tried to seek a happy medium between the teachings of their two early mentors, the group gradually drifted into softer areas and turned into a hybrid Mission-lite. Trevor Tanner’s Bolshoi were also conceived in West Yorkshire, orchestrating an EP named Giants (featuring the more-than-a-little-psychopathic “Happy Boy” single), before taking their Bauhaus-scented melodrama down to London. Once there, they were mistaken for a mining community by Margaret Thatcher and subsequently closed.
As the decade crashed into the 1990’s, the majority of our second-tier groups had disbanded or launched into a massively extended hiatus. Our big three were still releasing albums, but would soon begin to dramatically dip off the radar. Both the Mission and the Neph updated their discographies in recent times, though the bulk of sales must surely now come from a dedicated fanbase rather than a velvet-obsessed nation. Meanwhile, rumors of a new Sisters album have long-since gained running joke status amongst their stalwart following, with the semi-regular appearance of new material in largely European setlists serving only to further fuel this frustration.
Since our journey has largely been tied to the 1980's, let's wrap this up in a style beloved of the time by pondering the innate moral message of what we've just witnessed. Followed by a non-sequitur which we can laugh at vacantly for ten minutes. Alas, though the Goth sound can teach us precious little about sharing and next to nothing about road safety, it may offer a fleeting window on the art of being misunderstood. There is a certain degree of irony in the stereotypically disenfranchised teen as the key audience for bands who, themselves, were often desperately seeking to prove that they had been miscast and improperly portrayed.
It doesn't take much digging to reveal that, far from being downcast dungeonmasters of doom, the majority of these groups were messing around with ideas and generally having a thoroughly enjoyable time doing so. By now we've seen plenty of examples of frolicking and arty costume drama, inventive use of language and, yes, lots of Native American references. A great deal of this was plainly quite silly—but the perpetrators are nearly always in on the joke. Not only that, but their knowing self-referentiality took on a whole swathe of differing forms. The Sisters kept a tongue in a straight-faced cheek (ever-fearful that the wind might change), Dave Vanian was just playfully bizarre. Both funny when accepted on their own terms. That all this could be found beneath the dark garb and aviator shades was the most uproarious joke of all.
This is hardly revisionist history; fans have been aware for years that the dry ice and lace have disguised and misdirected the truth about this most introspective of genres. Those who would be best advised to simply look a little closer can currently be found with guitars in hand, trying to wring that perfect Doktor Avalanche sound from their drum machine because it's, you know, so dark and all that. No doubt those who were truly inspired by Bauhaus, the March Violets, and the rest will (and perhaps have) emerged. However, they will not rise from the ranks of the pale facsimiles, sucking the anaemic corpse of Goth with their artificially sharpened fangs; unwilling, or unable, to see the ferocious smile on its face.
"Scenes" and musical styles are frustrating things at best. They flounder in obscurity, flare brightly onto the main stage, then waddle off into self-cannibalizing mediocrity and redundant copycatism. Goth is no different a beast than any other. For instance, take three of our blowzy bigwigs—say, Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend, and the Sisters. Viewed from an objective distance, there's virtually nothing they have in common apart from a touch of darkness and a talent for drama. But once inside the unwelcoming embrace of Goth, it's all too easy to combine one from column A and one from column B to create a derivative act that appeals to those too caught up in the shadows and makeup to notice the startling lack of a generative spark.
The early 90's saw the few, the proud, the Goths-who-were-there reach a creative endpoint. Sisters weren't doing it for themselves, so a league of less-than-gentlemen attempt to fill the void—at first the imitative stance was painfully obvious, bands like Rosetta Stone copying the moves, the sounds, and the typography but lacking the, for want of a better word, soul of their forbears. The imagery was still in use, but the inspiration had decayed. Cue reissues, compilations, and labels like Dressed to Kill and Cleopatra, pumping out specious product to feed the hungry maw of an audience enthralled by a style that was as out-of-fashion as it had been ten years prior. It's not difficult, especially in America, to see the resurgence of Goth as a rebellious counterpoint to the odious non-fashion of grunge and indie. Hey, it's cool. I liked Sonic Youth a lot. I just liked William Blake and crushed velvet a whole lot more.
In Europe, it was another story. The mid-90's saw Goth-friendly festivals in Germany attended by tens of thousands. More significantly, it witnessed the emergence of groups that appealed to a Goth audience without delving into cliche. In France, Corpus Delicti almost single-handedly made believers who had strayed from the path clutch Crowley-to-chest and dream of a resurgence of the big G (ok, it was just me). The arrival of darkwave in the form of US heroes like Switchblade Symphony and Malign and atmospheric European synthpoppers such as Deine Lakaien, Wolfsheim, Girls Under Glass, and Das Ich provided a new, sadly false idol. While freshening-up cobwebby club playlists and suggestively hinting at a burgeoning romance with Industrial, the other genre that dare-not-speak-its-name, the relationship would ultimately prove as short-lived as any given lineup of the Sisters of Mercy.
And so, it would seem, our story ends on a sad note. Sniff.
Or does it?
What really, in the end, was Goth? A set of rules inked in the blood of virgins (a Goth virgin? Never!) on moldy parchment and bound in black leather? A pithy bumper sticker about your other car being a broom? Sitting about in darkened rooms, pretending to be 400-year old vampires who still happen to live with their Moms?
Well, it’s none of these things, of course. Goth is a quite sensible reaction to a world so far stuck up its own snarky, self-referential ass that it has completely missed out on the humor, horror, and sensuality of human existence. It is the acknowledgment of poetry played out as life, of a life played out as poetry. Goth is beauty, darkness, rebirth, decay, and piling on eyeliner to the tune of heavy bass, droned-out guitars and pounding drums, acknowledging that the world is a cold, bitter, empty place in which "life is short and love is always over in the morning." Goth is also the reaction to this environment—to live life to the quick, bite down hard (fangs optional) on the gristle and rise up with a smirk and saunter off into the night, blissfully aware of the virtues of both shadow and light. Preferably with a long black cape that shimmers to great effect as the normals gape whilst you sashay past.
[A Guide to Collecting Cobwebs and Gathering Dust]
Siouxsie & the Banshees - Juju (1981)
Following three records arguably confused by keyboards, Sioux & Co. strip the sound down, sharpening guitars and compelling Budgie to unleash the spooky drums. He obliges, providing his Chanteuse D'Morte with a rumbling foundation Siouxsie happily shreds with fanged vocals. Declarations soar off Siouxsie's tongue, a black body bag whipped by hurricane winds: "Following the footsteps of a rag doll dance / We are entranced / Spellbound." Where prior efforts were sonic bait and switch, Juju ratchets the tension song for song, with Siouxsie straddling each piece, a black-leather clad Tiresias sick on foresight and content with wanton destruction. "Fuck the mothers, kill the others; fuck the others, kill the mothers," she chants in "Night Shift," her enunciation a processed act, where each syllable is licked into form, the fricatives sizzling out like cigarette cherries on slick, warm flesh. "Head Cut" takes the basics of similar phrases and reworks them in disturbing ways: "A beautiful mask in plaster cast" is commented on immediately: "Such a beautiful mask in plaster cast." The admiration is fetishistic bordering the unspeakable. The art gallery quickly becomes a crime scene: "Oh severed head / I'll feed your head with bread / And paint your lips bright red / I'll keep it fresh on ice / It will look very nice." To hear Siouxsie tell these tales is akin to an arachnid describing how a cockroach's innards taste as she slurps from the brown carapace cocooned in spider silk. A classic.
Siouxsie & the Banshees - Nocturne (1983)
Goth supergroup time! Forget Hyaena, this is the disc you need to truly experience the Siouxsie-Budgie-Severin trinity in union with Robert Smith. A raw and raucous selection of tracks compiled from a stint of post-Juju gigs at the Royal Albert Hall, Nocturne nonetheless manages to flow seamlessly into a single flamboyant eruption of glam-goth goodness. The hits (“Spellbound,” “Dear Prudence,” “Happy House”) slide cozily up alongside choice album cuts (“Night Shift,” “Switch”) and whisper sweet nothings in their ears, while a b-side (“Eve White/Eve Black”) slips furtively into the set list. An extended and inevitably manic “Voodoo Dolly” ensures that everyone leaves with goose bumps and a quiet sense of unease. The DVD version is also worth checking out—although missing a handful of songs, it does contain the fantastically surreal Play at Home documentary, originally broadcast on Channel 4, in which our heroes enact Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in their own unique style.
Siouxsie & the Banshees - Peepshow (1988)
I'm gonna come clean here. This is the first Siouxsie record I ever bought (on cassette no less!) and it's never left my heart. I'm well aware of the critical scorn heaped upon it, but as a youngin' this record was a powerful tonic for my imagination. No doubt that's colored my opinion, but in my mind it remains the most pungent late-era Siouxsie record. Of course "Peek-a-Boo" is always touted as the one fine moment, but to me Peepshow really succeeds when it paints with glowing colors the luscious, crushed-velvet sumptuousness of Siouxsie's fantasyscape. Joy Press once derided late Siouxsie for what she called her "new image... the Hollywood temptress a la Rita Hayworth," but Peepshow is a record without grounding in any kind of stock imagery. The twisted orchestral fairy tales of "Scarecrow" and "Rawhead and Bloodybones" are Siouxsie completely lost in the ether. This is a set of unsettling lullabies and sensual dream-poems that keep it magnificently, majestically unreal. For sheer beauty and bravery, few records have the power to fire the imagination like this one. Does it all come across a bit too Dungeons & Dragons at times? Of course—but as we're besieged by crack rocks and wars in Iraq, sometimes we need “grotesque dwarves in mirrored rooms,” salamander kings, and "Ornaments of Gold" to remind us that this world is a strange and marvelous place as well.
Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)
If Closer is the avowed (inhales, shudders) masterpiece, then Unknown Pleasures is the document—the cigarette burning down until it scorches your fingertips, the dirty ticket stub that tells you, I was there. You people can have Closer, with its monolithic doom and cathedral swoon. I'd rather remember Joy Division as a bunch of fresh-faced kids, more depressing than taking downers with Dorothy Dandridge to be sure, but still so punk they don't even realize how much of a bummer they'd brought to the party. Unknown Pleasures is industrial grit, sediment wedged under the toenails, the sound of trying to succeed and failing rather than trying to fail and succeeding. It’s scabs n' warts n' all, the sound of a bloody mess made audible, the breath and sigh of messy, mechanistic Manchester coming to terms with its own bloody brutality. Have I spent this blurb declaiming this record to be everything its partner is not? Yes, I have. With as much ink spilt on this band as there has been, sometimes the only recourse is to take sides and name names. So be it. I'll take my icy perfection from Joy Division in the form of their singles, and posit this as their diamond in the rough.
Joy Division - Closer (1980)
The appropriately titled death knell. At once sealing the sepulcher and looking forward to the undead's aimless and staggered gait, Closer embodies several physical and emotional states: anxious but staid, tangled with dried flowers, heavy with worm riddled earth, moving without deliberation, at rest and free of will's heavy yoke. Where Unknown Pleasures acted as aural quicksand, Closer is an unruly automaton, a freak of science rumbling about a cluttered laboratory. Lyrics work in weighty counterpoint to instrumental progress. "Isolation" brings the maternal dread, bedpans of stagnant rosewater; sweat stained sheets, black-painted windowpanes. "Mother, I tried, please believe me / I'm doing the best that I can / I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through / I'm ashamed of the person I am," is a potent dose of room-cornered angst, where head clawing, insect ingesting, self-loathing whines a spittle drone through a pitched dry mouth serving a blood riddled home to rotting teeth. "Heart and Soul" brings the tangible and intangible to the table, pinning blood pumping muscle to the autopsy table and waxing philosophical on soul as immeasurable animating force. Curtis would take his own life months before Closer's release, fulfilling the somber tone communicated by the LP's cover.
Joy Division – Substance 1977-1980 (1988)
Joy Division is one of those rare bands where you really do need all the albums and a compilation. The overlap with the “proper” records is minimal—only “She's Lost Control" appears twice (and it's a different version at that). More importantly, Substance is the easiest way to get the slow motion frenzy of “Autosuggestion” and the none-more-(proto)goth “Atmosphere,” wherein a half-drowned Ian Curtis chokes out lines like “Don't walk away / In silence” and “Your confusion / My illusion” and makes them both compelling (tougher even than it looks)—the blueprint a thousand boys with black nail polish would follow. And although Curtis could have sold his serious existential dread to the listener even without hanging himself, this collection is slightly more “up” than the albums mainly by dint of including what we might bitterly call the “hits”: “She's Lost Control,” “Transmission,” the punkily direct “Warsaw,” and of course “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” That last song alone makes this a crucial purchase for, well, anyone, but thankfully even the more obscure tracks in the “appendix” maintain a shockingly high level of quality.
The Cure - Seventeen Seconds (1980)
The first in their trilogy of enclosed, extended mood piece albums, Seventeen Seconds keeps the minimal playing of their debut but shuttles it down dark, muted alleyways and tree-shrouded country lanes. Neither as somber as Faith nor as tormented as Pornography, it's a more reflective, approachable shade of grey. Emerging from the mist are some of the early period's most bracing pop moments—the swishily-sad synthpop shimmer of "Play for Today," the tender-yet-strained love-slipping-away ballad "M," and of course the monster "A Forest," the record that cemented the Cure as masters of suggestive, lingering half-light imagery in the context of easily-digestible pop. Even the less buoyant, eventful moments on Seventeen Seconds aren't without their hooks—the stutter-step prettiness of "Secrets," the swathes of acoustic guitar on the title track, the doomy minor tones of "Three," all bathed in the simple, clean lines of six-string and keyboard throughout. For my money the most consistently listenable and loveable of the early 80's triptych, evoking a singular mood that would never be recaptured, by the Cure or anyone else.
The Cure - Faith (1981)
Having blitzed through his Albert Camus collection, Robert Smith reached “K” on the big philosophy bookshelf and threw some additional Kafka and Kierkegaard into the songwriting mix. The result is an overarching theme of belief and identity, largely propelled by down-tempo numbers that crawl and sweep with the languid attitude of an enveloping fog. That the band are now reduced to a trio only serves to enhance the sparse feeling, first explored on Seventeen Seconds, and here interrupted by echoed voices and washes of keyboard—thankfully kept from wandering too aimlessly by Simon Gallup’s focused basslines. It is perhaps no coincidence that “Doubt,” in diametric opposition to the concept of “Faith,” is one of only two tracks on the album (the other being the comparatively sprightly single, “Primary”) to adopt a more aggressive, forceful sound. Literature is plundered again for “The Drowning Man,” based on a scene from Mervyn Peake’s dense Gormenghast trilogy in which Fuschia Groan, the archetypal gothic princess, falls accidentally to her watery death. This cheery tale provides a suitable frame of mind for listening to the closing title track, an undeniable Cure classic that encapsulates the main album motif in six minutes of existential trauma. Just the thing for sensitive, would-be intellectuals. As part of the recent Cure reissue campaign, Faith is available in remastered form—track down the double-disc version which features the lengthy “Carnage Visors” and a host of other demos and goodies.
The Cure - Pornography (1982)
If Faith was the sound of The Cure searching for meaning, Pornography is a rather public rejection of anything they may have found. The toys are thrown out of the pram, stamped on, set on fire, chewed, crushed, and placed back inside the pram which is then pushed off a cliff. Into oblivion. Pornography is angry and futile, presenting a vision of life where there is no hope of change or progression, only despair and destruction. “It doesn’t matter if we all die,” states the oft-quoted opening line of “One Hundred Years,” as if it were objective fact. Smith was trying to go out with a bang; something that would either kill him or convince him that the way forward was jazzy songs about cats. If Lol Tolhurst had anything whatsoever to do with the (at least partly programmed) drums on this record, any of the later criticism directed towards him should be rendered null and void—they are huge, bordering on swallowing up the instrumentation at times, but their thunderous presence is album-defining. Ragged, raw guitaring conducts a running battle for supremacy with Gallup’s moody bass as squalid despondency is positively wallowed in. Oddly, the rare moments of beauty occur mostly during “A Strange Day,” a song about the sudden end of the world. Elsewhere, sex is written off as awkward and disgusting (“Siamese Twins”), and images of dead animals abound (“A Short Term Effect,” “The Hanging Garden”). Amidst the confused fury of the record’s closing moments, there is a plaintive cry for redemption; “I must fight this sickness / Find a cure.” In both senses Smith would indeed find a cure, with a complete reinvention of the band as an infectious pop outfit—but not before the project almost destroyed him.
The Cure - Disintegration (1989)
The one Cure album that everyone can seem to agree on—including non-Cure fans—and for good reason. Disintegration is the apex of everything the Cure had attempted up until that point—the despair and grandeur of Pornography filtered through the songcraft of Head on the Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me—and naturally, it was the Cure's biggest success, reaching greater audiences than any "goth" band had before and briefly making them one of the biggest bands in the world. Singles "Fascination Street," "Lullaby," "Pictures of You," and of course "Lovesong" were deservedly huge hits, but the album's heart lies in the wind chimes and whooshing keyboards of opener "Plainsong" and in the shattered glass and tragedy-stricken piano of the album's title track. Two true epics that sum up the album's feelings of unbearable isolation and soul-defeating misery without ever feeling dull or (too) self-pitying. Not just an essential goth album, but one of the landmark rock recordings of the late 80s.
Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead 12"/CD-5 (1979)
The shot heard round the world? Well, not quite. It does encapsulate a moment, though—depicted wonderfully in Mick Mercer's Gothic Rock book as the boys from UK Decay drive home after a gig and listen to the track in their car, all kinds of agape. The band themselves would never live this one down, though—audiences far and wide still missing the farcical nature of the beast. Sure, it cloaks itself in a fog of dry ice and sweeping arm motions, but it's essentially an extended dumb joke played out over a heavy-ass landscape of atmospherics and dub-fixated noodlings. Forget about Crackle, search out the Small Wonder CD-single (one of the biggest selling of all time) or the 12" and hear it along with flipside "Boys," a skeletal glam nugget about cross-dressing that's the total inversion of "Bela." And don't blame Bauhaus—I doubt they meant to kickstart a genre. They certainly couldn't have intended to foist upon us the ridiculous likes of Nosferatu and London After Midnight.
Bauhaus – In the Flat Field (1980)
The Goth founding fathers’ debut album is quite virgin. They were still figuring out their sound before they heard the G-word. But the hallmarks of classic Goth are here: trebly guitar melodies that hide underneath bedsheets to moan and curse at the heavens, droning basslines that crawl out of gutters to rob the mortals, pagan tom-tom rhythms, and Count Peter Murphy’s raspy, blue-blooded vocals that sound romantically deprived of sleep and sunlight. They also connect the bloodlines between glam and Goth in their faithful cover of T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam.” Elsewhere, the band freezes blood in grinding, danse macabre dirges like “Double Dare” and the title track. Their sense of camp also baffles: Murphy gives a toast to “Scopes” of all shapes and sizes (microscopes, telescopes, etc.), while he invites one and all to groove with a bloke wearing a flashing belt on the disco floor in “St. Vitus Dance.” The best moment lies in the title track where even fornication dissatisfies our poor Count. “Between spunk-stained sheet / And odorous whim…Assist me to walk away in sin,” he yelps while Daniel Ash’s guitar weeps. Murphy then growls, “I do get BOR-ed, get BOR-ed / In the Flaa-it field!” Bring him home to mom and dad.
Bauhaus – Mask (1981)
Never mind those plastic fangs and ketchup in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the ultimate Bauhaus song is “Of Lilies and Remains.” The band locks into a rickety, but hypnotic agitfunk groove while Peter Murphy pours cheap wine over the ashes of departed classmates, including one miserable sod who died spatting out ectoplasmic goop. Murphy finally climbs a wall “in remembrance of Clancy” before tumbling to his demise. He then floats to the clouds wearing a plastic halo and paper wings, singing “Of lilies and ra-main-yeh-yea-ya-ans!” Bauhaus knew they were art-school wonks full of pretension and bad poetry, but they still had fun. Bauhaus is at their darkest, though, in the fog-shrouded, starless gloom of “Hollow Hills,” while they crawl in pockmarked with Red Death into the aristocrats’ masquerade ball in the title track. “The Passion of Lovers” is imbued with the often heavy-handed romanticism that later characterized much of Goth culture. However, the album’s most striking moments are the band’s strong grasp of funk and dub reggae. They infused an eerie psychedelic tint to such sounds in “Ear Wax,” “Kick in the Eyes,” and the intoxicating “In Fear of Dub.” Mask brilliantly closes to the ramshackle, drum-circle beat of “Satori” where the band frolics and tosses petals before a coffin on its way to the graveyard. David J.’s haunting, dub bassline performs the last rites. I wish that the tomb belonged to Bauhaus. They could’ve been buried among kings.
Bauhaus - The Sky's Gone Out (1982)
The Sky's Gone Out is the record that divides the sympathetic from the devout, both inside the camp of Bauhaus fandom and without. It's hard for me to separate from my long-standing love affair with the band (first record of theirs I heard / bought), but I can willingly acknowledge it as their weakest long-player. It does contain some of their sharpest playing ("Silent Hedges," "In the Night," "Swing the Heartache"), but also exhibits their most moribund poetry ("Silent Hedges," "In the Night," "Swing the Heartache"). "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" is the most out-of-place song here—Bauhaus at their most unselfconsciously beautiful, a ballad of simple unadorned longing that indicates the direction they would shortly pursue. Meanwhile, Murphy's pretension reaches its snapping point with the cheek-slicing, fish-piss-drinking three-part oddity of "The Three Shadows." Sympathies are divided on "Spirit"—"we love our audience," but are they mocking it or simply accepting their role as Gothfathers? Peter was probably too coked-up to know the difference and the band seemed content to play their roles for the moment—the pictures adorning the sleeve show everyone in vacant, solipsistic content, with only Daniel Ash looking impatient, ready to bust out with a solo or a cock-wielding swagger—something, anything— but wait, Danny, your moment will come...
Bauhaus - Burning From the Inside (1983)
The first thing everyone wants you to know about Burning From the Inside is that it was recorded primarily without the old Murph—as he lay in hospital, the band soldiered on without him, laying down and in some cases finishing tracks before his recovery. The second thing everyone wants you to know is that it sounds like / sets the groundwork for the trio's later work as Love & Rockets. The latter simply isn't true—this record couldn't be less like Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven if it tried. What it does sound like is a Bauhaus with the music placed at a much higher priority than the vocals—the inverse of The Sky's Gone Out, with warm acoustic textures and delicate, refined playing brought to the fore on songs like "King Volcano," "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight," and "Hope." Sure, there are some stompers ("Antonin Artaud," the dynamite "Honeymoon Croon," and "She's in Parties"—their most overtly dub number since "Bela") but for the most part it's a more subdued affair than anything else in their catalog. It's the full-length I reach most for now, and it's also where I steer a Bauhaus newbie outside of the collections—the group at their most accessible, consistently tuneful, and objectively beautiful.
Peter Murphy - Deep (1990)
David Bowie begat several disparate strands of music which blossomed into subgenres once his followers appropriated them for their own ends. Goth was one: the sepulchral baritone of Diamond Dogs and the Berlin trilogy rumbled beneath the desiccated landscapes created by The Mission U.K., Fields of the Nephilim, Sisters of Mercy and, most famously, Bauhaus. Upon leaving Bauhaus, singer Peter Murphy, collaborating with Japan bassist Mick Karn and keyboardist Paul Statham, created two albums of languorous art-rock, in which he smothered pretty melodies under blankets of portent (ahem, “Socrates the Python”). 1990’s Deep was a remarkable advance: Murphy fronted the Hundred Men, a four-piece capable of playing his tricky chord changes. The album’s Top 50 chart placing suggested that there was an audience bewitched by songs in which Marlene Dietrich, deep oceans, vast seas, and crystal wrists were transformed, thanks to the Hundred Men and Murphy’s hollow-cheeked conviction, into epics undine and majestic. There never was and never will be a violin as dusky as the one hooking “Cuts You Up.” Murphy’s greatest hit held college radio hostage for the entire summer and seemed to presage a new goth, in degree if not in kind, while “A Strange Kind of Love” was a strange kind of love song, period. Murphy’s Method acting wasn’t enough to save a couple of tunes from bluster—if “The Line Between the Devil’s Teeth” is a Bauhaus homage, it’s really not worth all the fuss—but the thudding “Roll Call” somehow reassembles a Eric B & Rakim backbeat and Morrissey’s “Late Night, Maudlin Street” into an urban anthem as unhinged as “Final Solution” but one which wrung affirmation from despair. That Murphy never topped Deep shouldn’t be held against him. The half-life of Bowie clones rarely extended past one album.
Tones on Tail - Everything! (1998)
Traditionally seen merely as Daniel Ash's stopgap band between his days in legendary goth band Bauhaus and his days in atmospheric alt-rock (and surprise one-hit wonder) group Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail actually scraped heights equal to those of Ash's other two acts. Everything! is their essential compilation because it lives up to its title, containing roughly everything the group ever released. This includes their one full-length album, 1984's highly underrated Pop, on the compilation's first disc which alone would justify the group as more than a glorified side project, ranging from goth-type tracks like "Movement of Fear" and "Lions" to the near synth-pop "Performance" and "Lions" with equal aplomb. But it's disc two, which compiles the group's EPs, As, Bs and other miscellany, in which ToT's full potential is shown, in songs like the twisted funk workout "There's Only One," the chugging "OK This Is the Pops," the disquietingly beautiful "Twist" (as close to a goth / surf-rock hybrid as we're likely to see in this life) and of course, the band's true legacy, the underground club classic "Go!" Well worth searching out.
UK Decay - Rising from the Dread EP (1982)
Purportedly we'll soon see a CD compilation from these seminal proto-goths. In the absence of one I've simply chosen, well, the only release of theirs that I've been able to track down—this 1982 EP, which was to be their final studio recording. "Testament" bears a striking resemblance to something Bauhaus might have churned out, all thundering, echoing drums and brooding showmanship. 10-minute A-side "Werewolf" is another matter entirely—more prog than goth with its changing tempos, way scary two-minute sound-FX intro and supernatural subject matter—it recalls no one so much as an embryonic Fields of the Nephilim. Bombastic in a way that Bauhaus never really were and fairly atypical—"Jerusalem Over" and "Rising from the Dread" tread ground closer to UK Decay's punk roots, though all still draw on dramatic changeups and Abbo's vocal shrieks to stir up a sense of menace.
The Virgin Prunes - If I Die, I Die (1982)
Debatably the Prunes finest hour—it's certainly their most accessible for goth-friendly listeners, spawning two unlikely club hits—"Pagan Lovesong" and "Baby Turns Blue." The former built on a wall of aggressive, pounding percussion, the latter a synth-driven stomp, one of the few genuinely funky goth tunes. Much of the rest of If I Die, I Die strikes a balance between relentless experimentalism and murky atmospherics—the twin attack of vocalists Guggi and Gavin Friday providing the glue that holds the LP together. Other oddball highlights include "Ballad of the Man," a wonky 50's-esque ballad with Guggi sounding rather tipsy over some chimes and Casio keys, and "Walls of Jericho," a timeless sing-along suspended over campfire drums. The album sleeve illustrates the dichotomy of the band best—on the front they're disenchanted club kids, standing behind Gavin as he enacts some kind of pyrotechnic ritual, whilst on the back they're aborigines cavorting in the woods. Fair enough, then.
The Virgin Prunes - The Moon Looked Down and Laughed (1986)
Amping up the drama, pretentiousness, and theological content, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed could almost be a concept album, could almost be the story of a life, but it's such a diffuse affair that any attempt to link songs by thematic content is destined to end in frustration. Luckily, whether it's a song-cycle or not, the group have supplied some of their strongest, supplest melodies and richest textural backdrops. There are some discardable tracks, to be sure—"Uncle Arthur's Lonely World," "Deadly Sins," please stand up! But what's worth keeping is some of the Prunes' best work—brittle, propulsive numbers like "Love Lasts Forever" and "Sons Find Devils," string-led flashes of epic intent such as "Alone," and flesh-crawl synth anthems like the sublimely ridiculous "I Am God" (which, yes, actually lives up to its title). A strong, theatrical set well worth tracking down for those who find their appetites whetted by the debut.
Theatre of Hate - The Complete Singles Collection (1999)
I suppose a band like The Pack were common enough as the 70's became the 80's—straining at punk's rigidity, already veering in a decidedly more rhythmic and atmospheric direction. When that group dissolved and Kirk Brandon began Theatre of Hate, spaciousness and melodic economy were at an all-time high. What made them unique amongst their peers was Brandon's wavering, shrill vocals and judicious use of sax and other second-tier instruments to flesh out their sound. There aren't a lot of hooks to be found, but the band makes up for it with individualist energy and percussive intensity. And when they do cross over for the odd pop moment—proto-rock-n-roll flashback "The Hop," for instance, or the dub-mariachi-goth-spaghetti western sauce of "Do You Believe in the Westworld?"—it's as bracing as anything from the period. Their bashing-and-droning-out material contains sublime moments as well—the almost meditative groove of "Conquistador," the splintered punk panache of "Legion," the goofy Orientalism of "Eastworld." The Complete Singles Collection is one's ideal place to start, improving on other (and track-for-track nearly identical) collections such as the Dojo Best Of by adding seven songs by The Pack.
Southern Death Cult - "Fatman / Moya" 7" (1982)
What, really, does it all mean? The "Fatman" is apparently one bad dude. Your money is his life, and all that. But honestly, who the Hell cares when you've got this to dance to—a rockabilly song swathed in layers of crunchy 80's compression. "Moya" is even better, a study in sounding lovely whilst appearing to communicate something meaningful and deep—a lesson not lost on a certain group from Ireland who shall remain nameless. Southern Death Cult / Death Cult / the Cult were an unruly beast—they became world-beaters when Astbury started making sense. They were best when he communicated fuck-all but meant to. Get 'em both on the self-titled everything-and-then-some Beggar's Banquet comp, but don't expect any revelations from the rest of it.
Specimen - Batastrophe EP (1983)
If Bauhaus fashioned an unholy union of glam, punk, and dub into the goth seed starter packet, by the time the ball rolled around to Specimen goths were ready to have the glam extracted and force-fed back to them straight. Opener "The Beauty of Poisin" (sic) could be any one of a legion of sub-Gary Glitter 70's acts, but Specimen have the cojones to ask, "do you feel dark?" Indeed. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is the almost-hit here, all New Romantic posturing fed through drama-student moves and doomy keys. Their two most tongues-around-fangs moments (the slithering "Hex" and "Sharp Teeth, Pretty Teeth") are sadly not included here. Luckily, you can hear them on the excellent In Goth Daze compilation, which bears a host of overripe goth-pop fruit in the form of Zero Le Creche's unsung "Last Year's Wife" and ASF's odd ode to the cancer stick, "Can't Stop Smoking."
Alien Sex Fiend - The Legendary Batcave Tapes (1993)
Selling a band like Alien Sex Fiend to a non-believer is a daunting task at best. Trying to explain the appeal of The Legendary Batcave Tapes is like attempting to drink Lake Superior with a teaspoon. A febrile, disconnected maelstrom of transistor clutter, fucked-up percussion, instamatic horror-flick punk, tortured trebly-ass guitar and Nik's stream-of-semi-consciousness ranting, it's broken in parts by numbers like "Outta Control," a Cramps-on-crack monster mash that has Nik breathing hard into the mic, calling for his Mommy, and in general just being, like, totally outta control. Present too are the more lambent, almost krautrock-esque synth numbers like "I'm Her Frankenstein," hinting at future, more electronic endeavors. Somewhere along the line they must have "rehearsed" these "songs," as much as we all might like to believe that they all just ate acid and emerged from the crypt three hours later with a C90. But, nothing, nothing in this world can really prepare one for the thirteen-minute descent into the abyss that is "Drive My Rocket Up Uranus." Beginning with the classic line "would you spread marmalade" (Answer: "No!"), it's a groaning, bleating, sickly-twisted ride through the Fiend amusement park. Nik brings Mommy back up out of cold storage and has a four-minute talk with her about "the things that went on before," seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rest of the band has stopped playing.
Alien Sex Fiend - The Singles 1983 - 1995 (2002)
If ever a band made you want to drawl out, in yer best Bela imitation, "creatures of the night... shut up!" it'd be Alien Sex Fiend. It's also exactly why those with a sense of humor hid somewhere under their long, black capes have adored the band since day one. The Singles is an almost perfect best-of, featuring such fearsome robo-punk shards as "Ignore the Machine," "RIP Blue Crumb Truck," and their bone-boinging cover of Red Krayola's "Hurricane Fighter Plane." The Fiends actually hit their stride with the arrival of better synthesizers and beefier beats—"Dead and Buried," "EST," the Beavis and Butthead-approved "Zombified," and of course their magnum opus, "I Walk the Line," containing the immortal couplet "my business is a little cloak-and-dagger / I drink so much I don't walk, I merely stagger." All the ASF a sane person needs is here, those with the appropriate credentials are encouraged to venture onward—the sprawling Curse and live set Too Much Acid? both highly recommended for more kooky-ooky thrills.
Sex Gang Children - The Hungry Years (1991)
The hip get derided, time elapses and the derided get hip, but there ain't enough time in the universe for Sex Gang to ever become hip. Even in the goth universe, they were the band Least Likely To. Strangely so, even—apart from Andi's indecipherable vocals (somewhere to the left of Liz Fraser, and she actually was just singing random syllables). But musically they presented a charming alternative to the usual thudding and brooding—sparkly percussive, tautly-wired even as they drifted towards the rinky-dink, cutting a decidedly random jib in contrast to the cookie-cutter competition. Their Illuminated / Clay sides collected here are the epitome of spunk—the bottom-heavy "Maurita Mayer," cut-ups like "Dieche," string-swollen digs in the vein of "Sebastiane," all present and accounted for. Those who find their fuse lit by the odd joy exhibited by Andi & co would also do well to check out the LP Blind—oft-billed as a solo set, it's an even poppier ride "Into the Abyss."
Christian Death - Only Theatre of Pain (1982)
It's tempting to reconsider the particular quirks of Rozz Williams in the light of his suicide in 1998. But there's only so much forgiveness to spread around lines like "walking on water in a sea of incest" and "cabaret slideshow starts shooting their loads," and of course the infamous controversial opening of "Romeo's Distress," which I shall not deign to quote but which, when heard, is obviously meant to direct venom at the burner and not the owner of the lawn. It's immaterial in any event—the song is early Xtian Death's hour of glory, unforgettable bassline and dingy glampunk production, "conversations about the kingdom of fire," and an almost heroic Cure-by-way-of-L.A. melody. The rest of the record may not scale such heights, but it remains a startling debut—miles away from anything coming out of either continent. Overwrought, morbidly silly, ridiculous at times, but almost admirable in spite of—or perhaps because of—these qualities. The first shot fired by US Death Rock.
Christian Death - Catastrophe Ballet (1984)
If Only Theatre of Pain was the seminal "Death Rock" record, its successor, which began the short-lived partnership of Williams and Valor, can be seen as an early coinage of that shadowy currency, "Goth." Glammy touches dominate the sound, forcing out their earlier punkishness (the departure of guitarist Rik Agnew is key here), but there's a pall that hangs over the album—neo-classical conceits, doomy basslines, foreboding keys, elements that would later become Goth trademarks. The up-tempo, almost boisterous songs that make for the lions' share of the record are coated in a sheen of danger and sexual tension—an atmosphere that extends from the naked Gitane covered in flour on the cover to the themes of songs like "Electra Descending" and (wince) "Cervix Couch." Most significantly, the writing is keener than on the debut—songs like "Sleepwalk," "Evening Falls," and "The Glass House" sparing some of the punk brashness for sprightly melodicism.
Christian Death - Ashes (1985)
Reason #24831 why David Bowie is the godfather of Goth. Ashes was the final studio release in the Rozz Williams/Valor Kand era of Christian Death and perhaps the album that would most greatly define the band's legacy. The opening piano strains hint at the deranged tinklings of a mad genius, and while no one can accuse Rozz or anyone else in Christian Death of virtuosity, they set themselves up just fine as dark and dramatic antiheroes. Lyrically, the album continues a pungent, if over-dramatized, treatment of intimacy and death so poetically sharpened on Catastrophe Ballet, and Rozz's vocals have matured into a pure Bowie croon. By this time Rozz had moved far beyond the almost impotent lashings of Only Theatre of Pain to the seething and oceanic nihilism of Ashes, no better distilled than in the counterpoint Phrygian jams "When I Was Bed" and "Face," the brooding, narcissistic ying and the corrosive, deleterious yang. There's less song here than ever before, with lengthy instrumental sections taking up a good part of "'Ashes'" and "'Ashes' Part 2," and the horror-house spoken word "Of the Wound" closing. The 2003 re-issue contains bonus live performances of "Cavity — First Communion" and "Mysterium Iniquitatis" from Only Theatre of Pain and illustrates the transformation Rozz has undergone from cheap thrill-maker to bona-fide scary guy. Ashes marks the close of a period when Kand and Rozz were, if only for a short time, able to gain total control of their idiom and tease out something really deep and affecting. Remind you of anyone?
Gun Club - The Fire of Love (1981)
California voodoo, Mississippi Blues mythos, trunks of junk, and needles aplenty pock this recording; a sort of secular guidebook for spiritualized degenerates, The Fire of Love was a paean to mid-Summer sport-fucking, the kind of sweat-soaked Tequila ball that rumbled bed springs and woke the dead. Helmed by manic sot Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Gun Club shot straight and without prejudice, ventilating the sort of hell hammered ur-Blues given heavy hex by six-string changelings Charley Patton and Furry Lewis. Songs as bloated bodies in pool bottoms, bloodstained sheets, viscera unwillingly held on public restroom floors, Jeffrey Lee Pierce screams, shrieks, and cries to no one so much as his self, a babbling street urchin who somehow managed to make it to an unlit lounge room stage. Filled to the rim with a number of choice cuts, "She's Like Heroin to Me," says the most about the band in the least amount of time. In under three minutes, Pierce holds up in a roach motel room, questions God, shoots his veins black and blue, and serenades his sweetheart, shaky-voiced and incapacitated as both nod off to one another, heads bowed in silent reverence. "I know, because I'm like the train shooting down the mainline. I know, because I'm like the Indian wind along the telegraph lines…"
45 Grave - Sleep in Safety (1983)
Dinah Cancer does Blondie—or Cancer’s idea of Siouxsie doing Blondie doing Alice Cooper. Whomever’s idea or doing ‘til it’s done, for better or worse 45 Grave’s Sleep in Safety departs radically from its predecessors, even providing the silverscreen a feel good tune for fetid flesh. “Partytime” would be featured prominently in The Return of the Living Dead while the remainder of Sleep was soundtracking suburban ransacking in Encino; jiggers of Dad’s good liquor, piles of eyeliner, and awkward fucking amongst the peg-leg’d panted and skinny tie’d lot. Necessarily bi-polar, Sleep gives the listener a surf instrumental, a cover—Cooper’s “School’s Out,” the laboratory doo-wop of “Riboflavin” and plenty preening hair-sprayed slinkers. The camp is manageable from the first track; there’s no pretense, no posture. Songs as aching clubber laps, as dance studies for a clueless crowd. And all with The Germs’ Don Bolles on drums.
Samhain - Unholy Passion (1985)
With faces hidden from view with locks of blue-black hair, Samhain stepped out of the B-Horror of its debut, Initium, and into the cesspool of Death Rock, brandishing an unbalanced and throbbing mix of Rolling Stones' strut, tribal drumming and vocal growls hungry for blood drenched autumnal ritual. Title track "Unholy Passion" is anchored by Eerie Von's bass lines and pounded into submission by Steve Zing's industrial drumming, taken further behind the veil with Glenn Danzig's alternately whispered and huffed lyrics. The song is Samhain's masterpiece, offering up the Victorian conflation of sex and death and dribbling out the dread like piss on a fresh grave. A sort of "Lemon Song" for the morbid lot, Danzig delights.
The Sisters of Mercy - First and Last and Always (1985)
Stop. This is it. Thirty seconds into leadoff track "Black Planet," Eldritch and Co. could have rolled up the reel-to-reels, gone down to the patent office and trademarked this shit, Goth with a capital "G." Everything after that ain't nothin' but a G-thing, baby, and they owe it all to And-y. Sure, Floodland is the bands masterpiece—Eldritch doing away with all that unnecessary "band" nonsense and focusing on pure dynamics and atmosphere, but First and Last and Always is the stereotype that leagues of imitators (Rosetta Stone, the Merry Thoughts, Love Like Blood, Syria, it goes on) trace their entire component DNA from. The first four songs are variations on the basic theme—doomy strings, key stabs, Gary Marx's godlike bass, dynamite drum programming. With "Marian," the band show themselves adept at a dirge, but the beat is dancey as ever—it's what outsiders never grasp about goth, that in the depths of its self-referential despair, it’s still trying to make you boogie. But the last half of First and Last and Always, as all true devotees know, is the real crack—the title track is a guitar-led "Alice" / "Temple of Love" rewrite that shreds those on the first side, and then things really heat up—"Possession" and "Nine While Nine" are bassline-led gropes that follow you and your evenings' victim home from the club. Meanwhile, "Logic" (the original title was "Amphetamine Logic") storms back with the record's nastiest groove (yes, we're still talking about a Goth album), all in the name of "nothing but the knife to live for / One life all I need / Give me one good reason / Give me more... speed!" Ending with the incredible "Some Kind of Stranger," Goth's own "Stairway to Heaven," this record is as essential to any self-respecting Dark Childe as a set of black Docs and a razor blade. Those enamored of the band dynamic that produced First and Last and Always would do well to seek out that album's singles, or any of the bootlegs (mine is called Some Boys Wander By Mistake). The b-sides from this era ("Poison Door," "Blood Money," the brilliant "On the Wire," and so on) are as good as anything on the album, often even better. A number of other one-offs from the Marx / Hussey / Adams era, such as the cold drone of "Afterhours" and the 1/2 speed cover of Hot Chocolate's "Emma" are also well worth tracking down.
The Sisters of Mercy - Floodland (1987)
This is the sound of the apocalypse. Having parted company with, well, everyone who appeared on the previous Sisters album (except, of course, an ever-faithful Doktor Avalanche), the distinguished Mr. Eldritch returned in the loudest way possible; accompanied by a soundtrack tailored for the complete nuclear destruction of the planet. As you do. At times the album veers close to being overwhelmed by the language of collapse and ruin, delivered via Eldritch’s never-less-than-enigmatic phrasing and heavy use of double meaning. It is a work of termination; of relationships, of the previous Sisters incarnation, of the world. Yet rather than dwelling in moribund misery, as might be expected from such topics, the atmosphere is almost one of submission and celebration. If the world must end, it may as well end with an epic elemental blaze of fire and water. We’re ready—bring it on. Indeed, cuts like “This Corrosion” and “Lucretia My Reflection” positively demand we get up and dance while it occurs. With the reverb set firmly on “destroy,” and decorated with sweeping synth sounds or expansive human choirs where required, Floodland manages to craft twisted beauty from the cessation of existence. It builds us a magnificent house of cards, and delights in bringing it crashing to the ground.
The Sisters of Mercy - Some Girls Wander By Mistake (1992)
Forget the greatest fits collection A Slight Case of Overbombing—this is the only Sisters compilation anyone truly needs. Their early singles were slivers of darkling spite injected into the post-punk / New Romantic divide, assassinating the conceit that one needed to be either overtly political or oblivious to survive the Thatcher era. 1982's "The Body Electric" was the quantum leap forward. It still sounds like nothing before or since, garage-rock via Suicide in the service of a hi-NRG beat, scuzzed-out methed-up vox, and guitar slashing around insistent bass, while Eldritch intones sub-Iggy phrases like "too much contact / No more feeling" and "this place is death with walls." Flipside "Adrenochrome" could be its punk-pop cousin, a song so simultaneously dirty and filled with giddy glee one imagines entire sub-genres should have spiraled forth from it. They didn't, so further manifestos were quick to follow (most in '83, the early Sisters banner year)—"Alice" remains the archetype, a tale of drug-induced betrayal told from the point of view of the outsider who hasn't convinced you he's not actually inside, wound around guitar lines like twisted serpents, bass lurking like a Black Widow, and a drum machine hammering like amphetamine sulfate at the base of your spine; "Anaconda" exploring their subversive, slinky dance rhythms; The Reptile House EP, encapsulating all the unforgiving darkness the Sisters could and would muster; and finally the three-track "Temple of Love" single—the title track establishing the formula and tone for the first album ("life is short and love is always over in the morning"), coupled with the numbing repetition of "Heartland" and the cunning Stones hijack of "Gimme Shelter." From the "we came to dance, we came to die" moves of Floodland to the half-baked cock-rock of Vision Thing, '83 was the year the Sisters laid it all out for you. No stone was left unturned in the compiling of this beast—hardcore devotees should head straight for the limited edition boxed version, complete with a full-color foldout reprinting the classic 12" sleeves.
The Mission - Gods Own Medicine (1986)
A record unjustly maligned by those who don’t realize just how fun it is. Anyone who can hear Wayne Hussey’s bizarre, histrionic yelping on “Bridges Burning” without breaking into a bemused grin clearly has no soul. The pouting, posturing, and pomp—all, surely, reactions to their recent split from The Sisters and born from a desire to make an immediate impression—contribute to a hugely entertaining experience. It isn’t just a case of listening in awe to the big rock riffs and giggling when the emotions are wacked up to eleven; sometimes the formula really pays off. “Wasteland” is driven by the kind of massive drumming which says “machines are for bedsit-dwelling wankers, Andy” and decorated with the flecks of twinkling guitar for which Hussey had become chiefly recognized—as well as some semi-serious, mystical hoodoo lyrics, delivered with a luxurious croon. The magical 12-string is also in full effect on “Severina,” a song which acts as an open invitation to do that thing where you spread your arms wide and begin to turn slowly in an extremely spiritual circle. True, there are some clunkers (not least when the band try to get erotic with “Stay With Me”), but for the most part a grand old time can be had by all. Also of note are the saucy backing vocals of one Julianne Regan, who would initially borrow from the hippy-goth vibe to launch All About Eve.
Fields of the Nephilim - Elizium (1990)
The hubris required to attempt to meld romanticized American western aesthetics with 19th Century occult theory and present the resultant musical product seriously is enormous. While their first two studio releases made this attempt, the results were uneven and Fields of the Nephilim were not truly successful with the formula until their third LP, Elizium. Here singer Carl McCoy’s obsession with Aleister Crowley and Enochian magick (going even so far as to sample the so-called “Wickedest Man in the World” reading one of his treatises on the third track, “At the Gates of Silent Memory”) are at their most approachable thanks to the convincing manner in which the rest of the band backs the message. Goth Rock is rock after all, and tracks like “For Her Light” and “Paradise Regained” can hold their own with the best of them; matching and possibly even eclipsing the Field’s uber-single “Blue Water.” But the album’s greatest strength lies in its timing and cohesiveness—moving seamlessly from the mood-setting opening of “(Dead But Dreaming)” into the aforementioned upbeat “For Her Light,” through the atmospheric pieces and into the eleven-minute epic “Summerland” (the video for which presents McCoy singing from the confines of a burning pentagram, whilst the band backs him up in the midst of a sandstorm) and presents the most unified vision the Nephs would ever achieve.
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry - Talk About the Weather (1984)
The quintessentially British title might lead a casual observer to assume this is a collection of frothy pop songs, laced with sunshine and brass-fuelled choruses. Even some of the titles play on this deception—“Hand on Heart” and “Happy” seem quite prepared to pass themselves off as sugary squeals of joy. Except, of course, this is our guide to goth. Bit of a giveaway, really. Yep, it’s more gruff-voiced, densely layered gloom and disappointment. Talk About The Weather was Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s first outing and the title track wasn’t so much about small talk as pillow talk (“I want to take you out and get you wet,” oh my). Any sexual overtones, however, are mostly lost in the flurry of chunky drum beats and scratchy, chugging guitar noises. The Lorries were not huge fans of empty space, and almost every moment of this album is smeared with, at the very least, the reverberating echo of the preceding snare attack. It’s a policy that makes for claustrophobic listening, as the only escape from such density of sound comes from the brief respite between tracks. An aural battering naturally results, but the experience is not an altogether unpleasant one. Ever-reliable in this genre, those helpful chaps at Cherry Red reissued the record in 2005 with a whole host of early singles and b-sides, including the punning attack on faux-communism “He’s Read” and the superbly named “Monkeys on Juice.”
The March Violets - The Botanic Verses (1994)
The March Violets possessed a certain effervescence lacking in their peers. Of all the northern dance bands, they struck one as the most approachable, almost (and I know it's ghastly to say this of a goth band) likeable. Perhaps it was the interplay of Simon and Rosie (later Cleo), or the shimmery elasticity of their tunes, but I'd go for pints with the Violets as soon as look at the grizzled likes of the Nephilim. Sadly, their bright patch of gloom ended up being but the dry run for the patchouli-scented cadavers of the Mission and All About Eve, but let's not hold it against them, shall we? The Botanic Verses pretty comprehensively covers their story, from the arms-out running-about of "Snake Dance" to the funk-goth frippery of "Lights Go Out" and "Grooving in Green" to the pure sinuous beauty of "Steam" and "Children on Stun." Is it permissible for there to be a lighter side of Leeds drum-machine goth? Yes there is—and it begins right here.
Skeletal Family - Trees / Just A Friend 7” (1983)
Like some kind of freakish cousin of The Cure’s “A Forest,” “Trees” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of enchanted forestry. Over sporadic drum beats and slightly odd UFO-esque keyboard effects, Anne Marie gasps, giggles, and generally acts like the devious woodland nymph who entices and repels with equal measure. Ultimately she settles on repelling, breathily imploring “don’t go near the trees” with an all-too-convincing hint of fear in her voice. As if to hammer the point home, the record closes with a classic, piercing scream. The flip side isn’t too shabby either, revisiting the bizarre keyboard sounds (now doing an impression of steam infrequently popping out of a kettle), pursuing an enigmatic, borderline obsessive, desire for friendship and generally providing a more upbeat alternative to creepy, branch-related death. If you can’t find the vinyl, fear not—both tracks are on The Singles Plus: 1983-1985, Promised Land and any other self-respecting Skeletal Family compilation.
Salvation - The Complete Collection 1985-1989 (2005)
More Salvation than you can shake a stick at. Actually that’s not true, I shook numerous sticks at this CD only yesterday and found it surprisingly easy. Nonetheless, the twenty tracks offered here are probably more than enough for all but the most ardent Leeds scene completist. The b-sides from the Andrew Eldritch produced “Girlsoul” single are missing, but as they were recorded in 1983 the collection title remains technically accurate. “Girlsoul” itself is included as a bonus and shows a clear distinction in sound from the rest of the record, owing more to the Sisters than, as is the case with everything else showcased here, The Mission. This change in emphasis can possibly be traced to tracks from the “Jessica’s Crime” sessions, which owe more than a little to the guiding hand of the producer—one Wayne Hussey. It is this dreamy, “love-lorn girl with her flower chains and creepy dolls in a dusty room” approach, which continues throughout, punctuated only with a couple of borderline-criminal attempts at cover versions (“Strange Fruit” being the capital offender). Fortunately, the original material is generally stronger and the soaring choruses of “She’s an Island” or “The Shining” can provide the basis for many a hearty sing-a-long with black-clad buddies. Definitely of interest to those who wish to investigate beyond the traditional Sisters-Mission-Nephilim field of thinking, but rather disposable for everyone else
Magazine – Secondhand Daylight (1979)
It’s tough to talk about Secondhand Daylight without discussing the cold. The album’s cover depicts a barren, tundra-like scene where a single mask (or perhaps the head of one of the colorful characters gracing the cover of their debut Real Life) has been hung in effigy on a crooked two-by-four stuck in the hard-pan. The songs have evocative names like “Back to Nature,” “Permafrost,” and “Thin Air.” Hell, even the synths that cut across them sound as if they’d been hewn out of solid blocks of glacial ice. Magazine’s second release marks an essential point at which the braintrust of punk began to document its own emotional comedown: in retrospect, a post-modern this-is-my-life of the 70s. Here Magazine exercises its cutting guitar work, aforementioned chilly synths, Howard Devoto’s biting vocals, and claustrophobia—an inward-looking angst, a lyrical perspective of the self as complex and flawed, and ultimately vulnerable against a harsh reality (or neurosis—take your pick). Former Buzzcock Devoto and his Magazine had explored these themes on Real Life, but here Magazine broke new ground in channeling aggression, loneliness, rejection, ennui, and nihilism into this bristling and boreal opus.
The Damned - The Black Album (1980)
Truly a tale of four sides, this mildly schizophrenic record oscillates between a single side of neon'd, less than zero pop and three slabs of punk songs that sound like a besotted U.K. Subs intoning glee club favorites from boarding school's past. The remarkable "Curtain Call" is all dying music boxes and vampiric posture. Reverb cloaks guitar and bass in a think whorish perfume; Vanian's vocals, when they do come up for air, are baritone sneers, part dandy, part deviant, which makes for some bizarre listening in counterpoint to the sudsy kickers—and there are plenty of them. "Drinking About My Baby;" "Hit or Miss" and "Sick of This and That," are songs annoyed with their selves, boozed revelry baiting the nuts and bolts of its own motion. Drums and guitars spar; voices wrap their arms around one another and try to outlung the lot: all spit, smiles, and undulating uvulas. The closing six are mope rock in vivo, slashing and bashing through "Smash It Up" and defeatist elegy "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" with rock bravado pilfered from the late '70s.
The Chameleons - Script of the Bridge (1983)
Probably not the first answer you’d offer in the as-yet-unseen “goth bands” round of Family Fortunes, but this debut record is steeped in as much artistic gloom as the rest of the mopey company being kept here. I mean, check out that cover. A porcelain-faced child weeping impassive tears, as the very surface upon which those droplets stream frays and splits at the edges. Surrounding this centerpiece—scenes of lonely desolation. A single dying tree. A road leading nowhere. An abandoned, decrepit building. Little wonder, really, that the music contained within such packaging feels so tied up with confusion and isolation. So it begins, with a dense interplay of trebly guitars, a healthy dose of reverb and the plea that we “Don’t Fall,” ‘lest we never climb to our feet again. Much soul-searching continues through the desert sweeps of “Monkeyland,” while “Less Than Human” deals darkly in doubts—both religious and self-inflicted. The magnificent “Second Skin” looms large over all else, driven by powerful drumming and a multi-faceted structure from which to deliver a mist-shrouded treatise on near-death experience. At almost every turn, this Bridge creaks beneath the weight of the world being portrayed.
Xymox - Clan of Xymox (1985)
If we had a million words to burn and could spread our capes as wide as possible, the 4AD label would play a much more profound role in our story. Besides introducing the world-at-large to Bauhaus and Fields of the Nephilim, Ivo Watts-Russell's vision also encapsulated the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and what he modestly referred to as his "vanity project," the epic, glacially sad This Mortal Coil. None of these bands were Goth in the strict sense, but they appealed to indie fans and the dark legions alike. The band that came closest to being in the G-unit, however, was Xymox. Perfectly timed for the era in which synths and drum programming swept the scene, their classic debut is a gorgeous, warm pocket of subtly upbeat melancholy. Songs like "Stumble and Fall" and "No Human Can Drown" are almost brutal in their beat-laden beauty, sounding like Yello on heavy downers. The openers of either side—"A Day" and "Stranger," respectively—display their unique gift for epic soundscape pop with one foot on the dancefloor and one in the grave.
The Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy (1985)
Though the Brothers Reid (Jim and William, of East Kilbride, Scotland) were never goths in the traditional sense, they sure did share some common traits: dark clothes, dark lyrical thoughts, skewed Biblical imagery, and a pounding, screeching sound that might have soundtracked a forward-thinking remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, full of buzzing, shrieking guitars and vocals that range from a hushed whisper to a bloody scream. The similarities end there, however, as the Mary Chain’s feedback-drenched wall of noise belied a ‘60s pop penchant—their melodies could easily fit with the best Beach Boys and Phil Spector had to offer. Psychocandy, the Scottish brothers’ debut, featured a Mo Tucker-imitating Bobby Gillespie on drums, future video director Douglas Hart on bass, and 14 tracks of candy-coated glass shards, highlighted by singles “Never Understand,” “You Trip Me Up,” and the classic “Just Like Honey.” And of course they saved the most Gothic moment for last: the repeated intonation “Be in black, be in black...” at the tail-end of album’s finale, “It’s So Hard.”
The Jesus and Mary Chain - Darklands (1986)
JAMC’s sophomore LP Darklands ditched Gillespie for a drum machine, cleaned up the feedback considerably, and saw the band leaning towards more straight-ahead rock sensibilities—a line they would tread throughout their careers. Thankfully, the mood didn’t lighten up any, as the hit single “Happy When It Rains” testified. Tracks like the dramatic “Deep One Perfect Morning” and skewed blues of “Nine Million Rainy Days” reinforced the mood even as their sound matured. From here, the Reids would explore bigger beats, slicker production, and even country-influenced sounds with mixed results, but they would never lose that dark, dark edge that they honed razor-sharp in their early days.
And Also the Trees - From Horizon to Horizon (1992)
Everything about And Also the Trees invites derision from serious rock-loving critics and fans. They wear poncey ruffled shirts and evoke Byron, sea shanties and crumbling Medieval towers. They cover Cat Stevens and share songwriting credits with Anon. These are also the reasons they were so unique in the desperately un-fabulous world of post-punk Britain. From Horizon to Horizon collects their singles and associated worthy b-sides and makes for a fine introduction to the band. As well as being a perfect excuse to dress up like a syphilitic dandy, sharpen your rapier-like wit, and pounce about the heath, it includes some truly brilliant songs—the pop-fop shimmy of "The Secret Sea," the strum-and-glum brio of "A Room Lives in Lucy," the charming back-in-the-day (1100 A.D. represent!) romance of "Scythe and Spade," and the epic "Misfortunes," which you truly have to lack imagination (and possibly a functioning heart) to dislike. From here, investigate albums such as Green Is the Sea, Farewell to the Shade and the charming Angelfish, which adds film noir and light jazz touches to the Trees' trademark sound.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-08-07