Tuesday, March 14, 2023



A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (Rhino)

director's cut, Blender 2006

by Simon Reynolds

That maniacal cackling is the gleeful sound of a genre having the last laugh. Mocked by most the minute it crawled from its crypt at the dawn of the Eighties, Goth has proved to be one of the wilder success stories of postpunk culture. In its purest form, the scene thrives as a globe-spanning underground. But more remarkable than its sheer subcultural staying power is the extent to which Goth’s tentacles have wormed their way into the mainstream. You can see and hear its imprint on modern metal, from the campy horror romps of Avenged Sevenfold to the wintry worldview of AFI (who who named their fan club The Despair Faction and appear on this four-disc box set covering the Cure’s “Hanging Garden”). Goth’s genes are equally discernible in emo’s eyeliner misery boys such as My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco, with their “any color so long as it’s black” clothing and vocal echoes of mope-rocker supreme Robert Smith. But the genre’s impact has spread far beyond music, touching everything from film (Tim Burton’s entire oeuvre, practically) to fiction, fashion, and art.

What is the secret of Goth’s persistence? Maybe it’s the way the Goth look fuses glamour and being an outsider, just as the scene’s tribalism reconciles the desire to be apart with the longing for community. Goth’s perennial allure also has a lot to do with the way the epic music and tortured lyrics give majesty to moroseness, elevating and ennobling adolescent angst. Above all, Goth is dead sexy, something this box set foregrounds with its kinky leather-and-laces packaging, modeled on a Gothette’s black bodice or thigh-length boot. Raven-haired and pallid, Goth’s ideal of erotic beauty is different to the mainstream’s (blonde, glowingly healthy, vivacious) and offers an empowering alternative for girls into being enigmatic and unapproachable while looking to keep all the fun aspects of self-beautification and adornment.

That scary-seductive she-Goth look was invented by Siouxsie Sioux (with a little help from Morticia Adams). Siouxsie & the Banshees 1981 album Juju, represented on this box by its tumultuous single “Spellbound”, set the sonic template for the Goth explosion that followed two years later. But one thing A Life Less Lived makes abundantly clear is that the most adventurous Goth music was made in the genre’s emergent phase, before it became a codified style--before it was even called Goth in fact. It’s startling to hear how wide-open this proto-Goth sound actually was, from the doom-funk stampede of Killing Joke’s “Tomorrow’s World” to the dub reggae infused clangour and cavernous hollows of Bauhuaus’ 1979 debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which appears here in video form on the set’s DVD disc. Even the later “She’s In Parties” has a discernible loping skank feel amid its metallic noise, then enters a full-on dub coda of ambushing volleys of studio-warped noise and deep rumbling bass

What united the Goth bands was a common ancestry in glam rock. Bauhaus and the Banshees covered T. Rex tunes and you can hear blatant traces of David Bowie’s mannered delivery in Bauhaus’ singer Peter Murphy and in Gavin Friday, frontman of Virgin Prunes (represented here by “Pagan Lovesong”). More than Bowie or Bolan, though, it was Alice Cooper who was the true ungodly godfather of Goth, his grisly theatrics and black humor blazing the trail for the likes of Christian Death and Specimen. A more highbrow, self-consciously poetic take on the blasphemy/debauchery combo came from The Birthday Party, whose “Mutiny In Heaven” is a grotesquely gripping sound-painting daubed with guitars that sound like they’re covered in sores and boils, the garishly vivid illustration to singer Nick Cave’s imagery of junkie squalor and “rats in paradise”.

Like many of the groups who inspired Goth, the Birthday Party fiercely resisted being tarred with its brush. Then and now, the problem with Goth is that a lot of it was simply defective as rock music, or, if not actively bad, then desperately ordinary beneath its glad rags of otherworldly mystery and underworldly menace. The most glaring deficiencies typically lay in the vocal department (singers tending toward operatic portentousness or cadaverous dirge-droning) and the rhythm section (the drummers either mustering a stiff plod or attempting a “tribal” feel by overdoing the tom-tom rolls). Some groups, like Sisters of Mercy and Alien Sex Fiend, dispensed with human-powered beats altogether in favour of drum machines. Others were so lacking in rhythmic feel or flair--the null trudge of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, the numb trance of Danse Society’s disco-Goth--they might as well have been using mechanical beats.

A Life Less Lived is undone by its own conscientious attempt to be fully representative of its genre. What would normally be a virtue becomes a liability, because Goth has always generated as much sonic evidence for the prosecution as for the defence. Perhaps that’s why the selection is bolstered by some unlikely inclusions, like Echo & the Bunnymen’s “All My Colours” (doomily intoned but hardly Goth) and Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Fall” (which seemingly qualifies because it’s from an album entitled Darklands). When three of the best tracks—by Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Skinny Puppy—come from a genre, industrial, that’s adjacent to Goth but very much a separate entity…. well, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that there’s simply not enough good-to-great Goth out there to fill up four CDs.

apropos of nothing, honest...


Siouxsie and the Banshees

The Scream: The Deluxe Edition


Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Knowing Siouxsie as Godmother of Goth, it’s easy to forget that the Banshees were originally regarded as exemplary postpunk vanguardists. Laceratingly angular, The Scream reminds you what an inclement listen the group was at the start.  

Sure, there’s a couple of Scream tunes as catchy as “Hong Kong Garden” (which appears twice here on the alternate-versions-crammed second disc of BBC session and demos). “Mirage” is a cousin to “Public Image,” while the buzzsaw chord-drive of “Nicotine Stain” faintly resembles The Undertones, of all people. But one’s first and lasting impression of Scream is shaped by the album’s being book-ended by its least conventional tunes. Glinting and fractured, the opener “Pure” is an “instrumental” in the sense that Siouxsie’s voice is just an abstract, sculpted texture swooping across the stereo-field. Switching between serrated starkness and sax-laced grandeur, the final track “Switch” is closer to a song  but as structurally unorthodox as Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something”.

Glam’s an obvious reference point for the Banshees, but The Scream also draws from the moment when psychedelia turned dark: “Helter Skelter” is covered (surely as much for the Manson connection as for Beatles-love), guitarist John McKay’s flange resembles a Cold Wave update of  1967-style phasing, and the stringent stridency of Siouxsie’s singing channels Grace Slick. In songs like the autism-inspired “Jigsaw Feeling,” there’s even a vibe of mental disintegration that recalls bad trippy Jefferson Airplane tunes like “Two Heads.” Another crack-up song, “Suburban Relapse” always makes me think of that middle-aged housewife in every neighbourhood with badly applied make-up and a scary lost look in her eyes. Siouxsie’s suspicion not just of domesticity but of that other female cage, the body, comes through in the fear-of-flesh anthem “Metal Postcard,” whose exaltation of the inorganic and indestructible (“metal is tough, metal will sheen… metal will rule in my master-scheme”) seems at odds with the song’s inspiration, the anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield.

Scream is another Banshees altogether from the lush seductions of Kaleidoscope and Dreamhouse.  McKay and drummer Kenny Morris infamously quit the group on the eve of the band’s first headlining tour, and their replacements--John McGeoch and Budgie--were far more musically proficient. Yet The Scream, along with early singles such as  ‘Staircase Mystery” and "Playground Twist" and the best bits of Join Hands, does momentarily make you wonder about the alternate-universe path the original Banshees might have pursued if they’d stayed together and stayed monochrome ‘n’ minimal.

The Creatures, Boomerang - Melody Maker, November 11, 1989


eMusic, 2006


4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 as an offshoot of the independent label Beggars Banquet. But it soon became its own entity, with a sensibility rooted in the adventurous, open-ended spirit and sonics of 1979, but tilted towards the darker, more existentialist side of post-punk- (Joy Division and the Banshees, rather than the politically militant Gang of Four). Crucial to 4AD’s burgeoning mystique was the lush andenigmatic artwork of Vaughan Oliver, whose role in establishing the label’s identity was as important as Peter Saville’s at Factory. 4AD’s earliest acts were proto-Goth outfits like Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, but the label really blossomed circa 1983 with a sound you could call, not unkindly, Goth-lite: delicately textured and gentler on the ear than the harsh ‘n’ hammy horror-show that Goth proper had degenerated to. 4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can Dance and Xmal Deutschland.  Just as the “4AD sound” was getting perilously close to formula, the label reinvented itself in the late Eighties, catching a wave of arty-but-raw, rootsy-but-weird rock coming out of America: the brilliant New England outfits Throwing Muses and Pixies. In the Nineties, the label diversified again, signing shoegazers like Lush while keeping an eye out for American talent like Nick Drake-like melancholics the Red House Painters. The label faded from earshot for much of the Nineties but has recently resurged with critically acclaimed acts like TV on the Radio, Piano Magic, and living legend Scott Walker.


After the Snow


Many British groups in the early Eighties struggled to shake off Joy Division’s influence. The cold marble beauty of their sound and the mature majesty it lent to adolescent despair proved so compellingly original it practically condemned a generation to non-originality. Following their Closer-damaged 1981 debut Mesh and Lace, Modern English stepped boldly into the light with a sound that found the interzone between Joy Division-style severity and Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark winsomeness.  The tom-tom churning drums frequently infringe Steven Morris trademark patterns and the bass drones melodiously a la Peter Hook, but the sparkling guitars and soaring synths could be Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. The bouncy gloom of a tune like the oh-so ironically titled “Life in the Gladhouse” is perfect for Goths who want to dance but keep their deep’n’mysterious cool intact. The sighing chorus “oh me, oh my” verges on comical but the great rolling beat banishes any reservations. Indeed throughout it’s the lithe exuberance of the rhythm section (drummer Richard Brown and bassist Mick Conroy) that makes After the Snow such a  winning slab of Goth-lite. That, and artful arrangements and mad-catchy tunes, such as MTV perennial and wedding-song fave “I Melt With You”.





Far from 4AD’s most famous or celebrated band, instrumental quartet Dif Juz were nonetheless reputedly the Cocteau Twins’ favorite group. Indeed Robin Guthrie produced this, their sole full-length excursion.  Soaked in reverb and echoplex (the group were huge dub fans but thankfully never stray into the faux-skank zone), Dif Juz’s dual guitar interplay resembles an out-of-focus Television or Durutti Column heard from the bottom of a lake. Impressionistic and rhapsodic, the plangent ripples and frenetic flurries scattered by guitarist brothers Dave and Alan Curtis dominate the proceedings, but Harold Budd-like piano peeks through on “Love Insane” (along with an offkey Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteaus) while Richie Thomas’ saxophone on tunes like “Crosswinds” recalls the serene fjord-scapes of ECM artists like Jan Garbarek. Listen expecting shapely song-structures or clearly signposted melodic pathways, and you’ll be frustrated. But if you surrender to the be-here-now meander of it all, the spangled eddies and lustrous whorls of the Dif Juz sound will carry you up and away.


Filigree & Shadow


With This Mortal Coil, 4AD boss Ivo pioneered a format since adopted by the likes of U.N.K.L.E.--the non-musician with loads of ideas surrounded by a floating pool of musicians and guest collaborators who help realise his vision. In this case, the project largely involved cover versions of obscure Ivo favorites and is perhaps best understand as a form of rock criticism and an act of canon-making. In the mid-Eighties, the choices Ivo made were striking: then largely forgotten post-psychedelic minstrels like Roy Harper, Big Star’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp. While the first This Mortal Coil album, 1984’s It’ll End In Tears, features the project’s single most successful reinterpretation (Liz Fraser’s awesome and damn near original-eclipsing version of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) Filigree & Shadow has the edge over the debut. Two more Buckley tunes (“I Must Have Been Blind” and “Morning Glory”) are joined by Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings” and a version of Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweller”.  The stand-out remakes aren’t from the singer-songwriter era, though, but postpunk: a clangorous treatment of Talking Heads’ “Drugs” and a version of “Alone” even more glacial and gripping than Colin Newman’s original on his post-Wire solo debut A-Z. Ivo’s overt over-arching concept for This Mortal Coil was a twin celebration of “the beauty of despair” and the timelessness of song. But one also suspects a secret semi-conscious motivation: claiming for 4AD the kind of maverick stature held by Elektra Records in its heyday.



The Moon and the Melodies



No one would claim this is Harold Budd’s finest half-hour (that would be his Brian Eno Ambient Series collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror), nor that it’s the Cocteau Twins’ peak achievement (too many contenders to list). But it is a captivating cul de sac off  the beaten track of both artists’ trajectories. And an apt pairing, given their idyllicism and mutual ardour for effects-saturated texture. Cocteau soundboys Guthrie and Raymonde do a good job standing in for Eno on “Memory Gongs”, cloaking Budd’s piano in a mist of reverb to create an effect like the autumn dawn-mist slowly rising. The instrumentals are nice but inevitably the most breathtaking moments come when Liz Fraser’s voice enters the soundscape. All updrafts, currents, tides and breakers, “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” is a mermaid torch song, while the shatteringly lovely “Eyes Are Mosaics” would be regarded as a Cocteau Twins classic if it had appeared on one of their “proper” albums.



Within the Realm of a Dying Sun


Dead Can Dance’s motto could be “anywhere but here, anywhen but now.”  At once somber and ornamental, their music forges links between Medievalism (DCD’s sound often recalls liturgical music designed for the reverberant spaces of cathedrals) and the non-West (you can hear threads of Middle Eastern, African, and Oriental music in their tapestry of exotica).  This Australian duo is also something of a split personality group. Lisa Gerrard’s voice is a thing of wonder in both senses of the word: awe is her primary emotion, awe is what her piercing ululations strike in the listener. Brendan Perry is closer to the mold of the troubled troubadours that inspired This Mortal Coil, figures like Tim Rose and Scott Walker. This means that his rather portentous lyrics (song titles like “In The Wake of Adversity”) sometimes weigh down his undeniably mellifluous singing. On Within the Realm, the split personality was splayed across the two separate sides of the original vinyl album. Side One frontloads Perry’s doomy ballads and gloomy instrumentals, while the reverse is devoted to Gerrard’s devotionals, like the dervish-whirling “Cantara”. Her singing is so bliss-rich that “In the Dawn of the Iconoclast” was sampled for the Ecstasy anthem “Papua New Guina” by the Future Sound of London.  Later in the group’s career, DCD would cross over to a mass audience of the sort of people that listen to New Age, Gregorian chants, and--euuch--Enya. But Within catches them at the perfect median point between the crypt and the chill-out zone.



Lonely Is An Eyesore



A prodigious feat of self-celebration from a label then at its zenith of eminence, this compilation of new tracks specially recorded by the 4AD roster came sumptuously packaged in a lavish-looking cardboard case with a three-way folding inner sleeve. Sonic contents wise, it’s a curate’s egg, ranging from the slight to the sublime. Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie” is  brash but empty dance-rock decorated with movie soundbites, while “Cut the Tree” is a typical slice of The Wolfgang Press’s brand of failed pretentiousness. But Cocteau Twins’ radiant “Crushed”  is one of their best songs ever and  “No Motion” is Dif Juz at their most dynamic,  crashing chords scattering shards of dazzle hither and thither. Best of all is “Fish” by Throwing Muses, one of the truly unique groups of the late Eighties. David Narcizo’s martial but static drums, the gyrating rhythm guitar chords of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston’s sidling bass create a strange feeling of suspended motion last heard in rock on Led Zep’s “Four Sticks”, while Hersh sings in a voice midway between a Stevie Nicks croon and a Gaelic pagan ululation. One of her more opaque verses--“lonely is as lonely does/lonely is an eyesore/the feeling describes itself”--provides the compilation’s name.




Blue Bell Knoll



It’s so hard to pick a Cocteau Twins album as the One. Head over Heels is their early classic, and EPs like Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spangle Maker and Love’s Easy Tears are mid-period highs. Still, Blue Bell Knoll is their most flawless and sustained record. You can hear a smidgeon of Kate Bush on the title track opener, but Fraser soon sheds all ancestral traces to assert her candidacy as one of the five or six most original vocalists of the rock era. Likewise the group, having started out as a sort of soft-core Siouxsie & the Banshees, now mature into a sound without parallel or peer. Lindsay Buckingham to Liz’s Nicks, spangle-maker Robin Guthrie drapes his lover in iridescent canopies of guitarstuff. Fraser’s sculpted gush of liquidized language is almost entirely indecipherable but always sounds rich in private, non-verbalisable meaning.  Sometimes these sweet nothings seem like songs for swooning lovers, sometimes they seem literally like baby-talk, making you imagine an Eskimo mother chirruping to her newborn. The Cocteaus struggled after this album:  when you’ve made songs as sublime as “Carolyn Fingers,” ‘Cico Buff” and “Ella Megablast Burls Forever”  what do you do for an encore? They made a mistaken pop-wards move, Fraser singing first in better enunciated gibberish and then in distinctly plain English. She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.







Combining the raw power of The Stooges with a penchant for all-American grotesquerie reminiscent of David Lynch, Pixies seem like an unlikely match for 4AD . But they were an arty group. Singer and main songwriter Black Francis cited the Surrealists as his big crush, and gave them the nod in Doolittle’s opener “Debaser”, the lines “Slicing up eyeballs” and “I am un chien Andalusia” paying homage to the Luis Bunuel film. Given his Charismatic Pentecostal background, it makes sense that Pixies music would be a valve for Francis to vent all his repressions in a "stream of unconsciousness" (as he put it).  The title Doolittle, from the children’s books about the doctor who learns to talk to the animals, suggests the Freudian notion of man as “the sick animal”, sick precisely because he cannot accept his own bestialism. Hence the gorgeously fatalistic “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven”, “I Bleed” and “Hey,” which bore witness to Francis’ grim fascination with the bare necessities and base fatuities that comprise the biological facts of life to which “we’re chained” -- sex, birth, excretion, death . Others like the rampant “Tame” and heavy-breathing “Dead” revel in the carnal nitty-gritty. Following hard on the heels of the group’s rabid opening salvo Come On Pilgrim and ragged classic Surfer Rosa, this album was Pixies’ peak. After this they veered off into a lighter-and-cuter pop direction, as if scared by the dark voids they’d glimpsed on Doolittle.






Where Pixies and Throwing Muses brought something new to 4AD, His Name Is Alive seem transparently to be that rare thing: the American 4AD obsessive, purposefully endeavoring to make music to caress Ivo’s ear-drums.  His Name Is Alive is essentially a solitary obsessive, Warren Defever, drawing on a fluctuating cast of

accomplices to help realise the noises in his head.  Those sounds have a spidery exquisiteness that couldn’t be further from the late Eighties/early Nineties Amerindie norm. The vibe of Livonia (which sounds like a fantastical imaginary land but is named after Defever’s hometown in Michigan) is very much the reclusive studio-whiz alone with his sound-warping boxes. If the effect is sometimes overly precious and forced in its faux-mystery, the culprit is often singer Karin Oliver, who sometimes entrances but often merely grates with her wavery shrillness. Still, Defever’s menagerie of strange processed noises and aberrant guitar parts generally keeps things diverting.



Joy 1967-1990



Signing New York indie rocker Kurt Ralske was another example of 4AD stretching beyond its usual parameters. His music as Ultra Vivid Scene had far more in common with the Sixties-referencing meta-rock of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 than with the Cocteaus or Dead Can Dance. Like the Spacemen especially, Ralske’s songs play clever games with the language of love, drugs, and religion, equating them as expressions of a human ache to fill the hole at the heart of being with a holy absolute--the sweetest girl, the perfect prescription, God’s grace.  At its least, it’s like Matthew Sweet with hipper reference points, both musically (Velvet Underground, Suicide) and philosophically (Barthes, Bataille). But at its most--“Guilty Pleasure”, “Extra Ordinary”--it’s reminiscent of Prince in his neo-psychedelic mode.  The opening triptych of “It Happens Every Time”, “Staring At the Sun” and “Three Stars” makes for an irresistible salvo of swashbuckling psych, while “Special One,” featuring Pixie Kim Deal’s wonderfully carefree backing vocals, feels as euphoric as mainlining helium.



The Comforts of Madness



Shoegaze was an obvious fit for 4AD--after all, many of these British bands were inspired by the label’s groups, especially Cocteau Twins and AR Kane.  If Lush were 4AD’s shoegaze-as-pop gambit, Pale Saints were the artier proposition, making music that was dense, at times overwrought, but always interesting. The name “Pale Saints” fits them to a tee. Ian Masters’ blanched vocals have a pure-of-spirit, devotional quality, resurrecting that monk-like quasi-Gregorian chant style introduced by British psychedelic groups like Tintern Abbey. Riddled with imagery of nature and the elements, songs like “Language of Flowers” hark back to the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. “Sea of Sound” sounds like the missing link between Neu!’s “See Land” and Flying Saucer Attack’s Distance, conjuring mind eye’s images of a pink-and-gold cirrus-streaked skyline at dusk. “A Deep Sleep For Steven” is a cavern of a ballad, its walls daubed with mercury-splash guitar and echoing to the rumble of drums from some remote interior cavity. And “Little Hammer” is a delightful neo-psychedelic oddity, the sepia-tinted melancholy of what sounds like a ghost-town’s out-of-tune piano (but is more likely a hammered dulcimer) offset by incongruously vivacious percussion.



The Drift



Ivo first approached his hero Scott Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow. Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The Drift. Walker’s four astonishing solo albums of the late Sixties showed that he was a kind of cinematographer of sound, using intricately detailed orchestration, opaque-but-vivid lyrics, and his elegantly anguished voice to paint the kind of motion pictures that scar your memory and fill the subsequent days with a vague feeling of disquiet. With The Drift, the 63 year old Walker clearly aimed to make a work on a par with the great European modernists of film, such as Ingmar Bergman. Accordingly the themes are heavy (songs about the gruesome execution by mob of Mussolini and his lover, about twilight-era Elvis conversing with his dead twin Jesse) while the execution is challenging for artist and listener alike, involving bizarre gambits like pounding sides of dead meat for percussion, horns that caw bleakly like crows, harrowingly atonal string parts, and, on “The Escape”, eruptions of hair-raising demonic laughter. The lyrics that issue from Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--evoke atmospheres of grotesquerie and malaise. The Drift makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. It is a powerful album, albeit one that is easier to admire than to love. The Drift may not get that many repeat plays but, like one of those great European modernist films, it’s something you’ll want to experience at least once. 


Ed said...

17 years later, it’s clear it is a spirit that will never die. It’s not just the Cure tour: there’s a new generation getting inspired by Playboi Carti and Wednesday on Netflix, too. The coolest actor of the moment is even *called* Goth.

Ed said...

One of those great quirks of language that has led to the name of a Germanic tribe that flourished around the fall of the Roman Empire becoming associated with Alien Sex Gang and campy 50s TV. I like to think that some ghostly traces of the original Goths survive in the culture’s face painting and hostility to the established order.

Stylo said...

Can goth nowadays be considered a stance of adolescent rebellion, given that the original goths are now of grandparent age?
Speaking of long-lasting youthful garb, by my recollection the mod dress code still has its adherents, making it 15ish years more resilient than goth style . Weirdly, the hippy and punk styles seemed to have fused sometime in the 80s, ending up looking a bit crusty. And why was Mickey from Only Fools and Horses still dressing in two-tone during the last Christmas specials?

Jorje Chica said...

Simon, it appears Goth is definitely on the map this week, with the announcement that Lol Tolhurst of The Cure and John Robb of The Membranes have written histories of Goth. Of the two, it appears the latter is the one seeking a place on the shelf next to yours and Jon Savages' works.


Yes there is a bizarre convergence of Goth history-making - John Robb's mega-opus, Lol Tolhurst, but also there's a Cathi Unsworth mega-opus on Goth too. (So that means the three major works on Goth are by ex-Melody Maker colleagues - the third is Mick Mercer - plus someone from the band that probably appeared on MM's cover more than any other). And blimey, a fourth colleague - Simon Price - has a big book on the Cure coming out later this year.

I suppose what I'm wondering is how these folks get past or around the shitness of the vast majority of Goth bands. Once you get beyond the big Five - Siouxsie, Bauhaus, The Cure, Killing Joke, Birthday Party - who are all proto-Goth in my view... well, it's slim pickings. (And Bauhaus, ace guitarwork notwithstanding, are variable and hard to take seriously at the best of times).

Okay, Virgin Prunes are "interesting", and Alien Sex Fiend are entertaining. I saw Play Dead live (supporting K Joke in Dunstable around the Firedances tour) and they were exciting (it's not captured on vinyl though). Do Theatre of Hate belong in this character? I suppose they had a certain something, for a moment there.

But Sisters of Mercy are a hollow pastiche, "rock" only in the most air quotes way. Cult only got good(-ish) when they became a retro-pastiche early 70s rock band (and if Steppenwolf, AC/DC, and Led Zep exist in the world, who really needs Astbury's bellows-like lungs and stuffed crotch?).

As for the rest - March Violets, Danse Society, Brigandage, Sex Gang Children, Flesh for Lulu, Balaam and the Angel, Fields of Naffilim, Mission, etc - it's a poor excuse for rock music. That's before you even get to the godawful lyrics and strained mannered vocals and the magicKal sillinesss.

Love the clothes, the hair and the make-up, though.

Ed said...

Wouldn’t the smart move be for someone to emulate what you did with Glam, and chart Goth’s survival into the modern world? As a style, it seems to be as potent as ever. As music, maybe less so, although Playboi Carti is clearly in the tradition. Arguably all the rappers who adopt the personas of debauched and doomed aristocrats owe a debt to Gothic culture, although their roots are maybe more in Polidori and Stoker than in Fields of the Nephilim and Rose of Avalanche.


Well, they might well do that, in the books, who knows? The tentacles certainly reach far and wide, touching on everyone from Aaliyah to Travis Scott to Tommy Lee Sparta.

And most likely they go the other way too, far back into history, locating all these impressive and illustrious antecedents in Medieval architecture, late 18th / early 19th Century literature etc etc.

A risky move, one might think - it's a bit of a plummet going from the Brontes and Lautreamont and Mary Shelley to... "Song and Legend" and "Batastrophe".

Stylo said...

Actually, does goth as a musical genre fulfil a role? Most goths I've encountered over the years have listened to metal, alt rock or skater punk (I can't tell you after I finished uni). To wit, goths over the decades have liked Iron Maiden, Metallica, Ministry, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins (the worst band of all), Offspring and Avril Lavigne. In terms of audience, it's just metal, really.

Stylo said...

I think I've latched on to a point there: the reason goth fashion has lasted so long is because it doesn't have a connection to a particular genre of music. It secures itself from the vicissitudes of stylistic whims by anchoring onto whatever genre will hold it.


It's definitely a genre - the independent charts were awash with the stuff in '83 and '84, and then the second wave big bands like Fields of Naff and the Mission were front cover regulars on Melody Maker (it helped pay our bills) along with Cure and Sisters and Siouxsie should they so much as emit a fart.

But certainly a Goth would have to listen wider than the designated genre to find music of sustaining substance!

And as a look / sensibility it's proliferated far beyond the narrow musical confines of Goth as codified genre.

I listed a whole heap of bands who swamped the indie charts in 83 up above. Who did I miss? Well, there was Gene Loves Jezebel (two brothers who tragically split apart into rival versions of the group, owing to animosity of unknown nature but beyond healing seemingly. Possibly one version of GLJ is for the UK and the other is for North America - I forget) (I quite like GLJ's sell-out MTV bid "Motion of Love"; the wife swears by their earlier material and says they were good live). Xmal Deutschland - never quite swayed by them I must say. Indians in Moscow?

There's a bunch of things that are sort of somewhere in the zone between Goth and industrial. Like maybe Clan of Xymox.

It bleeds into a lot of things - Grebo to an extent. There are Goth traces in shoegaze (well, Slowdive eh? Think of where the name comes from).

I personally prefer the Goth-lite (Cocteau Twins etc)

Burial are a bit Goth (supposedly he's a big Cure fan). And there was that label Blackest Ever Black that dug into the dancefloor-oriented end of Goth as part of its ancestry. Raime I was quite taken with.

Stylo said...

I remember buying a (heavily discounted) NME collection of their goth articles, with Joy Division being one of the most featured bands. That felt like grasping. Or am I just being protective?

Okay, by 1992, were goths listening to the genre goth? Why was my sister dressed as a goth whilst proclaiming Nirvana the greatest band? Why were the goths at uni still proclaiming Nirvana as the greatest band 10 years later? Were Nirvana goth? Goth the style became divorced from goth the music sometime in the late 80s. The macabre and the morbid have been constants in popular music, from Robert Johnson to the Wu-Tang Clan. But most goth groups had little beyond those loci. Who listens to Sex Gang Children nowadays? I'm slightly scared to type the name. It's okay to let goth die, just as it's okay to let emo die. The goths let goth die when they got into Nirvana.

That was a bit of a ramble, but I think I had a point somewhere.

Ed said...

I don’t think it is unfair to see Joy Division as proto-Goths. Not just for their darkness, but also for their sense of grandeur and intensity: moods that many Goth bands tried to capture subsequently, with much more limited success.

One long-held theory of mine is that the (UK) rock scene of the early 80s is best understood as a series of responses to the vacuum left by the death of Ian Curtis, and the collective decision of the surviving members of JD to move out of the darkness. U2 very consciously set out to have the career that JD could have had, and in a slightly different part of the landscape the same is true of many of the Goth bands, although they were generally less open about it.

Look at Bauhaus, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Cure, even. It is hard to see them having had the same impact if JD had still been around. They were exploring the same psychological territory that JD made their own, and often using similar methods. Just with generally much less sophistication.

The Bunnymen, too: as Simon says above, they were not really Goth, but certainly Goth-adjacent. And they definitely filled a gap in the market that JD had left.

Ed said...

Oh, and the 1992 movie The Crow definitively claimed Joy Division for Goth culture, not least because of the death of its star Brandon Lee.


The Rose of Avalanche, Blood and Roses - what was it about Goths and roses?


Also Goth-connected -the Death Rock scene in LA....

Christian Death, 45 Grave

And on the outskirts of that Psi-Com, Perry Farrell's pre-Janes group

Now Jane's Addiction, that is Goth progeny that is superior to most of the afterbirth - traces of Banshees and Cocteaus in their sound.


Another big Goth descendant or locus of DNA traces - emo.

My Chemical Romance, Panic at the Disco


Rosetta Stone - another 'rose' band (sort of)

Stylo said...

The Stone Roses started as a goth band.

Ed said...

Haha I had forgotten that about the Roses! There are some fantastic pictures of an early incarnation with long hair, wearing frock coats and paisley, looking like an am-dram production of Interview with the Vampire. "Stone Roses" is actually a much better name for a group of Goths than for baggies, or whatever it was they grew into. The echo of the graveyard.

My Bloody Valentine also started out as Goths, of course. That combination of [nice, romantic thing] + [dark, grim thing] is a pretty common Goth band naming convention. Apparently when Dave Conway left and Bilinda Butcher joined, effectively turning them into a new group, Kevin wanted to change the name, but couldn't think of anything else he liked, so they stuck with it.

Butcher was a Goth as well, apparently: a fan of Bauhaus and the Birthday Party, says Wikipedia.


Ah but this is just further proof of my Goth-is-Shit-except-for-the-Pioneers theory - neither the Roses nor the Valentines were any good until they'd expunged all traces of Gothshyte.

The first phase MBV, when they were Birthday Party damaged, were atrocious.

Then they became a longhair late-60s wah wah outfit and were merely mediocre - scene makeweights (although there was a mini-hype about them in '86 as sort of "the next Mary Chain", largely the work of one of my MM colleagues)

Then ever so incrementally they became good and then great - it's one of the remarkable transformation stories. The only comparable one I can think of is Pulp existing for over a decade before they became good.

But talking about Birthday Party damage - there's a whole sub-category of second-wave Gothshyte that is graven in the image of Cave & Crew - the Inca Babies, others that have evacuated themselves from memory