In defence of Goth

Southern Death Cult

Southern Death Cult

Often ignored or ridiculed, Getintothis’ Banjo comes to the defence of Goth and remembers having the time of his life.

Goth has become a much maligned genre over the years.

A good part of this is probably down to the fact that it has become easy to stereotype and therefore easy to parody. This is something that unfortunately happens to lots of genres that are heavily attached to a ‘scene’, such as punk a few years earlier.

For example, if you ask the man in the street to summon up an image of a punk, it would probably be of a leather jacketed mohican rather than a member of the original class of ’76, such as, say, Vic Godard or Pete Shelley.

This stereotyping is a reductive process, it always diminishes a wide and varied movement to a lazily chosen image. Goth has suffered from this more than most – the image the man in the street would conjure up for goth would undoubtedly be of someone dressed in black, with long dark hair and an obsession with bats and crosses.

Then again, as Sid Vicious once said, ‘I’ve met the man in the street, and he’s a cunt’ 

Goth music is similarly pigeon-holed as doom laden bad metal, when in reality it is a more wide and varied genre than many we could name.

It is hard to pinpoint when goth actually started, but we can look back to Siouxsie and the Banshees as perhaps a starting point, when their glacial take on punk soon evolved into something other. Killing Joke also took punk in a different direction, and Bauhaus were quick off the mark with their own brand of musical melodrama.

Other bands such as The Pack and UK Decay came through and the small scene kept its embers burning.

This style of music first broke cover as a separate genre when a group of new bands came through at the same time. Southern Death Cult, Sex Gang Children, Danse Society and Sisters of Mercy had all tapped into a change in the air.

The Sisters of Mercy

The Sisters of Mercy

Punk seemed to have lost its direction to the stereotypes we mentioned earlier, and the value of bands like The Exploited became clearly identified as a lowest common denominator dead end.  The anarcho-punk movement, led by Crass, had given punk back some credibility, but their all-black uniform and basic thrashing chords failed to lead anywhere different.

All of this was picked up on in an article by the NME, where it was dubbed ‘Positive Punk’.

In response, the Positive Punk bands were a riot of colour which means that, ironically enough, Goth essentially started out as a reaction against black clothes. Gigs by the positive punk bands saw both the band and their audience sport rainbow hair, lots of make up  and brightly coloured clothes.

Eventually though, the name goth was coined and positive punk had a new moniker. And, as we have seen before and since, as soon as a movement can be pigeonholed, it can all too easily fall victim to the dreaded stereotyping.

The Sisters of Mercy were to be a huge influence on the goth scene.  At an early gig of theirs, I was aware that they were the first new band I’d seen since the cleansing fires of punk who had dared to grow their hair long, and soon their fans were following suit. The Sisters’ long hair was more of a 60s style than a 70s throwback, owing more to Easy Rider than to Noddy Holder, but this was still almost shocking back in the early 80s.  They also wore black clothes, claiming that this saved on laundry bills.

The long hair and black clothes look caught on with the fans and quickly spread through the scene.

As we have mentioned before, goth fans were so committed to the bands they loved that they travelled countless miles to see them as often as possible, sometimes going to every gig on a tour and sleeping rough as they went. Long unspiked hair and black clothes must have been as much benefit as a low maintenance way of living to the fans as they were to The Sisters.

Looking at all this from a personal point of view for a moment, the goth/positive punk scene was something of a life changer for me. Unable to spike my hair, I spent the punk years feeling deeply uncool.  In desperation, I bleached my hair and bought some crimpers and set about recreating myself.  Somehow, this worked and I soon had a towering, wide blonde mohawk.

I set off to see Southern Death Cult with my new hair and, to my immense surprise, some of the band’s followers started talking to me.  I wondered why these beautiful people would talk to me, a hick town punk who had only recently discovered peroxide.  Then I realised – they think I’m one of them!  They think I’m one of the cool kids.  And just like that, after years of feeling left out, I was.

I threw myself into the goth scene with abandon, seeing as many bands as many times as I could, sleeping when and where I could – I slept in a phone box, in several train stations and outside a library. And every uncomfortable moment was worth it.

In a lot of ways, the goth scene was the making of me. By being a regular face at gigs and club nights, I made friends, joined my first proper band and essentially set myself on the life path I am still on to this day.  Many of the friends I made then are still in my life now and although my musical tastes have kept pace with the times, I still feel a visceral thrill when I play the first Bauhaus or Banshees albums.

How did music become so unimportant?

Goth clubs sprung up the length and breadth of the country.  Liverpool fared particularly well with the wonderful Planet X, one of the first, one of the longest lasting and one of the best.  On its dancefloor friendships were made, bands were formed and lives were changed.  The Planet still has occasional nights and those who remember Goth fondly would be well advised to check it out one fine night.

The Mission took Goth overground, headlining Reading Festival a number of times and selling out Wembley in the 90s, when both of these things were still a yardstick of success.

The Mission

The Mission

If you are inclined to think that goth has a narrowly defined set of rules and styles, try the following experiment.

Listen to Valentine or Burn by Sisters of Mercy; you will be treated to intertwining guitars, ghostly, almost there drum machine rhythms and, above all, atmosphere.  There are none of the themes commonly associated with goth, no bombast, no bad metal riffs and no overkill of any type (unfortunately, all this was to come for The Sisters).

Then listen to The Cult’s Dreamtime Live at the Lyceum for epic alt rock and the sheer power of a band at the top of their game.  Again, a fall into heavy rock was around the corner, but back then The Cult live were an untouchable celebration of all the good things of youth.  It sounds like an awful music-snob thing to say, but they were an incredible band up until their first album came out.  In those few months I managed to see them 18 times and they never managed anything less than brilliance.

Next, listen to Junkyard by The Birthday Party.  A band who were truly off the map, The Birthday Party’s sound is one of a barely controlled chaos, a bastard blues from a set of truly intensive/inventive minds.  Their two gigs at Liverpool Warehouse are amongst the most thrilling events I have ever witnessed and The Birthday Party are a band who have yet to be equalled.

Then, play the first All About Eve album for some relief.  A more folk-tinged take on things, with Julianne Reagan’s superb voice floating on top, All About Eve were a class act.

The above acts, and many more, all seem poles apart from each other and yet all fell under the banner of Goth, for some time at least. Add to this the diversity of bands who were beloved of the goth crowd, such as Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode and The Cramps and we have a huge and diverse range of music, people and styles.  If people think goth was limited to a narrow range of sounds and looks, the truth could not be more different.

Nick Cave

Nick Cave

We can also say that goth matured better than many genres. We only have to look at the artistic curve of Nick Cave, one of goth’s leading men back in the day.  Cave has progressed steadily over the years, moving from deranged enfant terrible to the elder statesman we see today.  It is no exaggeration to say that he become one of the greatest writers and performers of our age, his creativity being responsible for records, novels, film scripts and soundtracks.  Not bad for someone who, on his last performance in Liverpool with The Birthday Party drank a full bottle of Jim Beam in 40 minutes before slumping at the back of the stage, crying into the microphone.

And goth never followed the route of gentrification in the way that dance music has, with the proliferation of orchestral nights and albums, offering a more sedate, genteel way of being involved with a scene into middle age. Thankfully we are spared an orchestral Batcave night, with violin versions of Alien Sex Fiend songs.

Admittedly there have been identikit goth bands and fans over the years, but what scene couldn’t say the same? The need for people to belong to a tribe is a powerful one, as is the urge for young bands to want to sound like their heroes.

But goth has been a bastion of individuality, creativity, intelligence and fun. And, when all is said and done, what more can we ask from music?