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Barbarian, Void of Refinement: A Complete History of Goth

What the fuck is Goth? Are we talking Bauhaus or Marilyn Manson? Siouxsie and the Banshees? The kids who buy their Jack Skellington socks at Hot Topic?


1) A: of music, in a style of guitar-based rock with some similarities to heavy metal and punk and usually characterized by depressing or mournful lyrics.

    B: in fashion, characterized by black clothes and heavy make-up, often creating a ghostly appearance.

2) A barbarian, void of refinement.

What the fuck is Goth? Are we talking Bauhaus or Marilyn Manson? Siouxsie and the Banshees? The kids who buy their Jack Skellington socks at Hot Topic? As Supreme Court Justice Stewart said when asked on what would constitute ‘hardcore pornography,' “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand … But I know it when I see it.”  That’s basically where Goth Rock fits; difficult to explain, but there’s no denying it when it’s in front of your face. For me it’s a genre of music that gets lost in the shuffle, often confused with the slow drone of post-punk, or the horror-movie themes of ‘Death Rock.' But to sit and listen to ‘Goth Rock,' there’s no denying it deserves a bit of the spotlight. And if any time of year is the right time of year, it’s now, on Halloween.


The origins are murky. Legendary music critic John Stickney coined the term ‘Gothic Rock’ in 1967 when describing a meeting he had with Jim Morrison in a dimly lit wine-cellar as “the perfect room to honor the Gothic rock of the Doors." Make no mistake; the Doors were not a quintessential ‘Goth’ band, but much of Morrison’s poetic romanticism endured. Born from the political frustration of punk rock and the drug-fueled weirdness of post-punk, ‘Goth Rock’ is a jambalaya of minimalistic music, sparse arrangements, bass-driven sexiness, soaring keyboards, and pounding, droning drums. The vocals drive the song with dark lyrics, spinning tails of unrequited love, death, isolation, and loneliness.  Though popular in America, the genre was firmly British, invoking images often associated with English poetry and literature; dark fields, fogged city streets, abandoned cemeteries.

‘Goth Rock’ makes no excuses and proudly carries the banner of its predecessors; combining the sexiness of Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, the vocal delivery of Leonard Cohen, the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground, the eclectic movements of David Bowie, and the theatrics of Marc Bolan from T. Rex. Taking these elements then fusing them together with modern technology, ‘Goth’ has championed the use of modern effects in songwriting, incorporating digital synthesizers, keyboards, drums, and programming.

Unlike grunge that saw its definitive birth (though many will disagree) with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in September of 1991, the culture and identity of the Goth movement is tough to nail down. Undoubtedly, 1976 was a major year for the genre, seeing the formation of Siouxsie and the Bansheees, Joy Division, and the Cure. Bauhaus and Killing Joke formed a few years later in ‘78. Bauhaus released their debut single "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" in 1979. But looking back, most can agree that the release of Joy Division’s sophomore album Closer in 1980, and the subsequent suicide later that year of lead singer Ian Curtis was the definitive start of the classic ‘Goth Rock’ movement. Oh 1980s, if there ever was a time where one could dress any way they wanted and not give a fuck, it was then. Goth took off, both in the record stores and the shopping malls, and new bands such as Southern Death Cult and Sex Gang Children began to hold sway over the hearts and minds of black nail-polished teens. And as every family needs a home, every genre needs a ‘scene.'  American Proto-punk had the East Village in New York. Grunge had Seattle. Similarly, Goth had London. It made perfect sense. The bands were either English or Scottish, the streets are cobblestoned and fogged, and the weather and food are shit.  In 1982 the Batcave opened in London’s Soho district, and it quickly became the epicenter for gothic life. There’s no doubt that Americans have always been susceptible to catching a quick case of British fever, and this was no different. Goth was taking off all over the United Kingdom and the United States. Local scenes began sprouting up in New York’s Lower East Side and Hollywood.


These ‘scenes’ were the breeding ground for new bands, and formed the core of the ‘Goth’ subculture. More so than any other genre, the culture and aesthetics of ‘Goth Rock’ are essential in determining what is and what IS NOT ‘Gothic.' The Smiths and Morrissey in particular, by strictly musical definitions should be considered ‘gothic.'  Any man who sings out “If a double decker bus crashes in to us // to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” was surely be considered ‘Gothic.' Unfortunately Mr. Morrissey lacked the fashion and cultural trappings, and would never be considered a member of the goth community.

So what is Gothic culture? The people I spoke with who came of age in in the scene describe a community of outsiders with a strong emotional emphasis on darkness, rebellion, loneliness, and romanticism. Their clothes and style sought to convey these feelings, and included dark colors, dark hair dye, unusually colored nail polish, piercing, and tattoos. The culture is also rich with both religious (Celtic crosses) and anti-religious (pentagrams, inverted crucifixes) symbolism.

But not to worry, not everything is doom-and-gloom in Gothland. Another unique aspect of being ‘goth’ is the importance of humor and satire in both songwriting and performance.  The seminal goth rock single "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" was described by Bauhaus’ lead singer Peter Murphy as ‘tongue-in-cheek,' and was intended as a big ‘fuck you’ to those that weren’t quite in on the joke. This sense of humor is definitely on display with the on-stage theatrics of Alice Cooper, whose props included fake guillotines, electric chairs, and Frankenstein’s monster. Just like Cooper’s career, Goth music and culture had started strong but fizzled towards the end; lasting from the late 1970s through the middle of the 1980s.  Around that time, many different subgenres and divergences took place that would effectively end this scene, and start dozens of new ones.


Gothic rock was not alone in its dark, morbid, and otherworldly leanings. Other genres were quick to adopt these motifs. One popular subgenre was Horror Punk and Death Rock, made popular by Danzig and his band of Misfits in the late 1970s. The ideas were the same, but the music opted for blistering guitars and punk beats over drone rock and Leonard Cohen-esque poetry. While the music was more visceral and made no effort to hide its punk rock origins, it still exists firmly in the gothic rock universe. The same can be said for Death Rock, Black Metal, and any other genre that incorporated gothic elements in to its music, but lacked the original genres' brooding and minimalistic tendencies. Similarly, Gothic Rock’s affinity and incorporation of modern technology led to more digital musical subgenres. The most noticeable of these offshoots include industrial music, which gave rise to such bands as Nine Inch Nails in the late 1980s. As Goth took many cues and influences of its punk predecessors, so did these new musical movements borrow from Goth’s lyrical and emotion creeds, such as anger, loss, isolation, and anger.

So where has goth rock gone? Does it still exist? It all depends on whom you ask. In my opinion, Goth Rock has been coopted by two very different and equally unique subgenres of music.  Sometime in the mid 1990s, the rise of the new school of Gothic Rock and the emergence of ‘Emo’ became the symbolic wishbone that tore the classic ‘Goth Rock’ movement apart. The modern interpretation of the ‘Goth’ has mostly forgotten its earlier and more minimalistic roots. The current interpretation is mostly associated with the political and anti-religious sentiment of Marilyn Manson and his cohorts that came to power in the early 1990s. It’s ironic that a subculture of music that shunned the political and ideological obsessions of it’s punk and post-punk predecessors was eventually coopted by a style of music that was equally obsessed with the aforementioned goals of social and religious change.

Similarly, ‘Emo’ music became the style of music that most appealed to those who felt isolated and misunderstood, the outcasts looking for a style of music that understood their emotional troubles and provided them comfort and an outlet for finding likeminded individuals. The musical trappings of ‘emo’ are quite distinct from that of the classic goth movement, but the underlying principles are the same. With the angrier kids choosing the ‘new goth,’ and the sadder kids opting for ‘emo,' Goth was replaced by the two genres that it helped create.

So where is it now, does it still exist? Of course, as with all other genres like the gritty garage resurgence ushered in by the Strokes in 2001, Goth has seen a revival in recent years. Acts such as New Thrill Parade attempt to recapture the spirit of the early days, but there’s no denying that the scene that existed from the early 1980s for a few years is no longer with us. The corpse is there, but the spirit has moved on.

Again, let’s address the question I posed from the start. What the fuck is Gothic Rock? Did it start with the Doors and their affinity for meeting in candle-lit wine vaults? Was it the suicide of Ian Curtis the night before Joy Division was to start their North American tour? For me, Goth Rock is the musical equivalent of getting drunk by yourself. It’s self indulgent, it’s amazingly personal, it’s kind of creepy, and it’s amazingly fun. Of all the genres of modern rock music that pose as angry and self righteous (punk), or filled with adolescent rage (grunge), or androgynous curiosity (new wave / proto punk), Gothic Rock is true to its core and offers no apologies. Yes, I’m upset and thinking about the girl that dumped me last week for a dude without eczema, and yes this song is about a guy who decides to turn off the lights and light some candles and think about killing himself, but so am I. And if I can’t allow myself a little bit of self-indulgence sometimes, then why the fuck listen to music in the first place.