A dark history of Goth, a genre obsessed with love and death

BY John Robb

26th Oct 2023 Culture

6 min read

A dark history of Goth, a genre obsessed with love and death
Goth has looked for beauty in the darkness for time immemorial. We trace the genre's history, from the Goths sacking Rome to the Romantic poets and The Cure
Perhaps one of the most endearing of all the music cultures, Goth coalesced in the late Seventies UK post-punk melting pot and has remained a popular way of life for adherents all over the world.
The recent success of Tim Burton’s Wednesday TV series saw a new generation of youthful walkers on, arguably, the dark side. John Robb’s book The Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth has sparked a big media revival of interest in the form, with magazine front covers all over the world and other books about the form following in its wake.

1. Arguably, Goth starts with the sacking of Rome

Painting of Goths sacking Rome by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre
In the year 410, the first sighting of the Goths occurred when they sacked the eternal city of Rome and precipitated the end of the original Roman Empire.
Originally from somewhere in north Germany and South Sweden (where their roots are given a nod in the name of the city Gothenburg) the tribe had migrated across Europe and ended up settling awkwardly in Italy near the heart of the decaying empire.
The co-existence could not last long and despite their keenness to join the Roman empire they were shunned and eventually rose up and sacked the city—an unthinkable act in those ancient times.
"Despite their keenness to join the Roman empire they were shunned and eventually rose up and sacked the city"
Since then, the term Goth was seen as a signifier of dark forces on the edge of "civilisation". When the Germans built their own cathedrals in the middle ages, they were sneered at by classical critics for being gothic.
The term somehow stuck and went on many cultural adventures over many years before being attached to a musical form in the early Eighties, much to the consternation of many of its main players. 

2. Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know

Painting of Lord Byron
The Romantic poets are key to the story of Goth. More than any other music subculture, this one has a long and rich cultural back story and it’s easy to draw the lineage from the poetic adventures of Lord Byron—the sexually promiscuous, poetic and artistic force of nature who was all at once an idealistic vegetarian and a dark scoundrel, whose philandering ways would not work in these modern times.
He was also a revolutionary who died fighting for the cause of Greek independence in the ultimate act of romantic impulse. Lord Byron was a cosmic dancer who pirouetted through life like a Goth rock star arriving 160 years too early. 

3. Every band hates the term "Goth"

There is not one band or Goth icon covered in the book, from Bauhaus to Nick Cave from Siouxsie to Killing Joke, from Ausgang to The Sisters Of Mercy, who likes the term "Goth".
Maybe this is because it was a retrospective term put onto a scene that was already there or because it was initially a sneering snarky term for a music culture that was thriving on its own terms outside the mainstream music narrative.
"The first band to be called Goth was UK Decay"
The first band to be called Goth was UK Decay in a 1981 review in Sounds music paper. Somehow the term stuck despite most of the bands, like Siouxsie and The Banshees, already being fully formed years previously.
A feature of many of the interviews with the key players for the next decade was the icy stare and look of disdain at the mention of the G-word. 

4. Goth was heavily influenced by Black music

Sometimes critiqued for being a very white culture, Goth was actually heavily influenced by Black music. You can hear funk, disco and dub in many of its key tracks, which needed this input to succeed on the all-important dance floors in the many Goth clubs that had sprung up.
Popular bands in Goth clubs like Killing Joke embraced a funk that made them vital on the dance floor, and their key cuts crisscrossed with the intensity of punk and the experimental journey of post-punk.
Bauhaus embraced a warped disco on some tracks. Their most famous song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is, for many, the key song in the form, presenting a dark dub with a spooky ghoulish undercurrent.

5. Every generation deals with its blues

For centuries melancholy and darkness have inspired great art, from Roman ghost stories to the European folk tales and the Romantic and Graveyard poets, the darker beyond and the accompanying sense of sadness has inspired great works.
In the late Seventies, the most available art form was electric rock music and its tools provided the ammunition to create a then-current darker art form.
In the 21st century, arguably social media with its focus on the brand has made creating a dark avatar the contemporary art form. The internet is full of Goth influencers whose image is the key and the music has faded into the background—in many ways, creating gothic images just like the 18th-century visual artists, but in a digital media. 

6. Siouxsie is the number one icon of Goth, but hates the term

Siouxsie Sioux singing in the Edinburgh Tiffany's
The charismatic singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees morphed through a myriad of images since forming the band for their first gig at the 100 Club punk festival in 1976. Every style she created was a big influence on the post-punk world, and her stark music also created a template for many of the so-called Goth bands.
An avowed individualist with little time for categorisation, Siouxsie herself looks down with disdain on the Goth term and gives any mention of the word an icy stare (which is totally understandable as any true artist operates beyond any genre).
Perversely, Siouxsie is the number one icon of a scene she detests—the best known of the many women who were key players in the genre like Diamanda Galas, Patricia Morrison, Poison Ivy from the Cramps, Danielle Dax and Lydia Lunch, who all add key DNA to the subculture. 

7. Many Goth bands came from small towns

Instead of being driven by a metropolitan music business, many of the Goth bands somehow managed to conjure up a dark magic in unlikely places, creating something exotic from the mundane.
From Bauhaus emerging from Northampton to Sisters Of Mercy coalescing in the then more backwater Leeds and The Cure crawling out of Crawley, many of the main players came from outlying suburbs or forgotten small towns.
The world's most famous Goth club may be the Batcave, which was in London and grabbed most of the media attention for its groundbreaking thrills, but the first so-called Goth club was in Leeds and called Le Phono. 

8. The Doors were the first band to be described as "gothic"

Promotion photo of gothic rock band The Doors
Critic John Stickney used the term "gothic rock" to describe The Doors in October 1967, in a review published in The Williams Record. Stickney wrote that the band met the journalists "in the gloomy vaulted wine cellar of the Delmonico hotel, the perfect room to honour the gothic rock of the Doors".
It was the first sighting of the term to describe a rock band and The Doors fit the bill perfectly.
"The Doors were like the full Goth package arriving 16 years too early"
The band were the starting point of the gothic trip with their funereal music and singer Jim Morrison's baritone voice, black leather stage attire and mad, bad and dangerous-to-know stage persona mixed with an artful fascination with the Romantic poets words about sex and death.
The Doors were like the full Goth package arriving 16 years too early. When their song "The End" was added to the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola's classic 1979 film Apocalypse Now, it crash-landed into the post-punk generation and ignited a darker journey for many of its youthful protagonists. 

9. David Bowie was another prime influence on the children of Ziggy Stardust

The simplest equation of Goth would be Jim Morrison + David Bowie = Goth. The shape-shifting Bowie was a key influence, with his Ziggy Stardust alter ego blowing the minds of many youthful future players.
His extraordinary imagery and dramatic, poetic music opened up whole new creative vistas.
His interviews were a crash course for the ravers introducing many young minds to the delights of Iggy Pop and William Burroughs and many others.
His 1976/78 Berlin period introduced a post-glam shimmering, minimalistic darkness that further widened the possibilities of music. 

10. U2 were once in a proto-Goth Gang with a fellow Dublin band called the Virgin Prunes

Late-1970s Dublin was far from the modern, forward thinking, multicultural city of the current times. It was a stuffy cultural backwater crushed by the church. Into this stark void came a gang of teenagers who styled themselves as the Lypton Village and walked around the city centre inspired by the original UK punk scene, attired in dresses and make-up.
Their outrageous look and behaviour sparked a change in the city and the rest of Ireland, while providing the cultural space for two new bands to emerge made up of their members—U2 and the Virgin Prunes.
The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb is published by Manchester University Press (£14.99)
Banner credit: Paul Stevenson from Leeds, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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