English gothic rock band Bauhaus, 1982 (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

The bats have left the bell tower

What happened to goths?

Artillery Row Books
The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth, John Robb (Manchester University Press, £25)

The original Goths came out of Germany and descended on Rome in August 410, sacking the eternal city. Their late 20th century namesakes emerged from Leeds, Crawley, Northampton and other bleak provincial towns, bringing their look of black clothes and back-combed hair, and their dirgy music with its morbid themes, to the edges of mainstream culture. 

Whilst the original tribe have been well documented by historians for their pivotal role in the decline and fall of the Roman empire, those from the 1980s have had to wait until now for their stories to be told. John Robb is the Edward Gibbon of goth. 

This is an exhaustive account of those short months, from approximately late 1982 to early 1984, when being a goth was actually, briefly, quite cool. 

Robb, himself the bassist of veteran punk band The Membranes, weighs all the antecedents that coalesced in the goth scene, going all the way back to that moment in 5th century Rome before rolling forward to the splintering of punk and new wave in the early 80s. From their  ashes, goth emerged directly. 

I don’t recall encountering a more comprehensive examination of influences for a youth fashion cult as Robb gives us here. From the literary sphere alone he examines Sophocles and Aeschylus, Goethe, de Sade, The Brothers Grimm, Horace Walpole, the Romantic poets, Byron particularly, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Poe, Bram Stoker (naturally), Lewis Carroll, Nietzsche, HP Lovecraft, MR James, Arthur Machen, Aleister Crowley and Anthony Burgess. Phew.

Most return to grim obscurity after often epic stints flogging a dead hearse

He then follows the loose ends of goth after its brief moment of being almost-fashionable, as some of his cast of characters go on to be stadium-filling superstars — see Nick Cave and The Cure — but most return to grim obscurity after often epic stints flogging a dead hearse. 

Some check out earlier than they might have hoped. The vocalist of Coil and sometime member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, John Balance, for example, in an instance of peak goth nominative determinism, fell two storeys from a balcony to his death in 2004 … after losing his balance.

The level of detail is extraordinary. A typical line reads: “Whitehouse were formed by William Bennett, the former guitarist from Essential Logic — the post-punk band formed by Lora Logic, the original saxophone player of X-Ray Spex.” Only that final name was plausibly household — but not since 1978.

Robb has an eye for an anecdote to lighten the general historicising. There’s this on the young David Bowie’s encounter with an old rock’n’roller who had recently discovered LSD and would be an inspiration for his Ziggy Stardust creation: “I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross station putting it on the pavement [and] he pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land.” Starman must have written itself after this. 

Then there’s The Cramps, whose backstory long included the line that they started out making surfboards — something that seemed to fit their image with their Surfin’ Bird cover. They confessed that this was based on rock hack Nick Kent being unable to follow their Ohio accents in an early interview: they actually had dead end jobs in a circuit board factory.

When Cramps frontman Lux Interior became another goth-too-soon death aged 62 in 2009, his bandmate and partner (Poison) Ivy said in her eulogy: “Lux seemed like a creature from another world, with one foot already out of this dimension. As much as we might wonder, ‘Where are you now?’ we can also wonder, ‘Where on earth did you come from?’” 

Perhaps my favourite story in a book which is long on detail but thin on laughs is about how singer Andi McElligott landed on his group’s name. He and a friend had listed a number of options, and he was particularly taken with a phrase from a William Burroughs novel. “I told him that it was perfect but he insisted he was going to stick with the name he had and suggested I should use the name for my band instead.”

The confection of Goth inevitably plundered things it shouldn’t have

The friend was Boy George and the name he stuck with was Culture Club, whilst the name he let McElligott keep was Sex Gang Children — something that no doubt sounded edgy and cool in 1980 but sounds anything but now. Indeed so wrong does the name sound now that the band was recently omitted from an otherwise comprehensive five-disc box set celebrating the goth hub that was Soho’s Batcave club, despite having been a leading light of the scene. “Thank you, George,” McElligott reflects. “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” would have come across very differently under the Sex Gang Children branding. 

Apart from recurring anachronistic transgressive sexual stylings — there was also Alien Sex Fiend, fronted by “Nik and Mrs Fiend” — there are other issues for modern tastes. When the confection of goth was assembled from the dressing-up box of influences, they inevitably plundered things they shouldn’t have: the cod Native American mysticism of Adam Ant, or Ian Astbury of The Southern Death Cult (who became Death Cult and finally simply The Cult) would be dismissed as distasteful cultural appropriation today. 

Apart from the odd foray into Carry On Screaming terrain, the vast majority of goths take themselves very seriously indeed, hence the general absence of humour. Which is in itself funny because goths are inherently comic. 

Perhaps what’s most surprising is that for all the movement’s popularity and enduring influence, practically no one featured in The Art of Darkness actually considers themselves a goth at all. Bauhaus, whose 1979 debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was the first and best goth record, making them the definitive goth band, are typical in trying to avoid the label: “It was as though we were some death-oriented, Munster-rock band … later to be identified as goth,” singer Peter Murphy recalled, adding: “I always thought of Bauhaus as The Sweet with better haircuts.”

Robb though sees and finds goths everywhere: his long, long list of cultural echoes of the scene runs as far as The Great British Bake Off, courtesy of Noel Fielding’s styling. He stops short of citing Paul Hollywood, though Frankie Goes To … get several mentions.

He scours the globe for goths in unlikely places. One interviewee tells him: “It’s not easy to be a goth in Morocco … They call us Satanists.” Somehow this didn’t surprise me — the bigger surprise was that Robb had found a goth in Morocco at all. That is the nature of this enterprise: it’s a goth encyclopaedia. 

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