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Indispensable Feature: Some Like It Goth

by Kristine England

It’s October, and my thoughts naturally turn to that Halloween so many years ago when I first saw and heard Bauhaus on MTV (way back when they played music videos), a clip of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from The Hunger. I was enthralled. So much so that for the next few years, I grabbed every piece of vinyl I could get my hands on that had been released by those four men in one incarnation or another. I have 80 in total: LPs, 12”s, 7”s, picture discs, colored vinyl -- you name it. My most prized possession is a glow-in-the-dark picture disc of "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" (one of three 12”s I own of that song). That goes for $129.99 on eBay. I would never sell it. I also have two interview picture discs with the exact same interview, but the pictures are different so I had to have them both. I already was dressing in black from head to toe and obviously became quite obsessed with the bellwether band, but I had no awareness of a Goth scene.

Over time, I learned I wasn’t the only person into this sort of thing and discovered more bands along the way. I was revisiting them recently, checking out lists and Reddit posts, and learned many people think certain bands are Goth that I never would have considered to be in the category. The Cure is one example. I always thought they were a bit too pop-oriented to be truly Goth. Killing Joke, Joy Division, and the Birthday Party are examples of bands I love who don’t fit the profile (in my estimation) but others certainly think so. Bauhaus, of course, abhorred the label though they are considered the first true goth band. What is Goth anyway? Moody, dramatic, atmospheric rock music with horror, macabre and nihilistic themes -- it’s a broad stroke of a definition that lends itself to interpretation.

To celebrate Halloween this year, I decided to focus on some classic bands that Goths like, regardless of whether I agree with the designation or not. Since there is no governing body to determine the veracity of any claims, the opinions that follow are my own. So, in no particular order…

Bauhaus (Rated ADG for Absolutely, Definitely Goth)

Formed in Northampton, UK in 1978 by David J. Haskins and Daniel Ash who had decided to form an art rock band. Enlisting brother Kevin Haskins on drums, they found the perfect frontman in Peter Murphy. They were together only four short years, but they influenced a movement and their legacy remains unmatched. After Murphy left to pursue other avenues (the duo Dali’s car with ex-Japan bassist Mick Karn as well as a solo career), Ash and Haskins teamed up to create Tones on Tail while David J. put out some solo releases, collaborated with René Halkett and others and had a stint in Pat Fish’s Jazz Butcher, among other projects. The three reconvened and formed Love & Rockets in 1985. Bauhaus has also reunited a few times for tours and 2008’s Go Away White. Their songs have been covered extensively, and they’ve inspired a myriad of artists along the way.

Joy Division (Rated NRG for Not Really Goth)

Joy Division gets lumped into the Goth category even though they were a post-punk band heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and Wire. The group evolved from its earlier punk incarnation of Warsaw and then into New Order after Ian Curtis’ suicide. The music was full of dark imagery and gloomy portents. Kindred spirits, perhaps, but not Goth.

Killing Joke (Rated NRG for Not Really Goth)

A post-punk group that seems too heavy to fit into the Goth category, its unique sound influenced many rock and grunge bands, an influence that continues to this day. The Blinders, for example, has definitely channeled both Killing Joke and the Birthday Party in its sound. Formed in 1979 by vocalist Jaz Coleman, guitarist Geordie Walker, bassist Youth, and drummer Paul Ferguson, the group released 15 albums over its long career and is probably best known to casual fans for the singles “Eighties” and “Love Like Blood.” Metallica also covered “The Wait” on The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited.

The Birthday Party (Rated NRG for Not Really Goth)

My first exposure to the Birthday Party was a quote I had read describing the band as “loud, nightmarish, and deliciously crude.” That was something I needed to experience. The Australian quintet that had morphed from the Boys Next Door may have been too dark even for Goth, and the “crude” aspect of its sound is definitely more post-punk anyway. Fun story: In the original Off-Broadway stage show for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig makes the joke, “I know who you are, sitting there all in black thinking ‘I listened to Nick Cave when he was in the Birthday Party.’” I was the only person in the audience who laughed that night. RIP Tracy Pew. You were taken from us too soon.

The Damned (Rated EG for Eventually Goth-like)

The Damned was the first band of the 70s UK punk movement to release a single, “New Rose” in 1976. Singer Dave Vivian wore a lot of black eye makeup back then. By the time the group appeared on the Young Ones’s “Nasty” episode (my favorite), Vivian’s style had become more vampiric in appearance, and the Damned’s music eventually shifted into Goth territory in the mid-'80s, though on the pop end of the spectrum.

Southern Death Cult (Rated AG for Actually Goth)

Though the band wasn’t happy being lumped into the genre, the music is definitely more truly aligned with it than many outfits of the early 80s (and they were on Beggars Banquet). They too evolved over the years, becoming Death Cult and simply The Cult as they moved closer to the mainstream and enjoyed success with their breakthrough releases, Dreamtime and Love.

The Sisters of Mercy (Rated ADG for Absolutely, Definitely Goth)

Blessed with the perfect voice for Goth, Andrew Eldritch formed The Sisters of Mercy with guitarist Gary Marx in Leeds in 1980. The group underwent significant personnel changes over its lifespan. Releasing some early singles, the Sisters really took off with the release of First and Last and Always in 1985 when its lineup was perhaps at its most stable with guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams, and a drum machine named Doktor Avalanche. Hussey and Adams eventually left to form The Mission, and Marx teamed up with Anne-Marie Hurst for Ghost Dance.

The Cure (Rated GAT for Goth at Times)

The Cure endures. The group hasn’t released an album since 2008 but its fan base is probably as loyal as ever. Known for its poppy new wave tunes (and Robert Smith’s makeup and the messiest wig of all time), the group did hit some Goth notes in its day. I used to be a much bigger fan, but I had a roommate in college that listened to them every day, and that took its toll.

The Cramps (Rated NRG for Not Really Goth)

The Cramps were amazing and funny and sometimes wrote about Gothy things, but they were garage rock/Psychobilly or perhaps Gothabilly. Known for offbeat, horror-themed songs like “Human Fly,” they influenced Goth bands to come. Kid Congo, a member of both the Cramps and Nick Cave’s the Bad Seeds, continues that tradition today with his group The Pink Monkey Birds. RIP Lux, you beautiful freak.

Siouxsie and the Banshees (Rated EG for Eventually Goth-like)

Another iconic punk band from the 70s, Siouxsie and co. explored darker realms with the 1981 release Juju. Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin had met in 1975 at a Roxy Music show, fitting enough since the seminal art rock band (and Eno’s post-Roxy projects) certainly had a strong influence on future goth artists (though quite far from being “dark” in any way).

"Bela Lugosi's Dead" opening credits from The Hunger

Xmal Deutschland (Rated DG for Definitely Goth)

With Xmal Deutschland you get the added bonus of the kind of vibes only a band from Germany could truly provide. They were an all-female group to boot, at least at the beginning. Active from 1980 to 1990, the foursome enjoyed success in and out of Germany, with a breakthrough stint opening for the Cocteau Twins on a tour of the UK in 1982.

Clan of Xymox (Rated FG for Fairly Goth)

Clan of Xymox, later simply Xymox, was a Dutch trio formed in 1981. Purveyors of a moody, synth-heavy version of Goth, the group was signed to 4AD (home of many interesting and experimental artists to this day), with Ronny Moorings' vocals also providing much of the darkness and depth that lands the group in this category.

Sex Gang Children (Rated G+ for Goth and Post Punk)

Denizens of the Batcave club night in London in the early 80s (frequented by the Who’s Who of the Goth and Post-punk scene), Sex Gang Children were formed in Brixton in 1982 and released only one proper studio album during its run, the group was nonetheless a well-known part of the scene and continued making music either as solo musicians or a revamped version of the group into the 2000s. It’s likely they would never get away with such a band name these days.

Alien Sex Fiend (Rate G+ for Goth, Death Rock, and Post Punk)

Another Batcave alum, Alien Sex Fiend also formed in ‘82. The group leaned toward the industrial side and was also considered Death Rock, though that genre technically emerged on the West Coast of the US. Its sound no doubt influenced the likes of Ministry and Skinny Puppy, among others. The band continued recording over several decades with 2018’s Possessed its most recent release.

Cocteau Twins (Rated IYSS for If You Say So)

Many Goth fans insist that the Cocteau Twins are Goth. I never really heard it. They were a synthy-pop band from the 80s as far as I’m concerned, but some of the songs on Garlands could fit the bill.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Rated RG for Reluctantly Goth)

Another band that decried its inclusion into the Goth camp was Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, insisting to Melody Maker they were really influenced by Wire. Its sound certainly fits the bill though, and the group probably isn’t as well known outside of Goth circles as they deserve. Formed in ‘81 in Leeds, the four members stuck it out for a decade before disbanding, releasing five albums in its heyday (though the band toured the UK in the early to mid-2000s).

This is not an exhaustive list, and it doesn’t capture any of the newer bands in the genre. For more, there is a decent mini-documentary on YouTube titled Before Bauhaus: How Goth Became Goth. Also, YouTuber and journalist Cadaver Kelly  may have missed Goth’s first wave, but she knows her stuff.

That is all. Happy Halloween!

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