Defining the essence of “goth” is notoriously tricky. Its detractors deride it as a doom-laden, fashion-driven genre where black is perennially the new black, but equating the term with big hair, excessive mascara and vampires is to do it a grave disservice. Goth, after all, derives from “gothic” – relating to everything from architecture to film and philosophy – and, as a musical force, it’s a complex, many-headed beast that came to prominence during the 80s, but continues to evolve in the 21st century, with albums the likes of Black Moth’s Anatomical Venus getting its teeth into goth’s porcelain-white neck.
Pinpointing the exact moment when goth entered rock’s lexicon is equally hazardous. Some have argued that flamboyant shock rocker Alice Cooper and doom-laden metal pioneers Black Sabbath were goth forerunners, yet The Doors were the first band to be officially labeled “gothic rock”, by rock critic John Stickney. Writing in US student newspaper The Williams Record, in 1967, Stickney noted the “dark atmosphere” at the Doors concert he attended, and even described Jim Morrison’s vocal prowess as “Satanic.”
Though former Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico’s glacial, 1969 masterpiece The Marble Index has been posthumously declared “the first goth album” by writer Dave Thompson, the word “goth” only really permeated the mainstream rock press in the wake of punk. NME’s Nick Kent referred to “gothic rock architects like The Doors and certainly The Velvet Underground” in a 1978 live review of a Siouxsie And The Banshees’ show at London’s Roundhouse, while producer Martin Hannett described Joy Division’s landmark 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures, as “dancing music with gothic overtones.”
“Gothick Romantick pseudo decadence”
The record widely credited with inventing goth appeared well before the genre was officially coined. The date was August 1979, when London-based indie Small Wonder released Northampton quartet Bauhaus’ first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” A chilling, nine-minute slice of skeletal, dub-infused noir topped off by Peter Murphy’s charismatic baritone, the much-acclaimed track’s lyrics were influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but its title saluted the late Hungarian-born actor who played the titular Count in the 1931 movie: a flick which introduced the idea of vampires and the undead to a global audience.
Dubbed “Gothick Romantick pseudo decadence” by the NME, Bauhaus’ angsty, angular debut album, In The Flat Field, also topped the UK independent charts late in 1980. That same year, rapidly evolving London punks The Damned released The Black Album – a transcendent double-album which included several enticing, Gothic-flavoured set pieces: “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “13th Floor Vendetta” and the ambitious, 17-minute “Curtain Call.”
A further brace of influential proto-goth discs emerged over the next 12 months, courtesy of Siouxsie And The Banshees’ acclaimed Juju, and Australian émigrés The Birthday Party’s visceral ‘Release The Bats’ single. The term “goth” also gained traction in print after a 1981 Sounds article referred to underrated Luton quartet UK Decay as “Punk Gothique,” leading to a coterie of (actually relatively disparate) austere-sounding post-punk outfits including The Sisters Of Mercy, Sex Gang Children, and The March Violets being labeled “goths”.
A broad church
Goth, however, first went overground in 1982, with The Cure sporting their trademark big hair and red lipstick on tour in support of their monolithic Pornography album. Meanwhile, Bauhaus notched up Top 20 album success with The Sky’s Gone Out and Burning From The Inside, and their supercharged cover of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” tore up Top Of The Pops. Also, in July 1982, goth found a permanent home with the establishment of London nightclub The Batcave. Located in Soho’s Meard Street, the nightspot became a favorite haunt of the era’s alt.rock glitterati, attracting regular patrons including Siouxsie Sioux, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Marc Almond, and Nick Cave. Its house bands, the glam-tinged Specimen, and the electronica-driven Alien Sex Fiend, also demonstrated just how broad a church goth had become.
Gothic rock, however, strode confidently out of the shadows during the mid-to-late 80s. Signing to MCA, The Damned scored their first major chart success with 1985’s silver-selling Phantasmagoria: a beguiling gothic-flavored feast which spawned several high-profile UK hits courtesy of ‘Grimly Fiendish’, the sweeping, Ennio Morricone-esque ‘The Shadow Of Love’ and a dramatic cover of Barry Ryan’s 1968 hit “Eloise.”
Elsewhere, fast-emerging goth outfits The Cult, The Sisters Of Mercy, and The Mission all achieved UK Top 10 success with career-defining albums such as Love, Floodland, and Children, respectively, during the latter half of the 80s. Iconic goth trailblazers Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Cure, too, continued to rise through the ranks. The Banshees racked up critical plaudits and Top 20 success with genre-straddling albums including Tinderbox and the multi-faceted Peepshow, while The Cure filled stadiums the world over during the global tour in support of their melancholic 1989 masterwork, Disintegration.
Goth in the 90s and beyond
As a commercial force, goth peaked during the late 80s, but continued to exert its influence during the 90s alt.rock explosion. Rob Zombie’s outlandish image and sartorial style has clearly been touched by the hand of goth, while the genre also bled liberally into the DNA of multi-milling-selling albums from the era, such as Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, which vividly fused gothic rock with electronica and industrial rock.
During the decade’s latter half, alt.rock pioneers The Smashing Pumpkins’ memorable Adore was streaked with goth’s influence, while the genre also provided the X-factor for successful crossover metal acts straddling the new millennium. Suffolk’s Cradle Of Filth rose steadily, while Fallen, the ambitious 2003 debut album by orchestrally-inclined and Arkansas natives Evanescence, moved a colossal 17 million copies worldwide.
Fast-forward to the present day and we can still feel goth’s tentacles spreading. They’re easily detectable in acclaimed UK indie crossover stars The Horrors, whose innovative blend of garage pop and gothic rock has resulted in five UK Top 40 albums, and Arizonan singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, who regularly wows critics with her fearless mash-up of electronic music, classical and the darkest of gothic sounds. Black Moth’s hard-edged, Jim Sclavunos-produced Anatomical Venus, meanwhile, demonstrates that the Yorkshire heartland which once sired The Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission, and many more is still birthing quality rock’n’roll of a gothic persuasion.
Goth’s spectral presence, then, still hovers proudly over the modern-day rock scene.
Looking for more? Discover the best Cure songs.