What Is Goth?

Gene Loves Jezebel. Above: Bauhaus.

What is Goth? I see Goths all over Instagram,generally doing excessive glam make up tutorials, but as an old, and old school, Goth, it leaves me feeling somewhat alienated. Have they ever even heard Fields of the Nephilim or Sisters of Mercy? I suspect not. Young people, eh?!?

Inspired by the spiky grandeur of art, poetry, literature and style from the Victorian era, it emerged from punk like the more glamorous and theatrical cousin. Sure, there was black eye make-up, but more of a sense of fumbling romanticism, irony and believe it or not… Humour. Nick The Stripper by The Birthday Party, anyone? Ridiculous. The Bat Cave was where the scene began to flourish in England, with many clubs following in its doomy wake.

Alien Sex Fiend Liquid Head: Live in Tokyo

I was no stranger myself to a set of crimpers (hair irons that make hair all crinkly) floaty lace, crushed velvet and red lipstick.

Still love it, but can’t exactly flounce around Glasgow like Miss Havisham as I near fifty. I’d be dunked in the Clyde for witchcraft. This is where my job as an art critic comes in handy- I can wear lace at ballet or theatre press nights.

Also, there was a more poetic and intimate side to Goth which really appealed to this budding writer. The Cure’s Robert Smith in particular referenced Camus, children’s books and dark nightmarish visions, which gave the genre an added potency.

Siouxsie and Robert Smith

We all know Helena Bonham Carter, Noel Fielding and Tim Burton as famous mainstream Goths, but what about the music? Well, forget the bratty offspring- Emo, Dark wave and Goth metal- the original Goths made doomier, more melodic punk: The Birthday Party; Southern Death Cult, Killing Joke, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, The Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend. They looked extreme and wore panstick, singing very ghoulish songs about death, trauma and mental health issues.

The Birthday Party: Junkyard

Then came the others- the arty ones like Bauhaus; The Cure, Dead Can Dance, Gene Loves Jezebel, Virgin Prunes and Lemon Kittens. More oddball, and esoteric, they tended towards almost performance art in their stage presence. 4AD had a strange ethereal template, Cocteau Twins, and the like, murmuring incoherent lyrics over drum machines and wearing beautiful period clothing. Shelleyan Orphan, as with The Cure, looked to poetry (obviously, given their name) and John Everett Millais in their imagery.

The mid-late eighties saw floaty hippies merging dreamier rock with Goth, such as The Mission, March Violets and All About Eve. Denying you were Goth was as Goth as it got, and All About Eve’s Julianne Regan frequently did. But we knew differently.

Then there were the crossover Goths. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry were indie but doomy; The Cramps drew from fifties rockabilly in their sonics, but used horror imagery. Japan were New Romantics, but suitably doomy and strange. Einsturzende Neubauten were by definition industrial, but Goths loved their razor wire nihilism.

Noel Fielding: a more cheeky Goth
Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd

What of the new breed then? Anohni is definitely Goth, with her black clothes and tremulous voice. Likewise Trevor Powers, PJ Harvey and Patrick Wolf. Bat For Lashes was in her harpsichord period, but is more poppy these days. Anna Von Hausswolff definitely is, as she rocks a church organ and howls into the void, and The Horrors are so Goth they played a parody Goth band, The Black Tubes, in an episode of The Mighty Boosh in series three.

Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes
Anna Von Hausswolf being enigmatic

Nick Cave and Soft Cell remain Goth kings (the latter reformed and I reviewed them for The Wee Review in November last year. They were wonderful.)

Sure, the macabre but elegant aesthetic is important, but for me, it’s all about the music. There is even special dispensation for Bowie’s Berlin era, likewise Iggy Pop, Swans and Daisy Chainsaw. Anything with demented/growled/low rumbling vocals and tortured or diminished power chords.

We’re a dying breed in 2022 then, but ’twas ever thus! Be kind to your neighbourhood Goths, they may look vicious, but they’re sensitive souls, really. Just don’t feed them after midnight…

Published by loreleiirvine

I'm a freelance arts monkey. Come see my brain vomit.

2 thoughts on “What Is Goth?

  1. I pre-date Goth by decade but still I love an old school Goth. On second thoughts I don’t predate do I? I’m an old New Romantic (1970’s) but it goes back further….Robert Hume ( late 1800’s) “That Gothicism is closely related to Romanticism is perfectly clear, but it is easier to state the fact than to prove it tidily and convincingly. There is a persistent suspicion that Gothicism is a poor and probably illegitimate relation of Romanticism, and a consequent tendency to treat it that way. There are those, indeed, who would like to deny the relationship altogether.” History repeats itself. There’s got to be a novel in that.

    Liked by 1 person

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