What’s Goth and What’s Not Goth

Warning: This blog posts contains a lot of links to You Tube videos of the bands performing live. I expect you to watch every single one of them. There WILL a test. Please don’t continue if you can’t uphold your part of the deal.


So the Beeb have a programme coming up on Friday called Goth at the BBC and it’s already got me all riled up.  Like punk, there is a lot of guff talked about goth. This article, for example, has Joy Division as one of the 10 essential goth bands. No, no, no. Not even slightly.

My only qualification for talking about this is that in the early eighties I was a wannabe teenage punk and I was at the time aged 14, 15 and 16. In that order. For some reason, in those days, what tribe you belonged to really mattered. It’s hard to tell the (my) kids of today how it’s so different now and you’re free to like hip-hop and metal. It’s allowed. In my day, you had to make a binary choice, although there was some blurring around punk and reggae for some reason.

I witnessed the slow troubled birth of goth and in the years since I’ve  seen it grow into the very strange phenomenon it now currently is.  In the days when  access to new music was essentially The Tube ( on Channel 4 on a Friday), John Peel, the music press and of course, local gigs  – one of only modes of fresh information was the collection of band logos on back of people’s leather jackets. Those jackets were the Spotify “Related Artists” buttons of yesteryear.

Look at this leather jacket above… Motorhead, Alien Sex Fiend and The Cramps. I can’t even… there isn’t a venn diagram that could hold these disparate entities. I feel a blog post about punk leather jackets and the logos coming on. Another day.

So firstly, we need to establish that many of the bands that defined goth weren’t actually goth themselves, because goth didn’t exist yet. These bands were hangover punk bands from the 70s, they were musically minded in that they weren’t continuing raw end of punk,  and they all had spiky back-combed jet back hair and eyeliner. These bands were Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and The Damned. They would be my menage a trois grandparents of goth.

Have you watched the videos linked?




Then there were the bands that the as-yet-not-quite-goths all liked. I’d see these as-yet-not-quite-goths at the same gigs I went to. These bands were very definitely post-punk in that they all distanced themselves from punk which was slowly mutating into the likes of crude working-class mainly racist skinhead Oi crap  from the likes of 4 Skins, hardcore punk from bands like Disorder and anarcho-punk from the likes of The Crass ( I loved the graphics, the politics and ethics of the The Crass but they were quite a hard listen ).

(Have you watched all those? They set the scene )

At the time though, post-punk was only one label of the labels out there for the bands I was watching and listening to. “Post punk” was competing for acceptance with the labels of new wave, positive punk and even blitzkrieg rock (anyone remember that one?) .

These post-punk bands included my personal favourites, Killing Joke and Theatre of Hate who became Spear of Destiny but also included Sisters of Mercy,  Southern Death Cult,  Birthday Party, Psychedelic Furs, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, New Model Army, Cocteau TwinsVirgin PrunesThe Chameleons, The Cramps,  The Fall.

Exciting times.


The Vinyl Holy Trinity Of Goth

There were three records that trace the trajectory of the rise of goth and the death of post punk. They were  Bauhaus with Bela Lugosi’s Dead which kicked goth off.

Death Cult’s   Death Cult – EP which for a fleeting moment looked like punk could become a Kings of The Wild Frontier type thing but didn’t.  It’s amazing how quickly the Cult became mainstream soft rockers following this, but for a moment it look like goth might shake off the black and become something more psychedelic.

And there was the Sisters of Mercy’s Temple of Love was the point where goth got neutered and the this record became the template for what goth is now … and was set in stone.


The Exact Date Of The Birth of Goth

Bauhaus’  Bela Lugosi’s Dead came out in August 1979.  I didn’t know it was that early, I’d have put its release at 1981ish. Anyway, it took a couple of years for its messages to filter through. Messages like vampires are cool, black and pale is obligatory,  wear fishnet stockings on your arms, you can’t have too many effects on your guitars ( chorus and echo especially ) and be as pretentious as hell itself.

I loved Bauhaus. True, they were a bit pantomime but, the music was great.

This article pins the exact beginning of goth as 1983.  Although I doubt the truth about Ian Astbury’s role,  I think the date is about right.

In an interview with Dave Thompson and Jo-Anne Green of Alternative Press magazine in November 1994, Ian Astbury, the vocalist in Southern Death Cult, laid claim to having invented the goth tag:
“The goth tag was a bit of a joke,” insists Ian Astbury. “One of the groups coming up at the same time as us was Sex Gang Children, and Andi — he used to dress like a Banshees fan, and I used to call him the Gothic Goblin because he was a little guy, and he’s dark. He used to like Edith Piaf and this macabre music, and he lived in a building in Brixton called Visigoth Towers. So he was the little Gothic Goblin, and his followers were Goths. That’s where goth came from.”

If there’s one band that could be said to have spawned goth, it would, for me, apart from Bauhaus, it would be the often overlooked Sex Gang Children.  They had the haircuts, the attitude and most importantly they had a connection with the Batcave club in London.

The only problem with the Sex Gang Children was that their music was too intelligent, it was complex, quirky and challenging.  If they’d have whacked up the bass chorus and written some floaty banal songs rather than the screechy stuff, it would be them holding the credit for this thing called goth. I suspect that in the BBC show coming up, they won’t even get a mention. And yet they were goth to the bone before goth.

The Real Goths

For me,  real goth was born in the Batcave which opened in July 1982. Don’t get me wrong, there were a heap of Northern goth bands, and York was home to Red Rhino records which signed them all I think and played them to death at the Roxy. But somehow, The Batcave seemed the spiritual home of goth, a place where the horror B movie look went mad and felt at home. When I think of real early goth I think of Alien Sex Fiend, who I saw at the Bumper Castle on the edge of York, and it felt like the Batcave had visited the north for an evening.

Check out this video of Goth in York. That guy with the blonde mohawk was in the mosh pit at the Alien Sex Fiend gig. I was stood at the back thinking, this is a bit shit.


These new early goths were taking their lead from the grandparents of goth, they added some key components and they were…

  • B-Movie horror style. The camper the better.
  • Drum machines were cool
  • Twiddly guitars were cool
  • Deep male vocals please
  • Bass guitars had to be ploddy and have acres of chorus effect applied
  • It was OK for men to wear fishnet vests and make-up
  • Synthesizers were acceptable
  • Skulls
  • Vampires
  • Zombies

The bands from this time who I would consider real goths were …

Alien Sex Fiend

Alien Sex Fiend, Specimen Gene Loves JezebelThe March Violets,  Danse Society (on The Tube and truly awful ),  Flesh For Lulu (deep singing),  Skeletal FamilyPlay DeadGhost Dance,  Xmal Deutchland,  Fields of the Nephilim,  Balaam and the Angel (on The Tube) and  Rubella Ballet.

Watch all those videos, and spot the difference between Fields of The Nephilim and Birthday Party. Compare and contrast The March Violets and Killing Joke. Most of the goth bands stuck to the same template. THEY WERE ALL THE SODDING SAME!

Goth, like punk was as much a fashion as it was about music, it was like a Hammer Horror version of punk that hadn’t wrung enough juice out of glam rock.

Although some of the bands like Alien Sex Fiend favoured a sort of proto-industrial sound and were trying to be originals, others were more akin to twiddly gothic folk music.

These first goth bands were united by one thing, they were all truly, truly awful.  Really, bloody bad. I know I saw all of them live. I was even in a band at the time that didn’t know it was goth.

The absolute goth kings of awful were The Mission. They obviously really wanted to be the U2 of goth and the way they went about becoming that was beyond the pale.  Watch the linked video, I’m still to this day astonished by how awful they were, their blandness and twiddly diddly riffs are beyond belief. I can’t believe how beyond belief they were.

But it is these pioneers of awful that we must thank for the likes of what is known as goth today… The Marilyn Mansons and VNV Nations and this list of goth bands I’ve never heard of that now are as goth as the goth section in the Argos catalogue draw a direct line of decent from the early real goths and not from the post-punks, not from the likes The Birthday Party or The Cocteau Twins or Spear of Destiny (assuming you ignore haircuts).

Actually, I quite like Marilyn,  who borrowed the look from the Batcave but his sound is more of a glammed up Cabaret Voltaire / Einsturzende Neubaten / Killing Joke / Throbbing Gristle / Test Dept than the twiddly fiddly stuff I’m talking about … bad example there.

And weirdly, at the time, lurking on the edge of goth was  Marc Almond and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel’s Clint Ruin and Pete Burns with You Spin Me Right Round. I know, it didn’t make much sense but goth was becoming very mainstream and very, very awful. (Again, Marc Almond and Clint Ruin were quite good at it. It’s all very confusing this, isn’t it?)

Goth lost punk’s raw menace. This was maybe a good thing. Punk always had too much violence anyway and punk’s pogo dance had evolved into the chicken dance. Watch for the chicken dance in the audience of any of the live videos linked above, it’s hilarious. You can spot the chicken dance because it was a cross between the birdy dance and a martial art designed for mosh pit survival.  Goth became a Tim Burton fairytale horror story rather than the real dark threat in a Birthday Party song performance.

Compare this Birthday Party song above love to this Mission song above love and guess which one makes me puke.

Goth became very feminine, shy and pretty ( look at this Google Image search for goth this is what goth is now). A style of chicken dance even evolved that was sort of like gentle lace covered armpit wafting, a thing of beauty rather than a sweaty punk from Wakefield’s elbow in your face.

I increasingly didn’t like this fey and girly goth. I not only didn’t like it, I was embarrassed I’d ever shared a venn diagram with it.  And what’s more I got very annoyed when people claimed post-punk bands for goth.  Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Birthday Party weren’t goth. OK, Bauhaus might be, but that would spoil my point.

When you start claiming goth heritage, you can get your hands off the excellent Bauhaus, Killing Joke and Birthday Party because they just weren’t goth and you can start taking responsibility for your wayward real grandparents, the likes of  Alien Sex Fiend,  Sex Beat ( remember them?) and maybe you could even give Sex Gang Children a call to say sorry for locking them in the attic all this time.

Sometimes, I wonder, why any of this matters? Why does whether an obscure band from Wakefield were goth or post punk matter to me so much? It could be that (before I’ve even seen it, I imagine) the BBC are carelessly rummaging through my nostalgia and clearly putting it back in the wrong boxes. It could be that it’s about the veracity of post punk history,  where I shout  “Hey, I was there, at all those gigs, and you’ve got it wrong”. Is it that the ages of 15,16, 17 and indie music were to me steeped in something incredibly intense and seminal for me and I’m just overly obsessed with the music from those years… and myself.

I don’t have an answer to why the post punk and goth era matters so much to me, but I was there.  I shared Southern Comfort backstage with Nick Cave.  And I like to think that maybe the few words we shared set him on his way…  Crown of Thorns were supporting ( remember them?).






4 thoughts on “What’s Goth and What’s Not Goth”

  1. my sister took me to see bauhaus on the mask tour at tiffanys night club leeds in 1981. I am now 55 yrs old and they to me started goth. dark entries to me is the best track and i love Daniel ash on guitar. im going to see machine head on the 14th december at o2 academy and i will have on my leather biker jacket with bauhaus t shirt.
    thanks Carl.

  2. I recently started listening to post punk stuff after researching the real Goth music. I have dressed Goth for over ten years but regrettably, I fell into all the stereotypes. When I was a teenager, I only listened to Evanescence for awhile, thought Goth represented depression and ignored every rule in the book and later only listened to Lady Gaga. Mind you, her music gets a play in the clubs every now and then but I am now at the age where I have realized if I am going to have to the look I need to at least respect where it originated from. At first, I hated the sound because it was so far from pop but now I can’t stop listening to Joy Division because of the deepness that I feel is lacking in today’s culture. Because I live in a strict religious environment, I can’t really go out with people that are of a different mindset than Pentecostals so I’m on my own as far as finding out about the culture. Thanks for sharing what is and what is not Goth music.

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