Beyond Black: Rethinking Goth

Various Artists
A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box

When we were young and our first couple of records were out, there were bands like the Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus. They were wearing black and black fucking lipstick, and it was like “Ooooh, scary…” And then we started to see our name getting mentioned with all of them, and it was kind of like, “Hmmm, that’s a bit weird.” I was way too fat to be a fucking goth.

— Robin Guthrie, Cocteau Twins

Everybody knows what goth is: A visual expression of a particular stylistic ideal. It’s a black biker jacket, and black eyeliner and lipstick. It’s hiding a hyper-sensitive disposition behind hair dyed jet-black and hanging in your face. It’s a completely un-ironic display of individualism adopted en masse by kids across the world. While the likes of Hot Topic and SNL (think Chris Kattan’s Azrael Abyss in the brilliant “Goth Talk” skits) have rendered the goth aesthetic a parody of itself, it has also entered the pop culture vernacular. Characters like Sara Gilbert’s Darlene Connor on Rosanne and Violet Parr, the superhero daughter in Pixar’s The Incredibles, are goth characters who have earned mainstream acceptance.

But for all those generalizations about goth’s visual aesthetic, I had always defined goth music in much more narrow terms. Heavily orchestrated, the music seemed complex, and the stage show theatrics were somehow calculated yet natural. The holy trinity of Bauhaus-the Cure-Siouxsie and the Banshees was infallible. Yet for these artists to stray even slightly would have dropped them out of the realm of goth and into the then-specific “alternative” genre that we used in the late ’80s to describe virtually anything on college radio. Bauhaus was goth; Peter Murphy or Love and Rockets were alternative. The Cure was goth; the Glove was alternative. Siouxsie was goth; the Creatures were alternative.

Siouxsie and the Banshees — Spellbound

And exploring that design is where A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box, a three-CD-plus-DVD set from Rhino, will set itself apart. In a nod to the importance of goth’s visual style, the packaging is gorgeous — a faux-leather lace-up corset surrounds the hard-cover book-sized set. Inside is a 60-page “manuscript” that includes detailed track listings, thought-provoking and historical perspective essays, chapters on “The ‘G’ Word” (where the artists themselves address the label), playful step-by-step instructions on how to dance like a goth, and ten cheeky essentials for hosting a proper goth night.

The question of “What is goth?” and the contents of this set will put the spotlight not on the song selection (which is nearly untouchable as a musical document), but on the ridiculousness of genre labels. The intriguing inclusion of such seemingly tangential goth acts as the Jesus and Mary Chain, Skinny Puppy, Cocteau Twins, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Dali’s Car force the listener to rethink their definitions of “goth.”

Compilation producer Liz Goodman’s thought-provoking track selection asks the listener to participate in the experience by inviting questions. Are all of the groups formed by the members of Bauhaus goth? What about the neo-psychedelic resurgence of Echo & the Bunnymen? Nick Cave’s unique Australian goth strain certainly belongs here, but what about the post-punk cacophony of the Birthday Party? Where does 4AD’s ethereal lineage and Ministry’s aggro industrial clatter fit in to all this? Both the Southern and Death Cult make justified appearances, but the Cult’s final alternative metal incarnation can be called into question. The collection explores the far-reaching roots and tangled branches of the goth tree in a way that illustrates the unfurling of the entire post-punk movement.

The Cult — Rain

The songs selected here are hereditarily goth, even if some of the artists aren’t necessarily associated with the movement. And, really, goth as a genre has to be the most openly disdained label in the history of music categorization. Artists have rejected and outright denounced the goth label. Even Bauhaus’s Daniel Ash is quoted in the set’s book as saying “Goth in England meant too much makeup and no talent.” And this is the beauty of A Life Less Lived: It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still acknowledges the importance of the music collected.

Cleopatra Records has always had a stranglehold on goth compilations, so it’s nice to see Rhino step up and put something like this together. And because it’s Rhino, the compilation doesn’t need to resort to Cleopatra Records’ formula of “one Bauhaus, one Christian Death, one Alien Sex Fiend track each and the rest just filler by Razed in Black and Rosetta Stone and Switchblade Symphony.”

The most challenging and rewarding inclusion is Joy Division. Seeming to begin mid-song, Bernard Sumner’s droning rock guitar and Peter Hook and Stephen Morris’ propulsive rhythm pull and shove throughout “Dead Souls”, disorienting the listener for over two-minutes before Ian Curtis’ insistent, twitchy delivery kicks in. Joy Division’s most powerful song, “Dead Souls” leaves the listener battered by the time the guitar and bass drift out, and the drums abruptly end.

Opening the entire set with “Dead Souls” is a ballsy, head-turning move — one which calls into question the very idea of what goth music is, or more specifically where it began. While citing the post-punk icons as the true godfathers of goth is debatable, the selection sets the perfect tone for listening to the rest of the discs. Just seeing it among the track listing is powerful stuff, but ultimately it sets the door ajar just enough to allow the listener to open their minds to everything that follows, and possibly enough to completely rethink their ideas of what goth is.

A portrait of a musical evolution, Bauhaus and nearly every subsequent incarnation of its members’ work is represented. The parent band’s exceptional “She’s in Parties” is a pleasant and poppy choice over the clichéd “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (although the warhorse does show up on the DVD). The splintered group’s immediate and fleeting reformations (Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins with roadie Glen Campling as Tones on Tail, and Peter Murphy with Japan’s Mick Karn as Dali’s Car) are heard here with “Christian Says” and “His Box”. Their most commercially viable phases came when Ash, Haskins, and David J were stood up by Murphy for a proposed Bauhaus reunion. Instead, the trio formed Love and Rockets (“Mirror People”) while Murphy went solo (“Cuts You Up”). Ash’s guitar scorcher “Coming Down Fast” would be right at home on Love and Rockets’ self-titled effort. Although David J’s work with Love and Rockets is found here, his solo work and his collaboration with the Jazz Butcher are overlooked, as is Love and Rockets’ alter ego, the Bubblemen. Their omission is only noticeable because of the inclusion of the other post-Bauhaus selections, not because the exclusions are necessarily goth.

Peter Murphy — Cuts You Up

The Leeds contingent is well-represented here, led by Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Andrew Eldritch’s Sisters of Mercy, who alone seems to have fertilized half of the goth bands that sprang up in the ’80s. The Mission UK boasts two former (and famously feuding with Eldritch) Sisters: Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams. Ghost Dance includes Sisters’ co-founder Gary Marx. The Rose of Avalanche is named after the Sisters’ drum machine, Doktor Avalanche. The March Violets signed to Eldritch’s Merciful Release label. Also documented here is Ian Astbury’s evolution from goth heir to Jim Morrison’s successor. Southern Death Cult was poised to take the reins from Bauhaus (even opening for them on their 1982 tour) when they collapsed under the hype. Re-emerging almost immediately as Death Cult, Astbury was joined by Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy for the transition band that led to the hard-rocking, hit-making Cult.

Ivo Watts’ 4AD label (which released the first proper Bauhaus album, In the Flat Field, between the release of “Bela” on Small Wonder and their Beggars Banquet signing) is represented by Clan of Xymox, Xmal Deutschland, Cocteau Twins, and Dead Can Dance. The obvious forefathers of shoegaze and emo, these bands don’t necessarily strike a goth chord, but their downstream influence on goth is evident. More curious is the inclusion of industrial stalwarts the likes of Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, and Einstürzende Neubauten. While they share goth’s dark undertone, they are both thematically and musically far more aggressive than what commonly defines the genre.

With the exception of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (which was released in the mid-’90s), the set’s DVD is a condensed version of MTV’s 120 Minutes circa 1989. Like the rest of the set, the gothic merits of the 12-video collection are arguable. While the Nick Cave film sticks out for being anachronistic, Love and Rockets (“Ball of Confusion”), the Jesus and Mary Chain (“Head On”), Echo & the Bunnymen (“The Killing Moon”), and Ministry (“Stigmata”) are stylistically misplaced — undeniably great and classic songs, but only marginally goth. Other inclusions, like the Sisters of Mercy’s perfect “Lucretia My Reflection”, are spot-on representatives.

As Goodman states in her notes, “this box isn’t meant to replace your vinyl b-sides collection.” And it won’t. All the music here is available elsewhere, but it has never been so fascinatingly presented. While the packaging of A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box is beautiful, its true beauty lies in the set’s ability to get someone who considered himself as much of a goth as he did a punk back in the late ’80s to reconsider his predefined ideas about goth as a genre, and its place in the post-punk movement.

Clan of Xymox — Muscoviet Musquito

Sisters of Mercy — Lucretia My Reflection