Siouxsie Sioux
Siouxsie Sioux Press Photo | Polydor Records (1981)

Darkness Illuminates: Goth Punk’s Great Escapism

While goth punk’s theatricality dramatizes concerns about depression and suicide, its safe spaces are inviting to the otherwise alienated and ostracized.

The goth subculture has traveled many tributaries over the past 40 years. Many have forgotten—or are unaware of—its emanation from the early punk movement. Initially regarded as just one more branch of DIY experimentation sprouting from punk’s fertile tree, the term “goth” was rarely used during its formative years, critics preferring to accommodate its expressions under the umbrella terms “positive punk”, “horror punk”, or just “post-punk”.

Joy Division are sometimes cited as the first goth band. This is based largely on a couple of comments their manager Tony Wilson and guitarist Bernard Albrecht had made about the band’s sound in 1979 (Michael Bibby, “Atrocity Exhibitions: Joy Division, Factory Records, and Goth”, Goth: Undead Subculture, eds. Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby, Duke University Press, 2007, p.239). Karl and Beverley Spracklen trace the term’s more regular application to a few years later when used jokingly by some of Brixton’s punk in-crowd to describe Andi from Sex Gang Children (The Evolution of Goth Culture: The Origins and Deeds of the New Goths, Emerald Publishing, 2018, p.37). Andi was one of the growing black-clad army populating Soho’s Batcave club every Wednesday night between 1982 and 1985. Arguably, it was this scene that gave goth its identifiable distinction both within and apart from punk and post-punk.

Many punks were happy to be disassociated from these style-obsessed “morbids” whose self-indulgent fantasizing flouted punk’s premise of conveying class-conscious social realism. Goths, to some, were just neo-hippies in darker clothing, exhibiting the same old tendencies of middle-class privilege, infantile play, and political apathy. Such critical presumptions pervaded the music press, too, which mostly poured scorn on goth while valorizing other outposts of post-punk innovation. Academia, while quick to celebrate punk’s resistant impulses, largely ignored goth until the 21st century, at which point it paid almost sole attention to its clothes rather than music.

Clothes, of course, were (and are) significant social signifiers for both punk and goth, though what the latter’s signified seemed more rooted in an imaginary past than a pressing present. Isabella Van Elferen and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock speak of goth’s “nostalgic yearning” for another time and place, its subcultural features all directed backwards, away from current reality (Goth Music: From Sound to Subculture, Routledge, 2016, p.6). Punk, by contrast, mostly dismissed the past and raged against the present, by implication protesting for a better future. Like the punk from which it was spawned, goth rejected adult norms and harnessed negative energies in identifiable rebellion; but unlike punk it sought different goals, purposes, and destinations. Punk’s “no future” cries protested the dystopia experienced by modern youth, while goth used the presumption as a reason to retreat into solipsistic musings on despair, desolation, and death. For some punks such expressions were a luxury only bourgeois romantics could afford.

Charges that goth is a-political and lacking in critical clout have been re-evaluated in recent years, particularly by scholars interested in identity politics. Although a mostly middle-class subculture, goth has facilitated participatory space for females and LGBTQ+ youth perhaps more than any other rock subculture. Melodramatic it may be, but goth’s theatricality dramatizes common concerns, such as depression and suicide, amongst young people today. As such, its darkness illuminates, while its safe spaces are inviting to the otherwise alienated and ostracized in society. Punk has been praised for its progressive inclusiveness, but sexism and homophobia have always been rampant within many of its sub-divisions. However, for those suffering discrimination within mainstream society, goth has provided both empowerment and a sympathetic soundtrack.

The longevity of both goth and punk can be partially explained by their deep aesthetic roots. Unlike the more period-specific mods and rockers, for example, goths and punks are essentially recent youth cultural manifestations of ongoing historical traditions. Just as punk can conceptually be traced back to certain avant-garde art movements of the early 20 th century, goth continues a 19th century literary legacy of dark romanticism. Playing fast and loose with history, some contemporary goths sprinkle into their vampire chic iconographic markers from the original Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Others choose to mix in distinctly aristocratic items from the Victorian era.

“A predilection for all things ancient and Romantic” is how Dunja Brill describes the goth subculture (Goth Culture, Berg, 2008, p.3). Such indiscriminate dressing has led some skeptics to question whether goths should be compared more to Dungeons and Dragons players and Renaissance Festival goers than to punk rebels. Carol Siegel, nevertheless, still sees their stylistic time traveling in a subversive light. She regards their mix-and-maybe-match attire as symbolically defiant to the dominant culture, “reflecting back darkly, always making possible new ways of seeing” (Goth’s Dark Empire, Indiana University Press, 2005, p.12).

London punk during 1976 addressed issues of social class, the generation gap, and the out-of-touch irrelevance of contemporary rock and pop. But it was Siouxsie and the Banshees, with their sophomore album, that introduced the escapist themes and moods that would dominate future goth. Join Hands (1979) contains “Premature Burial”, “Icon”, and “Poppy Day”, all gloomy death dirges constructed around washes of flanged sounds that evoke a cold winter aura.

This sustained melancholia is replaced with a more ceremonial spirit in the next release, Juju (1981). Considered by many to be the band’s most goth-oriented album, here Sioux immerses herself in the supernatural in “Spellbound”, “Sin in my Heart”, “Voodoo Dolly”, and “Halloween”. “The album blueprinted an absurdly large proportion of Goth’s musical and lyrical themes,” comments Simon Reynolds (Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Penguin, 2005, p.356). Perhaps aware that a subculture was forming around such themes, the band’s “Painted Bird” (1982), with its references to “freak…carrion” with “screaming eyes” threatened by “the flock”, might be interpreted as a tribute to the aberrant mohawk-sporting peacocks and Siouxsie look-alikes increasingly attending Banshees shows.

In 1979 goth found its subcultural anthem in Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Slow and funereal, this debut single was structured like a film score from a horror film, with foreboding anticipation in its build-up and shock-inducing exclamation marks inserted periodically, courtesy of Daniel Ash’s eerie guitar scrapes and drummer Kevin Haskins’s echoing snare cracks. Over it all ran a simple bass line descending ominously, promising but yielding no resolution. Three of the nine-plus minutes of the song elapse before singer Peter Murphy enters the scene, high in the mix but low and somber in tone.

Also caught up in the feeding frenzy for all things goth at the close of the ’70s was the Birthday Party, who arrived from Australia only to serendipitously find a home for their dissonant brand of goth-saturated post-punk. Although just as melodramatic as Bauhaus, Nick Cave’s band managed to avoid the Hammer horror clichés. Instead, real menace lurks in songs like “Deep in the Woods” (1983) and “Release the Bats” (1982), due largely to the Poe-etic details Cave brought to his stories and settings.

These were presented in a voice capable of oscillating on a dime between tension-filled narration and the unhinged outbursts of a singer seemingly possessed. Capturing the dark backwoods Southern gothicism of writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner, Cave’s tales were animated by the band’s atmospheric use of guitar, bass, and drums, the traditional rock instruments given a jazz-like freedom to wreak havoc. Sin and salvation were (and are) Cave’s stock themes, as they are in the gothic literary tradition.

The three B-bands (Banshees, Bauhaus, and Birthday Party) are credited with developing proto-goth aesthetics, but another significant post-punk act, Joy Division, must also be recognized for their contributions to the sonic palette. Sometimes overlooked due to never adopting goth’s distinctive garb, Joy Division foreshadow many of the musical features we still associate with the sub-genre. Ian Curtis’s suicide in 1980 at the age of 23 has also cultivated the morbid curiosity of certain would-be goths, some who still make a pilgrimage to his grave in Macclesfield (Bibby, p.233). The band’s cult status, though, is due more to the bleakness pervading both the band’s music and packaging.

Signed to Factory Records, a label housing several of post-punk’s gloomiest artists (A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, and Section 25, to name a few), as well as a designer (Peter Saville) and producer (Martin Hannett) that complemented such branding, Joy Division addressed themes that came to dominate subsequent goth expressions: loss, longing, failure, hopelessness, death. Moreover, moving on stage in a way that seemed to mirror his epilepsy, Curtis became emblematic not of goth style but its assumed psychological condition. Personal yet universal songs like “New Dawn Fades” (1979) and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980) transport listeners into a posthumous void, while “Disorder” (1979) and “She’s Lost Control” (1979) personalize punk’s social unrest.

Producer Martin Hannett was the crucial fifth Division, transforming them from a conventional punk band (as Warsaw) into post-punk innovators. In their Warsaw days, guitar, bass, drums, and vocals competed with each other in the mix for punk supremacy. Under Hannett’s tutelage, however, subtraction was prioritized, each sound component given space and separation. Such spatial re-alignments are what distinguish the goth sound from its punk roots.

As with the B-bands, Joy Division songs are structured around pronounced bass lines and low register vocals, creating a subterranean mood. Behind these, drums are stripped of any polyrhythms then given heavy digital delay, underscoring the cavernous effect. Albrecht’s guitar, although low in the mix, cuts through in periodic outbursts before subsiding into the background again. Punk productions to this point had sought assault and battery on audiences, but proto-goth’s add-and-subtract approach introduced new moods, representing what Michael Bibby considers “an absence of power” (p.241).

Listening closely to Hannett’s production choices was Robert Smith of the Cure. His band’s contribution to the pivotal year of 1979 was Three Imaginary Boys, an eclectic collection of neo-psychedelic-meets-post-punk songs. Over their next three albums, though, melancholia set in, the previous instrumental bluster replaced with a stripped-down sound consisting of one simple drum beat, a few chorus-inundated guitar chords, and simple but heavily flanged bass lines.

Music has rarely sounded so bleak, Smith’s disconsolate wailing about loss, isolation, and sadness only accentuating the prevailing mood. Smith had already paid his goth dues as fill-in guitarist for Siouxsie and the Banshees on the Join Hands tour, but critics were mostly cold to his band, considering them copyists of Joy Division before becoming copyists of New Order. Reynolds shows thinly-veiled disdain in calling The Cure a “Goth lite” (p.357) act performing for “suburbia’s lost dreamers” (p.358).

The period between 1979 and 1982 saw positive punk splinter in multiple directions, some bands maintaining punk’s independent and DIY spirit as others veered more toward the mainstream. This latter camp took in so-called “big music” bands like U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, Big Country, and Simple Minds. They sang epic heroic anthems that sought the light of transcendence, offering stark contrast to the proto-goth bands that withdrew more into shadows and darkness. Both, though, departed from punk’s present tense perspective, with its groundings in socio-political realities. Instead, imaginations were un-leashed by both the big music and proto-goth bands, as listeners were swept away to far-off times and places dramatized by narratives of death or glory. That legacy has lingered in the goth subculture to this day.

Despite its recent return to its underground roots, goth, with its promises of romantic escape, continues to filter into music and style, leading to some strange manifestations, such as the goth Lolita fashion recently prevalent in Asian teen-pop. With mainstream stars like Madonna appropriating goth style, as seen in her “Frozen” (1998) video, the genre operates today mostly as a point of reference, what the Spracklens call “a site for communicative alternativity” (p.175).

To look at goth today no longer only means adopting the vampire punk style. One might embrace a Victorian “steampunk” look, a Medieval peasant look, a colorful cyber look; a plain black-clad industrial look; or a sex fetishist look. Its musical parameters, too, display “a generic diversity” too broad to account for, leading to never-ending online “what is and what isn’t goth” debates (Elferen and Weinstock, p.6). While traditional goth punks tout the virtues of old school bands like the Banshees and Bauhaus, or of successors like the Horrors, Pale Waves, and Plastique Noir, younger goths are more likely to head to the dance floor where EBM reigns supreme. The flourishing of these barely related musical factions shows one thing all can agree upon: the final stakes have yet to be driven into this undead genre.

The Cure