The Beautiful People

July 1997
Susan Colon
reprinted without permission

Sex, death, and eyeliner. Goth was the gala funeral for punk rock, and the ceremony never ended. From Siouxsie Sioux to Marilyn Manson, Suzan Colon unearths the history of goth.
(in order of appearance)

PETER MURPHY: former lead singer for Bauhaus.
DANIEL ASH: former guitarist of Bauhaus, then with Love and Rockets.
DAVID DORRELL: former journalist, now manager of Bush.
JON SAVAGE: pop commentator and author of England's Dreaming.
IAN ASTBURY: former singer of Southern Death Cult and the Cult.
MARC ALMOND: former singer of Soft Cell.
ROBERT SMITH: singer of the Cure.
BRIAN McNELIS: general manager of Cleopatra Records.
FRED H. BERGER: founder and publisher of Propaganda.
ROZZ WILLIAMS: former singer/frontman of Christian Death.
SIOUXSIE SIOUX: former singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
MICHAEL ASTON: former singer of Gene Loves Jezebel.

MURPHY: I know that Bauhaus presumably started what the critics coined the "gothic" genre in 1979 with "Bela Lugosi's Dead," but goth was a myth dreamt up by journalists sometime back in the '80s to describe Bauhaus, Joy Division, Iggy's vocal vibe on The Idiot, and so on. The music was often unaccomplished, but made up for it with a kind of transcendent quality.

ASH: We performed "Bela Lugosi" in the David Bowie movie The Hunger. It was just one day's filming at a gay club in London called Heaven. We were doing a dress rehearsal, and I walked offstage and heard this voice say "Oi, you've got my shoes on." And I look around and it's David Bowie. Can you imagine being twenty-three years old and having your hero tell you you've got the same shoes as he does?

When we recorded "Bela Lugosi's Dead," Bauhaus had only been together for four weeks. We never called ourselves or our music "goth." That was something that came a few years later from the press.

DORRELL: Oh, God, it all comes back! I won't even try and make claims that I wrote an article and called them goths or whether I cribbed that off one of my fellow goth journalists - speed burns my memory. As a journalist, I noticed that the end of punk was starting to get darker. Lydon was getting dark with Public Image Ltd. By committing suicide, Ian Curtis of Joy Division not only put an end to his own life and that of his band, but allowed a vacuum to occur into which all of these other bands scurried.

SAVAGE: Joy Division were incredibly important because of their combination of doomy, even suicidal lyrics against music that really rocked. By the mid-'80s, goth lost that tension, and it became one-dimensional. Obviously the inspiration for the genre goes back to gothic romanticism, the idea of dehumanization caused by the industrial revolution. The archetype for all this is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The monster was a metaphor for the relationships between youth and the people and forces that shape them, and that was a very attractive notion to the goths. But goths also accessed a lot of tacky mass-culture stuff, like The Munsters and The Addams Family, which added a kitsch element to the cartoony punk image that preceded them.

ASTBURY: For a lot of people who had been in it a few years before, punk no longer resembled what they had originally intended it to be. Goth gave them a chance to establish another platform that was specifically theirs. This new scene attracted the dispossessed, a lot of punks living on welfare, shoplifting. Many of them lived in Brixton in the early '80s because it was cheap. There was one band called Sex Gang Children who dressed in a very similar fashion to Bahaus and Specimen. A load of us used to hang out with their singer, Andi SexGang. He lived on the top floor of an old Victorian house. We'd go up there for tea, and he'd be in a Chinese robe with black eye makeup on and his hair all done up, playing Edith Piaf albums with fifteen TVs turned on. We had this vision of him as Count Visigoth in his tower, holding court. At the time, Dave Dorrell heard us calling Andi "Count Visigoth" and his followers "goths," so that's what he called everyone in the scene.

ASH: I don't think I've ever actually heard any songs from Alien Sex Fiend or Specimen, but I instinctively knew that they would be crap. You could tell by the visuals. It sounds really elitist, but I think they gave wearing a black T-shirt a bad name.

ALMOND: I quite liked Alien Sex Fiend and Specimen and a lot of those bands in the early days. I thought they were quite fun. I think that's snobbery.

ASTBURY: All these bands were coming together at the Batcave in London about '81 or early '82. It was run by Ollie Wisdom, who was in Specimen. The club was really mixed; it wasn't just this dark deathrock club. Specimen was the house band, and they were very dark, but they were as much German as they were The Addams Family. They were like a Death Bowie.

ALMOND: The Batcave moved around a couple of places, but I remember it best at a place called Gossips in Soho. You had to take a lift up to the top floor, which used to be a hostess club. There was a little theater where stripteases used to take place, and they used it to watch gothic movies, or bands would perform there, and you could see people like Robert Smith hanging out at the bar.

SMITH: We used to go to the Batcave because we got in free and it was a good atmosphere and the people were really nice. But the music was awful! That whole romanticism of death! Anybody who's ever experienced death firsthand could tell you there's nothing romantic about it.

DORRELL: One of the highlights of goth was going to the Batcave when it was in Leicester Square. It was a great club; there was a U.S. Army Jeep parked right up by the bar. At the same time that was happening, a guy broke into Buckingham Palace and the Queen woke up to find this slightly demented, slightly drunken Irishman on the end of her bed. A week after he was released on bail, he performed with Red Lipstick at the Batcave.

the look

ASH: Within six months of starting, Bauhaus started getting the black-wearing audience and seeing the kids dressing up like us. We used to call them the androgynous space demons. Or the wildebeests.

ASTBURY: It's been treated as a joke by so many people, but the kids who dress that way are very serious about it. To them, it is otherworldly. But people have been dressing like this for tens of thousands of years; primal man used to take the ashes out of the fire and rub it in his eyes and hair to emulate a skull or specter.

McNELIS: Basically, as long as you wear black, you're considered a goth.

SAVAGE: Then and now, goth seems a good way to work out teenage angst. You can disguise your body, be morbid and obsess about death, and shock your parents and peers. Though now that you can see goth imagery in films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Craft, it isn't so alien anymore.

BERGER: Don't forget The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Hunger, and even movies like Ed Wood and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim Burton is really considered to be the number one gothic filmmaker. And a lot of gothic kids love The X-Files; it crosses any number of cultural boundaries.

WILLIAMS: I think the romantic idea of goth is like wearing your heart on your sleeve, saying "This is how I feel inside." You turn yourself into a fearsome little creature. And instead of people picking on you, they're suddenly fascinated with you . . . or they're afraid of you. In those days, when I walked down the street, people took their children across the street away from me.

SMITH: Part of that does go with that sense of alienation, that disenfranchised feeling that goths have. They meet together, looking a certain way, and it's like a tribal mentality. But the audience is a very, very particular demographic. You're supposed to be dead by the time you're twenty-five.

ASTBURY: Some of the bands, like Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend, had jet-black hair, black eyeliner, black fishnets - a futuristic vampire thing. It came more from glam than from any kind of grave robbing. It was just a reaction against the New Romantics, because they were just so posey and shallow.

DORRELL: Ian had been very influential fashionwise. I remember at the time I was living with my mum, and Ian came around wearing these chicken-bone necklaces. Every time he'd visit Kentucky Fried Chicken, he would suck the bones dry and make necklaces out of them. I can remember the faces in the local pub when we walked in!

ASTBURY: There was also a flirtation with pre-Nazi decadence, that sultry, smoky period from late-'20s Berlin that was very androgynous.

BERGER: The aesthetic was pretty much set by Bauhaus, who were a very gender-ambiguous group. The guys wore makeup and they were pretty, and that carried over to the fashion, which for men was lace, high heels, jewelry, thigh-high boots, fetish clothing. Sometimes skirts, but it wasn't drag. Rozz Williams from Christian Death was gender-bending, but definitely a guy. No drag queen would ever consider these gothic boys to be trannies.

ASTBURY: The archetype for the male was Sid Vicious: black spiky hair and a black leather jacket. For the women it was definitely Siouxsie from the Banshees - that S&M look with the black fishnets, the black leather thigh-high boots, the pale face paint and the dark makeup, and then the big black spiky hair.

SIOUXSIE: I never wore white face makeup; I was never that clowny looking. Actually, it's funny - at quite a lot of our concerts, I used to look out and see all these little Robert Smiths.

SMITH: The Banshees used to give me so much grief about how I looked in the Cure - we were a raincoat band, but we were never goth. A lot of the photos of me wearing a rosary or a crucifix or something is exclusive to the eighteen-month period that I was playing with the Banshees, because they determined that I should wear their uniform, which I had to go along with because it wasn't my group. But I enjoyed being in it and I really got on with [bass player Steve] Severin.

SlOUXSIE: Put it down to Robert and Severin together. It's all their fault. Both of them would take my clothes and my jewelry. There were some strange nights going on there, lots of cross-dressing and clothes swapping. Except they never had anything I wanted to wear.

american gothic

BERGER: Ninety percent of the noteworthy bands that founded the genre and sustained it for most of its history were bands like Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Dead Can Dance, Fields of the Nephilim, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In America there were just a handful of bands, most notably Christian Death; some of them, like London After Midnight, are still going.

ASTBURY: For the UK kids, goth was about nihilism and nothingness and emptiness. Margaret Thatcher's Britain was horrible and oppressive. Unemployment was very high, and it was very Orwellian - 1984 was coming. It was almost like the youth were in mourning. I think that's why so many people wore black. The vampire stuff was more in America.

ASH: The only difference between English goths and American ones is their accent.

SIOUXSIE: Maybe that's the difference; I don't think there is an English gothic scene. In America people tend to take things very seriously and they do their homework on it. It seems to mean a lot more to audiences there.

ASTBURY: The American goths in places like New York and L.A., people really didn't bat an eye at these kids, whereas if you went out in the north of England dressed up and made-up and looking quite bizarre, you were going to get the shit kicked out of you. But kids did it anyway because it was their individual statement. It made them.

WILLIAMS: I can't say that I actually remember the migration here in the States, or Los Angeles specifically, but it was called death rock then, and sprung from the punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, like around '79, '80. Some of the bands were 45 Grave, Castration Squad . . . that's where Christian Death came from as well.

ASTBURY: When the Cramps came over from America, they were more a '60s psychobilly band, but they had the very dark look. Their bassist at the time, Bryan Gregory, looked like an undertaker. Later, American goth became very Plan 9 From Outer Space. The only other aspect that seems to come out in American goth is the erroneous confusion of witchcraft with Satanism.

SI0UXSIE: Yeah, it's not often that you get a type of music and then find various very old religions and the occult involved in it. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the symbols are very attractive. There's the analogy: If present-day Christ was done away with by the electric chair, would you have legions of people wearing little electric chairs around their necks?

WILLIAMS: In L.A., I had immersed myself in practicing rituals and reading books about the occult, about murder and death. It was sort of a downer. I've gone from being pretty much a Satanist to-not to the point of going to church every Sunday, but becoming closer to God. I think now I've been able to find a balance, but that seems very hard for a lot of people to swallow. Now people say "But I thought you believe in God." I'm like, "Well, I do, but that doesn't mean I can't still watch my Charles Manson video."

sex & drugs

WILLIAMS: The sexuality was a bit blurry, but I think that the gay part of it was definitely closeted. I was gay, but I didn't really talk about it too much unless I got to know somebody well enough and how they felt about it. There was a bit of a macho thing going on in the scene for a while, and then more and more people just started being open about it.

ALMOND: At the Batcave there was more emphasis on how you looked. People were into the music and being mysterious and dark, and that didn't go very well with a cruisy pickup thing. So if you were a girl you didn't feel threatened that guys were going to give you a hard time, and if you were a guy you were into the music and the clothes and the attitude, and if you were gay you could just have a good time and nobody would bother you either.

ASTON: When we got to LA on our first American tour, we met Christian Death. And one of them came up to me and said, "Okay, which one of us do you want to sleep with, boy or girl?"

WILLIAMS: Um . . . I recall seeing Gene Loves Jezebel at the Roxy, I think, but I don't remember meeting any of them, so it may have been someone else, or maybe he has us confused with someone else, or . . . or maybe I was just too drunk or stoned to remember.

ALMOND: In London there was a lot of alcohol, and a bit of speed as well. At one point, the music had a bit of a psychedelic edge to it which certainly came out in stuff that the Cure and the Banshees were doing with things like "Dear Prudence," which sounded very acid-influenced. I think the gothic scene in the north of England is very much fueled by snakebite blacks-this drink which is a mixture of cider, lager, and black currant with a little bit of sulfate speed mixed in.

WILLIAMS: In LA, it was a kind of open season on just about anything. There were some who really enjoyed speed, and some who were already in the heroin void, some who just drank a lot, and then pills-a lot of Valium, 'ludes. But if you passed a joint to any one of them, they'd be like, "Oh, God, that's hippie shit!"

the denials

WILLIAMS: When I began with Christian Death, we called our music death rock. Then, somewhere along the line, I started hearing this word "gothic. " I felt like, Wow, I'm a part of something new that's happening. But now, it's been so many years. A lot of the younger kids that I run into nowadays, I'll mention Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper, and they're like, "Who?" And it's like, this has been going a lot longer than you know.

ALMOND: I wasn't exactly a goth, but they always include me because there's a gothic/romantic edge to my music. It acknowledges the dark, melancholy side of human nature. Some of my favorite artists have been put under the banner of gothic, going back to Roy Orbison and more obvious people like the Velvet Underground and Nico and Nine Inch Nails.

ASH: There was a lot more to Bauhaus than a bit of lipstick and eye shadow. I'll tell you an irony there: If you look at the art from the original Bauhaus movement, it's the opposite of gothic. It was extremely functional and simple, whereas gothic is very flamboyant. So the name of the band was actually completely different from what we were labeled.

ASTBURY: Bands like Bauhaus always thought of themselves as more of a Dadaist German cabaret art-school thing, as opposed to some cheap horror-movie schtick thing.

AST0N: I disagree. I mean, God, Bauhaus were the great purveyors of the overstatement. I don't know where he chucked in the Dada stuff.

SMITH: There was a goth band that supported us on the U.K. tour in 1981, Danse Society. I think they honestly believed that they were the undead. I thought it was charming, it was like theater. People can say that the Cure were goths, but they're lying. You can't stylize history, and if the photos show you wearing the white-face makeup and the accoutrements of goth, you're a goth band. The thing is, it never happened with the Cure. There are no photos. That's how I can prove that we weren't goth. This won't set the record straight, because it will still go on, but I know in my own heart what we have and haven't been, which is all that matters to me.

SIOUXSIE: I think Robert's having this reaction because he is the original goth. He invented it himself. The only reason why you have people looking like clowns is because when Robert was in the Banshees he just couldn't get my makeup right. It's that lipstick he put on without a mirror. I tried telling him that, but would he listen? Nooooo

SMITH: I was the only real goth in the Banshees.

SIOUXSIE: Oh, of course.

SMITH: When you get Siouxsie to deny that the Banshees were goth, then you've really got a story.

SIOUXSIE: We're not!!! Goth doesn't exist!

the end

ASTBURY: When did it end? Probably about '84, '85 the latest. Then you started having jangly guitar bands, and it was all very dull. The word "gothic" now is really sort of a joke, quite kitschy. The funny thing is that a lot of people would never acknowledge being into those bands, but I was talking to Courtney Love and she said she was at one of our shows in 1984 at the Camden Palace. You never know what kind of influence that could have had. There's your roots of grunge: Courtney Love in London in 1984.

DORRELL: Goth was good fun, I have to say that. I can't say I looked back and had a dull day. The people who were involved were genuinely creative and well-intentioned. It was punk with its guts opened and wearing mascara. But, goth hasn't left much of a body of work to exhume.

ASTBURY: In a metaphorical sense, goth was a funeral for punk rock. And then most of those people went off and started families or evolved into something else. And that was that. The Sisters of Mercy kept going, holding the flame. After that came the Mission UK, which was like a goth hangover. For those who still wanted it, there it was. And the Banshees were still going. There are still enclaves where people can dress up and not feel oppressed. It's a place where people can go to dream. And what's wrong with dreaming?

the resurrection

ALMOND: After the whole scene died down, it found its way into the fetish scene, because the clubs kept playing gothic and industrial music. There are clubs like the Torture Garden in London which is predominantly fetish, but it's very gothic as well.

BERGER: Goth pretty much died out in the U.K. in the early '90s. It goes through cycles in the U.S.-it dies, gets reborn over and over again. It's probably died about five times now. Being that it's a vampire subculture, the idea of coming back from the grave seems very appropriate.

McNELIS: Goth is very much alive, everywhere. There's definite points where the scene is bigger-San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York-but it's everywhere. Right now we're having a resurgence with the advent of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, who draw on gothic imagery. Once people get into them, they like to go out and get deeper into it. There's a lot of new stuff going on, like Rosetta Stone, the Prophetess, and Switchblade Symphony, our biggest artists right now.

ASH: Why is goth still popular? Because when a person doesn't fit in, they often pick up on something different. So these people who are relating to, say, Nine Inch Nails are people who don't fit in with the mainstream. And yes, there are stadiums full of these people. It's music with substance, in preference to the Lionel Ritchies of this world.

SAVAGE: The whole industrial-goth crossover seems to have this fascination with mass murder, which is retarded. Look at Marilyn Manson. In terms of pop culture, it's old. People were doing this thirty years ago-hello? The whole problem with shock tactics is you have to keep upping the ante. And I don't really want to get involved with Charles Manson. Where's the fun in that? Classic Alice Cooper wipes the floor with Marilyn Manson.

McNELIS: Alice Cooper? Naw. . . he was more shock metal, like Kiss, than goth. People say Marilyn Manson is goth, but goth kids don't think so. Goth is a different form of rebellion: They don't want to mosh; they're loners, bookworms, who want to dress up as ghoulies and piss off their parents.

MURPHY: The only band that I've heard of late that evokes that same unique power is Portishead. Some other bands who are unknown as of yet but are just as impressive are the Blue Wolves and Goya Dress, two British artists. I also actually think that U2 have gone seriously goth of late; Bowie tried it in the '90s but was truly gothic back in 1970 with The Man Who Sold the World or even Hunky Dory. Leonard Cohen also. All within my humble definition, of course.

SMITH: It is a very persistent and immutable scene. It doesn't matter what goes on around it, it's always there. I can understand some of the allure. It's a very romantic look and it has a lot of poetic overtones to it. It's no different than any other kind of tribe. It's just much more highly visual.

ALMOND: I think it's making a comeback-you can feel it in the air! I saw a fashion show by Alexander McQueen in London and he had the show in a church, and a lot of the clothes were very religious and gothic.

ASH: I live in L.A. now and there are various clubs here and in San Francisco and probably all over the country with goth nights. I remember going to a couple of clubs on goth night and it was like a flashback to 1982; it was exactly the same. I think if somebody follows that sort of thing through for twenty or thirty years, then they haven't got too much going upstairs, if you get my drift. But you also get kids of sixteen and seventeen picking up on stuff that was recorded fifteen years ago. We still get those people now, mixed in with the T-shirts-and-jeans college people. It's funny, because you never see the goths on the street, but they all come out of the woodwork when there's a gig on. .

Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 15:00:04 CDT

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