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20 best: Goth records ever made

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  • A timely reappraisal of that most unfairly maligned of genres, starring Bauhaus and more
  • published
    2 Nov 2010
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Words: Kiran Sande

It’s June, 1999, or thereabouts. I’m sixteen years of age. I’m in a nightclub for the first, perhaps second time in my life. The nightclub is called Spiders, and it’s located on the edge of an industrial estate in Hull. The air as my friends and I queue up outside is foul with burnt cocoa fumes wafting from a neighbouring factory. The smell inside the club is worse.

Being 16, I can barely believe my luck when I’m granted entry. It would be some time before I realised that Spiders wasn’t merely accepting of minors’ custom, but wholly reliant upon it. I try to get my bearings. Spiders is dark. I mean really dark. To this day I’ve never been to a club that dark; I’m not sure how much it had to do with creating an ambience and how much to do with the owners’ unwillingness to fork out on  electricity. After some deliberation I buy myself a Green Monster – an in-house “cocktail”, served in a pint glass – and relax. The music emanating from the dancefloor is some unremarkable Britpop hit or other.

I look at the wall. And then I realise the wall is looking back at me. In fact, the wall is moving. It dawns on me that there are six or seven people leaning against the wall, clad all in black, maintaining a monkish silence, looking distant and more than a little bit tortured. The unremarkable Britpop tune comes to an end, and there’s a brief pause while the DJ fumbles with the controls. Then a new song begins. The song is Sisters of Mercy’s ‘Alice’.

Activated as if by remote control, the sextet of black-clad folk who I’ve mistaken for a wall troop off in the direction of the music, still not uttering a single word to each other. I follow them at a short distance. When I reach the dancefloor they’re there…dancing. Well, I say dancing; more accurately they’re stomping, or sluggishly waving their torsos without moving their feet, or holding their heads in their hands as if in a rapture of pain, or pleasure, or both. It’s like some kind of demented exercise video. Other groups of similarly attired characters arrive at the dancefloor at the same time, and a few of them exchange words, dance together, get off with each other. Then ‘Alice’ stops, and every single one of them returns to the corner of the club they came from, to continue their necking or simply resume brooding in silence.

These characters, you will have gathered, are the Goths.





I’d seen plenty of goths before – they’re an enduring fixture of suburban life – but until this point I’d never witnessed them in their element. It wasn’t pretty, witnessing them in their element, but it was kind of endearing. I’d seen the same folks in daylight, dressed the same way, at bus-stops around town, hoping that their bus arrived before the next torrent of abuse from some lad in a tracksuit.  Invariably misfits with low self-esteem, there was undeniable courage in their commitment to the gloomy cause.

That was 1999, and this is 2010. Not a great deal has changed in the interim. To most people goth still represents the epitome of uncool and artistic worthlessness, goths still get beaten shitless at bus-stops, Spiders still sells luminous vodka cocktails to children. But it wasn’t always this way. In the years ’79-’87, when goth was still just a moody outgrowth of post-punk and not yet an indiscriminating global sub-culture and consolation for the socially excluded, it yielded some of the most ambitious and affecting music ever-made.

I’m not a goth, nor was I meant to be. I wasn’t there in ’79-’87. I didn’t live through it. So what follows is an idealised portrait of goth in its infancy. It’s highly selective and at times insensitive. I’ve ignored goth acts who were popular and important to the scene’s development on the grounds that I simply don’t like their music – so no Fields Of The Nephilim, no Mission, no Danielle Dax, etc. I’ve privileged those records that are sonically compelling: as much as goth was about excess, the shadow of Martin Hannett looms heavy over its best records, with minimalist arrangements and cavernous production the going rate. A few of the releases I’ve highlighted could just as easily have found their way into a 20 best industrial, synth-pop, post-punk or minimal wave.

So what, you may ask, do I even mean by “goth”? For the purpose of this list, at least, goth is unfashionable credulousness, sincerity and lack of cynicism. An appeal to higher forces, the dignifying of small emotions with grand imagery. Goth is a return to the poetic; the real post-punk romanticism. But perhaps more than anything…It’s all about the drums. The drums always sound amazing.

Forget the idiots in Camden still caning Sisters CDs and dressing for Columbine. Forget the emo and metal kids who’ve inherited goth’s angst but none of its class.  The stylish, experimental, theatrical founding spirit of goth is alive and well elsewhere: in the windswept murder ballads of Zola Jesus, the thumping electronic pop of White Car and Frank (Not Frank), in the decaying electronics of Raime and Leyland Kirby, the kohl-eyed darkwave of Cold Cave. Don’t fear the reaper.


 

01: BAUHAUS
‘BELA LUGOSI’S DEAD’
(SMALL WONDER 12″, 1979)

Bauhaus embody the escapist, self-dramatizing spirit of goth. Hailing from none-more-bland Northampton and led by rake-thin and androgynously handsome Peter Murphy, the band’s persona erred on the side of pantomime, but their decision to break away from the spartan realist image of punk and its immediate offspring now seems nothing if not bold. Like their hero Bowie, Bauhaus understood the importance of fantasy, and how that’s bound up in the visual: from sleeve art to clothing, make-up to stage lighting. Back when they were first trying to get signed, they issued a video rather than an audio tape to record companies.

Over the course of the four albums that they cut between ’80 and ’83, the musical identity of Bauhaus was stretched in several different directions by its members (sometimes literally: see 1981′s puckish four-part composition ’1. David Jay 2. Peter Murphy 3. Kevin Haskins 4. Daniel Ash’). There was no such confusion or conflict on their sleek, self-possessed debut single: referencing the Hungarian actor best known for playing the titular Count in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, ‘Bela’ clocked in at an exquisitely arrogant 9 minutes – goodbye to punk’s loaded brevity – and could have justifiably gone on even longer. The loping intro is particularly inspired, ramping up the suspense to an unbearable level as reverbed ghost train FX shudder in and around Kevin Haskins’ bone-dry drums, David J”s descending bassline striated with Daniel Ash’s malevolent swipes of guitar. When Murphy’s campy, crudely overdubbed vocal arrives some two minutes in, you know you’re dealing with one of the all-time great pop singles. “Undead undead UNDEAD!”


 

02: JOY DIVISION
CLOSER
(FACTORY LP, 1980)

When Steve Coogan’s shellshocked Tony Wilson arrives to visit the body of the recently expired Ian Curtis in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, he’s button-holed in the chapel’s carpark by a shock-haired, mascara’d and flower-bearing couple who wish to convey how much Curtis meant to them, how he won’t be forgotten. The message is clear, and undeniable: Joy Division begat goth.

Far more substantial and less theatrical than Bauhaus, Joy Division dealt, as you all know, in those themes of existential dread, unresolved love and mortification that would form the backbone of goth mythology. Curtis’s tragic suicide simply sealed the deal: here was a troubled young man whose deathwish was real, not just a parent-bating pose. Moving away from the Ballardian future-shock of Unknown Pleasures, his band charted the sepulchral sublime on their second, final studio album, Closer. The image on the cover – a photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff of a family tomb in Genoa – makes Curtis’s shift into neo-classical morbidity explicit. The lyrics are correspondingly ur-goth, preoccupied with religion, being and the passage of time. Death, death, death.

No less important to goth was Joy Division’s music itself: not just Curtis’s disconsolate croon, but the high-necked, melody-carrying basslines of Peter Hook, the chicken-scratch guitar of Bernard Sumner, the funereal, oxygen-deprived drums of Stephen Morris. And, most of all, the thing that bound these element together and made them sound as they do: Martin Hannett’s chilly, cavernous production, and subtle, painterly use of synthesizers.  This is the sonic template for all the finest post-punk goth records, before the testosterone-fuelled excesses of “gothic rock” took hold.


 

03: THE CURE
FAITH
(FICTION/POLYDOR LP, 1981)

Following the bittersweet jangle-pop of their debut album, The Cure began to show their true, dark colours on 1980′s Seventeen Seconds. But even that gloomy outing had a new wave airiness and thrust to it; its lead single, ‘A Forest’, positively galloped, its whooshing synths, chiming guitars, desert-dry snare cracks and post-Hooky basslines all locked in kinetic, pistoning alignment. This lingering sense of urgency all but vanished on Faith (1981), the music slowing to the pace of listless suburban life that birthed it.

Rarely, if ever, has music sounded so world-weary. ‘All Cats Are Grey’ is a tactile masterpiece, its sighing keyboard textures and vocal harmonies circumscribed by impossibly funkless drum shots, but also notable is the minor-key chug of ‘Other Voices’, the ceremonial drift of ‘Funeral Party’ and the Gormenghast-inspired ‘The Drowning Man’. The songwriting is superb throughout, the lyrics’ self-pity dignified by the palpable anger of their delivery.

1982′s Pornography went even more goth, but by then the boldly minimalist approach that made Faith‘s despondency resonate had been jettisoned in favour of a more demonstrative and unrefined rock sound.


 

04: SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES
JUJU
(POLYDOR LP, 1981)

“If you study modern groups, those who gain press coverage and chart action, none of them are as good as Siouxsie and the Banshees at full pelt. That’s not dusty nostalgia, that’s fact.” So quoth Morrissey in 1994. The man talks a lot of nonsense (“sub-species”, anyone?) but it’s difficult to argue with this particular judgement.

Born of the ’77-’78 punk explosion, the Banshees recorded three terrific albums – The Scream, Join Hands and Kaleidoscope - before forging their most riveting work, 1981′s Juju. Having already provided the fashion lead for a million goth girls (and a fair few boys to boot), here Siouxsie wheeled out the misanthropic lyrics to match, managing to be elliptical and introspective without compromising on sheer dynamism. Has any song summed up goth’s ghoulish disposition as piquantly as ‘Halloween’? “The carefree days are distant now / I wear my memories like a shroud / I try to speak but words collapse…”

Budgie’s tom-tom-heavy drumming and Steve Severin’s frigid bass work are as compelling as ever, but special mention must go to the choppy, mercurial contribution of journeyman guitarist John McGeogh, who played with Magazine and Visage prior to joining the Banshees and later with Public Image Limited. On Juju he deploys a huge array of string techniques and distortion effects to wring every last globule of sonic potential from his instrument, and all within the tight minimalist grid delineated by Budgie and Severin. The band honed the songs in live performances before going into the studio, and it shows in the fearsome, fat-free recording.


 

05: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
‘RELEASE THE BATS’
(4AD 7″, 1981)

Now a fully paid-up member of the dadrock establishment, it takes some effort to remember what a wild-eyed outsider Nick Cave once was. His smack and speed-addled band, The Birthday Party, drew upon schlocky Stateside pop culture, the hostile landscapes of their native Australia and a jumble of repurposed religious imagery to produce some of goth’s most lurid and unhinged music.

‘Release The Bats’ finds them at their most psychotic: a car-smash of ear-splitting, mercilessly trebly guitars, swamp-trawling drums and Cave’s yowling vocal – some distance from the ominous baritone with which he’s now indelibly associated. The title itself is a neat goth clarion call, but the scene is better encapsulated by its lyrical refrain: “Sex horror sex bat sex sex horror sex vampire sex bat horror vampire sex.”

Cave continued to explore gothic themes throughout his career, absorbing more and more influence from Johnny Cash and the old bluesmen (the original goths, perhaps), gradually shedding his more erratic, atonal tendencies for a brand of macabre balladry that would reach its creative and commercial zenith in the 1990s.


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