The original goths, a Germanic tribe in the 2nd to 8th centuries, were populated by diverse ethnic groups. Believed to have originated in southern Sweden, the goths eventually spreading out west into what is now Poland and east into the Ukraine. As the tribe expanded they entered conflict with the Roman Empire. When the goths converted to Christianity, their bible was written in gothic script. The tribe split into Ostrogoths in the east and Visigoths to the west. Over time one fell to the Roman Empire while the other fell to Muslim forces. That very well could have been the end of it.
Yet, in 12th century France a new style of architecture developed. The distinguishing features of a gothic cathedral are pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, lofty spires, and grotesque gargoyles. Innovations in design allowed for taller structures and wider spaces, allowing more light into the space. The gothic arch placed more stress vertically than horizontally, providing more strength and less weight. However, it was the Romanesque style of architecture to which people were accustomed. Compared to the style of Rome, these buildings appeared gruesome, gaudy, and downright uncivilized. The people deemed the style gothic, referring with distaste to the barbarian tribe. By that time, the name goth had come to be synonymous with a lack of sophistication.
Enter the 18th century. Horace Walpole writes The Castle of Otranto, a tale of knights and castles sprinkled with a little of the supernatural - that is if you consider a giant helmet falling from the sky little. The story plays on intrigue, suspicion, and mistaken identity. Relationships are twisted. Plans go awry. True love dies by one’s own hand. In the end the heros find they have lost more than they have gained. In this woeful tale Walpole invents the gothic novel, so named as it mainly takes place in the ruins of gothic castles and similar. This style of writing later inspired Bram Stoker, Emily Bronte, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Flash forward to the twentieth century and the invention of film. Exploiting the visual effects achieved on film, Edison shows the manifestation of the Frankenstein monster. In 1910 we witness the first horror film. In 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells a story of madness, obsession, and murder. In 1922, F.W. Murnau directs Nosferatu, with Max Shreck as the blood sucking fiend. This interpretation of Dracula pushes the frontiers of film making, introducing stunning visual effects while adding new elements to vampire lore. Following, in 1925 audiences gasp at the self applied make-up worn by Lon Chaney as the titular character in The Phantom of the Opera.
In 1924, the tale of Dracula is adapted for the stage. Just seven years later, Bela Lugosi reprises his role as monsters make their debut in talking pictures. Soon after audiences are horrified by the visage of Boris Karloff in Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Frankenstein modernizes gothic horror for the silver screen. In 1941, Universal pictures releases The Wolfman, further cementing the studio as the premiere source for horror. A number of films tingled the spines of the movie goer during this golden age of cinema. Witness The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and ilk.
Years go by. A new invention makes its way into homes, the television. What once filled the silver screen now entertains young boys and girls on a lazy, Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, the parents experience nostalgia, having seen the original movies in the theater. TV producers pick up on this rising trend and create shows like The Munsters and The Adams Family. In 1962, Bobby Pickett releases The Monster Mash, a horror novelty song that soon becomes a staple at every Halloween party and TV special. Other artists try cashing in, releasing their own horror novelty songs, usually in the popular style - namely rockabilly.
The 50s and 60s experience a war of cultures. First the beatniks, then the hippies. Alternative lifestyles content with established social mores, clamoring for progress and meaningful social change. Decent, conservative folk resist climates of change, whether the inclusion of black people in schools or the spread of mind altering drugs.
The place is Salford, Greater Manchester. The time is 1975. Things are changing in England. The country is entrenched in the culture war. The economy takes a downward turn. Working class kids rise up. With just three chords and an angry voice, young punks like The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks make themselves heard.
Enter a quiet lad by the name of Iain Curtis, a poet who dreams of being the next David Bowie. He hooks up with three musicians looking to be the next, great punk act. Emboldened by this new trend in music, they play a stark, somber strain of music. Over this, Iain sings. I say sing, but would express it better were I to say mourn. The sorrow, the isolation, the frustration in his voice is palpable. Originally named Warsaw, they later changed the name to Joy Division, a codename given to prostitutes that serviced Nazi officers. Joy Division invented a new sound called post punk. Their manager called it gothic pop dance music. Arguably Joy Division is the first gothic rock band.
Gothic rock generally consists of several factors. 1) Lugubrious vocals and themes. Curtis’s lyrics contain such images as darkness, isolation, desperation, coldness, and sorrow. 2) A pronounced beat, usually tribal and sometimes a waltz or a march. Unusual elements like reverse cymbals and wooden percussion add nuance. Drum machines are not uncommon. 3) A distinct bass line. Bass plays an important role in gothic rock, often forming the hook. The importance of a bass line in gothic rock is equivalent to guitar riffs in heavy metal. 4) Flanged lead guitar. The lead guitar usually supports the song rather than dominates it. Guitar effects are quite common such as echo, distortion, feedback, etc. The guitarist tends to play a stark, lonely and tortured melody. In short, gothic rock combines the musical elements of 1960s garage rock, 1970s glam rock, post punk, and psychedelia.
In 1979, Bauhaus released their own horror novelty song. Bela Lugosi’s Dead plays well over nine minutes. It was recorded live in one take. The song contains many vampiric images and relates them to the funeral of the famed actor. The story goes that this was supposed to be a joke song. Bauhaus had aimed the song at exposing the irony of a dead undead character. The song had quite a different effect as many claim this the first gothic rock single. The song played in The Hunger, a vampire film starring David Bowie.
Other notable artists include The Damned, an early punk rock group that moved into psychedelic rock. Front man Dave Vanian had developed a distinctive gothic look and sound. He dresses in ruffled shirts and paints his face white. His crooning style drips with the macabre, particularly in songs like Torture Me and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To this day, The Damned defies categorization. Bands like Misfits and The Cramps took up the mantle left by the horror novelty bands of old. They played a new brand of rockabilly called psychobilly. Later artists like Nekromantix and Horrorpops added more gothic elements to form gothabilly.
But it is to Joy Division and Bauhaus that we owe the most thanks. They inspired a wave of gothic bands. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry followed the framework laid out by Joy Division, then took it to the bitter edge. Siouxsie & the Banshees grew bored with the punk scene and explored new territory with songs like Hong Kong Garden. The Banshees had formed before Bauhaus, but really grew into the gothic rock genre by the time of their album, Juju, in 1981. Siouxsie even recorded and toured with Robert Smith of The Cure on guitar.
The gothic rock trend in the mid eighties not so much died as went underground. Bands like Fahrenheit 451 just missed the wave. Industrial and electronic body music gainied in popularity. Bands like Skinny Puppy and Ministry replaced Sisters of Mercy and Nosferatu. Nine Inch Nails firmly put industrial rock into the mainstream. It seemed the end of gothic rock as we knew it.
However, a music scene with any sort of persistence experiences cycles, whether pop or metal. In the mid 1990s, Switchblade Symphony from San Francisco releasedSerpentine Gallery, an odd mixture of classical music and gothic rock with electronic elements. Similarities to Siouxsie & the Banshees and Dead Can Dance proved that this form of music still had legs. Switchblade Symphony kicked off a gothic revival that eventually led to the darkwave music we hear today, namely bands like The Cruxshadows and The Birthday Massacre.
Traditional goth bands continue to form, but never receive quite the same popularity as the bands of the early 70s to mid 80s. Presently, She Wants Revenge, Paralyzed Age, Bella Morte, Shino, and The SlimP carry on the dark heritage of gothic music. Baby bats and kindergoths new to the scene rediscover the morbid music of Bauhaus and The Mission. Meanwhile, the scene continues to evolve. More and more goths accept the viking inspired symphonic metal of Nightwish and Within Temptation - as if returning to their barbarian namesake, bringing the subculture full circle.
To my fellow goths I say look back. Observe how history has brought you to this point. Feel free to honor the beauty of Notre Dame and it’s gothic design. Absorb the writings of Walpole, Bronte, Stoker, Shelley, and Poe. Enjoy horror cinema either classic or modern. Above all, dust the cobwebs or dance the gothic shuffle to the dark music that speaks to your soul. Dress as you see fit, whether emulating favorite musicians, returning to a more romantic era, expressing your taste in the macabre, or with no particular style in mind.
Whatever your tastes, be yourself. Find that which appeals to your darker sensibilities. Love it and it will love you, too. Just ask Brandi and me. We are much happier because of it.