Who would have thought that coating my eyes with black liner and my hair with Elnett Extra Strong hairspray in the loos of Pips Discotheque, Manchester, would have prepared me for this moment? Three histories of Goth emerge at once, like the proverbial buses, if those buses were black and driven by undertakers. Goth is the last of the great youth pop cults, and though always something of a hybrid – a mix of punk and glam with the stylings of horror cinema – it has proved the most persistent. It is the cult that refuses to die, much like its patron saint, Dracula, whose spirit oversees the bi-annual Whitby Goth Weekend.
Everyone knows what Goth is, but telling its history is a little trickier, as these three authors agree. By the time the term became widespread in the mid-1980s, the style had already been coalescing since at least 1979. As a result, all the most important acts pointedly denied they were Goths, from the forerunners, such as Siouxie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure and Nick Cave’s band The Birthday Party, to the acts that embraced the style as the decade wore on, such as The Damned and Depeche Mode – and even the newer bands that appealed to Goth’s growing audience, such as The Death Cult, The Sisters of Mercy and The Mission.
Cathi Unsworth has the most fun with this near-universal rejection of the term, ending Season of the Witch (★★★★☆) with the words: “Forty years on, I think it’s time for the curse to be lifted and the words spoken in darkness to be heard in the light. I am a Goth.” Unsworth, a music journalist turned crime writer, found Goth as a teenager, which gives her the most intimate connection to a style created and owned by its fans rather than the bands. Her story is tied to the arc of the 1980s, which inevitably brings in the parallel rise-and-fall of Margaret Thatcher.
Season of the Witch is presided over by two goddesses, Margaret and Siouxie, leading one to wonder which witchy woman represents the light and which the dark? The question gets at the mysteries of Goth. Why is Goth so beloved by female rock fans? Is it progressive and challenging, or a hyper-feminised embrace of gender roles? John Robb interviews Goth sociologist Claire Nally in his The Art of Darkness (★★★★☆), who points out that the male Goth is often a gender-bending androgyne while the female often represents a fetishistic and overtly Victorian image of womanhood.
As a big-haired and make-up-wearing proto-Goth posing in Manchester nightclubs, I had seen the style as a northern version of the southern New Romantics. Yet the Batcave, opened in London’s Soho in 1982, seems to have been the first self-conscious Goth nightclub, followed in 1983 by Liverpool’s Planet X, a name invented by Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Paul Rutherford.
Robb’s survey of Goth covers an astonishingly broad landscape. He lavishes as much attention on the most tangential influences, such as 1960s garage rock, as on key Goth figures, all of whom he knows through a long career on the alternative music scenes as a musician, producer, impressario, and writer. Art of Darkness reflects Robb’s underground DIY roots, being published by his own imprint, which also produces a monthly magazine and an annual music-book festival. The result is gloriously eccentric in a way that mainstream publishing rarely is, not simply in how it clocks in at a magisterial quarter-of-a-million words, but even in how the index uses first names, beginning at “A” with “Adolf Hitler”.
In so far as Goth has its “Ur”-moment, all three books place weight on an argument before a Siouxie and the Banshees concert in Aberdeen. The guitarist and drummer ran out on the tour before it had begun, leaving their backstage passes on their hotel pillows. Lol Tolhurst is the best placed to tell this story: he was there, as the drummer with The Cure, the Banshees’ support act. Robert Smith ended up playing in both bands, an experience that led to a radical change in direction for The Cure, from the quirky songwriting of their first album to the ambient and doom-laden style that distinguishes Goth music.
With the advantage of hindsight, Tolhurst recognises that the subsequent three Cure albums are Goth; indeed, they’re key to the whole idea of Goth. By the last of the trilogy, Pornography, the band had even embraced the big hair and dishevelled make-up of their fans, yet had spent so long in the darkness that they fell apart. Tolhurst’s book Goth: A History (★★★★☆) is the least like a conventional history; it’s an account of how he grew into the role of a Goth godfather by recognising the warmth and the support of the now-global Goth community. It benefits from a wryness and a distance – a distance forced on him because, after touring Pornography, it was years before he spoke to his childhood friend Smith again.
If Goth is a fan community, the glue that binds it is a love of the gloomily arcane, often expressed through a bookishness. The literature of Goth, from the Marquis de Sade to Sylvia Plath, is as much a part of the story as the music. Indeed, Unsworth suggests an entire library, which makes me wonder whether Goth is inspired by English Literature degrees, just as earlier pop cults were the product of art colleges. Above all, as the dress of female Goths suggests, the Goth heart lies in Victoriania, though in torrid works such as Wuthering Heights rather more than Margaret Thatcher’s “Victorian values”. Paradoxically, Goth manages to be both challenging and cosy – as I found out when I asked a Whitby publican how he enjoyed the Goth weekend. He told me that Goths are the greatest people, “but you do get sick of the smell of blackcurrant in every single drink”.
To order a copy of Season of the Witch, Goth: A History, or The Art of Darkness, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books