In the last days of the 1970s, in dark corners of England, something strange began to happen. In suburban houses across the country, young people were putting on dark clothes, listening to sombre post-punk music, and trying to persuade their parents to let them paint their bedrooms black. I was one of them, and it astounds me that, over 30 years later, gothic subculture is not only still alive and kicking but has gone global.
Even more surprising is that it all started in Bromley. This sprawling, non-descript suburb of London is not a likely setting for…well for anything.
The ‘Bromley contingent’ were a punk clique, followers of the Sex Pistols. Among them was Susan Ballion, later and better known to the world as Siouxsie Sioux. With her band, the Banshees, she would unleash the first truly gothic records on the world – Staircase and Playground Twist. She would also be the first person to use the term ‘gothic’ to describe the burgeoning music and fashion scene she was spearheading.
Well, at least, that’s one version of events. Others will tell you that, rather than being the dark offspring of punk, goth had its ancestry in the New Romantic movement. Furthermore, they will claim that goth culture as we know it today was spawned not in Bromley but in the appropriately gloomy northern city of Leeds. And they will pronounce the Bauhaus single Bela Lugosi’s Dead as the first goth record, and ascribe the first use of ‘gothic’ to that late, dark genius Tony Wilson, when referring to the music of Joy Division.
Another person will tell you a different story again. That’s fine. It’s perfectly appropriate that the origins of goth are arcane and lost in the shadows.
My own first sight of someone who looked distinctly gothic was, predictably, at a gig. Less predictably, it was at a cricket club in a small town in Kent. Sitting in a shadowy corner that night were two girls in long black dresses, with long black hair, and deathly pale faces painted with spiders webs. But they were referred to as ‘gothic punks’. I didn’t encounter the word goth until much later…and it wasn’t exactly being used as a compliment.
Was I a goth myself? Well, I wore a lot of black clothes, dabbled occasionally with eye-liner, had a painting of the grim reaper on my bedroom wall, and had declared Joy Division’s Closer to be the greatest album of all time. I suppose it’s an open and shut case.
But would I have called myself a goth? No. Because what tends to get forgotten today is that, in those early years, it was often used as a derogatory term. The bands themselves were at best uncomfortable with the label. Why? In my view, as the genre expanded and new bands started up, gothic rock just wasn’t taken seriously. Songs about horror, death and the occult? Guys dressed in pixie boots and big black hats? These were painfully earnest times, and goth was dismissed by many as absurd. It wasn’t political or socially progressive; it was about emotion, drama, atmosphere, imagery.
These were qualities that some derided, but others embraced. They’d been waiting for a music that didn’t have to be taken too seriously for a long time. And once it had cut its self-conscious umbilical with punk, goth could become unashamedly, gloriously itself.
And so the way was clear for goth to become established as the internationally recognisable subculture we see today, with its own visual codes, uniforms and attitudes. These days the word goth is a badge worn by many with pride. And why not? It’s been around for a long time, and shows no signs of fading away. Goth’s not dead! Like Bela Lugosi, it’s undead, and therefore immortal.