The Story of Goth in 33 Songs
After it blazed through England and New York in the 1970s, the first wave of punk rock left a whole lot of darkness in its wake. As the decade rolled to a close, young musicians struck by punk’s ferocity and lawlessness picked up its ashes, lit a few candles, and invited the world to a séance. Their songs were marked by echoes, distortion, minimal guitar lines, and an arch taste for the macabre; their electroshocked hair, smears of black eyeliner, and dark clothes only reinforced the vibe.
Goth offered music what horror had given movies: a chance to lean into the void without quite falling in, to sneak close to death while still very much alive.Recorded in 1979 in Northamptonshire, England, Bauhaus’ nine-minute vampire ode “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is widely accepted as goth’s wellspring.
Soon after their frontman Peter Murphy sang about the undead over an uneasy, descending bassline, fellow Brits Joy Division found transcendent melancholy in simple chord progressions and staccato baritone vocals, and Killing Joke reveled in menacing drum fills and overdriven guitars. Their sounds proved infectious: In the early 1980s, the Cure and Siouxsie & the Banshees melted down their early post-punk into lush and eerie fantasias, folding in synthesizers and slowing their tempos to a gloomy gait. Up in Scotland, Cocteau Twins started etching out songs that sounded like initiation rituals to arcane death cults.
Something was in the water in the UK, but the sonic desolation wasn’t confined there: In New York, Suicide were immersing their synthesizers in waves of static while screeching about domestic murder.At the end of the ’80s, the goth aesthetic seeped into industrial acts like Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, who placed less emphasis on guitars and more on drum machines and caustic synths. Goth lay mostly below ground during the 1990s grunge movement, in which anger and sarcasm were the fashion instead of despondency; it burst back up into the mainstream with a fury by the mid-2000s, when My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco threw a pop spin on the melodrama of their forebears.
Singing about death in full Victorian regalia might not have sounded like a chart-winning strategy, but MCR’s Gerard Way knew his history: The kids love a good spook. Today, artists like Jenny Hval, Makthaverskan, and Zola Jesus keep the goth torch lit; black clothes and loose drapes dot designer runways; even Justin Bieber rocks a Marilyn Manson tee on occasion.
Once a riotous underbelly of society, goth’s tendrils have risen from the grave into the mainstream.Just in time for Halloween, we’ve traced the dark history of goth, from the earliest songs that hinted at its spirit to the ominous artists keeping the genre alive today. Before we take the plunge, though, here’s a transmission from the reluctant Godfather of Goth himself. We spoke to Peter Murphy via telephone from Istanbul, his home for the last two decades.Peter Murphy on Inventing Goth, Playing a Vampire, and Swinging Like TarzanPitchfork: Between Joy Division, Killing Joke, and Bauhaus, most of the seminal goth bands formed in the UK. Why do you think that sound originated there?
Peter Murphy: The Brits have a penchant for absorbing influence and turning it back out into something original. [The UK] creates its own culture. It’s an island race. Punk gave a kind of quantum tearing of the veil: Most of the punk bands were found through self-created, regional labels; one could start a label up and press a thousand records. You had John Peel, who was a great champion of music in general, and he would play anything once.
The [Sex] Pistols broke open a window of opportunity really quickly. That adolescent need to scream about something, it morphed into a more artful direction. When I came along with [Bauhaus guitarist] Daniel [Ash], it was just one of those things that was destined to be what it is. We wrote half of the first album in the first weekend we were together. It was the scintillating promise of being given the opportunity to be artful and creative, without any complications or hierarchy.
There were no walls; there was an openness. It was quick with us: Within six months, we were at the top of the indie charts, and I was onstage for a few weeks after having never been on a stage. It was just right.Your first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” was over nine minutes long. Was that a response to the fast, short-form songs of punk?No, no. Never Mind the Bollocks was great, and there were hundreds of punk bands immediately after that. When we started in 1978/79, [punk] left the soil in which we could bud.
What did spur us on was playing all around Europe and in England. We would play a Leeds festival, and the place was empty for most of the day, and once they smelled that we were coming on, we’d call it “the charge of the wildebeest.” It was hordes of kids running at us. It was really what rock’n’roll should be. Fuck the punks, fuck anybody else. Nine minutes of a brooding, actually terrifying song live was more punk than punk. It wasn’t like, “Let’s create something in contrast with the three-minute [songs].
” It was totally self-reliant.When you recorded “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” did you have any sense of how influential it would become?When we went in to record four songs for a demo, we did “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” first. We did it in one take. It was the first vocal I’d ever sung into a microphone in a studio. And the moment that happened, it was like, “Oh. Oh, yeah.” A lot of the Bauhaus stuff, Dan and I would joke, is really rubbishly recorded. It’s like a cat scratching on a tin roof. But it had this intent that worked. When you hear it now, it’s so original.
What did it feel like to influence likeminded bands?
Nobody could be likeminded like us. We were really awkward. We were a bunch of really difficult neurotics.
Well, how did it feel to see people identify with what you were doing?
We got loads of demos given to us and they were really bad. Just rubbish goth demos, low voices and all this stuff. That became, I guess, the goth scene. It was terrible. I think we influenced a lot of people. When you look at the U2 album [The Joshua Tree], suddenly they had Anton Corbijn photographing them, making them look like Bauhaus, all black and white. We were very influential in ways that are not obvious, really.
Is there one moment you remember that epitomizes your time with Bauhaus?
We were playing in Derby, England. I scaled the stage curtain, got onto the wire rail, which was very thin, and hung like Tarzan onto the middle of it. I was hanging by my hands and swung like a gymnast over the audience. I flew over to the curtain again, grabbed it, threw it down, and landed on the edge of the stage. It terrified everybody.
In addition to your musical legacy, your style has been quite influential. You were the visual model for the character Dreamin Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.
Yes, I thought it was great. It’s quite striking imagery. I was a bit late in trying to sue and get royalties.
You also played a vampire in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. What was that experience like?
I thought that was amazing. It was directed by David Slade, who’s British. He asked me to come on and play what he felt was a wink to those who know, a bookend to my appearance in [the 1983 Tony Scott film] The Hunger. I played The Cold One, the first ever vampire of that Twilight species of vampires. I did stunt training at my insistence—I wanted to do the stunts. Honestly, it looked good.
You’ve had a long career of doing stunts.
There you go. That’s your angle.