What was Goth?

What will they say of us in the future?
What of the kids of the next millenium?
They will look up goth in some Twenty First century encyclopaedia, and read something like...

"In the last two decades of the twentieth century a vibrant youth culture developed in the UK. Called goth, it's adherents wore black clothing, often with pallid make up and danced to a wide variety of music. This fin de siecle movement had strong emotional and romanticist themes; the thanatos and concern with death, the mythology of the Vampire and of the dispossessed and alienated, it was described by cultural critic John Savage as a reaction to Britain's the Thatcherite Government. This article does not attempt to categorise European or American goth which had differing history and cultural connotations.

There was no particular musical style which can clearly be defined as gothic; goths listened to music varying from the pastoral musings of All About Eve, the exuberant Zeppelinesque rock of The Mission and The Cult, the electronic art-rock of Bauhaus and from 1991 onwards their was an increasing intertextual relationship with Dance, Industrial and Techno (q.v).

Very few so called 'goth' bands maintained the same musical style throughout, and many, such as the Sisters of Mercy, repudiated the label with some justification as their music developed away from them stereotypes beloved of the goth community. Some bands became increasingly Rock orientated - The Sisters, The Cult while All About Eve developed first a Folk and then a Dance style. The Sisters of Mercy were an unusual case; percieved by the media as the epitome of goth Andrew Eldritch, the creative genius behind the band repudiated the label with venom, and while they remained the single most influential factor in UK goth they themselves were not goth.

Goth originated from roots in the Punk and New Romantic movements (QV), though influences came from a variety of sources. Proto-goth influences were Siouxie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Damned and The Cure and goths first appearance to the mainstream was via the fashions of these bands and Scottish popsters Strawberry Switchblade, who achieved chart success. Apart from Bauhaus, all resolutely denied the goth label, which is more than fair; they were the progenitors of goth, not really part of it.

Appealing to a young, 16-25 year old audience primarily the scene developed in Leeds originally, with Alice's, a nightclub in London, also being extremely influential. The 1985 release of the Sisters of Mercy album 'First and Last and Always' began a period from 1985-1987 when goth was a major UK subculture; those who were amongst the first goths therefore live by the adage 'Goth died in '85', and Goths were frequently proud of the length of their association with the subculture.

By 1988 Goth was in decline, as the 'Dance Decade' exploded into the charts. UK youth expressed an interest in psychedelia and the new dance music coming out of Manchester - the Madchester scene - and in the burgeoning Rave culture (q.v) Many who had briefly adopted the image dropped it, and moved onto the new subcultures.

The early 1990's saw a number of influential purist goth bands still touring, and of these perhaps the most important were the Fields of the Nephilim and the Rosetta Stone, both of who took goth rock in new directions, but failed to capture worldwide sales. The main emphasis of the period '92-95 was probably goth-industrial and goth-techno fusion, as goth negotiated uneasily the new dayglo smiley attitudes of British youth.

There was doubtless an influence also from the Transatlantic grunge (q.v) phenomenon- but largely goth was locked into a downward spiral of decay, and in the last years of the century, 1995-2000, goth was a minority culture revitalised only by occassional (and often resented) appearances at goth clubs of Metal and Marilyn Manson fans. Goth purists refused to accept these individuals as part of the subculture, but attempted to convert them to what they defined as serious (late 80's goth.) However by the close of the 90's this search for purism had led many goths into a healthy search for their roots, and they were dancing to the mainstream 80's New Romantic and Pop bands at goth nights with no real sense of irony; Aha, Soft Cell, New Order, Japan, all could be heard.

Goth fashion developed in the late 1970's, from the look pioneered by the Gothic punks like Siouxie, and with elements of eighties fashion mixed with the look developed largely by Dave Vanian of the Damned. It featured mock Byronic period costume, with frilly shirts and black frock coats, dyed blue black hair and elaborate hair styles. Women's styles were often exaggeratedly sexy in a style influenced by Cyndi Lauper and early Madonna; Black was uniform, with fishnets and short skirts being later replaced increasingly by a more slinky vampiric look. Early goths (pre-87) wore red and greens as well as black; 1987-90 saw purple becoming increasingly fashionable, together with lilacs and paisley shirts, waistcoats and other Victoriana. After 1990 goth fashion tended to adopt from the New metal culture of bands like Mettalica and Sepultura; after 1993 fetish wear began to appear even in the provinces, and by the late 90's goth had returned full circle back to the fetish accessories of the Punk movement. It was a rare goth who wore studded collars back in the late 80's!

Despite this attempt to delineate the progress of goth fashion, there was very little change overall, and much gothic wear by the mid-nineties was little more than a series of cliches; goth had ceased to inspire new fashion designers. late 90's goths often looked particularly retro, and some could have stepped out of an 80's nightclub.

Goth also developed associated cultural motifs, at times inseparable in the public mind from goth itself. The drug of choice in the early days seems to have been speed, amphetamine sulphate. Goth culture was however not drug fuelled the way later dance sub cultures were - drug use was very low amongst average goth crowds, though there were notable exceptions. from 87 onwards goth began to be associated in the popular mind with Wicca and Neo-Paganism, and hence with Ritual Magick and other occult practices. All About Eve and The Mission were particularly influential in this area, and a psychedelic current also entered goth as it met hippy pastoral motifs. Pre-87 goths often disliked the occult influence, and ridiculed those who became involved in the mystical wave, though others embraced it with a passion. This dichotomy between occult interested goths and sceptical goths was maintained throughout the rest of the genres history. After 1990 the influence of White Wolf's Vampire roleplaying game did much to bring the Vampire into fashion, as did the ever popular works of Anne Rice. British vampire fans became indistinguishable to the public from goth; the two movements had a large overlap but many goths found the vampire-people ridiculous and irritating, mirroring the eternal struggle between those who saw themselves as true goths and everyone else wannabes. There was sufficient difference however here for some distinction to be made, and apart from the obvious links with Dave Vanian and the Damned UK goth had very little to do with vampires!

The two most important forums for goth on the internet were the newsgroups alt.gothic and after that became a very heavy traffic site, uk.people.gothic. The Net Goths were generally vocal, intelligent and articulate, but even in the late 90's a common thread on the newsgroups was 'what exactly is goth?'.

Goth had many lasting influences, but ultimately had little effect on mainstream UK youth culture".

Well, something like that! Is it fair, or is it totally misleading? Is it an accurate summary of what we were, are and will be? I appeal to anyone who was or is part of the goth subculture to help me develop on my site a true and authentic history of goth, and welcome any debate about what it means. The above definition has many half truths and probably some downright mistruths, and was written by me based on my memories of some 15 years in the goth scene, though never centre stage. I would like this site to be devoted to that question, What exactly is goth?, and am earnestly soliciting essays on any subject related to the history of goth.

I have no commercial interest;there is just little goth history - two books by Mick Mercer, a public with strange ideas of what we are about and hundreds of websites!

but now we also have Pete Scathe's Excellent Goth History!

If interested in helping on this project, please e-mail me with an idea for something you'd like to contribute, comment or criticism.