In 2006, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus sat down next to My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way for an MTV interview to promote a new CD collection titled Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box. “I’m trying to work out what sums it up,” Murphy said when asked how he would define goth. “It can’t be just about a bit of makeup and a dark lyric. There’s got to be more to it than that.” Way sheepishly chimes in: “Well, it’s very hard to categorize who and what is goth.” Thanks for the insight, jeez.
The scene was a torch passing of sorts. Murphy’s Bauhaus had helped invent goth during the early Eighties; Way had brought it to stripmalls and arenas in the 21st century. And, still, neither could answer a question that has haunted people for decades: What is goth?
Let’s travel back to 1983. A time when London’s Batcave club was in its infancy. There, the aesthetics of goth were cultivated—a love for horror movies and Gothic novels, a sickly pallor and a koosh ball of hair, pointy winklepickers and a mish-mash of fetish materials, and most of all, a romance with melancholy. ‘83 was also the year that vampire-thriller The Hunger, co-starring David Bowie, hit the big screens. Vampires, Bowie, Bauhaus – it was the perfect trifecta, beautifully bound in an orgy of tragic eternity.
The first batallion of dark 1970s post-punk bands fed off the energy of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, an androgynous creature who didn’t quite seem human. The allure of Ziggy, mixed with the magnetism of Dracula (namely Christopher Lee, Udo Keir, and of course, Bela Lugosi) helped to assemble the essential iconography of the subculture– at once dreadful and oozing with sex appeal.
And the sound? It’s atmospheric. Somewhere between a banshee scream or a bellowing, reverberated howl that could part the Red Sea, goth began as a transition point from the jaggedness of punk’s confrontational simplicity into an elegant darkness, one cloaked in sorrow and so much emotion. In order to achieve goth status, there must be as much drama as possible: the music, in true Hitchockian fashion, must be as frightening as a spiral staircase in a creaking haunted house.
Think of this list as a roadmap to that sound—from B-movie horror thrills, to reanimated rock and roll rituals, to complete sacrilege, bulging with blasphemy, bondage, blood and lots of bats. It’s a history that touches on subgenres like dream pop, hard rock, synthpop, and glam, that makes pit stops in Spain and Germany, pays homage at the doorsteps of black-clad country heroes and spooky blues legends, and dives into seedy art rock grottos and DIY punk venues. So pour yourself a goblet of red wine and hold your rosaries tight. It’s gonna be a long, dark night of the soul.