“It can be argued that The Cure is both the progenitor and the antithesis of Goth,” writes the band’s co-founder Lol Tolhurst in his new book Goth: A History. “On one hand, it’s undeniable that spiky black hair, heavy make-up, and dark clothing combined with sonorous, doom-ladened songs are the calling cards of Goth. However, The Cure also famously cuddled polar bears and cats. Is The Cure the Schrödinger’s cat of Goth?”
It’s a thought-provoking question that the author leaves open-ended. But like Schrödinger’s experimental cat, it is clear that Goth is currently both dead and very much alive. Tolhurst’s engaging historical memoir is the third of three books this year to examine Goth music and culture, following on from John Robb’s Art of Darkness: The History of Goth and Cathi Unsworth’s Season of the Witch: The Book of Goth (published in May).
“There is a deep love for Goth that still remains embedded in the pop culture heartland,” says John Robb, musician, author and editor of the Louder Than War website, who is currently on a book tour in Ireland. “Also, a lot of people who loved other aspects of post-punk, like The Fall or Gang of Four, are still puzzled why there was a distinction between those bands and Bauhaus, etc., who were cast adrift by the music press.
“People seem thrilled that there is a revival in the form, which is what I hoped for when I started my book more than 10 years ago. At that time no publisher was interested in a book on Goth and it took a lot of persuading to get someone to understand the idea.”
Seeing as goth is arguably the only subculture that was born out of literature and poetry, it seems appropriate that 40 years after the G-word became a widely used term, it is having its moment in the publishing spotlight. It has also been highlighted in other ways, of course: Jenna Ortega bringing Lux Interior’s rocking bones back to iridescent life as she ripped up the dance floor in a black ruffled dress in Tim Burton’s Wednesday; Siouxsie Sioux playing her first live shows in 10 years; and the release next week of the final instalment in The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project where Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Debbie Harry and a host of like-minds resurrect the songs of the late, great singer of the Gun Club.
In Goth: A History, Tolhurst identifies Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and his own band, The Cure, as the four main architects of darkness (Robb and Unsworth devote chapters in their books to this quartet too). But you will also find yourself in the compelling company of The Cramps, The Birthday Party, the Sisters of Mercy, the Cocteau Twins, Nico, Suicide, Jacques Brel, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.
As the drummer and keyboard player in The Cure, Tolhurst was at the epicentre of this post-punk scene and shares moving anecdotes about his interactions with the key players. Robb draws on his own archive to lace his epic history with quotes from the most enigmatic and articulate musicians of the time, including Cave, Jaz Coleman, Andrew Eldritch, Blixa Bargeld and Gavin Friday. Unsworth, a music journalist who has gone on to write six pop culture-laced noir novels and an acclaimed biography of the punk icon Jordan, uses her poetic eye for detail and a specific timeline to tell her own spellbinding tale.
Both Tolhurst and Robb trace the term ‘Goth’ back to a Doors gig in 1967, and there is no doubt that Jim Morrison, with his baritone voice, leather trousers and love of Romantic poets, was a prototype Goth (a ‘Gothfather’, as Unsworth identifies him in her book). Tolhurst pinpoints The Doors’s 12-minute black masterpiece The End as the start of Gothic rock as a genre. Something that has also been attributed to Bauhaus’s haunting Bela Lugosi’s Dead, the 9½-minute track that they laid down live with no overdubs at their first ever recording session in January 1979.
It was followed by the release of Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in June 1979, and Unsworth quotes a particularly atmospheric observation from the Canadian film director Mary Harron, writing in Melody Maker: ‘Nineteenth-century Gothic tales used ruined castles and vampires as symbols of vague subconscious terrors. Joy Division are twentieth-century Gothic, and their images of assassins, imprisonments, pursuit, draw off the modern nightmare.’
The modern nightmare had truly begun just one month earlier when Margaret Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street, though interestingly, as Unsworth notes, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis voted Conservative and insisted that his wife Deborah did too so that she wouldn’t “cancel his vote”. Thatcher’s reign from May 4th, 1979 until November 22nd, 1990 gave Unsworth both her timeline and the Season of the Witch of her title. It’s a period that includes the Troubles, the Hunger Strikes, the 1981 riots, the Falkland War, the Miners’ Strike, the Battle of Orgreave and the Wapping dispute, and allows her to seamlessly stitch politics, psychogeography and secret history into a mesmerising musical tapestry that fans out like a kaleidoscope of concentric circles.
“It felt exactly like writing in concentric circles to slowly move through the decade, from 1979 to 1990, when Thatcher was in power,” Unsworth says. “One of my favourite quotes in the book comes from Edge of Darkness, Troy Kennedy Martin’s 1985 Cold War BBC drama, which was inspired by the Miners’ Strike, and is spoken by one of two shady secret service agents who are manipulating Bob Peck’s lead character, a Yorkshire policeman, into doing their bidding. ‘I myself favour an Irish education. Anyone who has encountered The Book of Kells cannot help but be impressed by the labyrinthine coils of the Celtic imagination.’ I used that quote for the chapter in which the IRA attempted to blow up Margaret Thatcher in Black October 1984, in a plot that did have labyrinthine coils stretching back to 1977 and had originally been intended for Labour home secretary Roy Mason as payback for the removal of Special Category Status for Northern Irish political prisoners.
“When I got to the end of the book, I really did get a sense of time moving in circles. I saw our ‘80s Goths as the heirs to William Blake, who recorded the Dark Satanic Mills first appearing on our landscape at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in a straight line to Justin Sullivan quoting Jerusalem in 1984, New Model Army’s song about the Miners’ Strike and the end of Industrialised Britain.”
“Gothic is a mode that responds to crisis,” the Irish author and academic Dr Tracy Fahey says in Goth: A History. Tolhurst quotes Fahey to talk about a particularly dark night of the soul in the early 1980s that lead to what Unsworth describes as his band’s “triptych of terror”.
“The roots of The Cure’s Gothic résumé come in the shape of three albums: Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography,” Tolhurst writes. “The Cure needed a way out of the situation that we found ourselves in, but first we had to undergo a quest to fully understand who we were and where we came from.”
“I think when they wrote A Forest (on Seventeen Seconds), The Cure got to the very heart of Goth, which is the dark forest of fairy-tale that is the wellspring of the Romantic imagination,” says Unsworth, who will be in conversation with Tolhurst at his book launch in London on Saturday. “I still get inspired by A Forest and want to share it with people who have never heard it. Having read his book, Lol and I were obviously inspired by many of the same things. This included growing up in the sticks, Creepy Crawley in his case, the Old Shuck-haunted fields of East Norfolk in mine, feeling isolated but for the music we loved that we could tune into via John Peel’s nightly dispatches.”
In Art of Darkness, Robb writes: “The world is full of newer bands touched by the dark velvet hand of goth”, and Fontaines DC are a perfect example. Grian Chatten has spoken about the influence The Cure’s 2001 Greatest Hits had on him as a child, Conor Curley has described the Gun Club’s Mother of Earth as his favourite guitar riff of all time and the ghosts of Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazlewood (another of Unsworth’s Gothfathers) hover over the shimmering fairytales on Chatten’s beautiful solo album, Chaos For the Fly.
“I think Goth is part of our DNA,” concludes Unsworth. “The Goths in my book, and the Gothmothers and Gothfathers before them, all recorded the traumas of their times in memorable ways and their spiritual descendants will go on doing so. We remember Jerusalem, we remember The Mask of Anarchy, and future generations will hear Joy Division and know exactly what Manchester felt like at the end of the ‘70s, better than any historian could have recorded it.”
John Robb discusses Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth (Manchester University Press, £25) at Little Acorns Bookstore, 18 Great James Street, Derry, on Saturday at 8pm.
Paint My Name in Black and Gold: The Rise of the Sisters of Mercy (Unbound) by Mark Andrews
Out of the dark heartland of Leeds, in the aftermath of the Yorkshire Ripper, came the Sisters of Mercy. Drawn from interviews with the key figures on the Sisters’ scene, this is a brilliant, considered and often hilarious account of the ultimate band in black.
Wuthering Heights (Penguin English Library) by Emily Brontë
Set on the wild, heather-tufted moors of West Yorkshire, Emily Brontë's tale of the obsessive passion between Cathy and Heathcliff is the literary equivalent of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. A masterpiece of Gothic fiction.
Shot in the Dark: The Collected Photography of David Arnoff (Red Planet Books)
Arnoff’s stunningly atmospheric black and white shots of The Cramps, Nick Cave, the Gun Club and Lydia Lunch form a who’s who of effortless cool. Check out DavidArnoff.com to see more of his incredible work.