August 16th, 1977, night-time. I am in a darkened bedroom in my hometown of Crawley, on London’s southern fringes, listening to the radio in the late-night gloom with a girl called the Raven. She has long, straight black hair and all black clothes. I am 18 years old.
The Raven turns the radio’s tuning knob, trying to find something in the airless room to listen to. A crackle of static and a breathless voice eerily intones: “The king is dead. Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, died tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”
To us, Memphis might as well have been the moon. It was that far from our experience of growing up in the ever-present doom of Margaret Thatcher’s postwar Britain. We knew Elvis’s death meant something, but what? The changing of the guard? A way forward?
Elvis’s journey may have come to an end, but mine was just beginning. Together with my friends Robert Smith and Michael Dempsey, we started on the path to recording The Cure’s first album, Three Imaginary Boys.
The songs were sparse and angular, somewhere between punk and pop, but the title track provided an indication of where the band was headed. Its dark lyric of longing and shadow came from a dream I had that haunted me for days. Robert perfectly melded the words with his guitar and melancholy vocal suspended on the minimalist framework of my spartan drums and Michael’s melodic pulse.
I think we knew it was the right way for us even before we really understood it. That year among the books I read were Camus’s The Stranger, Plath’s The Bell Jar and Sartre’s Nausea. They all spoke to something darker within me, but also something more beautiful, and it inspired my playing. All of us channelled the pensive yearning of our souls into the music we were making that summer of ’77 and discovered the blueprint for The Cure’s oeuvre.
We had seen the disease. The Cure was inevitable.
Did we realise what we were on to at the end of the 1970s? We did not. In fact, we resisted it. Despite our passionate insistence that The Cure was not a goth group, The Cure was very much a goth group. We were like the famous quote by Groucho Marx – we didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept us as members. We were also against the idea of following anything or anybody. That was the raison d’etre for our third single, Jumping Someone Else’s Train, which was specifically against joining any bandwagons that happened to be passing by at the time.
Critics of punk rock saw the spiky hair and angry lyrics and assumed that’s what punk was all about, missing the point entirely
We were very serious young men and leery of being pigeonholed by our many critics who didn’t care for our dark music. Yet notwithstanding that idea, we became the fertile ground on which the movement flourished.
Somehow everything The Cure did between 1980 and 1984 became hallmarks of this elusive subculture. Call it the enigma of post-punk. Gloomy action glimpsed at a distance in a mushroom cloud of teased black hair.
Consider the songs from what many of our most diehard fans regard as our three early dark albums, our “goth phase”, if you will: Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography. They remain the foundation for not just a new kind of music but a way of being in the world. The only thing we lacked was a name for it, but that came soon enough. My investigation into this led me to understand the subculture in a deeper way. This was the occasion for a startling epiphany: it’s almost unheard of in modern music for something so completely amorphous to have endured for so long.
The Cure did not have a particular style; rather, we were the essence of a melancholy spirit. That’s what struck a chord with our fans – not just in dreary old England but around the world, where people perceived the view to be just as dim and grim as we did. It guided us on our adventure to the other side of our looking-glass future. We’d seen the futility of existence in Britain’s long postwar malaise, and we clamoured for something more.
Paradoxically, goth is often portrayed in a comical way by the media. It probably needs to be so to make it overtly two-dimensional and easily digestible for those who will never comprehend it. As with punk before it, if you can identify the main components, then you can precis the understanding of what it is.
Critics of punk rock saw the spiky hair and angry lyrics and assumed that’s what punk was all about, missing the point entirely. The choices by early punks were directed by a nonconformist impulse to go against the grain of society. That’s what the punk movement was about, not just the music they made or the clothes they wore.
As a young punk on the outskirts of London, I also understood it to be many other things: a credo, a posture, a two-minute manifesto I could wave in the face of my fear to banish uncertainty and despair, and to give me hope in a dark and diminished Britain. Our detractors never understood that, but the dark-haired boys and girls did. The Raven knew it deep in her bones. That otherworldly beauty made sure we never forgot it.
Punk came and kicked down the doors and strangely let in the light so the black heart of something like Goth could exist
Descartes’s famous phrase – Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am – has led western man to equate his identity with his mind, instead of with his whole organism. I think we can equate the origins of goth, and its close cousin post-punk, with the quest to find what’s beyond the Cartesian mode of thought. If punk was pure, instinctual nihilism, goth searched for meaning – even if we didn’t quite realise it back then. Its sources varied. They were not always music. Literature, cinema and other visual art inspired us. The comic-book version has goths sleeping in coffins and bats flying about, too trite and easy I’d say (although I know a man in Portland who does indeed sleep like that). There’s a duality at the heart of goth that’s beautiful and human and unearthly all at the same time, which assures its continued relevance today.
There are obvious connections with Byron and Poe and other roots macabre, but I think that is just the externalisation of the impulse that drove goth.
Most thinking and feeling teens in the UK after the first explosion of punk felt liberated from a desperate survival mode, thinking that had existed in Britain since the end of the second World War. Punk came and kicked down the doors and strangely let in the light so the black heart of something like goth could exist. It showed a whole generation that anything was possible, and it could be closer to the dark impulse, that anxious parent of the soul, that shell-shocked teens kept under cover.
goth and post-punk allowed us as teenage boys and girls to reveal our dreads and desires, bubbling under the intense surface. So where are the roots? Where are the seeds we grew from?
goth is not really a subculture, I’ve come to understand. It’s a way to understand the world. It’s the essence of a deeper metaphysical journey. If you live in England it’s all around you, especially in London. It’s in the Victorian buildings of old London town, in beautiful mystical Gothic palaces like Strawberry Hill. It’s in Westminster Abbey, the Valhalla of British heroes: a large Gothic abbey church, 1,000 years old. It’s farther out in the Kent countryside at Canterbury Cathedral. It’s in every downpour of constant rain and gloomy, grey skies. It’s in the dark alleys and foggy Thames banks. In the walls of ancient pubs and still-cobbled Dickensian streets. It is, in fact, everywhere.
We just had to locate its meaning.
This is an extract from Goth: A History, by Lol Tolhurst, published by Quercus