Over the decades it’s almost been the case that Peter Saville’s monumental art design for the cover of Joy Division’s debut full-length outstrips the music itself, but even just a quick listen confirms the staying power of the remarkable music they’d created at a young age. While the band famously felt that Martin Hannett’s production didn’t capture them at their strongest, the dark power and energy of such remarkable songs as “Shadowplay,” “New Dawn Fades” and “She’s Lost Control” retain a vivid intensity.
Shfl Guide: First-wave Goth
While there were plenty of worldwide acts and inspirations for the now decades-long goth subculture, musical and otherwise, ground zero for the form was in the UK, whether from homegrown scenes or visitors from elsewhere. While no one performer or band can be called the exact flashpoint, or even source of inspiration, in retrospect for many of the acts given the goth tag it was the impact of glam rock that had fired up their imaginations a few years beforehand. In particular, the late seventies work of David Bowie and especially Iggy Pop set out some sonic and performance approaches that any number of bands ran with. If Siouxsie and the Banshees, thanks to their connections with the original London punk scene and venues, were a key starting point, they were rapidly joined in the public eye by performers like Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Cure, the Birthday Party, the Sisters of Mercy, the Virgin Prunes and many more, not even touching on fellow travellers tagged as post-punk or part of other wider fields.
The range of what was happening among these bands — absolutely none of whom started a band with any idea they’d be called goth soon after — showed that goth was less a descriptive tag than an attempt to capture a mood shaded by personal, societal or political tensions and angst, even if often shot through with a wicked humor. The Banshees always resisted the label to begin with, exhibiting a wider art-pop range, while Bauhaus’s monumental “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” for all the horror theatrics and shattering guitar, was equally an open tribute to the astonishing production work of Jamaican legends such as Lee Perry and King Tubby. (Not to mention that when it came to presentation there was a world of difference between Joy Division’s normal-guy looks and the vivid hairstyle and makeup approaches of Siouxsie, the Virgin Prunes’ Gavin Friday, the Cure’s Robert Smith and many more.) By the mid-1980s acts like Specimen, Gene Loves Jezebel, Alien Sex Fiend and more had further explored just whatever it was goth was supposed to be, often more self-consciously, and from there — especially as acts like the Cure built up massive overseas fanbases — it’s been off to the races ever since.
When Junkyard hit, the Birthday Party’s early days as squirrelly Australian schoolboys must have seemed a lifetime ago rather than just a few years (and admittedly a move halfway around the world). Moments aside, the explosive manias evident on the previous Prayers on Fire became the group’s reason for being, with Nick Cave’s bellowing howl and snarl cutting across the roaring din of everyone else, Rowland Howard’s guitar literally sounding like metal shards and Tracy Pew’s bass a near obscene rumble on songs like “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can” and “Dead Joe.”
Having steadily carved out a particularly vivid, wired space for themselves in the unsettled jumble that was both UK and Irish post-punk fields - they were friends with U2 but very defiantly in their own space - on ...If I Die, I Die, Virgin Prunes reached a dramatic apotheosis. “Baby Turns Blue” is the song that sums it up the best, but the combination of Gavin Friday’s vocal desperation and beyond-glam extremity and the band’s transforming of rock-as-such into a kind of alien ritual at once made it a goth landmark while at the same time transcending the form.
There may be more famous debut albums in the world, but on Promise, Gene Loves Jezebel honestly delivered one of the most unsettling, a rock album on the face of it but one working out any number of issues next to which even the contemporaneous Tears for Fears debut The Hurting seemed happy go lucky. With big guitar drama and unusual arrangements underneath Jay and Michael Aston’s piercing voices, everything from Welsh political anger to the stillborn birth of Jay’s daughter serves as inspiration for a set of powerful, extreme songs.
The sole full-length of Southern Death Cult wasn’t really an album, instead consisting of their sole single, radio session cuts and live recordings, and given that the sole point of continuity from there to Ian Astbury’s later work was Astbury himself, it’s easy to frame the band as a starting point more than anything else. But better instead to consider it as a document of a place and time, where postpunk impulses combined with an admittedly imperfect interpretation of American First Nation cultures resulted in drum-heavy, dramatically sung performances.
The two sets of brothers that made up the initial lineup of And Also The Trees might have seemed initially unlikely to a number of their rural Worcestershire fellows to break out beyond local circles, but when they caught the ear of the Cure, everything changed thereafter. Lol Tolhurst’s production certainly emphasizes a darker edge shared between the bands but AATT’s own striking aesthetic approach — lyrics delivered almost like windswept poetry, at times a musical sense of something pre-modern seeping through into a current day and age — remains clear.
The debut album by as merry a crew of reprobates as rock has produced, Who’s Been Sleeping In My Brain? clearly showcases Alien Sex Fiend as perfect jokers in the pack when came to early goth days. Nik Fiend, equal parts Screaming Lord Sutch, Alice Cooper and Hammer horror, might almost be the UK’s best equivalent to Lux Interior, while the mix of rock crunch and electronics, the latter courtesy of the only other full time member since, Mrs. Fiend herself, results in a careening caper through songs like “Ignore the Machine” and “New Christian Music.”
It’s an understandable enough conclusion to simply say that Bauhaus’s debut album in the wake of ”Bela Lugosi’s Dead“ was the foundation of goth, and certainly everything about it helped codify a wide range of approaches. But the elements of glam and crisp funk that fed into its creation, as well as the lingering impact it had on any number of punk and emo bands whose members weren’t even born yet, underscores just how volcanic, extreme but still insanely catchy In the Flat Field was and is.
Recorded in the interim time between the departure of original bassist Will Heggie and the later arrival of Simon Raymonde, Head Over Heels found Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Frazer in high creative health, exchanging the somewhat monochromatic feeling of Garlands for a broader, often very involving sonic palette. The blend of Guthrie’s famed guitar atmospherics and Frazer’s beautifully unusual vocals remained paramount, while the songs touched on everything from jazz-pop grooves to elegant dramatics on compositions such as “Five Ten Fiftyfold,” “Sugar Hiccup” and “Musette and Drums.”
Siouxsie and the Banshees already had established a name by the time of their third album, but following a famed tour bust-up Siouxsie herself as well as Steve Severin needed to find some replacements. Steve Jones and future regular John McGeoch split guitar duties but it was the recruiting of Budgie on drums that was the ace in the hole, giving the band a new complex fluidity on striking dark art-pop singles like “Happy House” and “Christine” as well as deeper cuts like “Paradise Place” and “Red Light.”
By the time of the album sessions for the Cure’s third full-length, the group had reverted to being a trio while the moodier aspects of Seventeen Seconds had turned into the driving focus for Robert Smith, Simon Gallup and Lol Tolhurst. Bursts of sudden energy like the bass-driven “Primary” aside, the album embraces an atmospheric chill and collapse, ranging from the ruined beauty of “The Funeral Party” and the contemplative “All Cats are Grey” to the high drama of “The Drowning Man.”
Drawing on their earliest self-released singles before they signed to a major label, Some Girls Wander By Mistake brilliantly shows how the Sisters of Mercy had not only worked out their own particular aesthetic early on but proceeded to create landmarks that others made whole careers out of. Andrew Eldritch’s famously deep brood of a voice, combining sentiments both serious and wryly dramatic, matched with spiralling guitar parts and a drum machine punch on songs like “Alice,” “Floorshow” and the majestic “Temple of Love,” produced one underground landmark after another.
The first Dead Can Dance album was also the only time when the core duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard could be said to be leading a conventional rock band as such, making it an inadvertant outlier for the rest of their extensive careers since. But as such it retains a remarkable stark power, both of their voices testing initial limits as they sing or at times almost declaim over rumbling and agreeably dramatic arrangements that understandably slotted them into a goth framework that carried over as well into future work.