If there’s an instinctive cringe when the term goth is invoked, that’s because too many people have a narrow and reductive idea of what it represents. Type ‘goth’ into Last.fm and you’ll get the usual ghoulish suspects: The Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus, Fields Of The Nephilim.
But that’s 80s goth. In reality, the genre is a far broader church, an overarching set of aesthetic impulses that reaches right out to the present day and encompasses the glowering intellectualism of These New Puritans and An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump; the high-velocity, grand-guignol pop-punk of My Chemical Romance (and if you doubt that Gerard Way belongs at the high table of gothic lyricists, check out the demonic, goggle-eyed descriptive flair of ‘To The End’ and Cemetery Drive’); the mechanized, jackboot metal of Marilyn Manson.
Indeed, these last two acts show that goth still, startlingly, has the power to outrage. The Daily Mail’s campaign against the “suicide cult” of emo warned parents of the danger signs: black clothes, heavy mascara, sullen introspection. They called it emo because newspapers love a new buzzword to play with – but what they were attempting to demonize was what you or I would call goth.
Similarly, Marilyn Manson, despite having long ago ceased to be relevant, has become the go-to guy for US moral guardians seeking a scapegoat for the ‘corruption’ of the nation’s youth. But these misunderstandings – like the outdated notion that goth ‘equals’ The Misssion, Bauhaus and cider-and-black – arise from people seeing only the cartoon version of goth, and not the genuine, many-sided, nuanced one.
Here, then, are 20 tracks that hopefully represent a more inclusive vision of a genre that has been a potent, ever-evolving force in youth/alternative culture for 30 years.
20. These New Puritans – Elvis
Like The Fall gone dark, Southend scenesters TNP share some of the stern intellectualism of first-wave goth acts such as Bauhaus.
Most gothic moment: When the chorus kicks in at 0.40, backed by mirthless, dead-eyed backing vocals.
19. Bat For Lashes – I Saw A Light
Categorising Bat For Lashes as goth might raise eyebrows, but quite apart from Natasha Khan being a major Cure fan (check out her cover of ‘A Forest’), there’s a deeply shadowy quality to this song, about a suicide-pact couple glimpsed through trees at dawn.
Most gothic moment: “Death in your arms, death in your arms”.
18. The Cult – She Sells Sanctuary
A giant hit on both sides of the Atlantic in May 1985, this was the high water mark of ‘stadium goth’. That it paved the way for the shonky, blustery likes of The Mission and Fields Of The Nephilim shouldn’t detract from the song’s undeniable anthemic heft (although the less said about Keane’s version the better).
Most gothic moment: “And the world drags me down…”
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17. The Horrors – Sheena Is A Parasite
Serving up a bleaker, blacker version of The Cramps’ hammering psychobilly, The Horrors’ version of goth is the polar opposite of the radio-friendly, arena-filling version represented by My Chemical Romance.
Most gothic moment: The strobe-lit video, directed by Chris Cunningham.
16. White Lies – To Lose My Life
Purists might find it unbearably slick – but this is what goth sounds like in 2009: essentially Joy Division with choruses fat enough to fill the O2.
Most gothic moment: “Let’s grow old together/And die at the same time”. Death and romance entwined: that’s the essence of goth crystallised right there.
15. The Damned – Wait For The Blackout
They’re best known for early punk scrawls such as ‘New Rose’, but 1980’s ‘The Black Album’ marked a move into more shlocky, horror-influenced territory.
Most gothic moment: “Let us stay here with the curtains drawn”
– a rallying cry for pallid misfits everywhere.
14. Misfits – Astro Zombies
Marking the point at which goth shades into its cartoonish younger brother, horror-punk, this breathless, B-movie obsessed thrash – predictably covered by My Chemical Romance – is the only song in our list that could be called ‘zany’.
Most gothic moment: “And your face falls in a pile of flesh”.
13. Interpol – Evil
Rumoured to be about serial killer Rosemary West, even having a wobbly-legged, ‘Thunderbirds’-style puppet in the video couldn’t detract from the song’s doom-laden, incantatory power.
Most gothic moment: “Rosemary, oh heaven restores you in life”. (0.08)
12. The Cure – One Hundred Years
“I wanted it to be virtually unbearable,” said Robert Smith of ‘Pornography’. Its opening track set the mood: spidery dissonance, fractured imagery, and an overarching mood of terrifying nihilism.
Most gothic moment: “It doesn’t matter if we all die” – the most quintessentially goth opening line to any album ever?
11. Killing Joke – Love Like Blood
Aligning love and sex with blood is a standard goth trope, but Jaz Coleman’s lyrics always cut deeper than the usual ‘doomed romance’ cliches. On this 1985 single, one of the few times KJ ever troubled ‘Top Of The Pops’, he uses martial imagery to create a sense of apocalyptic struggle.
Most gothic moment: “Strength and beauty destined to decay”.
10. Marilyn Manson – The Beautiful People
From Bauhaus to the sleek, alien Nuremberg Rally stomp of ‘The Beautiful People’ might seem a giant leap, but there are clear continuities: the rattling tom-toms, the agonized vocals, the sense of the macabre, the powerful feeling of embittered ‘outsider-ness’.
Most gothic moment: The Hammer Horror ‘waaargh’s at 1.44.
9. Siouxsie And The Banshees – Cities In Dust
Actually one of their more upbeat moments – if you can call a horrifying account of the citizens of Pompeii being buried alive by molten rock ‘upbeat’.
Most gothic moment: “Hot and burning in your nostrils/Pouring down your gaping mouth”.
8. My Chemical Romance – Helena
Inspired by the death of the Way brothers’ grandmother, this may not be MCR’s most gothic song lyrically but it’s significant as being their breakthrough hit, and therefore a pivotal moment: in cross-fertilising goth with emo, MCR spawned a hybrid that ensured black clothes and eyeliner became, once again, teenage rebellion’s default setting.
Most gothic moment: The bit in the video here the sooty-eyed girl in the coffin… wakes up.
7. The Birthday Party – Release The Bats
Knuckle-dragging drums. Sickening, scything distortion. Barely comprehensible vocals in the Vic Reeves ‘club style’: here was a compelling sonic template for goth’s lunatic fringe.
Most gothic moment: Nick Cave’s blood-curdling shriek: “Whooaaargh! BITE!”
6. Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead
Recorded just weeks after the band formed in 1979, Bauhaus’ debut single – a tribute to the actor famous for playing Count Dracula – still has the power to unsettle, thanks to the combination of Peter Murphy’s profoundly weird zombie croon and Daniel Ash’s scratchy, cacophonous guitar.
Most gothic moment: “The bats have left the bell tower”.
5. Manic Street Preachers – The Intense Humming Of Evil
Inspired by a trip to Auschwitz, and evoking the industrial horror of the Holocaust, this is the Manics’ bleakest moment, spoken word samples and hissing sound effects creating a blackened cauldron of foul dissonance. Genuinely unsettling.
Most gothic moment: “Funeral march for agony’s last edge/6 million screaming souls”.
4. The Sisters Of Mercy – This Corrosion
Produced by Jim Steinman (of ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ fame) and boasting a choral intro and 40-piece orchestra, this was jet-black bombast on the most colossal scale imaginable.
Most gothic moment: The video, all dry ice, black leather and clanking industrial dystopia.
3. Nine Inch Nails – Hurt
In 90s America, under the influence of grunge, goth mutated into something more pain-wracked and confessional. Trent Reznor’s hymn of self-disgust was more literal and self-lacerating than anything, say, Robert Smith would have written.
Most gothic moment: “And you could have it all/My empire of dirt.”
2. The Cure – A Forest
Released six weeks before Ian Curtis committed suicide, there was an element of gothic baton-passing about ‘A Forest’ and its parent album ‘Seventeen Seconds’. I direct you to the immortal 10-minute live version from Werchter Festival in 1981 that ends with then-bassist Simon Gallup bellowing: “Fuck Robert Palmer, and fuck rock’n’roll!” (8.40)
Most gothic moment: “I’m running towards nothing/Again and again and again…”
1. Joy Division – Atmosphere
Peter Hook despairs whenever anyone refers to Joy Division as a goth band, but what else were they? Desolate atmospherics, icily reverberating synths, Ian Curtis’ portentous baritone. All those qualities found their ultimate expression in ‘Atmosphere’, a song whose shattering emotive power is intensified by Anton Corbijn’s monochrome video (shot eight years after the song’s original release), featuring mysterious hooded figures swarming slowly over a bleached landscape.
Most gothic moment: The vast, echoing guitar chords that enter at 3.23.