Membranes frontman and journalist John Robb has spoken to NME about his new book detailing the origins and rise of goth.
The monolithic book has taken 10 years to write and looks at artists including Bauhaus, Nick Cave and The Cure and their place in building one of music’s most important scenes.
“I’ve read a lot of books about the post-punk period and goth is always just dismissively kicked away,” Robb told NME. “It’s always really annoyed me that people have been quite sniffy about bands like Bauhaus or Killing Joke, despite them being some of the best art rock bands this country has produced. They were often looked down upon, all because they had a dark side and dressed up a bit.”
Robb said that he hopes his book will do for goth what Jon Savage’s book, England’s Dreaming, did for punk in getting people to take it more seriously. “It’s a very artistic movement with its roots in great literature and architecture, from Edgar Allen Poe to the cathedrals of Gothenburg and beyond,” he said.
After carrying out a “huge dredge” of the internet, Robb said he found the first known use of “goth” to describe an artist.
“The Doors were the first band to be described as ‘gothic’ in October 1967, at a gig in New York,” he explained. “Jim Morrison had the baritone voice, wore the black leather, had a fixation on the Romantic poets. He was a quintessential goth.”
Robb also discovered that in the same month the review was published, Iggy Pop was also watching Morrison while still a student at university. “Iggy was heavily influenced by Morrison,” Robb says. “You could see that darkness running through his work from the beginning.”
In his book, Robb argues that many artists contributed to goth like this “from the sidelines”, including The Rolling Stones (via ‘Paint It Black’), Pink Floyd (via Syd Barrett’s “early dark poems”) and David Bowie. “If you did a chemical equation of goth, it’s kind of Jim Morrison plus David Bowie plus punk equals goth,” said Robb.
Bowie has a whole chapter dedicated to his influence on the genre. “Goth was a kind of dark glam and Bowie helped to create that: he was important in creating the theatre of it all,” said Robb. “His lyrics and music took us into darker places; he gave goth the imaginative space it needed to exist.”
Robb recalled how Bauhaus, who are considered to be the forefathers of British goth, saw Bowie perform ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops and described it as a “profound turning point in their lives.” “It’s simple,” Robb continued. “No Bowie, no scene.”
Nick Cave also has his own chapter in the book. Robb recalled Cave immersing himself in the local goth scene in Manchester when he met him back in the late ’80s.
“I remember The Bad Seeds rehearsing in Manchester for the first date on tour,” Robb told NME. “Some friends of mine met Nick Cave in a local goth club called the Playpen and they ended up taking him back to an impromptu gathering at their flat in Hulme.”
Robb said the party lasted “all night”. “Nick played harmonica along to their ‘Howling Wolf’ records,” he continued. “The next day, when Cave came to do his gig in Manchester, he had to sit on the drum riser all through the gig because he was absolutely knackered from being up all night at this mad little do in Hulme!”
Robb delved into old interviews he carried out with Cave for the book. In them, he said Cave was reluctant to label himself a goth: “Cave would never consider himself a goth despite his brooding music, his dark poetry, his wild performances and his darkly exotic image that made him one of the icons of the form.”
Robb said it was similar to old interviews he carried out with The Cure’s Robert Smith, who also didn’t identify with the term.
“The Cure said they definitely weren’t goth, but for many fans they of course absolutely were, and that inherent contradiction is fascinating,” Robb said. “Despite not believing they were goth, they made one of the most iconic goth albums with ‘Pornography’. It was a template for many goth bands to follow and a game changer.”
He continued: “But no band wants to be trapped by the expectations of a scene. Goth was a retrospective term for something that was already happening. Now, it’s become a shorthand for something that’s darkly delicious and enticing in cultural terms, so we embrace it more now.”
Other parts of the book focus on highlighting the female artists who were central to the scene, and the importance of grassroots venues to the development of sub-cultures like goth. “Places like The Batcave in London and The Phono in Leeds were massive in bringing the goth movement together,” Robb said.
“Whether it was their DJs playing The Sisters Of Mercy, Siouxsie or The Cramps, giving people a space to dress up without fear, or giving bands their first gigs…there would be no movement without those places. We must continue to protect them,” he said, at a time when live venues are still under threat post COVID and amid the cost-of-living-crisis.
Another expert who spoke to Robb for his book was Johnny Marr. “He’s a musical encyclopaedia and a Bauhaus fan, so that helped a lot,” said Robb.
“We did a three-hour interview and we covered so much – I couldn’t fit it all into the book! Marr also spoke to me about the influence of bands like The Birthday Party’s Rowland S Howard on his own guitar style. A lot of the book looks at how goth inadvertently influenced other genres like indie and rock from the margins.”
Marr also recalled the time he managed a goth clothes shop in Manchester, helping Robb to chart the rise of goths visual identity.
“The distinctive fashion of goths was a cause of consternation and well as celebration and the safety element for goths was huge,” said Robb, recalling the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. Lancaster was attacked by a group of teenagers after being targeted because of her goth identity.
“In the first chapter I write about it was dangerous to be a goth, you had to be careful,” Robb said. “Many going to goth gigs used to hide their outfits under big coats for fear of being attacked. When they’d get inside the venues, they’d show off these incredible outfits and styles that went hand-in-hand with the music. Outside, it was a different matter. You had to be careful.”
Now, Robb said there’s been a shift in attitudes (he cited the pioneering work of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation) and noted how goth is thriving. “Wednesday has been massive, The Cramps are bigger now than they ever were,” he said. “Hans Zimmer’s score to Batman was one of the gothiest in Hollywood. Many musical movements died over the years, but goth just got bigger.”
He added: “Goth came out of a time when there was a terrible Tory government, there was a threat of nuclear war: the world felt fucked. And here we are again now, in a similarly awful situation. Goth has risen again with the likes of Billie Eilish and The 1975 – the emo kids who are the children of goth.”
He even thinks Noel Gallagher’s latest is “a bit gothy”. “It’s the Robert Smith remix of course, it’s great,” Robb said. “It just shows that when you look closely, goth is still everywhere. I think it always will be.”
The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth is released on March 23 and is available to order here.