Friday, October 18, 2013

What is Goth?!!

Have you never wondered who's Siouxsie and what are the Banshees? Perhaps you may have  heard that the Cult used to be called Southern Death Cult? Is Bauhaus the place where you keep your dog? Sure you know the song 'Close To Me' by the Cure, but have you ever listened to those other songs they did like 'A Forest'? With these questions, I'm just guessing at a certain outcome. But depending on your answers, you may, perhaps, not know the difference between Goth and what is generally referred to as 'Hallowe'en' music. Well, in this blog, we'll try to educate you, while at same time providing a more sophisticated soundtrack for your hallowe'en party. Ditch the 'Monster Mash' and leave your copy of 'Welcome to My Nightmare' safely on the shelf and use this time of year to get acquainted with some unbelievably good music dredged-up from that cesspool of creativity called the 1980s.

Goth lives on in a different form as I write this blog in 2013, and going forward it can only change again and morph into something different, I'm sure, but this blog is particularly only concerned with the first incarnations of Goth as we know it, not the subsequent and likely better-defined nineties era (that is a subject which is large enough that it may need it's own blog later on). I will not rant about the influence of Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson. Although their music contains horror themes and ideas, I don't really view either as being Goth in the musical sense that I want to discuss here. Cooper's themes and subject matter may be macabre, but his music is largely straight ahead rock in the 70s style and just because he may have preceded the bands that became Goth, doesn't mean he actually invented the genre. Manson is similarly out of this context, partly because he came later, but also because his music is more in line with hard-rock. Both Cooper and Manson have great fans on their own and although that could be attributed to their worship of the devil, I don't hold it against them. Simultaneously, I'd like to remove from discussion all TV theme songs and novelty songs. As clever and catchy as these tunes are, you do not need to read a review of the song 'Monster Mash' or yet another version of the Munsters' theme song. Boris Pickett and Screaming Lord Sutch and Screaming Jay Hawkins were great in their day, but Hallowe'en themed tunes are mostly for kids and they lose their appeal quickly when grown-ups hear them too often. Furthermore, no one really needs to blog about Cooper or Manson or the theme from the Adams Family. These are subjects that are well- covered by much of the mainstream media and re-hashed every year at about this time until the end of October. So now that's settled, let's head over to the museum:

Before Goth:
What elements make or pre-make Goth as we know it? Well, unfortunately, we have to do one more clarification. Goth is not the historic artistic Goth period as known in architechture/art circles. Although that period is sometimes used as inspiration for modern Goth art and music and even clothing, well...that is hundreds of years in the past and the kind of Goth that we want to talk about is largely in the 1980s, so what we're really talking about is the Goth-rock era. And the Goth-rock that we're talking about is that strange, creepy and infectious music made by stranger, creepier and more infectious musicians that seemed, at the time, too weird for mainstream radio. But nothing is born of nothing, so in an effort to show whence it came (other than a hundred or more years ago or from a long forgotten land of terror and bloodshed), we'll briefly describe some of the music that prededed Goth. I think most Goth fans would probably agree that some of the early bands may have been influenced by a group called Velvet Underground, such as the droning guitar-work in the song 'All Tomorrow's Parties' which dates as far back as 1967.
A much greater influence cited amongst fans has said that early Goth grew, at least partially out of the Punk Movement. It seems a difficult connection to make if you listen to the Sex Pistols, but Iggy Pop, during his post-Stooges 70s years wrote the song 'Passenger' which lends itself to some of the musical and singing style of several goth bands. Iggy himself may have invented some of the strange dancing and stage antics later used by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. It seems more than likely that the punk-influence mixed with some of the ideas from early glam-rock and some of the styles from the more artsy side of spectrum. Marc Bolan's song about a 'Cosmic Dancer', who dances himself from the womb to the tomb is indicative of the kind of dark style and subject matter that Goth represents along with the use of themes and tones which would be repeated by others later. And of course, the David Bowie album Diamond Dogs is a good reference as well, containing much of the musical elements of what would be used by artists later when Goth became a genre to itself. All three songs, including 'We are the Dead' by Bowie date back to the mid-1970s

But rather than go through a long list of chronological history of Goth tunes, let's skip ahead to the first real era of Goth and  play some songs while describing some of the more important themes that seem to carry on throughout the music, other than the obvious creepy and macabre vibe that the name Goth would suggest.

Theme #1: Goth doesn't create Idols. Unless they're fictitious ones like Telegram Sam or those already famous such as the un-deceased Bela Lugosi. In the early incarnations of Goth, there seemed to be an effort made to stay away from the idolatry of the individual on-stage. The stage show might use theatre-style tricks, but the lead-singer or lead-guitar player is not portrayed as the object or the incarnate evil representative the way that Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper is depicted as the 'evil one' or the 'villain'. If such motifs are used, more creepily, the band are usually depicted as 'disciples' of a much larger occult power that doesn't appear on the stage. Appropriately one band literally named itself 'the Cult', in that vain, suggesting that there are others out there that 'belong' to the same cult.

Theme #2: Death is Inevitable
Goth themes, while sometimes dealing with the idea of vampires and ghosts and hauntings and such, always seems to keep a more realistic view of death. The undead aside, In my own research, I've found no songs that could be called goth that depicted any type of situation where the possibility of death is imminent, but not occurring. There is not even the most remote suggestion that death can be avoided. Death is always portrayed as inevitable and is something that we must accept and 'live' with. In many songs death has already occurred and the song is intentionally dealing with the rituals that are forthcoming such as the burial or the Wake. This allows songs and music to stay on certain tones, sometimes creating a chanting quality with the vocals or seemingly always returning to a certain point in the song right up until the ending. Even in songs where the story is left open, like the Cure's 'A Forest', it seems the ending is inevitable. Part of this concept is the idea of the seeming bleakness and meaningless aspects of life, which leads to Goth's somewhat more depressing and morbid qualitites. Of course, this is part of the beauty of the music, it achieves that feeling of dread and despair without all the traditional 'scare tactics' and effects so typical of other types of dark musical genres.

Theme #3: Goth is 'not' Heavy. If any theme has been blurred it's this one. Since the end of the '80s Goth ideas and themes have been mixed with numerous styles to create bastard children in the form of sub-genres of numerous types. Ministry made dark-themed music that was a loud as possible without being undanceable. White Zombie, Pantera and other metal bands have conspired to create something that has since been called Black-Metal where the subject matter is dark and gloomy, but essentially the music is Heavy Metal. Goth by contrast is/was usually expected to be something different than Heavy Metal. Often the most 'effective' Goth songs were the ones that were not blaringly loud, but those that lingered sometimes uncomfortably in a tone or series of guitar-riffs that lent an air of foreboding and creepiness to the music and to the mood of the listener. Siousxie and the Banshees song 'the Killing Jar' has very little guitar and uses a cello to great effect. The song 'The Drowning Man' by the Cure is brooding and soft and entirely in one key with only small variations in volume.
   But lines get blurred and then redrawn. Perhaps Goth wasn't meant to be heavy, but the problem with this idea is that some bands are always a little more hard-rocking than others, and in order to create and develop their music and to differentiate themselves from the crowd, many bands that started out well within the original 'goth rock' parameters evolved and changed to incorporate heavier guitars and more powerful drumbeats for different songs. Bauhaus wrote several songs that are louder than others and the Cult eventually transformed into a hard-rock band that with songs like 'Wild Flower' and 'Love Removal Macine'.  I think that the original intent, however, was that heavy metal and Goth were two different things and each had its own dark themes or ideas.

Theme #4: Goth is dance music. One of the main characteristics of Goth in the 1980s through to the early 90's was that it almost always was truly danceable. Perhaps it wasn't viewed as a certain requirement, but when compared to other genres of rock, there seemed an inescapable advantage to listening to songs by the Cure or the Cult rather than a proto-typical supposedly devil-worshipping heavy rock band, and that was that if a person wanted to, they could usually dance to the music. As a result, Goth-themed dance clubs became surprisingly common in large cities all over North America and the UK. One such club called Sanctuary, in Toronto, became an iconic downtown dance-club for nearly twenty years. Many cities all over North America and Europe have goth clubs that are still going strong, or new versions of the old goth aesthetic with modern songs. Most of these places become very popular around Hallowe'en when former goth fans, or even closet goth fans come out suddenly to wear dark clothing and dance to something, perhaps some songs by the Cure.

Theme #5: Let the notes ring
What always appealed to me about Goth was the guitar playing. It could range from droning and simplistic to incredibly complex and melodic, but what usually was absent from this creepy music was that it didn't depend heavily on staying in a minor key or chord. It seemed much more adept at using minors sparingly and to good effect. Bass players also seemed sparing in their own way, not barrelling through a song, but just laying down a simple beat with a bit of added stuff here and there. Overplaying was not usually in the Goth repertoire, though Goth players could get 'on a roll' just like any other group, and though special effects were used, most of the true effects came from the audible trace of sounds after their initial energy waves bounced off the corners of whatever room it was played in, a sort of psuedo-silence created an audible resonance as notes were allowed to just trail off, sometimes left alone waiting for the next part or chord change to come along. Scrapes of the pick sideways on the strings at the high end of an electric guitar, delay-effects speeded up and slowed down during a performance, Arpeggios and moody ringing notes helped to create an atmosphere that, to my mind, hasn't quite been fully captured by digital music as yet, but a quality analog recording will usually renew that sense of the echo-y resonance that the musicians are trying to achieve.

So What is Goth?
Some people might think that I should include Joy Division in this group of songs. Others might think that Joy Division is more post-punk than Goth, and the truth is that I couldn't possibly give equal time to every band that existed. Some would say that Sisters of Mercy, Ministry and the Mission belong in the 80s Goth category, whereas I, for convenience sake, have grouped those bands into the second era of Goth in the early 90s, not the originators, but the 'disciples'. (and I may choose to write another blog on them later) Almost appropriate to its' mysterious sounds of the supernatural It should be noted the entire genre of Goth is somewhat mysterious or in a kind of flux that other musical genres don't experience.  Hindsight is usually much clearer than foresight, but that hindsight, to be honest doesn't help all that much when defining this particular genre. The music that is now referred to as Goth, Goth-rock or the first era of Goth was, in its time, known as everything but Goth. It was called post-punk, new wave, or simply viewed as extension of the punk movement that came out of the seventies. I've heard the term 'Bat-Cave music' that was used to describe these bands, the 'Bat-Cave' supposedly referred to a club somewhere in Britain, but I can't substantiate that. From my personal perspective, I don't ever remember Siouxsie & the Banshees being referred to as Goth during my youth, and I certainly don't remember hearing the term Goth applied to any of this music until the eighties were basically...over. I have been hard-pressed to find any sort of interview from the 80s where any of these bands were referred to as Goth, either by themselves or by their interviewers, and I invite anyone to come up with such evidence. I'm almost certain that while this musical style may be traced back to the mid-70s or even before, the adjective 'Goth' is a product of the early nineties and not before. Whoever came up with the name, be it magazine editor, journalist or simply a fan, it seemed appropriate. Whether it started in 1990 or grew from some embryo planted in the mid-80s it doesn't matter. To my self and many other fans of these bands, this music may have started out closely associated with punk, post-punk or 'New Wave', but by the time the eighties were over, it had drifted, musically speaking, so far from the sound of Iggy Pop or the Clash that it really had to go by another term, and 'Goth' seems entirely appropriate to my mind. If you ask any Goth fan today, though Joy Division's inclusion and others may be debated, I think most would dare not exclude Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cult or the Cure from their list of Goth originators and i would guess that any music fan would say that the first Goth era, if there ever was one, had started entirely with the release of this song in 1979....