November. Daylight the colour of slate, dark hours to brew a wanton fog, something lurking, just out of sight…
Which is cliché writ large, for sure. As if the world needs a dodgy music blog to start pontificating on how autumn into winter appeals to the darker side of the human psyche. It is, however, fair to say that Gothic detail falls far more readily than during spring, or summer. That’s Gothic as in cultural momentum; a broad canvas Gothic, rebooted in the late-eighteenth century, aligned to the evolving social mores of the nineteenth, and therefore impacting far beyond arts and architecture (you can tell I’ve been watching Andrew Graham-Dixon’s recent, rather excellent The Art of Gothic series, available to UK viewers for a short while longer here). Impacting far beyond, yet specifically rooted within artistic endeavour; literature, portraiture, landscape brushwork, those architectural statements of transmogrified scale…
Oh, and pop/rock, of course. Although as there weren’t many girls, boys or associated dilettantes posing with guitars through the dry ice back in 1794 or 1862, we were forced to wait a little for the dénouement…
Not that the Gothic is straight-forward to apply to a musical discourse. In fact, I’m not precisely certain what goth in its rock and pop guises actually is. Or rather, I’m not sure where goth ends and all that is very much non-goth begins, the interchange between the two hanging in the mist, fluid and indistinct.
Genre definition crops up when discussing pretty much any sonic subset, of course, the pointless pursuit of musical classification being a recurring theme on this blog. Also, artistic vogue doesn’t exist in isolation, but rather assimilates past fashions (in this case: post-punk, glam rock), reacts against others (the overtly pop-driven sentiments of new romanticism), before evolving within artificial boundaries set, more often than not, by the music press.
And the flipside: just as these forces act in a cohesive manner, so the same physics encourage scene fragmentation, the originators moving into different (and sometimes contradictory) fields, leaving but a rump of lesser talents to reheat the archetype.
In other words, there’s an argument to suggest that the interesting acts we could label as goth exist above and beyond narrow definitions of default categorisation. And were we to widen what we mean by such a term, we could easily be left with a list of protagonists whose association with the scene is, at best, fleeting.
For example; The Cure’s Pornography is a beast of an album. Simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic, it drags the listener deep into its maw. It also shares many of the tropes of the Gothic – the grandeur, the foreboding, such unrelenting textures – yet if there’s something I’ve been trying to suggest with my contrasting capitalisation, it’s that you can be goth without being specifically Gothic (and vice versa). This band’s image circa ’82, ’83 – the make-up, the coiffure – complies with rough notions of what scene should resemble, yet when evaluating the back catalogue as a whole (and Pornography’s place within that continuum), the most conclusive I can be is that The Cure fell within goth’s gravitational pull for only a limited period; that goth the music is something far narrower than Gothic as emotional discourse.
And it’s not as if fat Bob Smith and the boys are the only example to feather such a position. Siouxsie And The Banshees. The Birthday Party. Bauhaus. Killing Joke. Each band, to whatever extent, pigeon-holed as goth (see Chapter 22 of Rip It Up And Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds – a very decent read, but one in which grouping together for narrative convenience takes place wholesale). And each band pursuant of ideas and thematic devices far removed from template when discography is considered as a whole.
An argument that goth is only distantly related to the Gothic, then. Which perhaps helps a little when it comes to understanding subject matter. A tweet:
This I get. The Sisters Of Mercy released three EPs between April ’83 and June ’84, followed by their debut long player – First and Last and Always – a year later. The sound is stark. Detached. Mal-illuminted. Desiccated. Very different from the pomp and circumstance of ’87’s Floodland… which itself bares minimal resemblance to the LA rock aesthetic of Vision Thing, from 1990. Such a journey in sound, I’d suggest, underlines that mentioned earlier; that the interesting dynamics we could label as goth exist above and beyond narrow definitions of default categorisation. That picking out the accoutrements of scene – pale face, kohl pencil, dyed black hair, alienation – and hence extrapolating associations; it just ain’t a challenge. Stereotypes are stereotypes, however crushed the velvet; we can point and laugh at Andrew Eldritch all we like (and I do), but it’s difficult to argue that he represented, at least whilst still releasing records, a static target.
So; what is goth? 800+ words into this piece, and I’m still not much closer to harbouring an understanding. The associations behind Gothic I do get, however loose or intangible such applied allusions may be. Goth – less so. ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ by Depeche Mode. ‘Since Yesterday’ by Strawberry Switchblade. PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By The Water’. None of which, I’d suggest, being the slightest bit goth, yet all featuring on Goth At The BBC, television’s attempt at showcasing the genre via archive performance footage… it’s almost as if TV researchers were so busy trawling through clips from late night, early ’80’s BBC2, they forgot how an “ic” and a capital G widens meaning quite considerably.
No; should we accept that goth is, in essence, specific, then it’s how the sound channels the subterranean chill. A post-punk heritage refracted through stark guitar riffs and tribal percussion, the lyrical themes speaking of a romantic isolation. Think Fields of the Nephilim and Sex Gang Children, Flesh For Lulu and The March Violets – all of whom had their moments (the latter in particular, as the track below the words possibly demonstrates), yet each aligned so closely to scene that they don’t necessarily function beyond any dark-lit context.
Perhaps there’s a view that any release readily interpreted as goth is far less compelling in comparison to the Siouxsie Siouxs and the Robert Smiths – artists who magpied their way through vogue, utilising aspects of interest en route to elsewhere. Listening to records of goth’s ilk – as I still do from time to time – and I’m hit by the confined notions of space these records operate from. Of how rooted to time and place so much of the material feels, as if a signal growing weaker and weaker the further we walk from some 1983 transmitter. And this isn’t a shame, exactly, because distance is what life does to us, but maybe it’s this reaction that explains why understandings of goth reflect like so much smudged eyeliner.
The March Violets / Turn To The Sky