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Over the Wall – #7

July 1, 2009

Something a bit different this week. We’ll be looking at the early goth scene in England, and its American counterpart, death rock.

Edition #7 – American Gothic: Death Rock.

As the seventies turned over into the eighties, and post-punk expression began to expand, bands and fans on both sides of the Atlantic with a taste for spectacle, theatricality, fantasy and glamour, and for the escapism inherent therein, were taking the energy of the punk explosion and directing it into more flamboyant sounds and fashions. We’ll be looking at three such sub-cultures in this column and the next: goth, death rock, and new romanticism.

The focus here will be on goth and its less-documented American counterpart death rock, which both developed at the end of the seventies and in the first few years of the eighties. Being that the two grew out of similar soil, along with new romanticism (which we will look at next time), the aim here is to define some of the cultural elements that gave rise to these styles, and because those elements differ a bit between Europe and America, we’ll look at each separately.

The initial goth stuff was European, through and through, and like its artistic namesake some two hundred years prior, it was a reaction to the social climate and attitudes of its time. The aim of this article (and the next) is to illustrate how the same artistic spirit found in the age of romanticism in eighteenth-century Europe was enacted again in the post-punk era; notably, but not only, in these two subcultures which shared their names with past artistic movements. The goth and new romantic scenes, despite their similar starting point, ended up developing in opposite directions in the early eighties. At the core, though, neither had any interest in the increasingly political and classist tones some English punk was taking on by the end of the seventies, nor the austerity of some post-punk exploration, and instead began looking to the past, to glam (particularly Bowie), and to the fantasy of art, film, and stage for inspiration. The term gothic was used at the time to describe the sounds of groups such as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, UK Decay, The Cure, and The Birthday Party, who, at various points (and to varying degrees) between ’79 and ’84, all produced an escapist pop, steeped in dark, often theatrical glamour, and rooted in the old romantic notions of celebrating the individual and the emotions, and in gothic art’s turn away from the modern.

America’s relationship with romantic and gothic art of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, of course, was different, and so was its relationship to glam, but a comparable thing was emerging in America around the same time as goth in Britain. It arose out of similar sentiments, and was, in some cases, influenced by what was going on in England, but it had a different look and sound. Looking at the sources that gave rise to goth, and those that gave rise to death rock, we can see some distinguishing characteristics between the two. What glam there was in America was based more in outright shock, spectacle and depravity than English glam (see Alice Cooper and The New York Dolls), but it did have a similar significant influence on younger American bands in the seventies. Again, the American romantic legacy was much different than the European one, and little in the way of gothic sensibility had ever been relevant in American culture, but there existed the dark and morbid mythos of the blues, which was incorporated deeply into rock and roll mythology and aesthetics in the fifties. Another significant influence that cannot be overlooked in this case was The Damned. The first of the English punk bands to tour widely in the U.S., The Damned were playing early on to American crowds, and have been cited by many in the hardcore set as an important influence on American punk in the late seventies. For the death rock set, Damned vocalist Dave Vanian’s vampire-like image was certainly important, and so was the band’s irreverence and general freakiness. Possibly the most important group for the death rock set, though, was The Cramps, who were an excellent example of everything mentioned in this paragraph, and who predated just about every other band referred to here (even influencing some of the early English goth groups). Along with the influential early incarnations of The Misfits, they put forth the blueprint, which by the early eighties, was being developed by groups like The Gun Club, Christian Death, 45 Grave, TSOL, Kommunity FK and others, constituting a happening that was, somewhere along the line, dubbed death rock. Less elegant and dour than early goth, death rock was nonetheless a similar turn toward theatricality and escape, finding its kicks in the kink of twisted Americana and horror movie aesthetic rather than old European glamour.

So, if goth and death rock developed around the same time, why is it that nobody talks much about death rock anymore? By ’82-’83, the American and European scenes had more contact with and influence on one another and the distinction between the two had been lessened. Goth simply became the identifier for it all after a while. Furthermore, nearly all of the original bands associated with these scenes were only around a couple of years, leaving in their wake a newer crop who were more willing to fit into already-existing images which their predecessors had used, making goth, by the mid-eighties, much more of a uniform thing. Likewise, hardcore had streamlined American punk to a great extent, and the growth of heavy metal and its venturing into similar territory must also be taken into account. In the end, death rock just got assimilated into other styles. But if you’ve ever tracked Glenn Danzig’s path after The Misfits you’ll find one of the prime examples of where death rock went: Samhain. A very overlooked group, and one that sits between punk, death rock/goth, and metal, Samhain came together right after The Misfits disbanded (even playing some of the same songs and using a similar look) and carried on until the end of the eighties, when they became Danzig.

Now, saying that there was a death rock scene akin to the goth one in England isn’t quite accurate, as it wasn’t that cohesive. The term was mostly used in relation to a few groups in L.A., and wasn’t in use all that long before goth took over, but clear evidence of what death rock was can be found nowadays in some of the sub-genres it spawned: horror-punk, psychobilly, etc. As for goth, it’s since come to include a number of other styles and has also spawned many sub-genres, remaining one of the most visible and longest-lasting sub-cultures to emerge out of the post-punk era, unlike its sibling, new romanticism.

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