Goth music was an often misunderstood genre. At the time, music critics did not comprehend the music and record companies did not know how to promote it effectively (particularly to audiences in the United States).
This contributed to its underground appeal as a style for that in-the-know. Much can be learned about goth music by examining their approach to cover songs, particularly the way goth groups built upon the work of their influences.
Intensifying the elements of the original music that they found to be the most effective is a primary feature of songs covered by goth bands. It is perhaps surprising that brutal satire was not typically a part of the goth approach to reworking songs since goth was derived from punk and also because defiling established conventions is a major part of the gothic aesthetic.
In this genre, artists covered songs with one of the following aims in mind: to demonstrate the continued importance of glam rock by sharpening the subversive aspects of the genre, to bring a dark intensity to camp and kitsch, and to reinterpret iconic English rock music by turning it into studies in colour and atmosphere. Goth bands also sought to appropriate the sign value of their influences and disarm misogynistic music that could appear threatening from the female perspective.
I want to begin my discussion of representative examples of the above approaches by discussing songs that remained faithful in most respects to the original music. With these covers, goth artists were positioning themselves as the musical heirs to those predecessors whose work they admired and that was complementary to their ethos.
Songs that illustrate this approach can be found in the work of Bauhaus, a Northampton-based group whose music was perhaps the most gothic of all in spirit. Their debut album, ‘In the Flat Field’ from 1980, featured two of their most celebrated covers; ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ by David Bowie, and ‘Telegram Sam’ by Marc Bolan. he group took many liberties with their cover of Bolan and this will be discussed in the next section, but with ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ the group admitted that they chose to faithfully cover Bowie’s signature song not only to pay homage to their biggest influence, but also to bait and irritate the press who constantly accused them of being unimaginative imitators of the glam rock from the previous decade (Sutherland, 1982, p.24).
Most goth bands faced this problem but Bauhaus more than most on account of their theatrical performance style, and vocalist Peter Murphy’s resemblances to David Bowie. Bauhaus also opened their 1982 album ‘The Sky’s Gone Out’ with a near faithful reproduction of Brian Eno’s ‘Third Uncle,’ the ambient composer’s most accessible and nonsensical song. he primary goal of this cover was for Bauhaus to associate themselves with the artsy sophistication of Eno’s music and his reputation as the most important figure in ambient popular music, a master of atmosphere, which goth artists necessarily aspired to be.
Covering ‘Third Uncle’ may also be interpreted as an invitation by the band for audiences and critics to evaluate their music with a different mindset than one would have when listening to established punk music or metal bands like Black Sabbath, with whom they were initially compared (Gill, 1980, p.32).
Another example of a near faithful cover is from Christian Death, the only American band associated with the English goth movement. The band selected ‘Gloomy Sunday,’ the most lugubrious piece in the vocal jazz repertoire as their sole cover.
The choice is not surprising perhaps, since goth artists were keen to appropriate visual and musical signifiers associated with beauty, femininity, and death. Recording the song allowed the band to rapidly accumulate an abundance of sign value.
Composed in 1933 by Rezso Seress, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ has been the focus of urban legends that claims that the music prompts listeners to commit suicide (Anon, 1968, p. 84). The song is primarily associated with Billie Holiday whose name invokes connotations of deep sadness, drug addiction, glamour, and self-destruction.
A former prostitute, Holiday appealed to the goth subculture because she demonstrates the value and potential of people that polite society might dismiss as gutter trash. She is also a symbol of female greatness in music.
The only liberties that the group took with the composition were adding sampled sounds from an urban street: the rustle and commotion of passing crowds, sirens, breaking glass, etc. Gitane Demone’s singing is heartfelt, but necessarily mannered in order to recontextualize the jazz standard for a goth/punk audience.
Another way that goth bands approached covers was to reinterpret the original, intensifying any subversive or grim aspects already present in the work to a grotesque extreme.
Bauhaus’ version of Marc Bolan’s ‘Telegram Sam’ is an example. In its original form ‘Telegram Sam’ is a study in the ridiculous with nonsensical lyrics describing a cast of colourful characters with humorous rhymes. he accompanying music ( A pentatonic) represents R & B stripped down to its most basic elements, with a catchy, tuneful melody, an infectious rhythmic drive in the verses, and an absurdly sentimental chorus based on the harmonies VII and minor i.
The song became a popular single in 1972, but many critics picked up on the fact that underneath the superficial comic and cheerful affect that the track projects, it was a sad self-parody, an “artistic collapse” in the words of the New Musical Express reviewer (Shaar Murray, 1972, p.54).
‘Telegram Sam’ is a cynical exercise in trash culture with Marc Bolan perhaps testing boundaries to determine just how nonsensically he could compose and still be accepted by fans and the industry.
In the version recorded by Bauhaus, the group demonstrated that they recognized the cynical nature of the song and carried this quality to disturbing extremes. The group’s interpretation also plays upon Marc Bolan’s death in an automobile accident three years earlier by using the ephemerality and deliberate trashiness of his music as a death symbol.
Based on the success of the song, most audiences seem to have uncritically accepted ‘Telegram Sam’ as an unpretentious, lighthearted and enjoyable piece of rock music, or perhaps even a guilty pleasure.
The Bauhaus interpretation assaults such beliefs about the song, defacing every aspect of the music in typical gothic fashion, leaving the listener no sense of sanctuary. The band was clearly demonstrating that they had the artistic prowess to transform even the most innocent and lighthearted composition — a piece of humorous nonsense — into an experience of overwhelming anxiety.
In the Bauhaus cover, the all-important groove of the original song is completely destroyed as vocalist Peter Murphy delivers his lines in erratic free time and startlingly off key. The band punctuates his phases with the guitar riff from the original, played with power chords a major 6th lower and with a neurotically brisk tempo that strikes the listener with the sensation of frantic anxiety.
The distortion and fundamental sound of the guitar is tightly focused rather than open and resonant. This gives the guitar riffs, even in their low register, a disturbing, physical slashing quality reminiscent of the violin parts in the soundtrack to the famous shower scene in ‘Psycho’.
Murphy’s declamatory singing on ‘Telegram Sam’ is just as disturbing. The lyrics describe a series of colourful people, and the vocalist seems to interpret this aspect of the song as a metaphor for schizophrenia. The phases are sung with an unpredictable stress given to random syllables.
Murphy sings forcefully, then leisurely, sometimes shrieking, or with clenched-teeth anger, or sometimes in the manner of a silly child. During the chorus, in contrast to the verses, Murphy sounds lifeless, ambivalent. As one might imagine all of the deliberately schmaltzy, saccharine elements of Marc Bolan’s original song such as the string arrangements and backing chorus are absent in the Bauhaus version; replaced with jarring dissonant feedback.
Tricia Henry (1990, p.33) in her book ‘Break All Rules’ asserts that glam rock was “about putting catastrophe in listenable song structures,” and was for “rebels who wanted commercial success.” But this is an oversimplification that ignores a large part of what the artists were trying to show — the hollowness of success and the style over substance mentality of the music industry. This is why James Hannaham (1997, p113) mischaracterized goth when he wrote that the style over substance aesthetic that groups like Bauhaus appropriated from glam was “an albatross” around the neck of the goth subculture.
One of the most famous artists associated with the goth genre were The Sisters of Mercy, formed in Leeds in 1980. Admired for their wit, danceable grooves, beautiful harmonic progressions, and the ominous baritone of singer Andrew Eldritch, the band’s two covers both appear on ‘Some Girls Wander’ by Mistake, a collection of roughly produced demos from 1980-1983.
Their cover of ‘1969’ by Iggy and the Stooges is a reproduction of the vulgar American punk rock admired by goth bands for its street-wise cynicism and connotations of being music by white-trash for white-trash.
The Sisters of Mercy’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ however, represents another approach that goth bands took to covered material — transforming English blues-based rock music into works of dark ambience. Remaking a song by The Rolling Stones might seem like an odd decision for a goth artist since The Rolling Stones are associated with misogyny and masculinity. But the Stones are also associated with androgyny, decadence, and the occult, due to songs such as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and the album ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’, and are English icons of deviance.
Youth subcultures such as goth represented an alternative form of the English nationalism that swept Britain during the 1980s, when celebrating the national heritage was part of the vogue.
The Sisters of Mercy were probably attracted to the sentiment of the words to ‘Gimme Shelter’ with its vivid similes (streets burn like a red coal carpet) bluesy flood metaphors, as well as dire warnings of impending disaster. The eerie calm-before-the- storm-atmosphere of the song’s introduction would also have appealed to musicians fascinated with ambience.
It features a descending c-sharp major- b major- a major progression animated in the manner of R&B players, but made mysterious and ambiguous through the flickering, pulsating vibrato effect from their Fender amplifiers. As the guitars form an aural metaphor for simmering social unrest, Mick Jagger hums a haunting c-sharp minor melody that creates tonal ambiguity that only adds to the mystique.
In their version, The Sisters of Mercy wanted the eerie atmosphere of the introduction to permeate the rest of the song. They began by transposing the song from c-sharp major to c-minor, which results in a darker, richer sound. But c-minor is still a key that allows for no open strings and results in a tension or tightness to the sound, which the affect of this cover requires.
The R&B-style guitar picking of the introduction is replaced in the cover by expansive arpeggios that linger on the tension of the VII.
In other parts of the song the harmonic motion of the original remains intact. For example, the verses that stay on a static tonic, and the i-VII-VI descending progression of the chorus, which is so important to the effect, however, during the verses, the chugging, full-bodied strumming of Keith Richards is replaced by distorted power chords drenched in reverb that provide a threatening ambience.
An important way that the mood of the introduction is maintained throughout the song is that the haunting minor-key melody hummed by Jagger in the original is played in an embellished form on the guitar, and a snippet from that melody is used to punctuate every line of the vocalist.
The Chess-inspired sound of the rhythm section in the original becomes the disturbingly monotonous pulse of a drum machine (an effect probably inspired by the drumming of Maureen Tucker of The Velvet Underground, whose unnervingly mechanical performances contributed to the unsettling nature of the band’s music).
The drum machine is the sole source of the cover’s rhythmic energy. While in the original version the rhythm of the words and Jagger’s sensitivity to it all contributes to the groove. Every line of the text is, with few exceptions, set in an iambic meter and with spondaic accents on ‘War! Children!’ here are caesuras after each of the lines which alternate between short and long phrases. This rhythmic alternation is emphasized by Jagger’s vocal line, which is more declamatory than melodic and rises on the long lines and falls on the short.
In the cover, Andrew Eldritch purposefully sings with little regard for the accent of the words and without the melodic rise and fall of the original version, thus negating an entire layer of the rhythmic drive.
Jagger brings a great deal of character to his performance singing in a street-wise, street jiving manner, alternating between an intense and a relaxed delivery with a knowing laugh at the end of each phrase.
During the chorus, “War! Children! Its’ just a shot away” Jagger is dramatically joined by female backing vocalists in R&B fashion.
In the cover Eldrich’s delivery is deliberately lifeless, a disturbing monotone not unlike that of Nico. The chorus of background singers is absent, but Eldritch compensates for their absence by emphasizing the words slowly in his deepest range and most sinister tone.
This interpretation strips away any trace of blues or R&B from the song and instead recasts ‘Gimme Shelter’ as a study in gothic text setting. The cover was an early effort and could have been more effective with better recording and mixing.
The Sisters of Mercy did make the song a part of their live performances, and it provides an early example of what would become known as the goth genre of popular music. Additionally, the cover set a precedent for other goth bands to cover The Rolling Stones in a similar way. The Danse Society’s version of ‘2,000 Light Years From Home’ from 1984 is an example.