Gothic Covers: British Goth Music, Subculture and Ideology

Charles Allen Mueller
Charles Allen Mueller

The art of covering and arranging other people’s songs has been an important aspect of English popular music since the rise of skie in the 1950s and the British blues boom of the 1960s.

Covers typically served as part of a musician’s learning process, as a way to showcase their interpretive abilities, and to demonstrate that their style was distinct from that of the competition.

Performing songs by others was also important to an artist’s claim to authenticity, proving that they were legitimate practitioners of styles that originated with a different culture (jazz, blues and rock n’ roll), and celebrated American music as a symbol of revitalization in the post-war years. After the 1960s the way that a group or individual artist covered another performer’s material continued to have an ideological component, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the music associated with English youth subcultures such as punk, goth, and mod.

Youth subcultures thrived in Great Britain from the 1960s through the 1980s, and dramatized and drew attention to a wide variety of social ills and collective fears while providing creative space for young people.

Dick Hebdige in his study ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ (1979, pp.122-23) states that subcultures grew and endured because they embodied a sensibility and found a way to say the right things at the right time, voicing refusal and protest through style.

For most subcultures expressing concerns through music was an important means of cohesion, and the way in which bands associated with a particular youth movement interpreted the music of others is a window into their system of values. Musical groups and their fans were often sensitive to the sign value that an existing song possessed, as well as its possibilities for appropriation and manipulation.

Recording artists associated with the goth, or gothic subculture, were particularly adept at remaking the music of others to reflect their sensibilities. In this article, I will explore the different ways that goth bands approached the tradition of covering songs by other artists, how this reveals insight into how goth as a musical genre developed, ways that the groups utilized their influences, and how the music was a part of their strategies for expressing refusal. Before discussing the music, however, it is necessary to provide a brief discussion of the goth subculture and their music as a distinct style in and of itself.

The ‘Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture’ (Bottom, 1999, pp. 233-34) defines gothic as a subculture derived from the punk movement that replaced that genre’s anti-establishment political rhetoric “with an interest in all things macabre.” This included adopting a menacing style of fashion that imitated bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Sisters of Mercy.

According to my own ethnographic research with over ninety people who participated in goth in Britain during the 1980s (Mueller, 2008), a new and distinct type of haunting, melancholic, but inspiring punk-derived music did form the impetus for the gothic subculture by articulating existing fears and pessimism.

It brought together people, primarily from the working and lower-middle-class, who were anxious about their future, affected by the social and economic turmoil of the hatcher-era, and fearful that the Cold War would escalate. Abuse by peers, illness, abandonment by family members, loneliness, unemployment, and the boredom and monotony of suburban life were additional reasons cited by my informants for their attraction to goth.

Mick Mercer (2005), the only music journalist to consistently cover the goth scene from its inception, states that goth bands and their followers were, at first, simply considered to be a part of the punk movement, but gradually acquired the label “goth,” or “gothic” after the British music press began applying the adjective to the music and image of bands associated with the subculture such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Danse Society, The Sisters of Mercy, and others.

Some of these artists also described their music as gothic in interviews, and related that they often drew inspiration from the work of Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Price, and early expressionist horror films. (Paytress, 2003, p.107). Mercer (2005) relates that goth bands and their followers simply came to view punk music’s aggression and overt political commentary as one-dimensional, rapidly becoming a cliché. They were hungry for music with more emotional depth.

By the early 1980s punk and goth groups were drawing different crowds and it was clear that each had a different approach and sensibility.

Music that is now categorized as goth was a distinctly English, largely underground genre that was separate from both punk and new wave, but maintained some similarities with both those styles.

For example, goth retained punk’s veneration of musical amateurism and its pessimism, as well as new wave’s use of synthesizer technology, drum machines, and dance rhythms. What set goth music apart was its dark affect, ranging from sentimental melancholy to despair to abject terror.

Goth lyrics typically focused on disappointment with society, cruelty in everyday life, child abuse, themes from literature and films, and personal anguish. he texts were sung with a theatrical intensity and set to atmospheric music that showed the influence of film scoring rather than blues-based rock.

Ostinatos, extended techniques, the manipulation of timbre and texture, the creative use of drum machines and guitar effects, expressive harmonic suspensions, and powerful bass lines were all employed to capture the dark mood of the lyrics.

The music’s unrelenting ominousness and its exploration of negative emotions were truly worthy of the gothic label. he music, however, was usually not crushingly dissonant, and the word that most of my goth informants used to describe their music was “haunting” or “beautiful” (Mueller, 2008, p.114).

The artists used Gothicism to sharpen and expand the scope of punk’s social criticism and clearly felt that gothic aesthetics were the most appropriate means to articulate their concerns. Gothicism was also an ideal way to build upon punk’s legacy of anti-establishment expression since horror films have historically been considered subversive and a particularly dangerous form of escapism in the United Kingdom (Kermode, 2002, p.11).

There are three other aspects of goth that should be mentioned before discussing the genre’s approach to covers.

First, goth was known as a subculture that was especially popular with women. Female musicians were celebrated and the bands featured more gender diversity than one would find in other types of rock. Masculine conventions of rock authenticity, such as blues-based riffs and song structures, showy guitar solos, and misogynistic lyrics were either shunned by goth bands or used in an ironic mocking way. The genre celebrated femininity as a seductive, subversive sign.

Second, goth’s dramatic visual and music style is based on a complex intertextuality. Although it developed from Britain’s punk movement, goth bands generally had more in common with the more intellectual and experimental bands from New York such as The Velvet Underground, and Television. These groups were distinguished by their complex arrangements, dissonant harmonic language, and lyrics that dwelt on the dark aspects of decadence.

In fact, goth was open to appropriating elements of virtually any form of culture associated with decadence and decay. Female goth performers owed a measure of their image to the vamps of early film. The stark, mannered expressionist horror films from Weimar-era Germany were tremendously influential to goth both in terms of image and musical aesthetics. Weimar cabaret influenced the lyrics and declamatory vocal style of goth singers.

One of the primary motivations of goth musicians seems to have been a desire to update another style associated with decadence -1970’s glam rock. Throughout most of their careers goth bands were continuously compared to David Bowie by the British music press as a way of dismissing or marginalizing their work (the gothic adjective was used for this purpose as well) (Burchill, 1978, p.45) Goth artists were attracted to Bowie’s sophisticated, William Burroughs-inspired, apocalyptic lyrics, the important role of timbre in his music, as well as his skilful balance of harshness and beauty.

They were clearly fascinated with the grotesque eclecticism of albums like the ‘Idiot’ by Iggy Pop and Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’. In goth music, appropriating elements from Bowie appears to have been a symbol of depth, introspection, and fatalism. But above all, goth bands were attracted to how glam rock parodied masculine blues-based rock conventions.

Third, goth bands often made extensive use of camp, both musically and visually. Although frequently not defined in dictionaries, the term typically signifies a mode of expression that combines tackiness with glamour and the ephemeral.

The adjective has been used to describe gothic artwork from all historical periods. Mark Booth (1983, pp. 85-99) in his extensive academic study describes camp as complete insincerity, brutal cynicism, delighting in caricature, and revelling in powerlessness. He describes art that is overly mannered, clichéd, and created from elements that do not blend well together.

In goth, creating works that are attractive and expressive, but developed from elements that are hackneyed or clichéd is a sign of authenticity. Camp works validate the feelings of people considered marginal or unworthy of being taken seriously. Camp, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and the hysterical, represents an assault on masculine values. Neutralizing or subverting masculine power is one of goth’s primary objectives.

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