Goth Mysticism, Fashion, Science, and the British Tradition

Charles Allen Mueller
Charles Allen Mueller

In his informal musings on British popular culture, Michael Bracewell observes that “from the eighteenth-century onwards, mysticism in England can be seen to flourish at times of sudden scientific advancement” (during the Thatcher era however, it was more a case of sweeping economic changes being touted as “progress”).

He goes on to say that throughout English history there has been a tendency to link mysticism to fashionability, such as the cult of orientalism during the Victorian era, and that mysticism occasionally “lends itself to popular protest.”

The author cites the album covers of Led Zeppelin and the songs of Marc Bolan as contemporary manifestations of these impulses, and the gothic aesthetic values that were adopted by British punk bands could also be seen as a part of this.

Tony Pettite, bassist for the band Fields of the Nephilim, stated in an interview that the band’s interest in the occult and mythology was “something of an English tradition.”

One band associated with the goth scene, All About Eve, even managed to make the traditional British preoccupation with pastoralism and arcadia a part of their style, with melodies that resembled English folksongs and the extensive use of acoustic rather than electric timbres.

This touch of English nationalism was not lost on its audience. For example, a reviewer on Amazon.com/uk wrote of the reissue of the group’s albums, “This is storytelling in the finest tradition of English goth music. All About Eve no longer sounds quite as dated as it might have done not so long ago; so for those that loved them the first time around, give them another try and don’t ever lose that innocence.”

Michael Bracewell identifies “the need within the psyche of Englishness to look back to an idealized past,” an attitude that continues to influence rock musicians to the present day.

This interest in folk art, the occult mythology, and other esoterica actually was part of a trend that began during the counter-culture of the 1960s and continued during the 1980s, manifesting itself in everything from Star Wars to Nancy Reagan’s reliance on astrology.

Even though the interest that English rock musicians showed in gothic aesthetics and symbols, and for some artists a fascination with myths and folk music, may be a symptom of British nostalgia, it is how goth artists expressed life in contemporary England that really mattered to most fans.

Goth could in many respects be seen as an offshoot or sub-type of punk rock, and for David Muggleton, Laurence Grossberg, Simon Frith, and other critics of Dick Hebdige, punk’s reflection of the poor economic conditions in England was pure hyperbole.

For such writers, popular music’s position as a commodity neutralizes its subversive potential. But Hebdige was hardly the only scholar to believe that popular music can serve as a reflection of society’s concerns.

Robert Walser, for example, believes that in America during the 1980s heavy metal’s pessimism and aggression appealed to young people because their future prospects were so bleak economically.

In her article, ‘Youth, Culture, and Age,’ Jo Croft endorses Hebdige’s analysis and conclusions and affirms that subcultures like punk and goth do present a challenge to traditional British values and “confound mainstream expectations about people’s positions in the social structure.”

Many non-academic writers also feel that the expression of punk and goth artists is linked to the depressed economic and social conditions faced by the lower classes.

Michael Bracewell, in speaking of British subcultures, asks, “Where and what was this bright new Britain that youth were being prepared to inherit?” and states that young people did not want to be told they had it so good, because they never did.

Music journalists often expressed that they were not surprised that popular music was composed the way it was under the circumstances. For example, in a review of Nick Cave’s album ‘From Her to Eternity’ (a recording much loved in the goth community), Don Watson declares, “Nick captured the mood of modern Britain with an accurate perception of the desperate depressing worthiness. He encapsulated the masochism of a nation that seems to be yielding any notion of individual power to a higher authority.” Clearly, the review saw this music as a reaction against Thatcher’s conservatism.

Non-academic writers within the goth community consistently express the opinion that goth was a reaction to British social circumstances. Dave Thompson, for example, feels that the mood of albums like ‘Seventeen Seconds’ by The Cure is reflective of British attitudes during the 1980s where “every new pronouncement [from Thatcher’s government] took on the portents of the darkest repression and fear.”

Mick Mercer strongly asserts, “Punk was a statement — and one couched in righteous [sic] indignation about what a shit life we had here! For writers like Simon Frith not to appreciate this is bizarre. Punk and goth were not media events. They were covered with the utmost suspicion. Most albums were made on shoestring budgets and sold through independent distributors such as Rough Trade.”

Mercer explained that the goth scene was dominated by the lower classes but others joined later as the style grew. Going to gigs and clubs and following their favourite bands around (and sleeping rough as a result) is what made these working-class kids happy.

Individuals from the goth movement involved in the music industry predictably felt that the music they created expressed something more than teen rebellion.

For example, Andy Kendle, a graphic artist by profession, who has been playing bass in goth bands since the mid-1980s, echoes Mercer’s sentiments, “Goth definitely was a working-class culture when it started but people from other groups began to dress up and support bands when the music became better known.”

A DJ known as “Bats,” who has been involved in the scene since 1986, affirms, “unemployment was horrific, strikes and riots were going on all the time, debris was all over the streets. Many of the colleges I wanted to attend closed their doors, the government made higher education unaffordable to most people, things seemed very uncertain.”

Sean, one of the longest-serving employees of Rough Trade states, “Many of the strikes were extremely violent, city workers went on strike and there was garbage all over the streets. Police brutality was common. There were a lot of racial tensions. We were in a war [the Falkland Islands conflict] and the IRA were bombing a lot of pubs, everything was really shitty around that time. Of course bands were in touch with all that.”

Phil, from the band Play Dead, reports that he feels goth served an important role during the 1980s, “If we’re talking about punk attitudes they’re more relevant now, there’s twice as many on the dole. The social scene that spurred punk is still alive, in fact it’s worse than it was back then.”

Nik Fiend, vocalist and principal songwriter for the iconic group Alien Sex Fiend, also considers his decision to go into music a transgression against class structures: “I am from a working class background. My father was an older man and he was from a time when life was very tough in Hackney in London, basically it was a slum area. Somehow I managed to get into art and music, although that was rare, people just didn’t do that in the 80s.”

Such statements bolster Hebdige’s position that the realities of working-class life are bound to find some echo in the signifying practices of the various subcultures, and that punk (and goth) is a response and a dramatization of poor socio-economic conditions.

There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that the situation artists were reacting to was not subject to hyperbole in their music.

In his article on British class and politics, Frank McDonough asserts that “‘Hurricane Thatcher’ has seemingly blown class off the face of British society. But proving the death of class consciousness is premature. A recent wide-ranging survey of public opinion found 90 percent of people still place themselves in a particular class; 73 percent agreed that class was still an integral part of British society, and 52 percent felt that there were still sharp class divisions.”

The author explains that ingrained class prejudices are, and were, still alive, and that it is worth asking, “Can it be a mere coincidence that British people reserve their most negative comments for accents associated with areas containing large groups of working-class people?”

Like their punk forbears, goth groups often sing with a pronounced lower-class accent. Some of the statistics cited by McDonough are also very telling of what social conditions were like during the 1980s.

Membership in trade unions had dropped from thirteen million to eight million largely as a result of Thatcher’s reforms, which resulted in the decimation of many docks, and centres for steel production and mining.

Since 1979 unemployment has been as high as 3.5 million, triple the levels before the 1980s. As Robert Walser notes in his study of heavy metal in America, the primary victims of these conditions were young men, whom McDonough asserts “have fallen down a black hole of despair with no job, no hope, little or no future.”

The author also reports that before 1979 only 6 percent of the population lived as an underclass, while since 1980 the number has jumped to 19 percent.

Poor urban areas in London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool (all major centers of subculture activity) have seen many riots, with nearly 60 percent unemployment and levels of drug addiction that resembled American cities.

Music for young people could hardly be completely unaffected by these conditions. The final statistic reported by the author that is worthy of note is that even when the working classes are maintaining a livable standard, they never feel the middle class and believe that their working-class stature is seriously detrimental to their lives.

The class consciousness that dominates English attitudes is part of the reason why subcultures like goth and punk are subversive and why the symbols that they used resonated so strongly in the U.K. For example, goth’s emphasis on the seductive and glamorous, while writing numerous songs about urban decay and insanity, is in line with Bracewell’s statements regarding British sensibilities: “The English Arcadian education demands the subordination of individualism to the demands of team spirit, to withdraw, question, or rebel is a sure sign of illness insanity, and immorality.”

Youth subcultures, particularly goth with its preoccupation with melancholy (also an English tradition from Elizabethan times) and death symbolism, cast doubt upon the whole future of English society in the eyes of the mainstream to the degree that would probably not exist in other countries.

Croft writes, “It is almost as if young people in this country are consciously — or unconsciously — regarded as guarantors of the nation’s soul, for whatever anxieties surface about moral or social decline, the first target of concern is British youth,” and he later adds “because of British conservatism young people are regarded as both threatening and vulnerable.”

It is probably no coincidence that those are the characteristics that goth dramatizes to the highest degree.

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