Interview: John Robb Chats About His New Book Covering The Entire History Of Goth

Never one to do things by halves, John Robb’s recently published book – “The Art of Darkness – The History of Goth” – has gone above and beyond what mere mortals would attempt. Bulldozing through the 650-page barrier, it’s a monumental piece of work, covering ancient history, troubled poets and the piss-drenched corners of shopping centres and clubs which housed enclaves of outcasts looking to take the tenets of punk into much darker places. I chat with John just after he’s completed the unenviable feat of recording the audiobook version. Must’ve been fun?

Yeah, I’ve just remembered how big the book was. That was quite a read. At least someone else is editing it. But God, it’s like, fuck, this book goes on forever!

When you decided to do the book did you have an idea it was going to sprawl as much as it did?

Yeah, ‘cos I’m a bit of a sprawler. I like to go down rabbit holes and get interested in things, and you start to write about one thing, and then you suggest another thing. And I’m cool with that. I think you just, you just follow it. And then I love footnotes as well. I like little distractions. You go down a footnote rabbit hole and add weird facts, curios, mad bits of history. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities. I like all books like that.

There aren’t many scene books that have to go back as far as the sacking of Rome!

Yeah, I guess I didn’t have to do that, but it’s kind of good that it does. Sometimes you have to, things are like weird little jokes. Obviously, you start with Visigoths because that’s the first use of word ‘goth’ and it sets it in context. Also, it’s slightly funny to start with the fall of Rome as well, isn’t it? But as you read the book and as you go through it, it sort of makes sense. There is a historical backdrop to it, it’s not a modern culture. Those ideas of melancholy and the poetic embrace of sex and death or whatever. Every generation on the outside has done it. What it does is underline that in the late 70s and early 80s, people’s way of dealing with those themes and those ideas was with an electric guitar, mostly rock and roll. Whereas in the 17th and 18th Century, it would’ve been writing or painting.

I was born in Leeds in the mid-70s and lived there through to the late ‘90s, and goth was just normal to me. I wasn’t sure what it was. I would see little posters in The Duchess advertising ‘goth and alternative’ nights. That’s always what it said. If, by mistake, you found yourself at the arse end of the Merrion Centre, there’d be a little arrow pointing to a goth club, which I always imagined would be something like a really miserable coffee morning or something! I couldn’t envisage what it might actually look like! They hid themselves away, but when they were together, it seemed like they were having a whale of a time.

Well, firstly, people had to hide themselves away to a certain extent because walking around the north of England all dressed up in the late 70s and early 80s was a pretty dicey experience. I wrote about the club element, that people wear the big coats simply because it’s always raining. You also had to hide your clothes so you wouldn’t be such an obvious target. I mean, city centres now are full of people, aren’t they? In the late 70s, early 80s, you went out on a Monday or Tuesday night and you wouldn’t see anybody. There’d be no-one around until you walk around the corner, and you’ve got five stray, really bad-tempered drunks who are looking for teenagers to beat up!

That’s the weird British mentality, isn’t it? There’s a darkness to the music, but it didn’t mean there’s a darkness to the culture. It’s a party culture. People have a great time. I think it’s like that saying, “he who cannot embrace death, cannot know life at all.” Sometimes you have to stare into the darkness to enjoy the light. I don’t think that was a manifesto. I think these people, off their heads having a good time, wearing cool clothes and listening to cool records, also attracted things that did have a darkness and a melancholy to them, which is sometimes serious and sometimes tongue-in-cheek as well. It’s not literally black and white, it’s just black and black!

Why was it so provincial? It wasn’t just Leeds, it was even tinier, more gloomy places like Wakefield and Dewsbury, just really unglamorous. And it wasn’t even just the locals. I mean, even Andrew Eldritch (Sisters of Mercy), he was from Ely, but they found themselves in the North of England. It’s almost like there was some kind of radioactive fallout that consumed them.

I think it’s a really interesting thing going on in Northern England. Eldritch obviously doesn’t call himself goth and hates the term. He said he thinks of it as the M62 sound. He felt a kinship with the Bunnymen; Teardrop Explodes; Joy Division, and down the road in Sheffield, The Comsat Angels. He saw not that the bands all sounded the same, but they had a certain attitude to it, coming out of post-punk. It was a very Northern answer to punk – as if punk provided the questions and this is what we came up with in the North as a response. It was very DIY, with the darkness in it, which I think was innate at that time because everything was dark. The cities were broken, weren’t they?  

Kind of an island mentality as well. You had Peter Sutcliffe doing the rounds and it felt like you were under attack, cut off from the rest of the country, the rest of the world.

In a sense, yeah. I think the Peter Sutcliffe thing is interesting, I remember every time friends who were girls went to the shop, we used to go with them, or if they were going for a night on the town, you’d always go with them and get the bus with them and go meet them and stuff. I don’t know how much he had a direct input on the culture. I think the darkness was already inherent in those cities. Everything’s already broken, even the streetlights didn’t work. The city centres were just full of broken old warehouses, which oddly now people my age are really nostalgic about, they go, “Look, what are they doing to Manchester? It’s all, all this rebuilding! They’ve ruined it, it used to be much better when it was all broken warehouses that you couldn’t get in!”

It’s like the romantic poets who didn’t like the industrial revolution and wanted to embrace nature. 200 years later, everybody’s embracing the tail end of the Industrial Revolution! It kind of went a weird full circle. I think maybe creatively it affects people without them knowing. But people had a good time despite the backdrop, I think. I think that’s what it’s more about. Everything’s broken. We’re not gonna get a job. We’re all going down equally. Well, fuck it, let’s go for the craziest party possible!

You say Eldritch didn’t or wouldn’t describe himself as a goth. I imagine that was quite common. Did, did you find many people embraced it as a label? Was it like going to the Pacific Northwest where saying a band is ‘grunge’ is absurd because the bands didn’t sound anything like each other?

Yeah, nearly all bands hate the term, but it’s a retrospective term. I mean, those bands had already formed and three years later get called goth bands, and then people will say, if you are a goth band, why have you got a white shirt on? It becomes the goth police, like there were punk police. I mean, Andrew Eldritch didn’t come to Leeds to form a goth band, he came to Leeds with a vision in his head of what he wanted to do, which was some kind of a rock band stew with a post-punk sensibility to it. It was an ironic take on rock and a celebration of rock at the same time, with the drum machine, which was pretty groundbreaking. What he came up with Sisters, there wasn’t really anything like that before.

Those clubs at the time were ‘alternative nights’ and ‘alternative clubs.’ It’s a scene that had no name at the time. It wasn’t even a scene. It was people coming out of punk, into post-punk, but there’s no real sense that we were in the post-punk period. We were still in punk. Everybody’s definition of punk was different, they were very personal. Punk gave people the opportunity, and gave people the space, but the space didn’t come with an instruction manual. Go and do something. And people go, “What are we doing?” Whatever the fuck you like, you know!

Did you find it difficult to draw a line between post-punk and goth? Were there any borderline cases where you struggled to decide?

I think in a sense, post-punk would be the overarching term, and goth will be a strand that was within post-punk, like Psychobilly or post-punk itself, which now become a musical genre, which it wasn’t at the time. You now get modern bands sounding like post-punk bands, which is weird.

It’s landing somewhere in between, but making their own version of it, which I think’s like a lot of creativity, isn’t it? So, post-punk could be an overarching term because it’s more like a time period than a genre of music. There are some bands you could fit into both, like Siouxsie, another one who hates the term goth, because her first gig is in 1976, I mean, the punk scene hadn’t even really started. So a band like that, probably now a lot of people sort of say they’re more post-punk than anything. But for a lot of people, she’s the number one goth icon. You know, she’s an icon of a scene that she has no interest in being in!

You mention in the book that The Doors was a goth band ostensibly, because of the look, the playing in the darkened room and the romantic poetry, and it’s difficult to argue against that. And then when you started down that track, well, then you had Link Wray who had all the black get-up and everything. Before you know it, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash were goths! There were seeds popping up everywhere for quite some time, not just in cities but in small towns too.

Yeah, all those influences are in the pot. There’s a lot of black music in there as well. You listen to a lot of those goth bands, they’re into funk, disco, dub, whatever. It’s all in the mix. The small-town thing I think is really fascinating. The idea of bands like Bauhaus coming from Northampton, which is a big market town, but not really an epicentre of pop culture. They came up with something wonderfully original in a vacuum, and that fascinated me. It wasn’t like there were 40 or 50 people in that town and an arms race between bands aiming for the same original sound. There were just no other bands, you know, they just came with this anyway.

I know there’d be a slight London influence because London’s only about an hour away, but at the same time, they created something out of nothing, and that was important. I think the other thing is, you’re left to fester in a small town. It’s not like all the record labels in your town will sign you up too early. In those days, no record labels ever went up there. Bands were just going, “We’re just gonna do it anyway”. Let’s make this stuff and be damned. We’re making it to entertain ourselves and we’re gonna spend months just playing it. And then, then you get really good at it.

I think also people in small towns…they weren’t cultural backwaters. People in cities always think people in towns are like yokels or something. There are always 5 or 10 people in every town in the country who are totally ‘on it’, as much as anybody in the city is. There’s always a clutch of people, who somehow have worked it all out in isolation. Even Dublin was like that. The Virgin Prunes’ chapter in the book is one of my favourites.

There was a void, and Ireland was very conservative, but then you’d get people walking around dressed in long black dresses like the Children of Ziggy or something. They eventually changed Ireland into the country it is now, and I think that comes down to the Virgin Prunes. I was chatting with Gavin Friday about all that, and it just occurred to me in the middle of the conversation that when U2 did the Zooropa Tour – when U2 stopped being so earnest and started getting pretty wacky and out there – Gavin Friday’s their art director, he’s on the payroll. What he basically did was persuade U2 to make their mad, druggy, psychedelic, crazy record and it’s actually a Virgin Prunes record by proxy! Maybe U2 are in on it because they’re best mates to this day.

Goth bands have got that kind of unified vision, but you couldn’t guess what their record collections looked like.

I think I could in a sense, I think it was a lot of Glam Rock. When you interview those bands, a lot of them talk about the Bowie “Starman” moment on Top of the Pops. Some people would say that was a life-changing moment. We loved all the glam stuff, Sweet, Mud, Slade, the whole lot. So, in a way, you could argue that goth was glam in black, it wasn’t all the tinsel. The Doors influence was more latent. I think people got into The Doors because of ‘Apocalypse Now’ in 1979. It was a really big film, everyone went to see it. And “The End” by The Doors was totally playing to that post-punk generation, it’s got a darkness to it, a broodiness to it, a political thing to it. It sounds like it’s abrasive. I think it becomes a very big influence on those punk kids looking for a template. Morrison’s baritone, his fascination with the dark side, the band’s funereal melodies, and then mixed it up with post-punk.

How did goth manifest itself away from the UK? I’m glad you mentioned Chrome in the book because they seemed like they had exactly that kind of marriage of a sort of tribal, gut-pummeling sort of bass coupled with that kind of almost S&M image. And then in Europe, I suppose you had to mention Kraftwerk, but then it’s a slippery slope because if you mention one German electronic band, you have to mention dozens, and your book explodes!

That’s interesting. They are an influence, Kraftwerk records, the whole darkness of it, the European thing as well, not looking towards America and the 12-Bar Blues thing an influence. A lot of goth was European sounding, it’s not Anglo-American, is it? I think also, the electronics, the idea you don’t have to have guitar, bass and drums, the idea of introducing a drum machine or loops or electronic rhythm patterns into music is profound and revolutionary. I mean, not just in techno and dance music, but right across the board. Most of the interviews in the book, they’re fans of Kraftwerk. The idea that in Britain, the first time anybody of my age had ever seen Kraftwerk, was not on Top of the Pops, but on a science programme, Tomorrow’s World. One – that’s really cool, and two – it tells you everything you need to know about Kraftwerk!

As well as the dancing, there was an obsession with sex. It was really overt. I guess that was about as daring and as in-your-face to the status quo as you could possibly be in the UK, even down to desperately including it in your band’s name!

Yeah. I think it is. I think maybe because when punk was around, most of the punk kids were 15 or 16, especially blokes – you couldn’t even get a girlfriend! They were going out with 18- or 19-year-olds, the older guys, you know? When people got to 18 or 19, when goth was in the early days, that’s probably the first time most people actually got a shag! Sex was on the agenda and goth was sexy. The clothes were sexy, the atmosphere was sexy, and the fluidity of it as well, people experimenting.

Punks were quite young. Everyone’s on speed and it’s not a very sexy drug. It was more naive. As more punks got older, they became more sophisticated, sexier. People read a few books. People knew a few more things. People got interested in the dark side, they knew about Aleister Crowley. Punk was more like just getting on with doing it because you’re a mad kid. At 18 or 19, you discover there are books you can read! Your brain’s getting more engaged in interesting ideas and girls will speak to you!

Do you think there’s much of a difference between goth and industrial music?

That’s an interesting one because I did a chapter on industrial music and it definitely started with very different scenes. But a lot of goths liked industrial music, I think they embraced a lot of the same themes. I think the difference probably was that goth embraced it generally with guitar bass and drums, and industrial music initially embraced it with a bit more of an out-there approach, more anti-rock and roll. But at some point, the two crossed over, didn’t they? So modern industrial bands, what you call industrial now, like Nine Inch Nails, they come from a really long, weird winding road to get there. They have an experimentation that comes out industrial, but they play like a rock band, a metal band, but with a darker heart. They’re sort of a fusion between industrial and goth and metal, aren’t they?

A lot of goths would go to see Nine Inch Nails. If people went to see Nine Inch Nails 30 years ago, people would say they’re going to a goth gig. I think the terms ended up being quite interchangeable, they’re just shorthand, aren’t they?

When do you think the scene hit its peak and when did it start its decline?

I think like most scenes, the scene hit its peak when the people in the scene were in their early twenties. To them, that will always be the peak. There’s only a certain amount of time and pop culture would do the same thing and everyone goes into something else, so I think ‘83 was the peak. Then the breakout bands got big in ’85 and ’86, but it became less…goth. By the late eighties, a lot of people had gone to acid house, they’re still young enough to find other scenes, get into different drugs or whatever. But then of course, like all great scenes, it never goes away. It percolated and then became big around the rest of the world.

And all the people in the original scene would probably say it was better in my day, which for them personally, it probably was. Pop culture is kind of weird, isn’t it? Because it’s so personal. The peak can only ever be a peak to you. But people weirdly would talk about the personal, like it’s a fact. “It was brilliant then because I personally had a great time. It’s not as good now”!

I think you’re right. There were always those bands where it seems like nobody told them EVERYBODY’S GONE.

Right, nobody told them! I saw New Model Army the other night, and they sounded great. Justin Sullivan’s a fantastic songwriter. He doesn’t give a fuck. He’s a very talented guy who works on his own terms, and I respect anyone for that. I don’t even have to like somebody’s music to respect those kinds of people who just make music on their own terms, and don’t give a toss about what’s in or out of fashion, after 20 years it always comes back around. People go, “Fuck, are they still here? Jesus, they’re good”.

What’s the legacy that the goth scene has given us?

It’s created a very discernible scene, a very discernible strand of music culture which has a massive influence. It goes across film and then, every year there’s another catwalk fashion where a young fashion designer has invented goth about 40 years after it happened! Batman films…Tim Burton is the number one ambassador of goth in the world because he’s in the mainstream, but he never loses his love for what he grew up with as a teenager. He resurrects those bands’ careers all the time, like The Cramps. Last year, 14-year-old kids on Spotify who heard them on ‘Wednesday’ went and checked out this weird band. They’re not a weird band anymore. They never were really, they were just a fantastic rock and roll about, weren’t they?

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth is out now and is available to order here.

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