Styles & Forms | Goth Rock

Much derided by music (and fashion) journalists, goth rock is slow, introspective, gloomy and doom-ridden, with elements from hard rock and psychedelia, often with swathes of cold keyboards and angular guitar parts.

The dress code was rigid: black clothes, big black hair and face made up to look deathly white. Critics often found the music pretentious and overblown and the goth fashion cartoonish and reminiscent of the Addams Family, but that didn’t stop hordes of angst-ridden adolescents finding something they could relate to.

The roots of goth rock can be heard in Joy Division who provide the missing link between punk and goth rock. Formed in true punk style after an inspiring gig by The Sex Pistols by guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook – but before they had had any musical experience – Joy Division replaced the energy of punk with melancholy, atmosphere and introspection, as heard on Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980). On the verge of their first American tour, the troubled singer Ian Curtis hanged himself. The remaining members re-grouped and formed New Order, taking the music in a more dance-oriented direction.

Horror And Death

The goth rock flag was handed over to Bauhaus, whose epic single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ marked the beginning of full-on goth. Their debut album, In The Flat Field (1980), similarly provided a template for goth – self-obsessed and despairing lyrics over moody and atmospheric music.

Starting as a post-punk band, by the time of their fifth album, Pornography (1982), The Cure had miserablism down to a fine art, firmly establishing their goth credentials and achieving a UK Top 10 album despite its rather relentless monotony. Of all the prominent goth bands, The Cure went on to enjoy the longest and most commercially successful career, with Robert Smith managing to combine their goth roots with a more varied, accessible and poppy sound – but without ditching the black clothes and the big black hair.

As goth established itself as a commercial proposition, Bauhaus had a hit single with a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ in 1982 and their most successful album to date, The Sky’s Gone Out (1982), reaching No. 4 in the charts.


The Sisters Of Mercy’s Floodland (1987) benefited from Meat Loaf producer Jim Steinman’s widescreen production, which helped give the music the scale and depth it required to have full effect. In 1988, The Mission (a Sisters Of Mercy splinter group) released Little Children which benefited from the production and playing of ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who not surprisingly gave the album a Zeppelin-esque tinge.

By the end of the 1980s goth had largely run its course, although its musical influence can be heard in doom metal and industrial metal, and its visual influence can be seen in artists like Marilyn Manson.

‘We were anti-rock’n’roll and that might be pretentious but there’s pretence in every aspect of art. It’s all an act.’
Peter Murphy...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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