What The Hell Is Goth Music? : Brief History of Goth Rock

 The Goth aesthetic dates all the way back to the 12th century AD with the emergence of Gothic architecture.  The term “Gothic”, once called the “barbarous German-style” was used to describe various architectural features, such as the pointed arch, rose windows, pinnacles, etc. It was not until many centuries later that Goth was described for anything other than material arts, such as the cathedrals, paintings, literature and so forth.

Centuries later the term “Goth” still exists and thrives. In this day and age, there is an abundance of small sub-categories within the subculture: Steam Goth, Victorian Goth, Nu-Goth, Industrial Goth, Traditional Goth, Mall Goth, Pastel Goth, etc. Despite the differences in time and purpose since the creation of the term “Goth” the styles continues to overlap,  with the love of dark-dramatic architecture, the love of poetry and classic literature, the use of red and black, the references to religion and blasphemy, and so forth.

Most people understand the Goth way of dress, even if there are different ways to portray goth, as mentioned above, what most people don’t understand is modern Goth music. Due to the dramatic appearance of most goth appearances, people tend to lump Goths with punks, metalheads, devil worshippers and every other “outsider” culture that exists.

The truth is, like the way of Goth dressing, there are hundreds of small subcultures within the Goth music genre, and it would take me a few hours to sit down and unpack it to you, and I would probably be the last person to give a properly educated explanation of all of them. So, for the sake of your time, and my own, I will simply discuss modern “Goth Rock” and how it later inspired the more commonly known “Mall Goth”.

The modern-day Gothic subculture is a predominantly music-based subculture that began in England in the late 70s, early 80s. Goth rock, in particular, emerged from the post-punk scene of the late 70s as a darker movement from its post-punk brother. Goth Rock is known for its introspective romantic lyrics, and synthetic guitar and key sounds with poetic Jim- MorrisonLeonard-Cohen-esque singing.

The thematic purpose of Goth rock typically lies in the poetic literature of death, existentialism, supernatural characters like vampires, ghosts, ghouls and more, embedded into a romantic package that reflects and addresses real-life issues. Like most genres, Goth rock is recognizable with its distinct sound and look, it is easy to group artists who fall under the Goth-rock category, the issue, however, is finding the creator(s) of the genre, due to its influence is a mix of many different things.

Musicians who are most well known to shape the genre and most well-known to be the ultimate influencers of Goth Rock are artists like The Velvet Underground, The Doors, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and The Sex Pistols. All legendary artists in their own right, but none under the same umbrella of music genre: some Punk, some Blues, some more Pop than Rock, but despite these differences, they all have the same movement and message: Dare to be different.

Much like the issue of “Where the hell did Grunge come from?”, many argue to this day of where can the origin of “Gothic rock” can call home? Back in 1967, music critic John Stickney used the term “Gothic rock’ to describe the music of The Doors and the lyrical performance of the late Jim Morrison. Stickney used the word violent to describe the contrast in The Doors vs the “pleasant hippies” of the 60s. Furthermore, since Jim Morrison was not afraid to talk of his soul, writing lyrics about death, existential troubles, and the grotesque themes of the world people considered The Doors to be too dark to be classified as 60s Psychedelic Rock, could The Doors by one of the main influences of Goth Rock?

On the other hand, it was not until the late 70s, when the term “Gothic” was more frequently used to describe a subculture in the pop-culture world. Once the hippie movement of the 60s had passed, there was an emergence of the punk scene with artists like The Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop taking over the music scene in the early 70s. Then there was the emergence of the Post-Punk artists like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, The Cure, Magazine and more that began to draw attention to their dark and freakish ways in the late 70s.(I use the term Freak, in the most enduring way).


Robert Smith of The Cure & Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxie and The Banshees (source)

At first, music critics were unsure of what to call it. It was not guitar driven enough to be Rock, not loud enough to be Punk, but not safe enough to be Pop. Bands that were considered heavy and scary already existed, Black Sabbath stepped into the scene in 1968, however, there was something different about the bands like Joy Division and The Smiths. They were raw, they were electric, and they were emotional, and most importantly they were dark. This was known as the New Wave of music.

At the same time there we bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Killing Joke, The Damned and so many more who were taking the late 70s music scene up by a storm. They wore their hair big and black, both men and women dawning dark makeup, fishnet shirts, clunky shoes,  and the celebration of eroticism, death, heaven, and hell, were all dominant themes in their music.

In July of 1978, music critic Nick Kent wrote a review of Siouxsie and the Banshees concert, and stated that “parallels and comparisons can now be drawn with gothic rock architects like the Doors and, certainly, early Velvet Underground“. Siouxsie Sioux became the talk of the music industry, she was dark, she was different and most of all she didn’t give a shit. The release of their album Scream in 1978 left critics perplexed, it was angsty like punk, but soft and melodic like pop. It was a landmark in the shift of the two genres, creating what it is now known as Dark Wave. 

In late 1979, the success of the debut single of the band Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, was considered to be the beginning of the true emergence of the Gothic theatrics. Peter Murphy, the frontman of Bauhaus, would dress in Vamprie-like clothing on stage, hiding in a cape while chanting “Bela Logosi’s dead, Undead undead undead“, it was unlike anything else. Soon most, if not all,  dark wave and new wave bands began to incorporate more dramatic theatrics in their performances.

The essence of Goth Rock truly lies in its theatrics, from both the artist and the listener. The fun was in the fashion, the dark eerie setting of the Goth Clubs, the dark makeup, discussing life and death so openly, breaking the taboo. One of the most famous Goth Clubs opened in July of 1982 in the Soho area of London, due to the overgrowing fascination of the once underground scene, the club was called the Batcave.


Two men outside the Batcave, 1983.

It became one of the most sought out clubs in the UK and had famous regulars like Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Robert Smith of The Cure and Siouxie Sioux, who were known to set the trends of the latest Goth fashion.  People who frequented the club were called batcavers,  which also would become the regular term for what we now call Goths. Batcavers would replicate the fashion seen worn by their favorite musicians and attend the club in similar styles, these clubs were quick to pop up all around the world.

From the 70s to the mid-80s the Goth scene was underground, much like punk, but because if its synthesizer sounds and poppier vibes, it soon broke out and hit the mainstream. By the late 80s some of the hottest American clubs were featuring “Goth/Industrial” nights, the scene was catching hype around the world. In 1983 NME magazine called the emerging Goth Rock scene “positive punk”, the Goth scene broke out of England and began to create a worldwide sensation. America began to create their own Goth Rock scene with bands like The Cult, Inkubus Sukkubus, Rosetta Stone, and Clan of Xymox.

The style went hand in hand with the music, the more dramatic the bands would dress, the more theatrics they would put together on stage, the more abstract the listeners would dress. The Horror genre in both films and novels had become the latest hype, books by authors such as Anne Rice and Stephen King were in high demand. The 80s produced some of the most well known and highly appreciated horror films to date: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, The Evil Dead, Creepshow, Aliens, etc… the Goth subculture had become cool. 

The entirety of the 80s Goth Rock scene would later inspire the 90s “Mall Goth” scene with acts known as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, His Infernal Majesty (HIM), Type O Negative, Evanescence, and many more. Some suggest that Mall Goth had become an even bigger mainstream hype than 80s traditional goth due to its accessibility thanks to commercialized brands like Hot Topic and MTV. Goth was no longer underground, anyone that wanted be different but cool would be Goth.

Goth Rock of both the 80s and 90s later trailed off into the early 2000s spin of Emo-Rock with artists like My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, Green Day and so forth,  creating a whole different cult and lifestyle… Scene. I’m sure I don’t even need to get into that because at least one of you have experienced the life of an emo-scene kid. 

Today in the Goth world there’s Cyber Goth, Shock Rock, Industrial Metal, Gothic Metal, Medieval Folk Metal, Horror Punk, and so many more celebrated in the subculture. The reason why it is a subculture that continues to stay alive is that it shifts with the times and a new version is always being incorporated. To this day, there are still Goth Rock bands existing, some of the old and many new,  but many are choosing to keep the traditional Goth rock sound of “darkwave” and “new wave”!

Goth rock is for everyone, whether you want to wear your hair big and your eyeliner thick, or if you want to wear your office clothes, but still listen to Bauhaus, it is up to you. Some argue that Goth is mostly in the fashion, many people on social media platforms such as Twitter argue that if you’re not daring to wear Goth-like clothing you are not Goth. However, to me, Goth is the appreciation of all things art. Goth is literature, Goth is movies, Goth is music and Goth is a philosophy. You can wear all the black you want, but to me, that is not the sole contributing factor.


Goths at a club, 1982.

On a personal level, I find that Goth rock/Darkwave is a very underappreciated genre, despite it being one my all time favorites. Most know of 90s Mall Goth and even Emo-Rock, but Dark Wave, the true genre of Goth (in my humble opinion) for some reason skips most people when they are interested in the subculture. It could be the fact that Traditional Goth (Dark Wave)  is a trend that doesn’t carry on as strongly as Nu-Goth (Mall Goth), simply because it is harder to go to work dressed like Siouxsie Sioux, and more people are aware of Hot Topic than Kill Star. However, both Nu-Goth and Traditional Goth, hold great importance in the Goth Rock genre and are both subcategories that created some of my most favorite songs by my most favorite bands.

So what did we learn today? There’s no real “creator of Goth Music” because, well, Goth music could technically go back all the way to  Schubert’s “ Der Leiermann”, or even further. Goth music is melancholy, passion, theatrics, over the top and so beautiful. Goth music is not scary and painful, Goth music is accepting those for who they are, it captures the love of life and the love of death. This subculture exists to allow people to express themselves, allows people to be comfortable with who they are, for people like me, who can’t pretend to constantly be cheery and live in ignorant bliss. That is what Goth and Goth music is. 

Hopefully, we also learned that Goth Music no death metal or black metal, or My Chemical Romance, but can be appreciated by those in the Goth subculture, it’s just that they are categories of their own.

Before we leave, I want to share with you my 7.5-hour playlist of Goth music. It consists of a nice mix of New Wave, Dark Wave, and Nu-Goth, creating the perfect “intro to goth music” playlist. I hope you enjoy the genre if you’ve never listened to it before, and I hope you enjoyed my little lesson of “Where the hell did Goth Music Come from and What The Hell Is It?”








Contact email: blueveinblues@gmail.com


2 thoughts on “What The Hell Is Goth Music? : Brief History of Goth Rock

  1. Pingback: 5 Spooky Bands To Get You In The Halloween Spirit! – miss mephistopheles

  2. Pingback: The Story of Desolation: Swedish Post-Punk Band “Isolated Youth” (A Review) – miss mephistopheles

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