What Is Gothic Rock?
Gothic rock, or goth rock, is a subgenre of rock music that arose in the wake of punk rock in the United Kingdom (UK) during the late 1970s. Gothic rock, and many early gothic rock bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus, were initially part of the post-punk movement but soon distinguished themselves with heavily processed guitars, repetitive percussion, and droning, dramatic vocals.
Both goth bands and music embrace a certain degree of theatrics: lyrics tend towards a blend of the ominous and romantic. The “goth look”—black or dark color schemes in wardrobe and makeup—is echoed by the aesthetic choices of a worldwide goth subculture.
What Subgenres Are Linked to Gothic Rock?
As with many music movements, gothic rock is linked to many other subgenres, like industrial rock and darkwave, an umbrella term for certain post-punk and New Wave acts anchored by icy electronics and mournful lyrical content.
Gothic rock also serves as a genus for various subgenres, including deathrock, which folded a horror-influenced vein of punk into goth rock; gothic metal, which explored heavy metal from a goth rock context; and ethereal wave, an offshoot marked by dreamlike textures that included many bands on the 4AD record label, including Cocteau Twins and Australia’s Dead Can Dance. Additionally, many musicians and bands apply goth aesthetics to their work, including Marilyn Manson and the British trip-hop group Portishead.
A Brief History of Gothic Rock
Here is a brief overview of gothic rock’s evolution:
•Proto-goth: The history of gothic rock dates back to the late 1960s when bands like The Doors mixed psychedelic rock with Beat-styled poetry that explored themes of spirituality and death. Other proto-goth groups and musicians include New York’s Velvet Underground, the shock rock pioneer Alice Cooper, and even Canadian poet and folk artist Leonard Cohen. Singers like Peter Murphy of Bauhaus later echoed their sonorous vocals.
•The first wave: The true first wave of gothic rock began in the UK during the late 1970s with post-punk bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose music employed dark themes and detached, droning instrumentation. Music critics dubbed their sound “gothic” to draw comparisons with the Romantic era, supernatural fiction, and twentieth-century horror films. The label was applied to music by a diverse group of artists in the early 1980s, including Bauhaus, whose single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was widely considered the first real gothic rock song. Other acts with the goth label include the Damned, the Cure, and Sex Gang Children, and musical polyglots like Killing Joke, which included elements of funk and dub in their sound.
•Second wave: The second wave of British goth, fueled by harder-edged artists like the Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim, helped spread the goth gospel beyond England’s shores. Goth rock soon began to emerge from across the globe. Germany’s Xmal Deutschland, Christian Death from America, and Australia’s ferocious Birthday Party, which featured vocalist Nick Cave, joined the growing ranks of ‘80s UK goth bands like Southern Death Cult, the Mission, Theatre of Hate, and Gene Loves Jezebel.
•Mainstream success: A select number of these bands, like The Cure and Southern Death Cult, which, as the Cult, enjoyed mainstream success, while others remained underground acts or left music altogether. But the goth scene remained a strong influence on several generations of rock artists that followed, many of whom drew on goth music for their own sound.
4 Characteristics of Gothic Rock
Several characteristics distinguish the sound of gothic rock:
1.The look: Gothic rock musicians embraced a wide array of influences to create their signature look. While black or monochromatic clothing, hair, and makeup were a staple, goth fashion drew on styles ranging from Victorian to punk while also adopting elements of fetish gear and horror movie costumes.
2.Rhythmic basslines: While gothic rock bands employed a traditional arrangement of guitar, bass, percussion, and occasional keyboards, their sound was fueled by the rhythm section, with basslines driving the melody and drums following a “tribal” or 4/4 beat. Guitars typically featured heavily processed effects and were used more for atmosphere.
3.Theatrical, dramatic lyrics: The lyrical content of Goth rock linked the music to its literary and cinematic namesakes. Subjects invariably included supernatural and mystical topics and addressed themes of romance, emotional pain, disillusionment, and fear that connected them to punk.
4.Emotive vocals: Though goth singing is often epitomized by the hypnotic baritones of Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy and Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy, there are notable variations. The vulnerable voice of The Cure’s Robert Smith to the full-throated delivery of Siouxsie Sioux and Ian Astbury of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cult all encompass goth vocality.
5 Famous Gothic Rock Musicians
There are many famous gothic rock musicians within the goth scene. Among the most notable are:
1.Nick Cave: The former frontman for The Birthday Party brought an anarchic hardcore punk element to goth rock with the influential single “Release the Bats” in 1981. Cave has achieved mainstream success with fellow Birthday Party member Mick Harvey as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
2.Peter Murphy: The singer for England’s Bauhaus helped set the otherworldly tone for much of goth with his striking look and resonant voice. He has enjoyed a long and diverse music career, both as a solo artist and with Bauhaus during their frequent reunions.
3.Siouxsie Sioux: The powerful vocals of Siouxsie Sioux (born Janet Ballion) helped make Siouxsie and the Banshees one of the longest-running and most popular goth bands. Critics and fans alike consider their 1981 album Juju a landmark recording in the establishment of goth as a separate entity from post-punk music.
4.Robert Smith: The heartfelt tenor voice and lyrics—and the distinctive look—of the Cure’s frontman, Robert Smith, helped propel the band from the UK goth scene to performing at stadiums around the world. Smith and his bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
5.Rozz Williams: The frontman for the Los Angeles-based Christian Death, Williams, and bandmates Rikk Agnew and Eva O, made their album debut with 1982’s Only Theatre of Pain. The LP was hugely influential on subsequent American bands that adopted Goth tenets, including punk acts like AFI and Danzig and nu-metal bands like Evanescence and Korn.