The first deathrock revival began in 1998 and petered out around 2004. The second and ongoing deathrock revival began a few years ago. (Of course, bands existed during the dry spells, threading together the peaks and troughs.) Explaining this all requires some backstory. This article series deals with events that occurred on the east side of the Atlantic during deathrock’s heyday, as one branch of the British punk family tree transformed into the European parallel of American deathrock. The third and last installment will cover the evolution of deathrock over the past decade in its revivalist forms, from the late 1990s until now.
I. BRITISH PUNK TURNS DARK
Any discussion of deathrock will start with the watershed years of 1976-1977 punk. (Let’s ignore for the moment pre-punk influences on the genre, which will be mentioned later.) On the West side of the pond, the Cramps’ influence loomed large. (“I thought if we were lucky,” Rozz Williams of Christian Death mused, “people would think we were like the Cramps or Alice Cooper. That’s what I was into.”) On the British side, who mattered was the first UK punk band to release a single, an LP, and to tour America: The Damned.
In 1976, The Damned found in Dave Vanian an especially compelling, if unconventionally eerie, frontman. David Letts chose the last name “Vanian” by abbreviating the word “Transylvanian,” and used the band’s frontman spotlight to showcase his taste for dressing up like the Hammer horror films version of Dracula. Founding member and original Damned guitarist Brian James explained, “Long before there was a recognized gothic look, there were fans turning up at [Damned] shows dressed like Dave – which was brilliant at the time, because it lifted us right out of the typical punk rock band thing. Other groups had the safety pins and the spitting and the bondage trousers, but you went to a Damned show, and half the local cemetery would be propped up against the stage.” In other words, if you wanted to see a member of the undead fronting a punk rock band in 1976, The Damned were for you.
Due to early and continuous touring – including shows with bands as diverse as Minor Threat and Motorhead – The Damned’s influence was felt far and wide. In her recent Violence Girl autobiography, L.A. punk pioneer Alice Bag writes of seeing The Damned in Los Angeles in 1977, months before the Sex Pistols set foot in California: “The lead singer of The Damned, Dave Vanian, was a dark, handsome vampire who mesmerized the audience, though occasionally the spell would break and we’d be drawn into the insane world of the bassist, Captain Sensible, whose wild antics seemed slightly incongruous with those of the brooding Vanian. Somehow, the band managed to balance these two larger-than-life personalities. At the end of the night, Captain Sensible was naked, the audience was throwing change up on the stage and the age of L.A. punk was well underway.”
Indeed, Bag’s L.A. bandmate and friend Patricia Morrison would go on to play bass for The Damned and, incredibly, marry Vanian — after enduring a very public tour of duty in goth rock juggernauts the Sisters of Mercy. Similarly, Bryan James would leave The Damned, join up with Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys and, with Dave Tregunna of Sham 69 in tow, would start the gothic rock powerhouse Lords of the New Church. Relationships like this underscore to what degree seemingly disparate phenomena as the American punk and British gothic postpunk scenes were really not that far removed.
By 1979 a sea change in British punk was underway, and this mirrored developments in the nascent deathrock scene of California. A large segment of British punks had grown tired of 3 chord thrash and were proceeding down gloomier avenues. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ second LP, 1979’s still-underrated Join Hands, premiered songs like “Premature Burial” with a heavy use of flanger by guitarist John McKay; this guitar sound would become a staple sound of dark punk and goth bands across the Atlantic. UK Decay released their first single, a split with Pneumania, in 1979, coining the term “gothic punk” in 1980. Bauhaus also arrived in a big way in 1979: The release of the Bela Lugosi’s Dead single on Small Wonder was a watershed moment whose musical and cultural repercussions can be felt to this day.
Also in 1979, Killing Joke released their first EP, “Turn to Red,” heralding a long and influential career that extends into the present. Joy Division unveiled Unknown Pleasures and set to work on their second and last LP, Closer, which producer Martin Hannett described as “dancing music with Gothic overtones.” 1979 saw the Damned release a video of the Vampira tribute song “Plan 9 Channel 7” shortly before embarking on a brief UK tour with horror punk pioneers The Misfits (who were, interestingly enough, quickly thrown in jail in England, prompting Misfits singer Glenn Danzig to pen the song “London Dungeon” while incarcerated). In short, UK punk was evolving at light speed. Of this burgeoning, gothier direction in punk music, journalist Dave Thompson wrote, “Dave Vanian provided the look, the Banshees supplied the menace, and Joy Division the angst. Now Bauhaus provided the intellectual discipline, and the spore from which a new culture could be spawned.”
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Take a look at at the Fan page for nowthisisgothic.tumblr.com - A photoblog with a collection of 1980s goths, wavers and (post)punk.