Goth – a personal retrospect

If you’re a kid failing to fit in at school, something strange begins to happen in your mid-teens. You begin to embrace the outsider status as a badge of honour. This can manifest itself behaviourally, fashionably, culturally. Forever on the outside of the ‘cool’ clique looking in, you decide to build your own idea of ‘cool’. This new assertiveness only exacerbates the repulsion other kids feel towards you. And this in turn exacerbates your ‘odd’ behaviour. It becomes more assertive. It’s a dance of adolescent social tension as old as time. Or as old as modern state schooling at least.

This would be a romantic characterisation of my experiences no doubt, but I did reach something of a tipping point at around the age of fourteen. Still deeply insecure about who I was and how to speak to people, as any fourteen year old would be; previous attempts to stay under the radar of peers had largely ended in failure. And by the age of fourteen self-identity begins to assert itself, often with troubling bravado, and regardless of the loss in social capital that may result.

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Hobbies and extra curricula activities become the currency of social standing. If one falls into alternative music as the manifestation of this new found self-assertion, then a rigorous journey awaits the fertile young mind. Suddenly our lukewarm interest in sports and competition need not be so damning. We no longer need to use this to assess social hierarchies. School’s arbiters of social status had their jurisdiction. We would build our own hierarchies outside of this. And it usually starts with the discovery of music that speaks to you in new and unique ways.

Not to play up our standing in history too much, but for us – the nu metal generation, the last generation to use magazines, music TV, and word of mouth as the primary sources for discovering new music – we were something of a last gasp of a now dead era. Our coming of age coincided with the rise of the internet. Teenagers in the early to mid-2000s were at a bizarre social and technological crossroads. We were still figuring out who we were. And suddenly the internet became the universal tool by which to express every aspect of our unformed identity. But the internet had not quite decided what it was yet either. A uniquely democratic emancipatory force? Or the death knell of culture?

Mired in our own personal adolescent battles, in our desperation we couldn’t help but embrace the internet as it was. Online discussion forums, review websites, MSN, myspace pages, file sharing websites, all offered the young a way out of their comfortable but tiny world. If you fell into alternative music as a way of dealing with your adolescent self, then this was not just music to listen to. This was music to obsess over, to test our new found confidence through endless debates, categorisation, defining what genre this or that artist played and why to absurdity.

But more importantly, we used it to define our identity. At fourteen you are so unsure of who you are that belonging to something bigger, something other than everyone else at school, it made you somebody. And if you accepted this as true, you better make sure that people understood what kind of music you liked….and why. Even if everyone around you couldn’t care less, you had an alternative world to inhabit, one they could only dream of.

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Emperor: this band changed my life

It was for this reason – as a young Darkthrone fan – that I was very suspicious of the goth scene when I encountered it. It was my good friend Rob – himself embarking on a similar journey – that initially invited me to something called a ‘goth clubnight’: Dr Fells in Basingstoke. To say that I was reluctant at first would be an understatement. For me – a would be metalhead with the outward appearance and demeanour of a nervous bank manager’s apprentice – exploring this alternative world online, in forums, alone, at home, was quite enough. To entertain the possibility that their might be real people out there, in Camden, Basingstoke, or anywhere, this was a touch too close to reality. More than that, they were into goth music, I was into black metal…how would that work?

Eventually I acquiesced to Rob’s encouragement. Rob had all the outward self-confidence and bravado I lacked, but enjoyed my conversation nevertheless. He probably felt that with a little goading, bringing me out into the world would do me no end of good. He may have been right. But at the time I made myself a promise as a barely competent metalhead. I would not let go of this metal identity. Sure I’d go to a goth club. But I didn’t need it for validation. I would be different to them. An outsider in an outsider’s world.

I had already burned Rob some CDs at his request, downloaded from the file sharing site ‘Soulseek’, The Sisters of Mercy, Mortiis, Lacrimosa (Don’t guess the spelling of that last band when googling them, you may get auto-corrected to lactometer), and I had given them a spin myself. Listening to them through the conduit of Rob naturally coloured my judgement of the music before even hitting the play button. I had already concocted ten reasons why black metal was ‘better’, why this ‘goth clubnight’ wasn’t for me. But there might be girls there. And they might be different from the girls I failed to speak to at school. Maybe I would enjoy failing to speak to goth girls instead. But I told myself I would remain the ‘metalhead’ at goth nights, despite being truly terrible at it.

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Chiddingfold: a world I couldn’t wait to escape

So instead of watching ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’ alone for the sixth Saturday night running I clocked off from my shift at Waitrose, donned my favourite Darkthrone t-shirt, and boarded a train to Basingstoke. Later Dr Fells expanded, changed its name to Vagabonds and relocated to London Bridge. For myself and a small band of close friends, this – and Slimelight – became something of the ultimate Saturday night out. An occasional foray into a larger world, made up of a combination of friendly welcoming people, some genuinely intimidating individuals, charmingly bizarre characters, and some very beautiful women that I couldn’t wait to fail to engage in meaningful conversation. The contrast between this world and small town Surrey cannot be understated.

Rob and I formed a band, Legion. Rob wanted Rosetta Stone to reform. Porl King thought differently. So Rob started teaching himself bass guitar with a view to forming his own Rosetta Stone. I was a barely competent ivory tickler trying to tackle Bach fugues. A winning formula. The first thing we wrote was a two minute instrumental. It was the result of Rob playing me an intro to a Rosetta Stone LP and asking me to ‘write this track…but different’. We recruited guitarist Daisy from Rob’s sixth form. Over time, with four or so songs under our belt and a cover of The Sisters of Mercy’s cover of ‘Jolene’, we played some ill-advised battle-of-the-bands and open-mic nights in the Guildford area.

By the age of eighteen with school’s dog days finally behind us, Rob and I decided to travel to Australia. Legion was put on hold. We convinced our good friend Josh, similarly struggling for direction and identity at the time, to belatedly join us. Rob the outspoken goth and recovering dungeon master, never afraid to speak his mind, provoke complete strangers to conversation, and desperate for new experiences. Myself, Rob’s shy side kick, still terrified of standing out, but confident I’d figured the world out, pasty and gaunt in appearance, and infuriatingly stubborn. And Josh, at that time the indie kid, Marvel fan, and talented cartoonist, suffering from similar growing pains but somehow managing to maintain an easy going and likeable demeanour to all who met him. For some reason we chose the gap year destination of the cocksure jock and wannabe surfer dude.

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Sydney’s Angelspit

What resulted was four months of avoiding the daylight. Four months of avoiding the rowdy-lad crowds of muscle and over-cooked testosterone frequenting the same hostels on the backpacker circuit, and four months of seeking out Australia’s alternative underbelly. Four months of clubbing in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney. A continuation of some of the best (and some of the worst) Saturday’s we had had in London. We encountered much the same social infrastructure as the UK goth scene; some genuinely intriguing characters, some people just on the far side of crazy, and some truly good friends. All the while I was desperate to cling to the so-called ‘metal’ identity I had forged at school. Sure we could be friends, but goths were goths, and metalheads were metalheads. However, a habit was forming, and when circumstances led me to spend two weeks in Sydney solo, I immediately sort out the nearest goth club for something familiar.

At the time cyber-goth was at the peak of its popularity. And much of the Australian nightlife fully embraced this. They seemed much less concerned with the battle for goth’s soul that was taking place in Europe. A battle that saw hard hearted traditionalists rejecting any music with a hint of beeping, and cyber-goths’ lack of interest in The Sisters of Mercy’s back catalogue. More than this however, the Australian’s attitude to the goth umbrella was refreshingly casual, with clubnights endorsing all the rich spectrum of alternative music well beyond the goth remit, everything from L7 to Iron Maiden to Rosetta Stone was embraced. As a strict categoricalist, whose very identity depended on division of subcultures and what this said about one’s character, I refused to confront the import of this.

To be a teenager, and to plant your flag on a specific musical subculture, this meant embracing the image and attitude that this entailed Never mind that I was truly terrible at being a metalhead. I never grew my hair with the requisite conviction. I rarely attended gigs back then. I was slow to branch out and explore metal written outside of Norway. I had few friends who shared my love of the music outside of the internet. But I had convinced myself that clinging on to this little world defined who I was. Parents, schooling, social-class, geography, they could all play second fiddle to the very strict identities founded in musical subcultures. Using this to deal with the turbulent teenage years is easy. But letting go of these ideas in your early twenties – when they cease to serve a purpose – can be hard. Did you know that some goths like Emperor?

By the time we returned from Australia, Rob arranged one more brief foray into the London goth scene for his nineteenth birthday. We attended the Batcave’s 25th anniversary. One more brief foray into London before it was time for us to depart for Leeds and university and whatever that meant. The Batcave was somewhat draconian, somewhat elitist compared with Australia’s goth scene. The DJ handed out a fucking manifesto to all attendees for god’s sake. Specimen even got together to play a show. At the time I had no idea who they were. A clubnight till the early hours followed. Suddenly the difference between not only real goth and cyber-goth seemed to matter, but also the difference between Batcave goth and what’s now generally referred to as trad-goth. It was a marked contrast to the casual and confusingly welcoming Australian scene. But it still felt like home, like returning to an old friend. I was not yet ready to admit any of this out loud however, even to my brain.

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Specimen

And so Rob and I moved to Leeds, and we took Legion with us. And in all the complications, new experiences, and new people that university has to offer, goth became a marriage of convenience once again. It does not matter where you are in the world, goth and other subcultures will offer familiar territory for the home sick or the culture shocked. Playing in Legion took us on the road. We met many fantastic musicians, promoters, and fans along the way. We played many memorable gigs, including one at a ski chalet in Sheffield supporting Inkubus Sukubus, and one on a boat in Bristol supporting The Eden House.

I have many fond memories of this time. Not just through Legion but through the nightlife that the Yorkshire goth scene had to offer. We made some good friends. But times change, and our lives change with them. Legion eventually disbanded. The university honeymoon period ended. Life got hard. We were witnessing the golden dawn of something called ‘reality’. Suddenly things like the difference between goth the ‘aesthetic’ and goth ‘the music’ lacked importance. Rob left Leeds for his own reasons and made for that London. Circumstances led me to develop a problematic relationship with Frosty Jacks. Whatever playground goth had offered for a student in Leeds evaporated for me.

This was punctuated by some beloved venues and clubnights throwing in the towel over the years. The Subculture, Fab Café, Carpe Diem, The Cockpit, Wendy House and Friday Flock all gradually shut up shop for various reasons. All too belatedly, adulthood kicked in, and one is forced to assess what real qualities one possesses in order to survive a world that simply doesn’t care what the best era of Morbid Angel is. Who are you? What kind of person are you? Why does this matter? Why should others care to know you? What are you contributing to the world beyond endlessly categorising things of no consequence?

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Legion circa 2010

If you survive the mid-twenties long enough to come up for air, you realise that there is much to celebrate and preserve about those formative years. First and foremost the raw passion for the music itself. Real life may force you to reassess who you are, and ground this in something more meaningful than ranking French black metal bands by quality, but that’s no reason to lose sight of what this music actually means to you. The perspective of age grants you the right to say ‘music is one of the things that makes life worth living’ with a level of conviction our sixteen year old selves could not understand.

Around this time the guys in Dawn of Elysium got in touch. They were looking for a keyboard player. A couple of trips over to Bradford and we were set. It’s funny (and slightly shameful) how oblivious I was to the Bradford scene at the time. Being smaller than Leeds with a less alternative musically minded student population, I was struck by how similar the attitude in the alternative scene was to what we encountered in Australia. The scene is too small to survive petty splits and divided loyalties. But there’s no shortage of hard working people trying to cut through such things, doing what they can to keep live music and nightlife going. Division of subcultures is also less important given the size of the alternative community. Perhaps it’s pertinent that Paradise Lost, the ultimate harmonious blend of metal and goth, made their name in Bradford.

The Black Swan became our spiritual home of sorts, a rock bar that at once catered to metal, punk, goth and everything in between. We played their many times. Now sadly, also closed. But we played many gigs across Bradford and beyond as well, far outside the goth circuit that Legion pursued. Around this time the fantastic clubnight Carpe Noctum moved from Bradford to Leeds, filling the hole left in the scene by the departure of Friday Flock. With Rob gone I suddenly found myself the ‘goth’ one among my immediate friends, being the one that regularly attended Carpe, played in the goth band, and had even started to listening to goth music….in my own time.

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Dawn of Elysium

So what happened? The short and obvious answer is I grew up. I started to analyse goth music itself with academic distance. I started integrating goth into my sonic rotations alongside whatever stripe of metal, punk or ambient I was digesting that week. Something I had not afforded myself before. Simply because I could not disconnect goth ‘the music’ from the confused battle of identities that typified the late teens. I made new friends. Some of whom you might call…civilians. Civilians who might not take kindly to Gorguts as background music at social gatherings. So reaching for the nearest Fields of the Nephilim album afforded a happy compromise.

I realised through listening to this artist in particular how musically expansive the genre could be at times. A lot of goth is ridiculous certainly, but herein lies its similarities to extreme metal. If the art is as dramatic as goth can be, then it’s easy to fail, fail hard and fail funny. Any black metal fan will attest to this as well. But as with goth, sometimes it works. And when it does the experience is all the more rewarding as a result. When the stakes are high, and failure and ridicule are at their most likely, art becomes truly immersive if you surrender yourself to the experience.

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Me: failing to take things seriously for a change

The goth label can make or break a band. And – as Andrew Eldritch will tell you – it sticks to you like glue. And if you don’t reject it outright like he did, you should embrace it with class. And again, this is similar to extreme metal. Self-parody is all too easy to stumble upon. A sense of humour never hurt anyone. But some go about this with all the dignity of Spinal Tap. But there are also those that surpass this and create truly engaging music. I think this last realisation has taken so long to stumble upon because my interaction with the music itself took place solely at clubnights and gigs. I have only relatively recently given the music my full attention in the comfort and focus of my own home.

So what’s left to say? The memories of what it was like to interact with and discover new music in a pre-internet world will die with our generation. Nevertheless, for future generations music will continue to be vitally important for those turbulent formative years. The pressure cooker of adulthood will obliterate every priority you had at sixteen. But once the initial storm is weathered, the best and most important things about the music you loved as a teenager will retain their importance. They will continue to play a central role in your life, your well-being, and yes, your identity. If anything, when real responsibilities make demands on us, music and identity can gain new importance. It offers an alternative world of joy, unsullied by the droll rigours of modern life. Metal has been this world for me for so long now and never fails to surprise me with its diversity and resilience. This fact now allows me to say with renewed affection for a scene that still has so much to offer: I’m not a goth, I’ve just been going to goth gigs and clubs for over a decade, I’ve played in two goth bands, I’ve made many good friends through the goth scene, and I love the music.

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A Near Meth Experience in Leeds

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