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LondonNet Clubs Guide

LondonNet Music Feature


The Bats Have Left the Bell Tower
Steve Marshall discusses Goth music's eternal gravitation towards London...

IN THE LATE seventies, a prominent youth culture took flight across the UK. It was musically and socially a rejection of the current youth culture that paradoxically also had its roots in that same culture. There is no ultimate agreement on where or when it started and even more argument on which band was the progenitor.

Indeed, Goth music had spread its wings and risen from the ashes of punk's first wave, distinguishing itself through post-punk in the culture that came along with the music. More than two decades on, the lasting effects of Goth culture can be seen across London's near North side.

Shops selling gothic makeup, clothing and other accessories line Camden Market with the Electric Market and Camden Lock Market providing even more local alternatives. Within walking distance of the markets, on Kentish Town Road, the Devonshire Arms successfully bills itself as "London's alternative/Goth venue." With a strict "alternative dress code" to go along with an interior decorated by posters of past Goth heroes such as Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, and DJs playing Goth music spanning multiple genres over the last two decades, few would argue its authenticity. Slimelight at the Electrowerkz in Angel Islington has a similar dress code and has two full dance floors on Saturday nights (one for Goth and industrial), and although the legendary Full Tilt at Camden's famous Electric Ballroom is no more, Sin City on Friday nights prominently features Goth music amongst its heavier palate of sound. Resident DJs at these venues have a sense of Goth's past, present, future and diversity playing classic Goth bands like Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim alongside the industrial crunch of Ministry and the dancier, more ambient sounds of Razed in Black.

While these things are all indicators of a healthy scene, it is more interesting to look at London's more concrete role in the current and past Goth music itself: the bands themselves.

As with any music scene filled with myth and folklore, it is difficult to tell Goth's exact starting point; London's most famous daughter and sons in the scene were Southeast London's Siousxie and the Banshees. Described crudely by some as a darker sounding punk band wearing make-up, and never recognized in even liberal definitions as fully Goth, they nonetheless had the biggest homegrown impact. The inspiration in the capital tended to come from elsewhere, however. Arguably the most legendary and influential Goth band of them all, Bauhaus, were from Northamptonshire. The Sisters of Mercy spearheaded a group of bands from Leeds that included a splinter group: the Mission UK as well as Southern Death Cult.

The post-punk genre that produced gloomy indie bands that almost sounded Goth was centred in Manchester, the city where Joy Division and the Smiths called home. Ironically, Joy Division, although not a Goth band, are associated with the origin of the word "Gothic"as a term to describe music. Their manager Tony Wilson (later founder of Factory Records, owner of the Hacienda, and the subject of the movie 24 Hour Party People), described them to the BBC as "Gothic compared to the pop mainstream" in 1978. Even The Cure, the post-punk band with heavy elements of Goth that turned into international superstars, were based out of Crawley, West Sussex, about 25 miles south of the far reaches of Southwest London.

According to long-time music writer Mick Mercer, who has written several books on UK Goth, it wasn't Joy Division's two memorable shows at the Electric Ballroom in 1979 or Southeast London's Siouxsie and the Banshees that galvanised the London scene, but actually another dark-minded London punk outfit, Adam and the Ants.

"The common denominator for Goths was Adam and the Ants," Mercer said, "The people you say turning up at gigs during 77-80, who were clearly not interested in punk alone. They were there for Gloria Mundi, Ultravox, then Theatre of Hate and Bauhaus." He notes it were these diverse bills that turned the post-punks and punks that made up the Ants' fan base onto more Goth-oriented bands.

"Those early people who made it all happen for such disparate bands were the audiences, and most of them were Ants fans." Adam and the Ants also expanded on the punk ideals of D.I.Y. promotion developing a network of fans through fanzines and word of mouth, something that would continue to be crucial in the underground-based Goth scene. Mercer also notes that at that point it was "actually post-punk bands who then dominated Goth."

In the mid-80s, bands on the fringe of the Goth scene with a Goth audience such as post-punkers Echo and the Bunnymen, Glasgow shoe-gazer guitar rockers Jesus and Mary Chain and rockabilly horror punks, the Cramps headlined the Electric Ballroom. More importantly, Goth legends the Sisters of Mercy, were touring through London regularly. The Mission UK, featuring ex-Sisters of Mercy members, debuted at the Electric Ballroom rather than in their native Leeds.

Important to the understanding, the history, present and future of the London scene is indeed the very loose concept of any sort of scene. As the capital of the UK and far and away its largest city, London offers an attractively large, diverse and receptive audience; hence the bands that come through London are just as important as the bands from London. Hence, the London scene, per se, is not as important as the UK Goth scene.

Andy Bruce from Resurrection Records, a Camden Town record shop as well as record label that focuses on releasing new UK Goth music feels the concept of a city scene is a bit shortsighted. "A band from Sheffield or Leeds will play London 3 or 4 times a year, so in a way they're as big a part of the London scene as some of the London bands are,"Andy said.

In other ways the idea of a city scene can be deceptive: "Bands tend to come out of universities,"Andy notes, "so that doesn't necessarily relate that there was a scene there...Leeds had loads of bands come from it, but the scene was really in Nottingham and other large cities."

Bands from other regions have always been just as eager to play London. "Nobody cared about what was happening in specific regions, because if people heard about a band that wasn't playing in London they might travel and see them," Mercer noted, "Or they would wait for them to play London, which they did."

Former Underworld promoter Michael Johnson believes the internet has always made it much easier for a band to spread their name across the UK. "Goth is heavily networked via the internet these days,"Johnson said, "It's pretty much possible for London-based bands to play some gigs, plug themselves heavily via the net, and turn themselves into stars of the Goth scene throughout the UK without ever going beyond Zone 6 on their Travelcards."

From Goth music's dubious beginnings as both an offshoot of and rejection of punk, it has always been an inclusive form of music, and in recent years it has split off into different sub-genres that sometimes are a hybrid of another completely different style: death rock (traditional Goth with pronounced punk elements), psychobilly (rockabilly-Goth-punk), ethereal (ambient electronica-neo-classical), industrial (techno-metal), among other genres.

"The alternative scene in London, and indeed the UK, is a little like fashion," Katrina Bruce from Resurrection Records said, "Styles of music have a tendency to go in and out of fashion...Now death rock has come back into popularity."

London-based The Ghost of Lemora is one of the leaders of this scene, but Essex's Scary Bitches and York's Screaming Banshee Aircrew are seen just as often in the capital. Other London bands such as Undying Legacy and NFD, featuring former members of Fields of the Nephilim, have also made their mark.

The music scene has shifted back towards the formation of and emphasis on actual bands ahead of the dance scene, which many view as a refreshing change. The Ghost of Lemora vocalist Twinkle Lemora is one of those who have grown jaded with the club scene. "I'm not bracketing all DJs into this but there isn't that much support for the current UK Goth scene," Lemora said, "You certainly need to be friends with dj's/promoters to get exposure in clubland."

Although, he also notes that Ghost of Lemora has gotten a degree of that necessary support. "Goth has partially seen its crowds siphoned off into doof dance music and industrial," Mercer said, "but there's so much identikit music there now that the emphasis is swinging back to real bands."

Andy, likewise, believes that it has been boredom with the dance scene that has led to a local revival. "The London scene is a lot healthier than it's been for a long time,"he said, "there are far more bands around now that I can think of in the last 10 years." He likewise believes it is boredom with clubs that has inspired this change. "It's mostly disillusionment with the industrial scene, [and] now there's been a swing back towards the Goth scene. There are genres like death rock, reemerging."

Slimelight has indubitably recognized this as they have sporadically added live acts to their club night. London still isn't necessarily at the forefront in terms of producing new Goth bands. "All the best new UK Goth bands are from outside London," Mercer notes. Still, it is the diverse array of bands and people coming through London that keeps it both inseparable from the UK scene and simultaneously its own entity. "It is difficult to quantify the popularity of any particular alternative scene in London, partly because of the ever transient alternative population," Katrina notes, "I would actually say that between 20% and 40% of the alternative scene in London is made up of foreigners."

For these reasons, London remains an important middle ground within the Goth music scene. "London is still a social hub, and easily identifiable,"Mercer said, "That's what it always has been. A holding zone for ideas and to draw people in easier than any other town."

Because London is a world-renowned and cosmopolitan city, it is the representative of the UK Goth music scene to the world, and even a barometer for its health.

Andy Bruce sums it up: "I think the strength of the London scene is indicative of what's going on elsewhere."

Steve Marshall

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