Interview with John Robb – Part 1
by Killian Laher
No More Workhorse interviewed John Robb, of the Membranes and the Louderthanwar website about his latest book, The Art of Darkness – The History Of Goth
Were you in fact a goth?
John Robb: Okay, well I’m not a ‘joiner’. That’s the thing for anybody who came out of that punk rock generation. You weren’t punk, you weren’t postpunk, you weren’t goth, but you liked all the stuff. The themes of it would totally chime with me. When I was 12 or 13, I was a glam rock kid then. I like punk, I like post-punk and Goth, but the darker stuff has always been very attractive. The thing is, in 79/80 that scene wasn’t even called Goth anyway. It was called alternative music. It was a bit after punk that didn’t really have a name because I don’t think even at that time people called it post-punk either. These are retrospective terms. So, like all the bands, nobody would call themselves a goth. I suppose the answer is yes and no!
Why did none of the bands ever admit to being ‘goth’?
I think because they formed before it was called Goth because it was a retrospective term for a scene that was already there. They didn’t form as goth bands. The Sisters of Mercy formed because Andrew Eldritch was really into the Psychedelic Furs. They formed as a band that was sparked by punk but didn’t really want to be a straight punk band. They were bringing in what he would see as 70s rock influences. But because he’s using a drum machine, they didn’t sound 70s at all. They sounded very modern at that time. If they said they were a goth band, it would look like to them that there was a goth scene and they thought, “let’s form a goth band to get into this scene”. Which is not what any of those bands were thinking. All those bands were sparked by the energy of punk, but they weren’t punk bands. They were trying to do their own vision. It made sense to people who were into darker stuff and post punk, which was what we shorthand term as Goth.
I think with all kind of musical terms, there were always complications because once you were lumped into a scene, people expect you to obey all the rules, which were obviously stuck on afterwards. You can see why no band wants that at all. But at the same time, it’s a shorthand term for a scene and we all know what it means. The bands are always at great pains to point out they’re not in that scene. But for everyone else, it’s just a quick shorthand way of describing something that took me a quarter million words in the book to describe! People haven’t got all day to describe what they’re into, so we say punk or Goth or mod. It kind of narrows it down a little bit.
That’s right. I don’t know what it was like over there, but here it was likely to get you a fair bit of abuse if you admitted something like that.
JR: Well, yeah. Not only just if you admitted it, also walking down the streets. That’s the thing about Goth and punk being a certain kind of freaky culture, but it got out to very small towns. Goth was even freakier in a lot of places where what used to be termed ‘Tetley Bitter man’ would beat you up. Lads who hadn’t really got on what was going on in the 70s would beat up anybody who didn’t fit into the stereotype. So it was quite rough to make a stand, to look like something that looks out of the ordinary. It’s easy enough to get away with it in Soho or London, but try doing it in Kingsley or Blackpool or wherever! You have to really want to do it to put up with that level of abuse.
What brought you to write this book?
JR: Well, I started about eight to ten years ago, it’s taken ages to finish. There are very good academic goth books, but I wanted to do something that tied it all together but in a very pop-cultural kind of way. Like John Savage did with England’s Dreaming for punk in a sense. It gives it a sense of time and place and explanation, why it is there, what it actually was, but also in a way that you could understand. I wanted to write a book that people could relate to. To me, the ultimate victory would be if people read that book who are not actually that interested in Goth, but found it a very interesting story to read about. To do that, I had to expand the story out. It had to be from the fall of Rome through the Romantic poets, Lord Byron, Alastair Crowley and the whole thing.
The basic premise was that every generation deals with its blues with whatever technology is at hand. So for Lord Byron, it would be like writing down a story with a quill or something. Whereas in the post-punk period, electric rock ‘n’ roll was central to our culture. So that was the vehicle to embrace the melancholy. Whereas nowadays, for a lot of people, it’s TikTok or instagram, dressing up in sort of goth clothes and standing in a forest and no music at all. Music is not part of the story anymore. Or is, but not as much as it was. I find that fascinating. I think the feeling is always there. The embrace of melancholy is always there. Rising up. But different vehicles to do it in.
How easy was it to get people to talk to you, from the bands and so on?
JR: Siouxsie Sioux isn’t going to do an interview about Goth. She hates the term more than anybody. Steve Severin did one, the second in command of the band and he said, we don’t really like the term ‘goff’, as in two fs. He said goff, but he liked the term gothic because he made him think of medieval cathedrals, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe. If you turn it with a slightly different spelling as gothic, it puts you in the lineage of what I’m talking about in the book, really. I’m not dumping all the bands into a goth dustbin. I’m embracing the way they are more gothic, and I’m trying to get that lineage from Lord Byron to Nick Cave or Edgar Allen Poe to the Banshees. Also, I wanted to explain, as the title of the book gives it away, the art of darkness. There is an art to this, and I think a lot of these bands probably weren’t serviced that well by the British media in the late 70s and early 80s. Bauhaus got terrible reviews, though John Peel really embraced them. I wanted people to understand that Bauhaus are one of the greatest art rock bands the UK has ever produced. Each song is quite astonishing if you step back and listen to it. Every single thing they did was different, but also very artful, very cleverly done. It wasn’t just about pan-stick and making ghost noises. The mainstream media at that time seemed to have a problem with bands who dressed up a little bit. I grew up with glam rock, I was fine with people dressing up.
Do you think there’s a bit of a resurgence of goth at the minute?
JR: It’s always bubbling under the surface, but I think the Wednesday Addams thing really put it back into the mainstream. I think it gives it a very handy tag for mainstream media to do stuff on, they understand that people are talking about this now. When I started doing the book, there was not really any sign of a resurgence. There were no other books around. Obviously, there are academic books that have gone before, Mick Mercer’s encyclopaedias, A-Z of goth which were excellent books.
It was quite hard to shop it around at first because publishers didn’t really understand that there was a market for it, they didn’t see who was going to buy it, so I had to really persuade them. Other people seem to have done a version of the same idea!
Does the music still stand up to this day, do you think?
JR: I think so, because I think anything that’s got an artfulness to it always stands up. I think art goes beyond generations, goes beyond time, and that’s the beauty of art. If you look at a Caravaggio painting, it doesn’t look like it was painted in that century, but also it doesn’t look dated because it’s so incredible. There’s so much in it. There’s so much emotion, so much colour, so much technique that anybody is a human being will feel something like that at any point in history. I think that’s the same with the music. I know that’s a very pretentious thing to say about pop culture, but pop culture to me is one of the highest arts. The piece of pop culture can be incredibly simple, but also incredibly complex at the same time.
A song like Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead is a very simple song to play. You could play it on the guitar and work it out in five minutes. But to come up with it, it’s something else and the atmospheres it creates are really difficult to create and it takes a lot of skills to come up with that. I love the story of it, they wrote it in their first rehearsal and they recorded it four weeks later as a demo to take the record labels, and then it comes out as a single. What other band comes up with something that good after four weeks? Normally, after four weeks, you just about learn the drummer’s name!
What are your own personal goth favourites?
JR: I love them all dearly, in completely different ways. We’ve got to put a shout-out for the Banshees, obviously, the well-known stuff, but also the first album (The Scream) is a template. Kenny Morris’ drumming is incredible. He lives in Ireland now. His tribal drumming was such an influence on the scene. Also John McKay’s guitar, that shining sound which was before Keith Levene (Public Image). John was the first one to do that sound. Siouxsie’s image as well, Bowie changed his image every year and Siouxsie changed every week. But every single look was really brilliant. There’s never a bad picture of her. She always looked really iconic. And I look forward to seeing what she looks like now because I think she’ll do the older version of herself in a really cool kind of way. It’s quite intriguing, what is she now, 63? 64? She’ll still look incredible, embracing her age. These people are too cool to do the plastic surgery trip. They are what they are, but they’re still incredible.
I think Adam Ant is really overlooked at the time. The first album (Dirk Wears White Sox) is a template record as well. It’s a very dark record, all about S&M, but also funny as well, a really dark sense of humour. What he looked like in that period with white face paints and the whole look, that fed into the scene. Kings of the Wild Frontiers is an amazing record, a gateway record. I think in a weird way, he bookends that first period, the beginning and the end of it, in a sense, every single band.
The Cramps aren’t a goth band at all but were dearly loved in goth clubs. You had no idea whether they were playing it for laughs or if they really were that weird. They were genuinely scary looking. I didn’t realise for about two years that there was a sense of humour going on. You couldn’t, there’s no context to it. And the music was so bizarre. They are a psychedelic band whose frame of reference is backwards rockabilly but with loads of acid added to it. The first album (Songs The Lord Taught Us) is one of the great psychedelic records. It’s not a paisley pattern psychedelic record. It’s one that’s framed with one or two chords, backwards rockabilly, but played in a post punk psychedelic kind of way. There’s so much stuff crammed in there, it’s really interesting. Every band in that scene has something. The Sisters of Mercy with a drum machine, bringing in that technology. Also, they embraced minimalism like New York No Wave, which is completely feted to this day. No Wave is a prime influence, no one ever says a bad word against it. I love it, it’s great music. But the Sisters were kind of doing the same kind of minimalistic thing. Very minimal guitars, bass and a drum machine with his incredible vocals on top. Every single band was doing something that was mind-bogglingly imaginative, often without any frame of reference, just making it out of the blue.
That’s the thing about bands like Bauhaus. They came out of Northampton. At that time there was no scene in Northampton, they just formed with their mates and that was it. I love the way that a lot of goth culture was quite exotic in these kind of backward towns.
Do you think a sense of place was important around goth?
I think the argument defines as, which was the first goth club, was it the Batcave (in London) or the Phono (in Leeds)? By timelines, it was the Phono, but the Batcave got on television more. You can understand people in Yorkshire getting a bit fed up with people saying that London came up with the idea. I think it’s convergent evolution. These things can happen at the same time in different places. I don’t think people in the north are waiting for the Batcave to hand them an instruction manual. But this is not running the Batcave down, because the Batcave was a great scene. It’s different for the north. Each city in the north had its own different journey, coming out of punk. Liverpool with Echo and the Bunnymen and bands like that, it was like West Coast psychedelia mixed in with postpunk. While Manchester was Joy Division, stark, very sleek, modern lines, mind-blowing production like Martin Hannett, that sense of space we can hear across the whole goth scene.
Rock music was sniffed at by everyone else and put down. Of course, Leeds, being from Yorkshire, totally embraced it. Classic Yorkshire thing: no one tells me what to like! They’re also very modernistic as well. I don’t think they were looking backwards in Leeds in that period. They embraced The Stooges and Suicide, where most other places didn’t embrace those bands so much. They found something different in The Stooges. It wasn’t because The Stooges were this wild band, it was because they did drones. They were into Hawkwind as well. This is all feeding into the Yorkshire scene. That was Andrew Eldritch’s then girlfriend, Claire Shearsby, DJ-ing at the Phono, and other clubs playing their records. It turned all those people onto them. They were wearing paisley shirts and winkle pickers and growing their hair. It was a different scene. I find that quite fascinating as well, that each city had its own kind of journey.
The interview continues in Part 2.
John Robb’s book about Goth, The Art of Darkness, can be ordered from https://membranes.bandcamp.com/merch/the-art-of-darkness-the-history-of-goth-john-robb
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