Journey to the Art of Darkness – talking The History of Goth with John Robb

Ah, the dreaded label. An integral part of music culture down the years, but an all too easy way to categorise, and often proving nonsense. Punk, post-punk, alternative, indie, indie pop, twee pop, shoegaze, soul, funk, jazz funk, heavy soul, deep soul … our soles seem to depend on it, not least music writers looking to compartmentalise.

And there’s a neat example in goth, yet as John Robb would have it in his latest publication, the mighty 650-page epic, The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth, it’s not a label that sits easy with many of those considered to be goth bands, hating the term as it ‘compressed a nuanced and fascinating journey full of ground-breaking musical and stylistic ideas into a simple cliché.’

However, he still feels there is ‘a definable culture with a shadowy sartorial style’, and a soundtrack to match, ‘reacting to those dystopian post-industrial times,’ adding that the ‘disparate bands that were painting it black had a melancholy, a sense of theatre, and an artful sensuality to their styles.’

As he puts it, ‘They somehow married those moods to a post-punk skreegh and to the pulsating dance floor, embracing funk, disco and dub. They were the true answer to punk’s questions, and many have become 21st century legends whilst others are highly influential footnotes.’

As a music scribe, presenter, environmental activist and bass player of perennial post-punk survivors The Membranes, it’s fair to say John is a man who struggles to sit still.

When he’s not touring with his band – they recently toured in Europe with The Stranglers, The Chameleons and Fields of the Nephilim – he’s presenting, moderating, or writing for his impressive website, Louder Than War, and through that is behind the Louder Than Words literary festival. And then there’s his more recent venture alongside fellow campaigner/entrepreneur Dale Vince, the pair having launched eco-education scheme the Green Britain Academy.

But this Manchester-based, Blackpool born and bred ‘multi-faceted creature of the night and day’ is also an author, past well-received works including best-selling books Punk Rock: An Oral History and The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996. And his latest opus is certainly an in-depth account, one he feels presents the first major and comprehensive overview of goth music and culture and its lasting legacy, promising readers a ‘deep dive into the dark matter’ and into a ‘gothic hinterland where we can submerge ourselves in the delicious dark energy, take a walk on the dark side, and dance, dance, dance to the diablo darkness.’

Starting with a night out in a goth club, John plunges into the wider culture, en route exploring the social conditions that created this post-punk period genre, heading right back to … well, the fall of Rome actually, ‘sacked by the original Goths’, going on to tackle Lord Byron and the romantic poets, European folk tales, gothic architecture and painters, the occult, then ‘the dark heart of the forest of pop culture’.

While he sees The Doors as the first band to be called gothic, as those who know his work might expect there’s plenty about ‘the life-changing adventures of glam and punk’s culture war’ (and as John states, ‘No Bowie – no scene’), and ‘that crucial post-punk period in a scene that was loosely called ‘alternative’ and then retrospectively termed ‘goth’, which annoyed everyone.’

In examining why goth happened, where, and when, he takes us right through to modern-day social media influencers, arguing that ‘what was once underground is now mainstream.’ As he puts it, ‘In the 21st century, culture/dystopia is everywhere, from the news to Instagram influencers, goth gaming, goth-influenced novels, films and music. TV series Wednesday is just the latest populist cathode ray incarnation of all things goth, opening up the doors, yet again, to the attractive melancholy lurking all around us.’

And as he so evocatively puts it in the book’s introduction, ‘The art of darkness has been with us for centuries, because every generation has got to deal with its blues. What was once expressed in art, architecture, Romantic literature and painting was, in the post-punk wars, a Cimmerian alternative culture creating its own dark narrative whilst accelerating away from the Big Bang of punk. It was a thrilling time when music soundtracked the style, and a culture coalesced from a bricolage of black.’

John see the goth scene as something that ‘seemed to arrive by symbiosis as a logical escape from punk,’ going on to explore a North vs South theme, in this case largely Leeds vs London (the capital’s first goth club, incidentally, was Beasts, opened on Valentine’s night in 1981 on fashionable Carnaby Street), talking about a ‘convergent evolution.’

‘Much of the scene, as we know it, evolved in places like Bradford, Northampton, Wakefield or Crawley: satellite towns, mill towns, dead towns. It was in these unlikely landscapes that the goth aesthetic began to thrive. These towns took their cues from the patchwork of mid-‘70s Bowie/Roxy nights in the big cities and the pioneering alternative/goth clubs like the Phono in Leeds and The Batcave in London.

‘Soon, everywhere would have its own goth night. Every town and city would have at least one ‘alternative’ club years before they were called ‘goth’ clubs. Safe havens where the freaks could come out to play. All over the UK, in the most unlikely nooks and crannies, a whole new network of clubs emerged, driving the culture forward.’

With regard to his own North-West patch, he starts with Liverpool, its ‘sartorial scene flamboyance … initially celebrated in Eric’s and in gay clubs such as Jody’s, providing a safe space for the proto-goth scene. The city then had its own goth club, the legendary Planet X, which was named by Paul Rutherford from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and was opened in 1993 by the indefatigable Doreen Allen, who’d been a central player in Liverpool’s alternative culture since the ‘60s.’

Later, he goes into more detail, as is also the case with his adopted home, Manchester, which already had Pips, open from 1972 to 1978, its most influential DJ, the late Dave Booth, among those interviewed in the book. Then, post-punk, the city was full of new nights, such as Devilles, ‘filled with big hair that twitched along to the likes of The Cure’s ‘A Forest’’ while Cloud 9’s ‘post-punk fusion mixed early psychobilly with Adam and the Ants before they became pirates’ and the 1980-85 period saw The Berlin Club, ‘famed for its camo netting, dry ice and constant playing of The Sisters {of Mercy}, Sex Gang Children, The Birthday Party, and Southern Death Cult.’

To add to those there’s mention of Placemate 7, Blood Club, Monday night at The Ritz, Legends with its alternative Thursday nights, The Playpen, and The Banshee, all ‘key to the new cultural frontier’,  18-year-old future Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, another interviewed within, among the attendees, ‘a junior freak experiencing the power of these new club nights in Manchester – Legend in particular. As well as being a lifelong expert on music culture, Johnny used to manage Aladdin’s Cave, a goth/alternative clothes shop in Manchester, from 1981-82 until The Smiths got signed.’

Built mainly around the 1980s period, the book also includes interviews with The Sisters’ Andrew Eldritch, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, the afore-mentioned Adam Ant, Nick Cave, and members of Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Cult, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Laibach. 

There’s plenty of cultural insight too, for example examining some of the perceived contradictions regarding female empowerment, androgyny, gender-bending, intersections with the LGBTQ+ scene, and so on, with the likes of Professor Claire Nally from Northumbria University adding analysis, while John talks about the ‘inherent yet thrilling contradictions in the style.’

And in looking at the style and the political and social conditions that spawned the culture and the music, fashions and attitudes, plus the clubs that defined it, he crucially offers first-hand accounts of being there at some of the legendary gigs and venues that made the scene happen.  

In conclusion, it’s a highly comprehensive work, the index alone running to 27 pages, and I won’t be giving too much away if I let on that John concludes ‘goth is in rude health,’ adding, ‘The art of darkness is all around us, reacting to the dystopian like it always has. Every generation is still dealing with its blues.  

‘Culture blur continues – where it was once easy to stand out in the crowd, provocative clothing has become normalised, and those without tattooed skin are the exception. Piercings fall in and out of fashion and are no longer the signifiers of alternative culture. Black clothes are just another Friday night option, and skulls adorn everything from school bags to cereal packets. The dark side has become cartoon fun instead of a badge of the underground.

‘Yet beyond the mainstream’s meddling and cynical appropriation of the surface of a darkly attractive form, the post-punk alternative’s dark matter and energy are everywhere. Thankfully, the new dark ages still require a fitting soundtrack and the art of darkness is the only modern art that truly defines these dystopian end times.’

All as good a reason as any to track John down earlier this week, first asking if the book was a long time in the making, not least considering how much content there is, and recalling how he mentioned the book to me some time ago.

“I started about 10 years ago, on and off, but in the last six months, it was pretty intense.”

What you make clear is that there’s no compartmentalising of this or any other scene, the links there to see throughout, be that with The Doors, Bowie, even the fall of Rome and those dark European folk tales.

“Yeah, I think all pop culture is like a bricolage, all stuck together. And with this, it was a deep dive, starting with the fall of Rome, going through the romantic poets, European folk tales … it’s all kind of in the background of what goth is. It isn’t just one thing – it’s feeding into all different places, and in pop culture terms, you kind of see that The Doors were the first to be called a goth band. And that’s quite obvious really, you see their influence across the goth scene, in a really kind of weird and interesting way.

“I think most people hadn’t really heard of The Doors in the UK until Apocalypse Now came out. They were known, but not huge like they were in America, with No.1 albums. I’d heard of them because I had hippie mates in Blackpool, but for a lot of people of my generation, the first experience of The Doors was via Apocalypse Now, like the Kate Bush thing from last year {’Running Up That Hill’s resurgence after its use in Stranger Things}, but an older version of it, where you suddenly get into the mainstream.

“So that criss-crossed with people coming out of punk, which in a way kind of sparked a lot of the early kind of Goth scene. But obviously Bowie’s in there, and glam rock, and a lot of people sort of term goth as dark glam, in a sense.”

You write in great detail about the burgeoning scenes in Liverpool and Manchester. Were you well served in your youth for goth nights in Blackpool? 

“Blackpool had The Tache, but that was slightly later on. That was kind of the epicentre of it there. Preston had The Warehouse. They weren’t called goth nights at first, but alternative nights. Goth was actually a retrospective term for a scene that was already there. It was the same with post-punk. At the time, everyone thought we were still in punk! It’s only 30 years later that it’s turned into something different! And it was the same with goth.

“But the styles were getting darker, a bit more freaky, just pushing the envelope of what punk was in different directions, with its own soundtrack, more exotic groups, and different influences. There was Black music influence, like funk and disco, with the dancefloor very key, a lot of goth fans making their music work on the dancefloor, such as the dark disco and dark dub in Bauhaus, and that sense of space as well.”

It’s only when I see you put that in print that I realise how right you are. It’s not something I thought about at the time, that dance influence within. But I guess that’s the case throughout the history of popular music. For instance, I was listening today to David Bowie’s Station to Station from 1976, only now properly comprehending that shift he was making from funk and soul towards German electronic music and krautrock, something I hadn’t previously looked to analyse, just happy knowing I liked what I heard. And there are so many different strands in there. That also applies to the amalgam of influences we’d later see in what would in time be termed as goth music. And I guess that’s how music evolves.

“Oh yeah, when you hear those Bowie records, you can see that line going through. Station to Station and also the Berlin records. Like that amazing sound he got on Low and Heroes, and on Iggy Pop’s record at that time, and new technology creating those kind of very dark soundscapes – that was feeding in as well. Kraftwerk as well. It’s not like everybody sounded like Kraftwerk, but that idea … kind of looking at the future and technology was reducing rock ‘n’ roll to a brilliant kind of visceral primitivism.

“And goth was embracing the new technology coming in, people like Martin Hannett using that on Joy Division’s album, an incredible record. That darkness is inherent in that record, but also that sense of space. And these are all key musical roots feeding in here.”

And yet, as you say, none of these influential outfits would have wanted to be seen as goth bands. But it’s there.

“They all absolutely hate the term! So you had to start each chapter sort of qualifying why The Sisters of Mercy {for example} aren’t a goth band in their eyes, even though most of their audience would consider them a goth band. And there’s a chapter on most of the bands. I totally respect the groups not wanting to be known as goth, though, and I don’t think any band forms to be part of a scene. It just forms its own thing and gets cobbled into a scene! Ha! Then when you’re part of that scene, you get, ‘Why are you doing this?’ You get rules applied to you that you didn’t apply to yourself, very quickly, which is frustrating.”

Another example you look at are The Cure, and while I always think of their darker periods earlier on as borderline goth, it’s interesting that you talk about the goth influences on later LPs like Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, which came at a time when I initially felt they’d moved away from all that.

Pornography was actually the big one. Before that, when they did Faith and 17 Seconds, The Cure were looked on as being a ‘raincoat band’, like Joy Division. Bands that got played by John Peel that had a slightly dark, gloomy, late evening kind of sound – because they wore raincoats, because it rained a lot! Ha!

“But with Pornography, in a sense they become a goth band because they looked like a goth band, and Robert Smith had been touring as a stand-in guitarist for the Banshees, so that influence was in there too. And as much as they protest about being called a goth band, at the time of Pornography they became an archetype goth band, and that album is a goth classic. Whether they intended it as a goth classic or not is not the matter. If you listen to that record … sartorially, musically, stylistically, it becomes one of the pillars of goth and it remains a really influential record to this day, you know – one of the darkest, most intense records ever made … and a total classic.”

Summing up, the dark matter has clearly always been important to you, and now it seems to have taken you to another universe, as proved by the subjects tackled on the most recent Membranes LP, 2019’s What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away.

“Ha! The darkness is everywhere. We talk about the North of England, the melancholic weather, blah, blah, blah. But if you talk in terms of the universe, 90% of the universe is made up of dark stuff which nobody knows what it is. It’s completely mysterious!”

There’s clearly something in that and your parallel championing of goth music culture. And while I’m on, is there a new Membranes record on the way?

“Yeah, we’re just getting a new album together, although it’ll probably take about a year to get it out.”

I look forward to that. And in the meantime, there’s this new publication to wallow within, John’s tie-in promotional events including a book signing at Action Records in Preston on Saturday, April 8th.

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb is published by Louder Than War Books on March 24th, containing 650 pages plus photographs from music journalist and goth live scene photographer Mick Mercer. You can pre-order a signed copy via Bandcamp or Rough Trade. You can also find out more about Mick Mercer and his goth, indie and punk photo books via this link, and follow John Robb on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

For this website’s most recent interview with John Robb, from July 2021, head here. You can also check out the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with John, from June 2019, here, and another from December 2016 here.


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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