John Robb talks ‘The Art Of Darkness’

John Robb on his Goth odyssey from Byron to Bowie, the Banshees, Bauhaus and beyond.

‘“Goth isn’t just black lips and black hair, you know. There’s a lot of art in it. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that Bauhaus always had a terrible press. The music press didn’t really like them at all. They thought they were pretentious. All great music is pretentious. I’m saying that as a good thing, not a bad thing. Anyone who’s pretending to be a poet or something – brilliant! Bring it on!”

John Robb is a writer, musician and cultural commentator who came up through the punk and post-punk scenes of the late ‘70s and has been a prominent figure in music and music writing ever since. Forming his band The Membranes in Blackpool whilst still a teenager, John also wrote about music through his fanzine Rox before writing for many publications and publishing many books. He runs the Louder Than War website, tours and records with The Membranes and his fascinating interviews with cultural figures can be seen on his YouTube channel. We Are Cult spoke to John about his fascinating new book, ‘The Art Of Darkness – The History Of Goth’.

John Robb. Image © Atrium Talent.

The new book looks great, John. You cover an enormous amount of stuff in there. When did you finish writing it? Was it a couple of years ago?

Yeah, the bulk of it was written a couple of years ago and then I edited it. It’s a long and complex story that starts with the fall of Rome (laughs). There was a lot to get in there.

Yes because it goes right back to the beginnings of Gothic culture and even further, doesn’t it?

Yeah, I just got fascinated with the idea of where the word came from. There’s gothic tribes but I don’t think they could have been called Goth at the time? Who knows what they would’ve been called amongst themselves but the idea of them sacking Rome fits into the idea quite nicely. The idea of European culture and German culture being sneered at because it’s not classical culture! It’s quite a nice analogy with the way people view certain Goth bands… Not being proper indie or proper punk.

So with the Goth subculture itself – when did that really start would you say? Would it be with the Banshees and later Bauhaus or earlier possibly?

It’s kind of like that. But when you look at it it wasn’t like that really. In the first place those bands weren’t really called Goth bands, so it’s a retrospective term for a scene that already existed. The Banshees were a punk band really. It was their version of punk. Nobody really said “post-punk” at the time either. I don’t remember that ever being a term. It was kind of alternative music played in alternative clubs. Initially it was a bit of a piss-take name, so people didn’t like the term. Also, a lot of those bands were working in complete isolation. It was symbiotic. It emerged by accident in a sense. Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus thought “You know what? If we make this a little darker, we’ve got a thing going on here!”

It’s important that most of these bands were from different provincial towns, isn’t it?

Yeah, most scenes emerge from cities. The Pistols and the Clash in 1975 didn’t know each other but were aware of each other. A band like Bauhaus who were from Northampton wouldn’t have been aware of what was going on in London. It’s actually quite fascinating in terms of the metropolitan scene. They came from weird places. Obviously nowadays you can look it all up on the internet, but the idea that you could come up with something which was esoteric and actually quite amazing like Bauhaus in a small town it’s like… Who do you ask? Just your mates. I grew up in Blackpool and it was a bit like that. There were twenty of us and no one else.

Bauhaus came through as an amazing art rock band with an amazing look way ahead of anything else. They weren’t just a version of what went before but they didn’t come together as a goth band, they came together as a punk band. They thought “This is what punk sounds like” (laughs). The dub influence which is all over Bela Lugosi’s Dead, they got that from the Clash. The Clash got it from dub records. What actually is interesting is that Massive Attack got their dubby style from Bauhaus which is quite weird. 3D is a massive fan. Massive Attack do a cover of Bela Lugosi’s Dead which is genius.

The Banshees were from Bromley and the Cure from Crawley. I’m from West Yorkshire and the scene was a major thing here as well.

Being from West Yorkshire you are at the epicentre. The first Goth club was the Phono (Le Phonographique) in Leeds. Because it was Leeds nobody made a big thing of it. They just got on with it. If it was Manchester you’d never hear the end of it. You’d have about twenty-five documentaries on it. The Batcave in London was in Soho and it was on TV all the time and the Batcave was one of the early Goth clubs but it wasn’t the first one. The first one was the Phono.

The Leeds version of Goth was different. What they did in Leeds was they embraced rock music. Whereas, post-punk, in other towns everyone was anti rock weren’t they? Leeds perversely had that very Yorkshire thing of “No one ever tells me what to bloody think”. So people in Yorkshire go, “We like rock music so we’ll embrace rock music.”

The Stooges had a kind of ‘hip but not hip’ image for example. That was a big influence in Leeds. Also, the band Suicide of course. That was in the mix as well along with AC/DC, Motorhead and Hawkwind. They were all embraced by the Leeds scene. But a lot of the bands weren’t straight rock bands. As much as Andrew Eldritch despises the term Goth, put against Lynyrd Skynyrd for example it sounds like a completely different style of music. Because they’ve got a drum machine in there, instantly it sounds futuristic and it’s about the dancefloor as well. Eldritch was very astute and because he was DJ-ing in Leeds with his then-girlfriend he was thinking of what works on the dancefloor. In a way they were using great disco and club music. The Sisters records were great club records.

Did you interview all the influential players on the scene for the book?

Yeah, I’ve interviewed them over the years There’s a few new interviews as well like Steve Severin. I was surprised that Steve Severin agreed, because I know they really hate the term Goth. As he pointed out, he likes the term Gothic not Goth. Gothic to him was about the architecture, Edgar Allen Poe and the Romantic poets and all that side. I’ve done some local radio interviews for this book and some people have the idea that it’s just black hair and black lipstick which is totally fine, that’s cool, but that’s just the surface. There’s an awful lot more going on here. There is a lineage from Lord Byron to Andrew Eldritch. What I’ve realised is that every generation is dealing with its blues and dealing with it in the contemporary technology of the time. So, in the 19th century you’d have a quill and write a poem or something but in the post-punk period, because music was central to our culture, music was where people embraced melancholy and found the beauty of melancholy. It’s been here forever from cave paintings to now with eighteen-year-olds wearing gothic clothes to pose in forests and gothic computer games.

John Robb. Image © Atrium Talent.

It must be one of the most enduring subcultures?

You find that with all youth cultures though. I think it’s quite interesting because in the UK we generate a lot of these youth cultures. You do get converging evolution. We’ve discarded it and thrown it away and become embarrassed about it. The same happened to punk or 2-Tone. It was always the case that within about a year it had gone out of fashion but then there’s always rear guard action, a kind of core of people who kept the flame, and then you jump another generation and it becomes really cool. So now fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds are deep diving into the culture and unpacking the culture because you can do that with the internet – and my book as well now of course (laughs).

Goth isn’t just black lips and black hair, you know. There’s a lot of art in it. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that Bauhaus always had a terrible press. The music press didn’t really like them at all. They thought they were pretentious.

All great music is pretentious. The Fall are pretentious in a sense. I’m saying that as a good thing, not a bad thing. Anyone who’s pretending to be a poet or something – brilliant! Bring it on! I always explain to people how Bauhaus are one of the great art pop bands that this country has ever produced and every song they do sounds completely different. It’s very simple but very clever and really beautifully put together. I was kind of stating the case for these bands that are being sniffed at for quite a long time. What’s been really great in the early days of this book are that people are really embracing it. I’ve had closet Goths coming up to me and saying, “I too was that person!”.

People like Chris Packham are giving quotes for the book. We have in-depth conversations, me and Chris. I realised he liked the Cocteaus and the Mary Chain but I didn’t realise he was steeped in this. Someone like Stewart Lee as well. I mean, Stewart is a great music head and the things he’s done with the Nightingales are amazing and he was really into the book as well.

I saw your interview with Chris Packham on YouTube and it’s great

He’s brilliant, Chris. Chris is also a massive music head and he’s very punk. Really weirdly, he’s perhaps the only punk that has kept the rebel spirit. People threw a fireball into his garden because he stands up against hunting! He’s not claiming that he’s a great person, but he’s a principled person. He’s focused and he uses his Aspergers as a superpower. It just bounces off him. Chris is principled and he believes and makes a stand. He makes a difference and that’s why they’re scared of him because he’s a national treasure.

Do you know we’re exactly the same age both born on the same day on the same year? We’re like the weird punk rock twins. I’m fascinated by nature and he’s fascinated with punk rock. I’m the only person who knows about really obscure punk bands so he talks to me for ages and it’s a great conversation because we genuinely love this stuff.

Another thing that’s fascinating is that even though Goth may have started in bedrooms with people developing their image and ideas it’s a very social subculture isn’t it?

This is really what I wanted to underline in the book. I really wanted to start with talking about Goth clubs because Goth is a live, theatrical thing like punks. The idea that all these weird sounds came out of the clubs in these towns. Keighley had a club or Wakefield had a club you know.

Yeah – I’m from Bradford and it was a big scene here?

The book has a chapter on Bradford in it exploring the idea that these towns didn’t have much culture. I know that Bradford had Kiki Dee and Smokey but they had to go to London. As soon as Justin Sullivan moved here there was a scene. Joolz, New Model Army, Little Brother, etc. There was a whole thing going on. Justin actually moved to Bradford. He’s not from Bradford. This is interesting: People move to Manchester, Liverpool and maybe Leeds. People don’t move to Bradford. It kind of changed the narrative. It created a space for these things to happen. Bradford had an amazing scene.

Going back to the club theme, the clubs were really important in the Goth story.

A lot of critiques you get of Goth are about how white it is, but it’s not white at all. it’s influenced by a lot of black music like disco, funk and dub. It’s all in there, partially because you had to have something that you could dance to. It was more sinuous and had a groove and you buy that with the technology and the kind of melancholic backdrop of the times. Very loosely structured music. Bass plays melodies and guitars don’t really play solos and with the drums you can sing the drum parts! One of the early drummers, Kenny Morris from the Banshees, has a tribal style that was very influential but you could sing the drum parts. They’re not just keeping time which is great, but they’re actually playing lead lines.

In terms of Goth fashion who would you say are the main players? Siouxsie maybe?

Well, Siouxsie has to be. She says in the book that she finds it baffling but of course people want to look like her. She’s stunning. The key part is she looks like a different kind of woman. She was inspiring but inspiring to a male as well. We found her inspiring as kids. Punk broke down all those barriers. You didn’t have to be a macho man and you didn’t have to be girlie girl and Siouxsie was another thing and also very creative. I think one thing we do well in this country is believing that style is big and we like dressing up. That’s why we invent all these kinds of cultures. The tradition of the dandy. The shoes you’ve got on and the shoes you wear are important in England. In other countries it’s not as important but when people take it to extremes it gets really fascinating so in a way when Bowie did all that shapeshifting in the ‘70s where you had a version of Bowie every six months she managed to do it in about four years flat. A completely different creation and each one looked completely brilliant. That first album is a game-changer.

Dave Vanian as well. Less directly I suppose, but this idea that there’s a different way of looking like a punk. He was already sharply dressed. There’s a suggestion that you can look like a vampiric version of things. Then there are people like Bryon Gregory from the Cramps. It’s in there. The bone jewellery and he looked like a corpse. Pete Burns as well actually, because Pete Burns influenced other people. Adam Ant apparently was influenced. Seeing him go round Liverpool, you’d probably think, “Wow, he looks amazing.”

There’s Jim Morrison as well. Let’s put him in the mix here. Dressing in black. It’s weird but the influence of The Doors is retrospective in the UK because they weren’t that big here until Apocalypse Now (1979) came out. A lot of people of my generation only got into the Doors when Apocalypse Now came out. They were like the Stooges. They were like a fringe cult band. The sounds and the way he is singing is a key influence. It’s interesting that. It was from about twelve years before but that twelve years felt like 100 years.

I think the key figureheads that have a loose influence on most of Goth would be David Bowie and Jim Morrison. Sonically and sartorially, and also they suggest there’s more to pop culture than just guitars. Jim Morrison fancies himself as a poet so that does open the door to literature. And Bowie because he was an encyclopaedia of pop culture. His interviews in the ‘70s were famous, weren’t they. He used to talk about William Burroughs and the Velvet Underground. Putting people onto other stuff which is really altruistic and interesting.

I got my first references to a lot of stuff through Bowie. Reference to Burroughs, Orwell, the Velvets.

Yeah – how else could you get that information. Anyone who is eighteen now would just say, “What are you on about?” and just Google it but you couldn’t then. I mean, maybe you could go to libraries but you wouldn’t even know what you were looking up. I love that you can go on the internet and find this stuff but at the time we needed Bowie to mention it then we could go to the library and we’d know what we were looking for. And we didn’t know about Lou Reed and connect it with the Velvet Underground.

It’s interesting that when I spoke to Hookie (Peter Hook of Joy Division) he was a big John Cale fan but he’d never heard of the Velvet Underground. His mate lent him John Cale records. He had no idea who he was. I’m old enough to remember when Walk On The Wild side was a hit in England and I love that record but I’d no idea it had this backstory I just thought it was this new American singer with this jazzy record!

I found the music papers when I was about fourteen. That’s when I got into them. Before that I was just a sort of glam rock kid. I just liked what was on Top Of The Pops and we had no filter to tell what was cool and wasn’t cool. It was just there. I didn’t know Lou Reed was super cool. I just really liked the record. These records weren’t easy to get. They were super cult. I always remember Iggy Pop because he used to appear in the music papers every week and he was in Berlin and he had some mad girlfriend called Gretchen and it always had pictures of them and we used to think “Who is that?!”

The big thing about the Stooges was they were trying to be The Doors, weren’t they?

Iggy had been the school swat and he went and saw The Doors play a gig at his University and there’s a website that details all this. It’s Iggy’s first experience of the Doors but it’s not written from the perspective of Iggy Pop. It’s actually a university website and they talk about cool gigs they went to at university. One is, “Do you remember when the Doors played the University?” Apparently Jim Morrison was so drunk he couldn’t stand up and they did two sets which is unusual. He came back on and he was amazing. Somehow he’d sobered up and someone says, “That gig was really good but can you remember James Osterberg?” Someone else said, “You know he became a singer afterwards?”

He kind of took The Doors and reduced it didn’t he?

What Iggy did, which was really cool, is he reduces it down to two words, ‘No Fun’, which is almost perfect. I know it has got a verse but you don’t really need the verse. It’s kind of the ultimate brattish teenage anthem isn’t it? Iggy was so intelligent he could reduce poetry down to two words. Brilliant minimalism.

It was kind of an influence on Goth. There is a minimalist aspect to Goth. It’s interesting because I do mention New York ‘No Wave’ and I love all that No Wave. It’s almost like a parallel movement. It’s taking everything out. If you’re in a band and everyone plays everything all at once and you take out all these spaces. No Wave would have an occasional bit of sax and a vocal and it’s perfect. There’s a lot of space in the Sisters (of Mercy) sound, a lot of space in Bauhaus. They’re not playing all at once trying to drown everyone out, they’re just waiting to come in. No Wave was like rock music that wasn’t rock music.

You mention that you used a lot of previous interviews in the book from your days at Sounds, etc.

Yes, I was using my own interviews. First, I was using my own experience. When I write about Goth clubs, I was at a lot of Goth clubs. All those things like “Everyone was in the girls’ toilets doing their hair.” I’ve seen it and you can’t beat being there, you know? It’s almost like interviewing yourself. You’re a prime witness. I was at those clubs. I was at all those early gigs. You don’t have to have been there to write a great book, but if you were there it’s nice to thread it through the narrative. I mean I toured with the Sisters of Mercy as a support and I got to know Eldritch as well as you ever get to know Eldritch. He’s very quiet. Very introverted. Very smart. They’ve sold out big venues in LA. They sell out gigs in Mexico. They’re huge.

It’s weird because they don’t fit into the media narrative, do they?

They don’t appear on 6 Music. The Guardian would just about write about them in a sniffy kind of way. A piss-taking kind of way .Unless Dave Simpson writes it because he’s a great music writer and he can see the big picture. I think they’re treated as a comedy band. There’s a sense of humour at play and they are funny but there’s also a serious aspect to them and a lot of the stuff that they’ve done has been quite groundbreaking. I know Sly Stone used a drum machine and Suicide used it in an art rock way but nobody used it in music that way before. The way they used it was completely different.

There’s so much to talk about. I mean, you can’t cover all this in a short interview and the book is about 650 pages!

Yeah, the book covers a lot. It’s not an academic book. Well, it is partly, because you need to reference lots of interesting stuff in an interesting way, but it’s not written in that way. It’s not dry. It’s a fans book. I love the records and that has to come through. You have to write in that way.

I loved your ‘Death of Trad Rock’ book – I use that as a reference all the time.

Brill! Well I know they were different scenes but they crossover quite a lot you know. I don’t want people to think it’s about a scene that had walls around it, because it’s much more blurred than that. The Fall were represented in the Goth clubs and you could hear Hit the North in there, but where do the Cramps fit in? I put them in the book and they’re not a Goth band, but their music was big in Goth clubs. You’d hear the Cramps about five times a night. You can dance to them and they have a dark humour to what they do, which really chimes with people. Early Southern Death Cult were really artsy as well you know. Maybe people have difficulty with bands who dress up, I don’t know.

Are you planning to maybe do a compilation to go with the book at all?

In a way it already got made. Cherry Red put a compilation out a few years ago which originally was meant to tie in with the book. I know there are issues with Spotify and the way it pays, but why not just read a chapter on the band and then play Spotify? People have been listening to Spotify and saying, “I didn’t realise Bauhaus were that good!” I love The Fall, but to me Bauhaus are the same and trying to do the same thing. They were more dressed-up but that doesn’t make the music any better or worse. They look great. Mind you I’m a glam rock kid. I grew up with David Bowie and Marc Bolan. To me it’s not the only way to make music, but looking good doesn’t negate your music.

You were the perfect age for punk?

Yeah, I was fifteen or sixteen when punk came out. When I was twelve it was glam rock. I used to watch Top Of The Pops every week. I loved the Sweet and I loved Mud. Everybody loved albums, that’s the thing. It wasn’t till I got older and you realise Mud had had a brilliant array of singles but their albums are just like a cabaret band full of covers. Because it was Chinnichap that wrote the songs. Chinn And Chapman’s run of hits is mindboggling. Mike Chapman is one of the most underrated people in pop and you don’t really hear a lot about him, do you? There’s a book in that.

He produced the Blondie album ‘Parallel Lines’ as well…

Yeah, I mean Heart of Glass wasn’t going to be a disco song and he told them to do a disco song. I spoke to Alan McGee the other week and he’s quite good friends with Mike Chapman and he said he’s still producing stuff. McGee is the same age as me, so he went through all exactly the same things… Glam… Punk… so when he spoke about Mike Chapman it was great.

I’m a bit younger but I remember watching Top Of The Pops when Sparks were first on. That was great.

Yeah, with Sparks it’s almost becoming quite freakish that they can be that good. They actually started in 1968. These bands are still creative.

Did you see the Sparks documentary?

Oh yeah. I’ve also interviewed them, and they’re amazing. They’re the sweetest people ever. I interviewed Ron Mael and I had to do it on Zoom, but you know on Zoom it’s quite hard. It’s kind of like a slightly detached perspective? With Ron Mael I felt like he was sat in the room with me but in a very quiet understated way. Funny as well. Very dry. I know it’s a made-up story, but that story about John Lennon phoning someone up and saying, “Look, it’s Marc Bolan jamming with Adolf Hitler!” (laughs) I know it’s a cliché but after This Town… was on everyone at school was going, “What the fuck was this?!”. But we didn’t know that they had been going for six years.

Now, I have all their records and I went to see them last year They’re awesome. Russ has still got that incredible voice. He runs around onstage and he’s in his seventies. He’s eternal.

When you watch that film, it kinds of tells you everything about Sparks but they reveal nothing. Which is brilliant because I don’t want to know everything. I don’t want to know about people’s private lives. It’s just the music and it’s like they didn’t have a private life. They just made Sparks music. I actually had a feeling there was no mystery, they just sat in each other’s houses writing songs and they didn’t have a private life. That’s all I could work out from the film.

John Robb. Image © Atrium Talent.

The book’s coming out in March I believe?

Yeah, you can get it on pre-order now. I’ve got about 1,000 to sign! I like that. I like that personal touch. Everybody should feel that it’s their book. I’m fine with that.

Have you got anything else coming up, in terms of the Membranes and touring?

Yeah, we’re trying to get an album together. I’ve got another two books out this year. I’ve got a collection of journalism coming out in the summer, and I’ve got another thing with Alan McGee about how to run a record label. I actually wrote a novel during the great plague and I need to get back onto that and I need to finish it as well!

❉ ‘The Art Of Darkness – The History Of Goth’ by John Robb, published March 2023 via Louder Than War Books, RRP £25.00. Click here to pre-order a signed copy via Bandcamp, RRP from £20.00 GBP.

❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.  His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1

Header image source photo: © ATRIUM TALENT. All rights reserved. Book cover image: © The Membranes bandcamp.

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