This is not meant as a complete history of goth, as that would be a huge book. Instead, we're aiming to give a simple overview of the musicians, songs and albums that have most defined the genre.
Many deserving artists have been left out, and some that we're sure some people feel are not worthy of space have been included. We encourage people to suggest other others they feel to be significant in the comments, and thereby enrich us all.
In the beginning, there was darkness. It was an all right darkness, not a great darkness. It was, you know, a good first try. Before the coming of real goth music, most of the people who would today be at home with the label were either labeled crazy or just sad bastards. Take Screaming Jay Hawkins, for instance, who was big in the 1950s with "I Put a Spell on You."
Hawkins started wearing capes, carrying smoking skulls, and singing about voodoo after leaping out of a coffin. These are all activities that goths learn in evil preschool. Before him, you have Frederic Chopin, all draped in black playing sad little nocturnes back in the 19th century. He wrote upbeat stuff too, but his haunting nocturnes are what most people know these days.
Hell, Chopin was even once described by his girlfriend as a "beloved little corpse." Call someone that at one of Numbers' Underworld nights and you'll be knocking stompy boots together in the bathroom before you know it!
The evolution to goth music continued throughout the 1970s, thanks mostly to the work of two men: Alice Cooper and David Bowie. Cooper took Hawkins' ideas and ran with them, beginning with his 1971 tour for the Love It to Death album, which featured Cooper being tortured and ultimately executed by electric chair onstage.
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Though Cooper had started out with a more psychedelic sound and a more androgynous glam look, he fully transitioned into a villainous, monstrous character over the course of the next several albums. He would release a string of classic, increasingly dark LPs with his original band, including Killer and Billion Dollar Babies, culminating with his legendary 1975 solo album Welcome to My Nightmare.
One the flip side, where Cooper grew darker, Bowie grew more otherworldly. Like Cooper, Bowie abandoned his psychedelic side for a new persona in the form of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972. Dressed in a striking costume with his flame-colored hair, Bowie set the bar for all future glamorous personas. His influence can be keenly felt in how he inspired the next age.
When pinpointing the beginning of true goth music as we understand it today, it's hard to argue against Bauhaus' 1979 single "Bela Lugosi's Dead" as the genre's jumping-off point. Bauhaus became one most potent goth icons, particularly lead singer Peter Murphy with his skeletal frame and deep voice.
Elsewhere in England, the Bromley Contingent centered around the Sex Pistols began to grow up and move into their own dark paths. We have their manager Malcom McLaren to thank for Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin forming The Banshees. Without them, goth would be a very sad landscape, empty of albums like Juju, Kaleidoscope and Peepshow.
We can also chalk The Cure's success up to this scene as well. They gained a great deal of exposure when they joined The Banshees on tour for their second album, and Robert Smith briefly joined the The Banshees as guitarist to replace John McKay, who left suddenly on the eve of the tour. Smith left the Banshees soon after, and The Cure put out second album Seventeen Seconds, and one of the most iconic goth discs ever recorded, 1982's Pornography.
Also growing out of the punk scene, though not part of the group that spawned The Cure and The Banshees, was Joy Division. Singer Ian Curtis managed to turn the raw energy of the punk sound inward, and released maybe the most depressing single ever, "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Curtis didn't live to see the success of the single, committing suicide in May 1980.
It should be noted that though the label of goth began being used around this time, although almost all the artists described as goth rejected the label. Most have since become resigned to it.
There is no universal goth sound, though it's easy to find parallels in the music of The Cure, Bauhaus, The Banshees and Joy Division. But Bauhaus and Joy Division ceased existence fairly quickly, their members going on to other dark-themed, but stylistically different, projects.
The Cure and The Banshees would also heavily experiment with their sound in the 1980s. It is this fragmentation of the movement that defined the sub-genres that most goth bands now belong too.
For instance, The Southern Death Cult started off along the same punk-to-goth beginnings as many other groups, even opening Bauhaus on tour, but singer Ian Astbury disbanded the group to reform the more rock-oriented The Cult in 1983. Their album Love is a defining dark-rock disc. Along the same path was The Sisters of Mercy, who released First and Last and Always in 1984 to critical acclaim.
However, creative differences between singer Andrew Eldritch and guitarist Wayne Hussey led to Hussey leaving to form the more rock-sounding Mission in 1986, recording God's Own Medicine the same year featuring 120 Minutes favorite track "Wasteland." Meanwhile, Eldritch continued using the Sisters of Mercy name, and released two epic and essential discs somewhere between industrial and prog rock called Vision Thing and Floodland.
1988 saw the formation of Nine Inch Nails, whose industrial sound and dystopian outlook would become one of the main influences in goth throughout the 1990s. No self-respecting goth's iPod is without NIN's 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine.
The term "darkwave" came from back in the 1980s, and was one of the terms used to describe the Golden Age bands, as well as dark electronica acts like Gary Numan and Depeche Mode. Their stylistic descendants constitute one of the most active sub-genres of goth in the modern age. Particularly in Houston.
The term remained in use for many underground bands in Europe, and became associated with Projekt Records in the early '90s. Projekt specialized in a new brand of goth that centered on ethereal female vocals, a trend that is still followed by mainstream labels utilizing goth acts. Black Tape for a Blue Girl released This Lush Garden Within on Projekt in 1993
Another label that followed this trend was Tess, who added Faith and the Muse to their roster, as well as the reformed Clan of Xymox (now just Xymox).
As one path of goth music moved further into synth and EBM, and another continued to worship pale angelic beauties with haunting voices, the rest of the '90s was heavily influenced by the harsh sound Trent Reznor pioneered with Nine Inch Nails. Enter his protégé, and the first real protestable monster of goth since Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson.
Under Reznor's tutelage, Manson released Portrait of an American Family in 1994, and the hugely successful Antichrist Superstar in 1996. Both albums are distinctly metal in flavor, though very much beholden to the goth traditions that influenced Manson. In the wake of his success, came other acts such as Slipknot, White Zombie and Korn, all of whom would achieve similar success with their debut albums.
During this period, goth comes greatly under mainstream music labels' sway, having now been proven that their was a lot of money to be made in marketing music to Hot Topic crowd. The template lines were fully drawn, and for most new acts they are still there. For male Goths, you are now to be loud, angry, aggressive, and frightening. You are not to be delicate or sensitive, 'cause that's queer and scares people in Idaho.
As for the women...
One thing is certain, new goth acts who have achieved commercial success since the beginning of the millennium are fronted by women. The goth girl singer has become just as stereotypical an image as her howling male counterpart. Evanescence became one of the biggest acts in the world with their 2003's Fallen, and their path has since been followed by The Birthday Massacre.
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Though it's an arguable point whether such music should be included under the goth label, it's undeniable that you can chalk up the spookiness of Poe's 2000 album Haunted and many of the more disturbing moments of Lady Gaga's career up to this trend as well.
And now we await the next age. What will be spooky in 2011?
Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.