The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth Book Review

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth
John Robb (Photo credit: John Middleham)

“Nothing exists independently; goth was a kind of fever. It just seemed to seep in on a tide of black lace and black leather.”

Nina Antonia quoted in The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth

Various books have been written attempting to unravel the mystery of the goth subculture and trace its roots. A new text has recently been added to the canon, The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb who’s the frontman of the post-punk band The Membranes and head of the online media publication Louder Than War. His behemoth of a book takes a deep plunge into the musical origins of goth, and it’s quite an adventure.

According to NME, The Art of Darkness was in the works for more than a decade, and it’s evident by how closely the author follows the music genre’s trajectory from inception to the present time. He even goes as far back as 410 AD with his chapter on how the eastern Germanic tribes, the Visigoths, ransacked the Roman Empire. Robb also dedicates sections to Gothic architecture, literature, and music, explaining how their macabre aesthetic and dark subject matter trickled down to influence various bands during the 1970s and 1980s.

Although the birth of goth is typically said to have begun during the late 70s and early 80s, the music is greatly impacted by the Gothic arts from centuries earlier, and these parts of the text highlight that connection. Robb sums it up when he states, “A lot of popular Gothic literature, while not actively consumed by early goth music ‘pioneers,’ was already in the cultural pool surrounding them at a base level. While it might just seem to be a bold and brazen background, I think Gothic literature firmly pumps through the heart of goth.”

His examination into the political climate of the post-war decades and how it impacted the youth culture and the alternative music being created in the UK and parts of Europe is enlightening. These are historical details behind the development of goth that are often easily overlooked now. Yes, the beats of these post-punk bands still sound cool today, but there are intricate stories behind them, and the author weaves these facts into his narrative.

He demonstrates how starting a band and participating in the post-punk music scene were an escape from the stifling effects of Thatcherism, unemployment, and impoverishment in Britain. Robb comments, “Amid the dole culture of Thatcher’s Britain and the broken post-industrial cityscapes, the clubs and the dressing up black enabled good times on a shoestring budget with an attractive dark aesthetic.” The state of the world certainly had an effect on bands as one source, Ben Graham, tells Robb:

“Things were dark and gloomy but the youth still needed to dance. Goth was a response to the immediate landscape of derelict mills, windswept moors, Wuthering Heights meets post-industrialism and socio-historical factors like the Cold War and mass unemployment of Thatcherism. It was also about reacting against the prevailing mainstream style of the day – bright, shiny, happy, dress-for-success Thatcherite yuppie materialism – by preferring to look like a gloomy consumptive poet with one foot in the grave.” 

These are the golden nuggets dropped throughout The Art of Darkness that shed a light on the multifaceted and complex origins of goth.

While the book dedicates chapters to the bands endearingly recognized as the forebearers of goth music, such as Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Sisters of Mercy, it also looks at groups that aren’t commonly associated with the genre, but nonetheless helped shape it, like The Doors and The Velvet Underground. Robb makes it clear that “The Doors were the true progenitors of goth rock. Sex. Death. Psychodrama. Their legacy foreshadowed the culture that would follow.”

The text underlines how, at the time, many musicians didn’t want to be tied down by the goth label. I’ve often wondered why Andrew Eldritch loathes being associated with the genre to this day, and I understand his reasons better now after reading the book. His reaction isn’t so much an affront to the subculture as it is him trying to maintain creative and musical autonomy. Steven Severin, founding member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, expresses to Robb, “There are so many things in goth you cannot do, you have to fit a certain template and that was something we were fighting against in the late ‘70s.” 

The work contains countless interviews with key figures of the post-punk goth era, including Nick Cave, The Damned, and The Cure, to name just a few, so readers get details straight from the people that were experiencing the scene as it unfolded. Robb traces the sudden rise and fall of several bands, like Southern Death Cult, that were around long enough to leave their macabre marks, but disintegrated just as they were entering stardom.

The author takes you inside the alternative nightclubs that became an integral part of the goth scene, The Batcave and Le Phonographique. He comments, “Nightclubbing was the beating heart of goth. It defied its graveyard ethos of being a darkly subversive strand of pop culture by dancing.” I feel his statement holds true today. I’m based in the Los Angeles area where there is the staple dark alternative establishment Bar Sinister, as well as a variety of goth nights that happen at various venues across the city.

The Art of Darkness is a whirlwind of a journey that boggled and entertained my mind. It looks at the influence of Gothic art and literature, horror, politics, alternative fashion, and the occult on the burgeoning post-punk goth music era. The genre has many ancestors and, over the decades, has become an amalgamation of all of these elements. There’s even a brief examination into the current state of the scene and how it’s been impacted by social media, influencers, and mainstream media. Although I would have enjoyed more commentary on goth today, I understand it’s a topic that would require an entire book unto itself to do it justice.

The work presents a vast amount of information that at times felt overwhelming to absorb, but I came away so much more aware and appreciative of a subculture I’ve associated with since I was a teen. It’s a great reference for music enthusiasts and people wanting to familiarize themselves with the goth sound. You could create a massive playlist with the numerous bands mentioned. It’s a different approach to the study of goth and a worthwhile resource on the subculture.

John Robb’s The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth is already available in the UK and will be released in the U.S. on May 16th.

Where to Stalk

The Art of Darkness (U.S.)

The Art of Darkness (Bandcamp UK)

John Robb official website

Louder Than War

4 thoughts on “The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth Book Review

  1. Riveting synopsis, Jenn, and a fascinating biography, so to speak, of the dark genre. Though many consider goth to be a strictly modern expression, the book follows its progress through millennia.

    Interesting that, though the original “Goths” sacked Rome and in so doing buried the western empire, they were somewhat Romanized themselves in the process. Moreover, the hybrid culture they created preserved Roman ideas, scholarship and even fashions until their reawakening centuries later in the Renaissance and then in the Enlightenment.

    Considering that, what do you imagine will be written, centuries hence, of Goth influence on 21st-Century culture, and vice-versa?

    Liked by 2 people

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