10 bands who led the very grisly idea of goth-punk across history
Starring the Damned, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Bauhaus, 45 Grave, Alien Sex Fiend, Alkaline Trio, AFI and moreMarch 17, 2021
“Goth-punk,” eh? Not as far-fetched as you might believe. Goth was essentially an offshoot of punk, especially its darker early bands—the Damned or Siouxsie And The Banshees, anyone? But basically, anyone playing chainsaw punk rooted in the artsier end of glam a la Bowie and Roxy Music, a fondness for Hammer horror films, macabre literature in the Edgar Allan Poe/H.P. Lovecraft vein, a makeup case filled with white pancake and black lipstick and a closetful of leather and lace and crushed velvet qualified. And let’s not forget stringy dyed-black tresses defying gravity via enough Aqua Net to create climate change on their own.
An early ’80s Los Angeles variant dubbed itself “death rock.” Emerging partly in reaction to the artlessness and dumb aggression that hardcore soon assimilated, such prime death rockers as 45 Grave stirred a whiplash brand of heavy metal into the bubbling cauldron. T.S.O.L. even successfully dabbled a moment with the idea on their debut LP, Dance With Me. (However, to mistake the Misfits’ blitzkrieg horror punk with death rock or goth-punk is no small error—nothing particularly gothic about Glenn Danzig’s crew. Similarly, the Cramps’ sexy, spooky punkabilly was an influence, but not goth-punk in the least.) Then came the groups associated with the weekly London club night The Batcave, itself a rejoinder to the electro-heavy New Romantics. As The Cult’s Ian Astbury said of the club’s core band: “Specimen were very dark, but they were as much German as they were The Addams Family. They were like a Death Bowie.”
The goth-punk cudgel was assumed in the new century by youngbloods such as AFI and Alkaline Trio. A quick scan of Google reveals such contemporary underground goth-punk outfits as Cemetery, Acid Bats, Crimson Scarlet, Dystopian Society and Haldol. Clearly, there’s enough there for Alternative Press to present history’s 10 greatest goth-punk bands.
Best heard on: The Black Album
The Damned, though pioneers in so many ways, were also English punk’s odd men out. But with former grave digger Dave Vanian (the “Transyl-” in his surname is silent) fronting, of course, they were also goth-punk forefathers. The former David Lett stood out like Andre The Giant in a field of leprechauns in 1977, with his positively Bela Lugosi-esque fashion sense and his resonating baritone voice. Then—starting with Machine Gun Etiquette’s 1979 paean to ’50s horror movie host Vampira, “Plan 9 Channel 7”—some of Vanian’s more macabre obsessions began playing into Damned music. The following year’s Black Album saw Vanian’s sensibilities engulfing proceedings via material like “Twisted Nerve” and the 17-plus minute prog odyssey “Curtain Call.” By the time of Phantasmagoria, punk was completely flushed from the Damned’s system, Vanian’s gothic pop tendencies completely consuming all.
Siouxsie And The Banshees
Best heard on: The Scream (Deluxe Edition)
Please welcome the Goth-Punk Queen! The former Susan Ballion’s Bowie/Cabaret/Ingrid Pitt fashion sense was copied by every future goth—female or male. Debut album The Scream codified many of the signifiers of what became goth-punk’s sonic signatures, especially Kenny Morris’ tom-heavy, nearly-cymbal-less drums and John McKay’s jagged, ringing chord progressions. Then there’s Siouxsie Sioux yodeling these claustrophobic lyrics that sounded like she was clawing on a coffin lid while buried alive. The sound only lasted two albums, as Kaleidoscope saw them embrace an increasingly funereal and lush post-punk sound that came to characterize goth as we know it.
Best heard on: 1979-1983, Volume One
The Damned’s Captain Sensible declared his love of Northampton ghouls Bauhaus in a 1982 Trouser Press interview: “They’re really a punk band!” Deep, resonant singer Peter Murphy, who sounded like he swallowed Ziggy Stardust’s corpse whole, agreed somewhat in a 2014 interview with Your Punk Professor: “Well, we were just after punk. It had an audience that was of that, of punk, I suspect initially. We were not necessarily punk. We were a full-sounding band that created something that, as you say, had elements of punk. We were not Sid Vicious, which is what most punk people were like, but we were learning as we went along and discovering.” Drummer Kevin Haskins’ articulate pounding and bassist David J’s nimble throb, alongside Daniel Ash’s massive, orchestral thrash guitar, certainly drove Bauhaus’ more punkish tunes, such as “Dark Entries.”
Best heard on: Only Theatre Of Pain
Led by charismatic singer Rozz Williams, who could’ve been the end result of an unholy union of David Bowie and Aleister Crowley, Christian Death were the King Hell Los Angeles death-rock band. The heavy dose of punk in their makeup not only had to do with Williams, who’d formed them as a straight punk band called the Upsetters as a teenager in 1979. But when your guitarist is Adolescents founder Rikk Agnew, the reigning emperor of Orange County punk guitar, it’s bound to invest even the most morbid music with slashing overtones. His overdriven-chorus guitar rings throughout debut album Only Theatre Of Pain, his Sex Pistols-like chording driving “Spiritual Cramp” right into the slam pit.
Best heard on: Sleep In Safety
Formed by guitarist Paul B. Cutler—a genuine, bonafide virtuoso choosing to work within a punk format—45 Grave were the band who brought heavy metal into death rock. Blame it on the occasional creepy-crawl tempo and leaden sub-Iommi riffery. For the most part, however, they were Dario Argento’s idea of a punk band, cranking vintage Alice Cooper dynamics to Ramones-oid specs (right down to a faithful cover of “School’s Out” on debut album Sleep In Safety). It helped to have scene vets such as Bags/Gun Club bassist Rob Ritter and Germs drummer Don Bolles. But the secret weapon, outside of Cutler’s guitar genius? Singer Dinah Cancer, who looked like a porcelain doll sent from hell, possessor of a banshee shriek that can curdle milk at 50 paces.
Best heard on: Dance With Me
These Orange County psycho bruisers changed constantly, musically and in every way, down to singer Jack Grisham altering his name on every release. Refusing to ever get pinned down, they went from a debut LP filled with political broadsides set to the fastest Damned outtakes to hard-charging, dynamic punk seasoned morbidly on their debut album. As Ron Emory, the most underrated punk guitarist ever, overloaded a chorus pedal until it spilled, ringing overtones across the record’s surface, Grisham (working this time as “Alex Morgan”) snarled lyrics such as “I’d rather go out and fuck the dead!” This remains T.S.O.L.’s finest work.
Best heard on: Wet Warm Cling Film Red Velvet Crush
Of course, the founders of The Batcave were punk. Keyboardist Jonny Slut learned his instrument on the job via stickers telling him where every note was—the same way the Clash’s Paul Simonon learned bass. His prototype death-hawk hairstyle also made him the most photogenic band member, aside from Bowie-channeling singer Olli Wisdom. Which says a lot, in a bunch who look like the Munsters as a punk band, bathing in mascara, black leather and lace. But with guitarists Jon Klein and Kevin Mills supercharging old Mick Ronson and Marc Bolan riffs and Wisdom intoning his grisly lyrics in his post-Ziggy Stardust baritone, Specimen were goth-punk’s Nazarene, for a moment.
Alien Sex Fiend
Best heard on: The Singles 1983-1995
Centered since 1982 around frontman Nik Wade (aka Nik Fiend) and wife Christine (aka Mrs. Fiend), these cool ghouls sprang from The Batcave with a headful of electro-industrial noise, trippy dub sonics and corrosive, minimalist fuzz guitar. Imagine Suicide with a penchant for horror films and a guitarist who does little beyond slamming two chords through 12 distortion pedals. By the time 1986’s “I Walk The Line” single was issued, the influence of the Cramps was noticeable. Alien Sex Fiend continue to this day, still offering trippy, grisly acid/electro/punk straight from the cerebral cortex of Nik Fiend and Mrs. Fiend. Their last release? 2018’s Possessed.
Best heard on: Good Mourning
Since their fourth album, Good Mourning, dragged them to No. 20 on the Billboard 200 in 2003, Alkaline Trio have been enchanting the world’s youth with their charmingly grisly punk. They straddle the chasm between Black Album-era Damned and Green Day at their most expansive with minor-key melodies, Matt Skiba’s sonorous vocals and a general mood straight out of a mortuary. Despite the unearthly tang, cracking tunes such as “Emma” still ooze enough catchiness to require a shot of penicillin, as well as enough crunch and battering ram drive to satisfy the most boneheaded Ramones fan. Alkaline Trio rule hell.
Best heard on: The Art Of Drowning
Ukiah, California’s favorite Mohican sons have gone increasingly gothic since the entrance of guitarist Jade Puget ca. 1999’s Black Sails EP. From this point, they broadened their hardcore roots with a dark romanticism, possibly achieving peak synergy on the following year’s The Art Of Drowning. Their fifth LP reveled in such morbid touches as Davey Havok intoning, over “The Despair Factor”’s electro-drum-driven thrashcore, Winona Ryder’s Beetlejuice mantra, “My whole life is a dark room…one big, dark room.” Despite dipping tentacles into emo and alt pools over the years, AFI remain America’s most popular goth-punk practitioners.