The Scene Ain’t Dead

I’ve been, deliberately, a little provocative – in many ways – in my subtitling of this blog.

“‘Dispatches from the heart of the goth scene’?  Who is this clown?  Is he blogging from the 1980s?”

Well, yeah, forgive me yawning.  It’s something all of us involved in musical subcultures hear over and over again.  Punk’s dead.  Metal’s dead.  Rave’s dead.  Two tone’s dead.  Northern soul’s dead.  Goth’s dead.  Undead undead.

A moment in the sun

All these subcultures have had their moment in the sun: a sudden and bewildering period where their musicians mimed on Top of the Pops and answered questions about their favourite colour to Smash Hits journalists[1], where strangely distorted caricatures of their clothes appeared in the windows of BHS and C&A, and where late-night talk shows on BBC2 had Germaine Greer, Melvin Bragg and John Peel earnestly discuss their relevance, roots, fashion, philosophy and future.

All About Eve failing to mime on Top of the Pops

Usually, they get their moment in the Sun too: a front-page spread screaming outrage, accompanied by a fiery editorial prophesying the end of civilisation.[2]  But that’s by the by.

These peaks of popularity never were truly representative of the subculture – the scene – which spawned them.  Inevitably, the hit singles came, at best, from the more accessible side of the scene; at worst, from manufactured acts hastily assembled or rebranded by the major labels.  And as the quality bar gets ever lower and the novelty wears off, the scene once again retreats into obscurity.

“This Scene”, proclaim the inkies, “is Dead”.

Of course, that scene never really consisted of the tens (or hundreds) of thousands who bought “The Final Countdown” or “Friday I’m in Love”, or who decked themselves out in tartan bondage trousers or pork pie hats from their local high street.  There never was a dedicated northern soul or goth club in every provincial town centre, open seven nights a week to a capacity crowd.[3]

Notable exceptions aside, a goth’s clubbing experience, even in this so-called heyday, was likely limited to coercing the local rock or indie night DJ to play the most recent Sisters and Cult singles back-to-back and then retreating from the dancefloor to the corner of the club, to snark with the other two local goths over some snakebite-and-blacks[4].

“I don’t exist when you don’t see me.” (The Sisters of Mercy)

So yeah, it’s easy to understand how those who were never a part of the scene would think it only existed when they could see it.  Typically for a period of around nine months, on Thursday nights, sometime between seven and half-past.

We can probably discount these people’s opinions on the matter.

And I’m taking my Death Cult bootleg with me

On the face of it, it’s a little harder to ignore those who were once active in the scene.  Their worldly-wise (and world-weary) proclamations that the scene they were once a part of is now dead are more visible than ever in this age of social media.

It’s a digital flounce.  And nobody flounces like a goth; except, perhaps, an ex-goth.

Some move on because of changing circumstances, usually quietly and with some dignity.

Others complain that the scene has changed from what they remember; that it ain’t what it used to be.  Of course it’s changed!  A scene that doesn’t evolve is a moribund scene.

“But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature” (John Wyndham, The Crysalids)

I understand the sadness when favourite bands, club nights, and drinking haunts fold.  I feel the same.  But new bands, clubs and bars open; new stuff happens, if one knows where to look, and can accept that they will be different to those that came before.

The revolution will be available on subscription TV only

But let’s put this into context.  Pubs have been disappearing at a rate of knots for years, and now even nightclubs are following this trend.  Barely a week goes by without a petition to save some provincial toilet venue that we all know at least from the back of an old t-shirt.  Record shops are closing across the country – the mainstream Virgins, Our Prices and HMVs as much as the indiesMusic sales remain in the doldrums, with the money increasingly going to streaming services and discounted CDs from the supermarkets, and only those artists at the top of the tree make any sort of living – particularly away from the mainstream.  Melody Maker and Sounds have folded, with the NME only barely struggling on in reduced circumstances as a free rag.

UK and western culture as a whole is moving away from the established norms of the 60s-00s; people are staying in more (when they’re not going to an occasional overpriced arena gig or festival, with entertainment provided by artists from their youth or the latest talent show face), and their exposure to music is far more passive than ever it was.  With all the world’s music seemingly freely available – one way or another – online, its perceived value becomes ever less.

But I digress.

Amidst all this, the scene thrives

So, we get to the point where I have to define my understanding of the “goth scene”.  Both words are loaded, and often avoided, and I don’t intend to write my “What is goth?” piece anytime soon.  But what is this “scene”?

Certainly, it’s not defined by numbers.  That’d be “market share”, and is of no relevance to us here.

A scene is active and engaged, not a group of passive consumers.

By any measure, the West Yorkshire scene is rich with musicians, promoters, poets, photographers, videographers, DJs, writers, crafters and artists.  From the Carpe Noctum DJ booth, I’ll see any number of musicians who’ve graced our stage – and some who are too successful for our stage – enjoying the night as paying customers; I’ll see professional photographers shooting the night’s bands, purely for the love of it; I’ll help Martin from the Expelaires set up one of video cameras for a multi-angle recording; I’ll swap flyers with other promoters from Infest, Goth City, Bunker 13 or Projekt Nemesis.  I’ll see some of our regulars in their latest homemade Carpe t-shirts and I’ll maybe pick up a new demo or release from somebody.

A scene defines itself by what its members have in common, what is core to them, and doesn’t allow itself to be divided by superficial differences.

I see people travelling to Leeds from across the country, month after month, rekindling old friendships and forging new ones.  I see them turn up early doors to check out the opening act they’ve never seen before, and I see them queuing at the merch stall after each set.  And I see them dance all night to songs old and new.

“Well they say that this is a place, but this is a scene” (Berlin Black)

A scene is mutually supportive.  Whether it’s me putting out a last-minute call for a snare drum (driven over from York!) or to replace a broken electric violin (two turned up!) … going out to a local gig and finding myself with a bunch of musicians alongside other regular gig-goers, all of us proudly wearing t-shirts bought or begged from one another … or seeing the amazing fundraising efforts for local charities close to our hearts … a scene is a community.

And I’m proud to be a part of it.

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[1] Puke, black, yellow, black and white, the colour of pies, black.
[2] Documenting the Sun’s relationship to civilisation is left as an exercise for the reader.
[3] Seriously – how many movies and TV shows have some luxuriously-appointed goth/ industrial/ fetish club, seemingly packed to the rafters every night with the freakish, the fabulous and the protagonist, somewhere in Hicksville USA?
[4] Snakebites-and-blacks?  Snakesbite-and-black?


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