What Is Gothic Rock?

Mark Wollacott

Gothic rock is a genre of music that developed in the late 1970s to become an important and distinct style; it is known its dark sounds and themes. The genre has had a large influence on popular culture, leading to gothic metal, the gothic styles of clothing, and a broad gothic subculture. Famous proponents of Gothic rock include Cocteau Twins, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division.

Both punk rock and Gothic rock can trace their origins to the 1970s.
Both punk rock and Gothic rock can trace their origins to the 1970s.

Despite its name, the genre of gothic rock did not develop from the Goth tribes of the fifth century. Similarly it is not related to medieval gothic architecture or the gothic romances that Jane Austen so ridiculed. While the term was used sparingly during the 1970s to describe a few musicians, the actual genesis lay in the decline of British punk. British producer Martin Hannett first used the term to describe Joy Division in 1979.

The genesis of gothic rock lay in the decline of British punk.
The genesis of gothic rock lay in the decline of British punk.

By the following year, the term was being more widely applied to various bands. The genre was defined by the debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” by the British band Bauhaus, in 1979. This early incarnation of the music developed through the early 1980s, when the genre spread to America, developing quickly and spawning many of the bands that would later become the mainstays of the genre.

During the 1980s, the original introspective and post-punk ideals of bands such as the Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees died out. They were, however, replaced by a number of mutated forms. These included everything from pop offerings in Britain to heavier sounds from groups like the Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim in America.

The heavier end of gothic rock is noted for its darker themes and the mixture of soulful female vocals with harsh male vocals. Proponents of this kind of music include Sins of Thy Beloved and Tristania. The genre uses harder and faster music characterized by somber synthesizer atmospherics. Gothic rock’s musings have often seen it merge into and mix with metal genres such as black and doom metal. It has also mixed with genres as diverse as darkwave and industrial music.

While punk often has a stripped down, raw sound, gothic rock took glam rock’s love of makeup and on-stage drama to design lavish shows. Gothic rock also diverges from punk in its thematic focus. Whereas punk is anti-establishment and hedonistic, gothic rock takes a more existential or introspective view of the world. The genre began by exploring inner issues, problems, and feelings, but grew to take on elements associated with gothic romance and horror as well.

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Discussion Comments


Seems like I had a friend in college who really liked Bauhaus. I ran across a group called Toy-Box Trio. I don't know that they were goth so much as they were very, very different, but different is not a bad thing.

I have a cousin who likes My Chemical Romance, which at least is an interesting name. I'm more of a 70s singer/songwriter fan myself, but I appreciate the art.


Siouxsie and the Banshees is about as far into goth rock as I can go. I have heard some interesting things from a couple of other groups, like Rasputina, but overall, I'm afraid, it's not really my thing. However, I do admire the level of creativity a lot of gothic rock reaches. Certainly, it's better than 90 percent of the shiny, mindless, overproduced gack on the market today.

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