by Trevor K. McNeil
Goth music really came into form in the late-1970's. Bauhaus (originally Bauhaus 1919) had formed, prominent acts such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division were already making waves and a three-year-old combo previously known as The Easy Cure dropped the 'Easy' and released their debut album Boys Don't Cry (Three Imaginary Boys in the U.K.). It was an auspicious start but as with all things musical, this beginning had its roots reaching back over a decade before. Just as grunge sprang up in part from the Pixies and there could not have been a punk movement without the Stooges, The MC5 or The New York Dolls, the Goth sound has its own set of proto progenitors.
A British Invasion band with traces of the music that would become Goth is the Fab Four. Despite their wholesome, slightly goofy public image, the Beatles could have a bit of a dark side. This tip towards the morbid is most clearly evident in the "A Day in the Life". As the final song on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), it has a morbidly ironic execution, telling the story of someone dying in a car crash, one of the first things the narrator saying being "I could not help but laugh" upon hearing about it. The song also features a thunderous piano part at the end that sounds like it could well be a precursor to the keyboard/synthesizer parts utilized by bands such as Bauhaus and The Cure.
As one of the first bands to break out of the typical '60's rock sound both musically and in terms of style, the Velvet Underground were also one of the first bands, along with The Doors, to incorporate darker melodies into their sound- if not as a permanent feature then at least one that was used often. This is most strongly demonstrated on the song "Venus In Furs" (from their debut album, which came out a few months before Pepper), though the ones with the most similarity to what would become goth are "All Tomorrow's Parties" at least in terms of instrumentation, leaving aside the abysmal "vocals" groaned out by Nico and the glum abyss of "Heroin." In addition to the music, there is reason to think that Velvet's front man Lou Reed likely inspired the look of some famous goth practitioners, Sisters of Mercy front-man Andrew Eldritch in particular.
At about this time, Iron Butterfly were unleashing the mammoth epic, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" from the album of the same name released in 1968. At 17 minutes and 3 seconds in its full version, it was the only song on side-B of the original vinyl release. While not often thought of in the same context as the likes of Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus, the song, particularly at the beginning, has many of the hallmarks that would come to be associated with the genre, some of the exact instrumentation being approximated due to cruder technology, such as the electric organ, later replaced by the synthesizer.
The early seventies would see the release of Pink Floyd's Meddle, which has a sound distinct from later, better known Floyd albums such as Dark Side of the Moon (which itself has some goth leanings) and The Wall. With a driving, almost aggressive bass-line, other-worldly synthesizer effects and wavering guitar sound, I still half expect Peter Murphy to start singing at anytime, despite the album being mostly instrumental.
Though mostly thought of as an '80's band because their first album was not released until 1977, Suicide was formed in 1970, with their notoriously bleated debut actually being recorded in 1972 and is widely regarded as one of the most influential underground bands ever. Perhaps the closest relative to contemporary goth, their electro-punk sound consisting of vocals, synthesizer and drum machines is known to have influenced acts as diverse as Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, Steve Albini of Big Black and accordionist Angel Corpus Christ who has made something of a career of covering Goth, Punk and metal bands.
PROTO-GOTH: AN EXTENDED PLAYLIST
Compiled by Jason Gross, Eric Kauz and David Welch
Notes by JG; special thanks to Robin Cook & Reuben Cervera
But wait, there's more... Collecting every sad, depressed song out there is a massive encyclopedia-length project but what we're interested in here is extreme, pathological misery, gruesome, blood-curdling tales, the bleakest of outlooks or ideally some combination of all of these which would later somehow manifest itself as what we know and love as 'goth.' Our other qualifier was chronological- the song or album had to come before Bauhaus' landmark 1979 debut single, which basically kicked off the whole genre.
Granted that the assembled performers below usually didn't wear black fingernail polish and moan about dead spirits always (though some of them actually did) but the spirit is there. Even with seventy-plus selections, we've definitely missed many goodies (not to mention classical, world music) and we'd like to hear about which ones you would have included here. Note that we purposely missed out on the many sappy '70's ballads that might qualify- if you must, you can get a whiff of some of those drippy dirges from that decade right here.
Two interesting trends to note here. First off, a lot of the album tracks come from debut records- ah, the young overly sensitive and dramatic years... Also, many other songs are title tracks, maybe meaning that the artists probably thought enough of them to make them into a major statements (or they couldn't think of another title).
And this really is a playlist so you use Spotify to listen and get your gloom on below.
- The Animals "House of the Rising Sun" (1964)
Along with Eric Burdon's booming baritone and the wretched tale, Alan Price's church organ gives birth to Ray Manzarek.
- Big Brother and the Holding Company "Summertime" from Cheap Thrills (1968)
Already a jazz standard by the time that Janis and the boys recorded it at a slow, menacing pace for their commercial break-through, it's not just her unearthly wail that makes it so unsettling but also the crazed string-bending, which stars out heavy and weighed-down then turns into a tangle of screams later, only to be cut off dead suddenly as if they'd been strangled or put out of their misery to clear the way before Miss Janis leaves off with a soul-stirring cry at the end.
- Big Star "Big Black Car," "Kangaroo," "Holocaust" from Sister Lovers (1974, released 1978)
AKA the 'hide the knives' album that Alex and friends were forced to give up on after it got too weird for all involved. And for LX, that's saying a lot.
- Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (1970)
Before his years as a reality star and pop culture joke, Ozzy and friends really did sound menacing.
- Bobby Bland "St James Infirmary" (1961)
Just about any version of this chilling story would suffice but Bland in particular internalizes it and expresses every bit of pain he finds in the words here.
- Blondie "Fade Away and Radiate" from Parallel Lines (1978)
Though they dabbled with the apocalypse and monsters before, here was a sci-fi stroke, complete with unnerving Fripp guitar.
- Bloodrock "D.O.A." (1970)
Starting with this organ-as-ambulance and the singer almost dead, recounting every juicy, morose detail of his last moments alive.
- Doc Boggs "Pretty Polly" (1927 & 1964)
A trad English ballad transformed in Appalachian mining country where Boggs actually softens the story a bit. Here, the fair maiden is only taken out to the woods by her lover to be killed and thrown into a already-dug grave, while the original version features a slain pregnant lass, a ghost and madness. Still, Boggs' lonesome voice and solemn banjo make the tale vivid and macabre enough as it is.
- David Bowie Low (1977)
Recorded in midst of his battle against his addiction, the Thin White Duke scooped up his songs rejected from his last film and recycled them for an album that described how he was feeling, especially on the atmospheric, dreary second side where Eno takes up as a muse for Bowie, who had abandoned his dandy glam persona by then.
- Wayne Cochran "Last Kiss" (1961)
One of the best 'teen tragedy' songs of the era, starting with a tire screech and featuring an indelible melody, a final embrace before his girl dies and a wish that they can meet up again in the afterlife (later covered by Pearl Jam) .
- Ray Charles "Drown In My Own Tears" (1956)
Such incredible fatalism from the Genius, heard in his heartbreaking voice and sporting a deliciously morbid title, though many of his late '50's/early '60's hits would fit here too ("Lonely Avenue," "Born To Lose," "Busted").
- Leonard Cohen "Sisters of Mercy" from Songs From A Room (1967)
Pretty much all of this nice Jewish Canadian poet's catalog was goth before it's time (though the later-day remnants of his voice makes for especially creepy listening) but this gets bonus points for getting turned into the name of a goth band itself.
- Karen Dalton "Katie Cruel" from In My Own Time (1971)
With her broken voice and a distant, unearthly fiddle, Dalton chillingly spins this hopeless tale of regret,
- Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants "The Man I Love" (Take 2) from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1959)
In a seminal mid-50's session with Monk, despite the peppy tempo pick-up after a few minutes, the sadness that Davis conveys at the start with his horn is barrel-bottom. This sound is especially poignant as it's mostly absent from the second, happier section, and just when you think there's some hope, the tunes slows back to a crawl at the end.
- Skeeter Davis "End of the World" (1962)
The finish of a relationship poised as the apocalypse, striking such a universal note that it became one of the few records to hit on the country, pop and R&B charts.
- Dr. John "Danse Fambeaux" from Gris Gris (1968)
'Basically, the whole record is a terror fest' says PSF writer Eric Kauz and sure enough, this sounds like a voodoo ritual where you're about to get sacrificed to some horned God.
- Bob Dylan "Gates of Eden" from Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Later that year, "Ballad of A Thin Man" and "Desolation Row" would provide their share of despair but this solo acoustic phantasmagoric journey beats them both out, finding only hopelessly and suffering in one bizarre, Felliniesque scene after another.
- Ramblin' Jack Elliot "1913 Massacre" (1960)
A Woody Guthrie ballad about a working man's tragedy in Italy with dozens of unnecessary deaths, Elliot's version makes the tale even more vivid with his voice drawing out the words to an appropriately agonizing length.
- Eno "In Dark Trees" from Another Green World (1975)
Maybe the spooky "Blank Frank" belongs here too but this track is even eerier, with no need for words to create the chilling, mechanized mood.
- Funkadelic "Maggot Brain" from Maggot Brain (1971)
Eddie Hazel doesn't so much play his guitar as much as he lets it cry out in pain for a stunning ten minutes. Aas a bonus, Uncle George reported told him to imagine that his mother died when he was playing this.
- Screamin' Jay Hawkins "I Put a Spell on You" (1956)
The ominous thud of his band (who had to get drunk to play) and SJH's howls make for a terrifying call of love, which apprently worked as Hawkins' girl that we has trying to woo with this tune really did return.
- Billie Holliday Lady In Satin (1958)
"Strange Fruit" belongs here too but from the haunting, desolate "I'm A Fool To Want You" to the stunning, masochistic "I'll Be Around," Lady Day sustained an extended mood here beyond depression that only Janis would take up the mantle for years later.
- Skip James "Devil Got My Woman" (1931)
See the movie Ghost World for a wonderful scene that shows the morbid power of this song.
- Jaynettes "Sally Go 'Round the Roses" (1963)
A heartbreaking, reverb-drenched R&B tale of a girl who's can't show her face in town because she doesn't want to see her ex there with someone else and then takes solace in flowers 'cause "roses they can't hurt you" and "they won't tell your secret" (whatever that may be) and ultimately, the singers advise her just to let it all out have a good long cry.
- Elton John: "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" from Goodbye Yellow Bridge Road (1973)
Starting out with stately, somber keyboards (supposedly what John imagined for his own interment), as upbeat and rockin' as the second half gets, Bernie Taupin's words about the end of a band and the end of relationship and lines like "Everything about this house/Was born to grow and die" isn't exactly upbeat.
- George Jones "When The Grass Grows Over Me" (1968)
Even with a female chorus to soften the tale, Ol' Possum tells his ex-love how he's vowed to suck it up and not be miserable over their break-up but by the end of the first verse, he's already confessing that it'll never happen, telling in morbid detail how she'll stand over his final resting place and he'll still be heart-broken there (compare to the later "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the ultimate beyond-the-grave love affair).
- Robert Johnson "Hell Hound On My Trail" (1937)
When detractors claimed that the blues was 'the devil's music,' this is exactly what they were talking about and were right to fear.
- Dick Justice "Henry Lee" (1932)
A gruesome folkie tale of love and murder with a bizarre twist of tenderness, later appropriately covered by Nick Cave.
- B.B. King "How Blue Can You Get?" from Live at the Regal (1965)
This version is almost triumphant as the crowd cheers each bit of B.B.'s misery but in a strange way, it's also what they call in the news business 'disaster porn' (which also sums up goth in some ways).
- The Kinks "Sunny Afternoon" (1966)
Even with its jaunty music hall tune, the gloomy chorus, the plunking guitar that wanders off at the end and especially the misery-drenched lyrics about losing everything and drowning it in beer are straight from the soul of honky-tonk. And somehow, it became a hit not only in the UK but also in the States.
- Lead Belly "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (1944)
Pleading and demanding, full of despair and jealousy, the singer imagines his girl's locale as "where the cold wind blows" and "where the sun don't ever shine," which would later find a voice in Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album as one of Kurt Cobain's last statements.
- Peggy Lee "Is That All There Is" (1969)
The ultimate torch song, where nothing in life (childhood home on fire, love affairs, the circus) is worth a shit and even death seems like a let-down, all of which earned Lee a Grammy, with help from none other than (arranger) Randy Newman.
- Left Banke "Walk Away Renee" (1966)
Weepy strings and an ethereal, inconsolable voice over a melodramatic goodbye to a lost love and a sobbing flute straight outta "California Dreamin'."
- Lotte Lenya "Pirate Jenny" (1955)
Decades before "Take This Job and Shove It," there was this squalid tale of working class disgust and misery that even Johnny Paycheck couldn't get across.
- Love "Signed D.C." from Love (1965)
Such a stirring, fatal-sounding tribute that you're amazed to find out that the subject (the band's original drummer) was actually still alive when this song came out.
- Bascom Lunsford "The Death of Queen Jane" (1935?)
From the 'Minstrel of the Appalachians' (who was also a New Deal Democrat), a bleak tale that leaves you wondering if he performed it for King George VI, who he entertained at the Oval Office. As much as the doctors try and Jane grieves, 'the red rose of England shall flourish no more.'
- Mamas and Papas "California Dreamin'" (1965)
Despite the layers of sweet harmonies, the dreary mood comes in the form of the lonely guitar intro, the fall leaves, dropping to your knees in church and the saddest little flute solo.
- Blind Willie McTell "Dying Gambler" (1935)
The story starts with a guy who's left with no friends and no way to pray. The only person around tells him that he's hell bound as he looks back at his life full of mistakes, all made even sadder by McTell's crying guitar slides.
- Joni Mitchell Blue (1971)
Completed on the heels of two painful separations, it's one of the ultimate break-up albums, starting out in the doldrums from the get-go, with JM singing with a gorgeous ache "do you see how you hurt me baby/so I hurt you too/then we both get so blue."
- Moby Grape "Lazy Me" from Moby Grape (1967)
After their bassist keeps asking cosmic-minded questions and finds no answers, the group keeps wearily chiming in 'I'll just lay here and decay here.'
- Modern Lovers "Hospital" from The Modern Lovers (1972, released 1976)
Sweet and touching, alternating between brief energy bursts and organ-drenched catatonia, Jojo pledges himself to his wrecked love.
- Thelonious Monk "'Round Midnight" (1951)
One of the ultimate jazz ballads, it's infinitely sublime, but it's also incredibly somber.
- Van Morrison "T.B. Sheets" from Blowin' Your Mind! (1967)
A ten-minute blues jam where a dying girl is chided for crying and the narrator starts to lose his mind in a stench-filled room that seems to keep getting smaller. As such, you'd almost believe that story that Van broke down after recording this.
- Randy Newman "God's Song" from Sail Away (1972)
From a guy who's mostly known now for scoring kiddie films, he was once the master of depravity tunes disguised as wise-ass singer-songwriter craft or vice versa and this was the bleakest of all of his work. Jehovah has a good laugh at our expense for worshipping the likes of a guy like him who thinks nothing of unleashing all kinds of horrors on all of us.
- Nico The Marble Index (1969)
With her somehow soothing, monotone incantation and sawing harmonium over John Cale's stark, unsettling settings, the German chanteuse sounds like she's ready to score a John Carpenter flick if not a Bergman film.
- Roy Orbison "Only The Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)" (1959)
His whole catalog of early hits could just as well be here with that wonderful freak-of-nature operatic voice and glum subject matter but this is probably the most despondent of all of his songs.
- Dolly Parton "Down From Dover" from The Fairest of Them All (1969)
Just in case you thought she was all sunny, here's her pitiful story of a rejected woman waiting for a love that never comes and their love child that dies at birth
- Pentangle "Cruel Sister" from Cruel Sister (1970)
Version #4,224 of the morbid folk classic "Twa Sisters", chronicling for over seven minutes some extreme sibling rivalry. A jealous girl drowns her pleading sis who then gets turned into a harp that goes on to haunt her, with each verse ending with the band sweetly harmonizing "Fa la la la la la la la la."
- Pere Ubu "My Dark Ages (I Don't Get Around)" (1976)
Industrial noise and malaise spewed from the heart of the Midwest, the aural equivalent of the choking factory smoke that they lived around.
- Elvis Presley "Blue Moon" (1956)
Sure, there's "Heartbreak Hotel" ("I get so lonely I could die") but the stark mood here is as stunning as the King's ghostly croon.
- Lou Reed Berlin (1973)
So down and out that it should probably only be prescribed in small doses, this extended tale of a couple enduring drugs, lurid sex and violence might be as close to the abyss as Reed skirted after the Velvets and before The Blue Mask.
- Jody Reynolds "Endless Sleep" (1958)
The Cheers ("Black Denim Trousers") beat him to the '50's teen tragedy craze but how could you match a harrowing (and somehow gentle) line like this: "I heard a voice/crying from the deep/'Come join me baby in my endless sleep'"?
- Marty Robbins "El Paso" (1959)
A Western movie in miniature but also noir in spirit, ending with the narrator's death (sorry for the spoiler).
- Jimmie Rodgers "T.B. Blues" (1931)
An autobiographical sketch from the daddy of country music where he painfully jokes about how his long-standing suffering. His body rattles like a train and he can't eat or sleep and predicts that it'll ultimately beat him as he imagines his own death (the disease would kill him two years later).
- Rolling Stones "Paint It, Black" (1966)
Though Exile On Main Street, "No Expectations" and "Sister Morphine" qualify, this elegant bit of gloom features Brian Jones' exotic sitar riff, Mick's chillingly-calm verses and the boys' collective moaning near the end of it, adding up to as desolate a place as these art-school slackers visited in their heydey.
- Roxy Music "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" from For Your Pleasure (1973)
Bryan Ferry's obsessive romantic impulses lead him to an 'inflatable... disposable' love and to wonder "is there a heaven?" over some of the most ominous music that the band came up with, especially when they disappear and eventually reappear in a time-warped wind tunnel.
- Tom Rush "The Circle Game" from The Circle Game (1968)
Getting old has rarely sounded so miserable as here: "We're captive on the carousel of time/We can't return we can only look behind."
- Shangri-Las "Past, Present & Future" (1966)
Without the benefit of a road-side crash, even grimmer fatalism from the originators of "Leader of the Pack," with a hook cribbed from Ludwig Van.
- Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958)
A pre-Pepper concept album aimed at the lovelorn, gorgeously plumbing the depths of some melancholy Johnny Mercer classics.
- Sly and the Family Stone "Thank You For Talkin' To Me, Africa" from There's A Riot Goin' On (1971)
Taking one of his funkiest hits and letting the music hear the words so that it crawls along through a deadly stupor.
- Patti Smith "Elegie" from Horses (1975)
The spooky end piece of her debut, with an appropriate quote from (and tribute to) Hendrix.
- Bruce Springsteen "Darkness at the Edge of Town" from Darkness At the Edge of Town (1978)
For a guy who turned fatalism into an art form, this is one of his bleakest statements, about something untouchable but worth finding anyway.
- Steely Dan "Charlie Freak" from Pretzel Logic (1974)
"Doctor Wu" and "Dirty Work" come close but this tale of the ultimate loser is where their grim words are actually matched by grim music instead of the 'yacht rock' that get lumped in with, even though the morbid tale actually ends with a bit of tenderness, two verses after Charlie croaks 'in fifteen ways.'
- Stooges "It Will Fall" from from The Stooges (1969)
"Ann" would just as well fit here but this ten minute drone-and-chant fest sounds like a cult ritual, with John Cale's stinging viola connecting his work to the Velvet's debut.
- Soft Machine "Why Are We Sleeping" from The Soft Machine (1968)
In the beginning, before their jazzy side took over, Kevin Ayers' ghostly voice narrates this surreal nightmare, framed by a dour organ and the monk-like chorus.
- Taking Heads "Take Me To the River" (1978)
The paranoid Fear Of Music is their real goth moment but it's a little late for this survey. Luckily, we can easily substitute it with this soul cover, stretched out to a painful, deliberate pace and featuring David Byrne's panic-filled howls that show aching in the song that even Al Green didn't completely reveal in the original.
- Teddy Bears "To Know Him Is To Love Him"(1958)
Included not just because it's about a dead guy (the title is the inscription on Phil Spector's dad's gravestone, which technically make this necrophilia) but also because singer Annette Kleinbard sounds like she'll never really consummate her love with her man.
- Richard Thompson "Calvary Cross" from (guitar, vocal) (1976)
Originally heard on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, this 13-minute-plus live version features a harrowing extended guitar solo that adds poignancy to already dark lines like "I'll be your light 'till doomsday" and "everything you do/you do for me." It's all the more vivid when you consider the Christian imagery coming from a Sufi-Muslim.
- Geeshy Wiley "Last Kind Word Blues" (1930)
Wiley's a genuine mystery with no known photos of her and life details that are sketchy at best, making her a ghostly presence of sorts. Here she morbidly obsesses about what's to be done with her carcass: "I want you to leave my body/Where the buzzards can eat my whole (me whole?)"
- Hank Williams "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (1949)
So pitiful that even the moon is having a good weep along with assorted birds, a train and a star, framed perfected by Don Helms' sullen steel guitar moans weeping along in sympathy.
- Wire Chairs Missing (1978)
Their follow-up album was 'artier' but also sad, despondent, elliptical, morbid and haunted, which pretty much gives you the whole goth outlook in one place (see "Practice Makes Perfect," "Marooned," "Being Sucked In Again," "I Feel Mysterious Today," "Used To").
- Robert Wyatt "Alifib" from Rock Bottom (1974)
Featuring glacial keyboards that keep threatening to wander away and shallow breathing in the background, Wyatt's lovely, cracked voice doesn't even appear until after about four minutes in, near the end of the song almost as if it's too timid to intrude in on the downcast proceedings.
- The Yardbirds "Turn Into Earth" from Roger the Engineer (1966)
Hidden on side two, its funeral march music, monk-chanting backing vocals and talk of dead leaves make it wonderfully glum.
- Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" from Tonight's The Night (1975)
Toasting the spirits of two OD'd friends, Neil desperately tries to exercise those demons, starting and ending the album of the same name with the same song twice (just in case you didn't get the point), much the same way he'd later do with Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom but sounding nowhere as doom-bound as he did here.
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