Always look on the dark side of life - the Birmingham Goth scene

The Birmingham Post, UK/June 20, 2008

Goths have been in the news recently for the most terrible of reasons.

Last month a 20-year-old from Manchester spoke out after being beaten up by a gang who had mocked him for the way he looked.

Stephen Jones, a Goth, had piercings and tattoos and wore his hair tied back in a ponytail.

The case echoed the tragedy of Sophie Lancaster, also aged 20, who was murdered by a teenager in Lancashire. Sophie Lancaster

In the court case three months ago, it was said a gang had launched a vicious and unprovoked attack on Sophie and her boyfriend Robert Maltby, simply because they were dressed differently.

They were Goths.

Adrian Crawley, who organises the quarterly Gothic Balls at the Bartons Arms in Aston, Birmingham, says he has always had to make the safety of those who attend a priority.

"We make sure that nobody leaves on foot. It's just because people are dressed differently from those in the surrounding area. "You have to be careful because you are bound to attract attention," he says.

But what is a Goth - other than someone who sometimes attracts hostile attention through piercings, jewellery and wearing black?

In Birmingham, there are plenty that can answer that question for themselves.

The city had a thriving Goth scene in the 80s and 90s and while it has gone more underground now, there are still those who meet and tell their stories:

Joe Mancini

Name: Joe Mancini

Age: 21

Job: Musician

Favourite bands: Cradle of Filth, Noisuf-X, X-Fusion, Joe Satriani.

What is a goth?

It derives from a culture that is about the design of clothes, poetry, music and people and places. Some people might think of it as a small, underground obsession, but it's a big environment. For some Goths there's a religious element too.

For me it's about a different way of living. Daily life is casual and commercial. I hate that, but this is a different way. I'm drawn to it because it's more sensual. I'm attached to it. I'm totally in love with it.

What do you wear when you are going out?

I wear quite elaborate make-up. I have lots of spikes and full length claws. I'm quite evil looking. I like looking my best because that's when I feel my best. We're not seen as threat.

There are those we call newbies, who put on black lipstick and eyeliner. To us, they seem to have been into the image for just a couple of months at most. People who are into the fashion can always spot someone who's new because they're making too much effort. Their hearts might be in the right place, but they've still got a long way to go to actually understand what it's mainly all about.

Do you ever dress in non-Goth clothes?

Yes. When I was working in a hotel I used to wear a black suit and I'd tie my hair back in a band. It was all right. I like my black suits but I wouldn't want to dress like that for too long.

I used to go to Oasis in Corporation Street, Birmingham for my gear. I didn't really feel they had the things I wanted, so I came up with the idea of asking them to custom make them.

It was easy to do but a bit more expensive.

That's one of the things about being a Goth - the people are creative. When I'm dressed up, I feel like a different person altogether.

I try to portray the person that I am when I'm my best, even in a casual moment. By casual, I mean dark jeans, a plain dark t-shirt, maybe a dark jacket, rings and a couple of chains. It's not fully dressed up - but it's still trying to keep the essence of Goth - and me.

How did you become a Goth?

I've been into it since I was eight. It was the thrill of listening to the music. Music has always been a big part of my life and my main influences are black metal and electronic acid techno.

Black metal is really dark, psychotic, anti-Christian music. It's renowned as the most dark, underground music there is. When you first hear it, it can sound like a nasty screeching sound with really distorted guitars and screechy vocals. Its main attribute is subliminal messaging.

In Norway bands like Gorgoroth, Mayhem and Emperor burnt churches and decapitated animals for ritualistic purposes and stage acts. They were revolting against Norway's parliament, which wouldn't allow their religion - Satanism. When I hear it at gigs, I feel more alive, more energetic.

Is it possible to have a partner who isn't Goth?

It's possible and it's not uncommon. Most of my friends are Goths and if you've got that thing in common, you do feel a lot closer, it's more of an intimate connection but I wouldn't say it's like being part of a family.

Do you think you always will be a Goth?

I don't think I would ever stop. My kind of Goth is quite rare. It has taken me almost all my life to get into it to this level. It's such a deep and expansive thing, I think I will always be able to grow in it. I have devoted my life completely to it.

I worry that the scene will change, that the music will become more commercialised. I want to carry on being a Goth at the level I am to show that there is a side of life like this. I imagine having a family and setting a good example to my children, showing them that there is a different way of being creative. I imagine my children re-inventing what it means to be a Goth for themselves.


Name: Greta

Age: 34

Occupation: Media Studies lecturer.

Favourite bands: Rosetta Stone and Pop Will Eat Itself

What is a Goth?

That's difficult to answer. It's somebody in a specific subculture. It's a label and it's therefore difficult to say without stereotyping them. Essentially it's an expression of who I am.

Goths emerged in the late 70s out of two other subcultures. There were the Punks, with bands like the Sex Pistols, who were anarchical, anti-establishment. Then came the New Romantics, with bands like Spandeau Ballet, who were all into flamboyance and thrills. Goth was an amalgamation of the two things.

Goths tend to be quite artistic people, well-read. It's not some kind of high brow culture, but they do tend to be open-minded. Goths are a lot of different things. There is a side of Goths which is about depression, slashed wrists, reading Edgar Allan Poe and lots of vampires. I've never been into that side of it.

There's always an exception which proves the rule, but generally there's no aggression. Goths tend to be kind of inward in a thoughtful way, self-analytical and melancholy but not aggressive.

What do you wear when you go out?

The dressing is a very big part of it. My style has evolved. I tend to wear beautiful corsets. I wear collars, lots of bracelets. I've got a pierced nose and tongue and eight tattoos. I was one of the first person in Birmingham to have a white tattoo. It's round my collar bone.

Do you ever dress in non-Goth clothes?

No, not really, I don't get all dressed up every day, but I don't tend to wear anything that isn't black, red, purple or silver. When I got my first job more than ten years ago, I was an admin assistant in an old people's home. I went to the interview and the manager said: "Why should I give you job looking like that?" I said: "With the greatest respect, you haven't even given me the job, so could you stop speaking to me in such a condescending way?"

I got the job. My hair was red and pink and I had tattoos and piercings so I dyed my hair blonde, covered up my tattoos, took my rings out and wore no bracelets at all.

Even so people were sometimes a little shocked when they met me, as their perceptions after speaking to me on the phone were not necessarily bourne out when they met me. People did like me and respect me but I had to work a lot harder to earn that. But I just felt sadder and sadder and sadder. I felt as though I wasn't myself.

I ended up spending £150 on a wig. It looked good as it was really expensive, but I felt really, stupid. At least I could take it off as soon as I got home and let my hair down.

How did you become a Goth?

I started listening to the music when I was six. My big brother introduced me to bands like Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I think at first I was into it because he was into it, but then I started to go my own way. I went to the old Oasis in Corporation Street in Birmingham and started buying the clothes. I felt comfortable in the gear. I know it sounds strange, for someone who dresses up, but I don't like people looking at me. I was bullied when I was at school and I think wearing the clothes was a kind of barrier. People don't approach you because you look so different. It's a kind of security.

I would go to the Barrel Organ which was the Goth pub at the time and I made friends. The people were open, they seemed somehow more honest. They didn't judge you, well, they didn't seem to. I felt I could be me. Knowing them, I got more confidence. It's a kind of family. You go out and you see the same people and they become like brothers and sisters to you. The people are the Goth scene are the people I've grown up with. I have my own family but the scene is like an extended family.

Is it possible for a Goth to have a partner who isn't a Goth?

Of course. I know a lot of people who are alternative, or used to be, and have a partner who is not. If people are that shallow that they only see how someone looks, it's not a good thing.

I suppose alternative people tend to get together for the same reason other couple do - they share similar interests in music, mutual friends, they find the same kind of things attractive. But yes, there is more to people than a subculture alone - at least, I hope there is. The scene is welcoming and friendly to everybody.

Many of my friends have children, although I'll stick with my cats. As the scene gets older, you see a lot of young children at festivals and concerts with their parents, from babies to teenagers.

The scene is not just for a certain age group. As a lot of the music dates from the 1980s and early 1990s but there is a wide range of ages. Many of my friends are in their late 30s and 40s and still coming out.

Although the music has evolved and a lot of my contemporaries don't like the newer stuff, or don't really dress particularly alternatively anymore, or have had to cut their hair and remove piercings for work, they still like the music and the art. They are essentially still the people they were when they used to get more dressed up.

Do you think you always will be a Goth?

I will always try to be true to myself and the person I am. To me, looking like this is not even a conscious decision any more. It is who I am and I cannot see it ever changing.

I am pretty sure I won't be wearing a lot of the clothes I wear now in ten years, but who knows? I will always be me, and if people look at me and label me as a Goth, then yes, I guess I always will be.

I'm happy that I feel comfortable with the way I look, they way I live and the memories I have. I don't go out seven nights a week but I have wonderful memories, friends and experiences from the Goth scene and I'm really grateful for that.

Sheldon Bayley

Name: Sheldon Bayley

Age: 37

Job: Graphic designer

Favourite Bands: (Then) The Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission, The Cult, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Damned, The Cure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Echo and The Bunnymen.

(Now) As above but also most good "alternative" music including Muse, Editors, Kasabian, Killers, Radiohead, The White Stripes, The Arcade Fire, Doves, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, New Order, Smiths, Placebo.

What is a Goth?

A lifestyle choice, a more considered alternative to the mainstream. Punk was about rebelling, but in my opinion, that was all it was about.

Goth is less obvious, less overt. At times, it can be quite an insular and cerebral choice - something you can explore on your own, but it also bestows on you an identity that you can share with other like-minded individuals when you gather at concerts or in pubs and clubs.

As a sub-culture, it's also a bit of an enigma, in that "Goth" as a tag is often shunned by the bands. I suppose people don't like to be pigeon-holed, but it was always something I was comfortable with - a badge I wore with pride. Although the music can be celebratory and anthemic, it tends to also address the bleaker aspects of life. It has depth and breadth. Gothic music, clothes, art, films, literature and even architecture include many common principles.

What did you wear when you went out?

I had several "uniforms" that I would choose from: the default choice that involved very little effort was dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket, band t-shirt, tight black jeans and black pointed boots. The "full monty" would involve a frilly shirt, PVC trousers, pointed Cuban heel boots, gloves, loads of jewellery finished off with a cape or opera tails. Going out like this would also mean backcombing your hair and wearing full theatrical make-up.

Do you ever dress in non-Goth clothes?

Now I dress "normally" all the time now, although I still feel the need to wear black. I lost touch with the scene in around the mid 1990s, when the Barrel Organ in Digbeth, Birmingham, shut. I also stopped dressing up to that extent when I stopped going out. I moved on personally. I've been married and divorced and become a proud parent to a beautiful daughter, who's now six.

I can't quite put my finger on why I moved on, perhaps "Goth" was no longer as relevant to my life as it once was.

How did you become a Goth?

I first noticed Goths in the early eighties and they made an immediate impact on me. Initially it was the look that impressed me, it stood out like nothing I had seen before.

By the time I was 16, I had started to wear some of the clothes, read as much as I could about the scene and bought as many records as I could afford by bands like The Sisters of Mercy and The Mission. I felt a connection with the music that I had never experienced before and this led me to delve deeper into bands that had pre-dated them, like Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, but I was predominantly a loner with little contact with other Goths.

This all changed when a friend of mine suggested I visit The Barrel Organ. This changed everything, I finally made contact with like minded people and started on an exciting voyage of discovery. It was like one big family. This was an energetic and vibrant period of my life that I have never come close to matching.

Is it possible for a Goth to have a partner who isn't a Goth?

It's possible but it can be difficult for them to understand the lifestyle.

Do you think you will always be a Goth?

I still go to concerts by any of the bands that I loved in my heyday. Even though I don't consider myself to be a Goth any more, I still find this environment comfortable and I still listen to the music.

When Sophie Lancaster was murdered for being a Goth last year, I was overwhelmed with anger. I suppose that means that in my heart they still are family to me.`

Adrian Crawley

Name: Adrian Crawley

Age: 48

Job: Maintenance manager for a pub management company

Favourite bands: My favourite band of all time is Blood Sweat and Tears, but that's not a Goth band. Some Goth music is really good, but I have a very wide taste in music.

What is a Goth?

I'm sure being a Goth means different things to different people. For me, it's about feeling calm and at peace, whether I'm dressed up or not, being with my wife and family and being able to be myself. We don't strive for bigger and better things, we're happy with what we've got, and are not particularly extravagant people. But it's a broad spectrum. Some people take everything very seriously, but we're not like that at all. We like to get dressed up and have a good time.

What do you wear when you go out?

I usually wear black, black and white, black and purple or black and red. I often wear kilts with a sporran and big boots. I've got long black hair and a long plaited beard. I find it harder to dress Gothic in the summer: you can't always wear big coats and boots in the hot weather.

For formal wear, I like to wear a frock coat, frilly shirt, top hat and cane. In essence, the look is Victorian. Most Goth clothes can be traced back to the Victorian era.

Do you ever dress in non-Goth clothes?

Yes. When I'm at work going up ladders and doing maintenance on buildings I wear jeans and a t-shirt. I don't mind having to wear "normal" clothes sometimes. I'm very lucky to work in an environment where I can look different most of the time and nobody cares. The only other time I tone it down a bit, is when I'm picking up my eight-year-old son from school. I wouldn't want to embarrass him by wearing something really outrageous.

How did you become a Goth?

I got into the biker scene when I was about 15. I was brought up in rural Lincolnshire and got my first motorbike around 1976/77. There's a whole scene that went with biking that I embraced. When I first met my wife she always wore black, and enjoyed the biker scene, too.

But over the years we moved more towards everything Gothic. We loved the beautiful clothes. For some people the music is the way into being a Goth, but I come from a graphic design background, so I guess for me, it was the clothes more than the music that attracted me.

Is it possible for a Goth to have a partner who isn't a Goth?

Me and my wife can only think of two examples: one where she is a Goth and he's a biker, and another Goth friend whose partner won't join in at all. She goes to Whitby and other places with her friends but not her partner, which we feel is a shame. Apart from them everyone we know is either single or part of a Goth couple. So it is possible but difficult.

Do you think you will always be a Goth?

The only way I could imagine stopping would be if we to moved to somewhere like Cyprus, which we might do in a few years' time. I don't think we'll be passing it on to our children. We've got two daughters in their 20s and a son who's eight. One daughter was into the scene, but has moved onto other things; the other one dresses quite conservatively and has gone off travelling. Our son doesn't like going out much at all.

But as for me and the wife, I think we will always be Goths in one form or another. If anything we get more outrageous the older we get.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.