‘The Black Chat’ – Abbo on the roots of Goth

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UK Decay frontman Steve ‘Abbo’ Abbott on Dylan Thomas, Beethoven and that interview. 

The recent release of the 5 CD boxset, Silhouettes and Statues, A Gothic Revolution 1978-86 has prompted a fresh analysis of what has become one of the most enduring subcultures over the past thirty years. With the standardised, almost corporate, image associated with the movement today, it is easy to overlook that the birth of the dark scene was actually forged in the white heat of the Punk and Post-Punk scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties. One of the main torch bearers of this scene, and certainly one of the most influential, was UK Decay and I recently caught up with frontman Abbo, whose interview with Steve Keaton for Sounds in February 1981 saw the term ‘Punk Gothique’ coined for the first time.

“I remember it very well” says Abbo, “I was in the square in Brussels doing the interview with Steve the morning after we’d played there. He was one of the very few journalists who ever gave us good reviews and I remember him saying “you seem to have your own audience, it’s not regular punk and it’s not Rock, it’s sort of in between and seems to be forming into a movement.” I said “we do recognise that people are coming, but we’re not trying to start a movement”.

“I remember we seemed to start getting asked questions about books rather than “do you like The Clash and The Pistols?” which we seemed to get asked all over Europe and America, and, as the conversation developed, Steve asked about our black clothes and I said “it’s Gothic, Gothic Rock” and we laughed about it and I thought no more about it until the interview came out in Sounds with that “Punk Gothique” headline. It really was that simple; just a nickname like you’d make up for your mate or something. Every band talks about not wanting to be defined by a movement but we just saw it as a joke. Other people took it a lot more seriously and then it developed which made us laugh as it was just a throwaway comment.”

The compilation album that has recently been released comprises five discs which indicates the wealth of material and broadness of the artists that can be considered. PIL may not spring to all minds as being Goth, but they sit there alongside such champions as Southern Death Cult, Sex Gang Children and of course UK Decay. The Luton pioneers pretty much represent the template of what would become Goth, particularly at the period of its inception. The 1981 album ‘For Madmen Only’ and 1982 EP, ‘Rising From The Dread’, are both object lessons in the dark art. Abbo’s unsettling lyrical themes, such as in Stagestruck, Unexpected Guest and the “scariest song of all time” Werewolf, sit atop the ferocious and mind-bogglingly complex drum patterns of the late Steve Harle and are laced by the magical mystery of Steve Spon’s enigmatic guitar riffs which are ofte imitated but never bettered.

 

“Our main contemporaries would probably be Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, alongside a lot of German bands” remembers Abbo. “Punk to many people was over. We’d come into the ‘80’s with that “power-pop, money-obsessed style. We were never fashion icons and never could be. We’d grown up in Luton without much of an education but in Farley Hill I was lucky to have a Drama and English teacher who got me into poetry and reading. When you’re the lyricist of a band you’re influenced by what you’re reading and I’d discovered the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde. I loved Wilde, he was such a wag and dealt with some pretty serious subjects with real humour.

I read Under Milk Wood at school and it has such amazing language in it. You wouldn’t automatically associate Dylan Thomas with Goth but look at his language; he says in a line what most of us couldn’t articulate in a book. Think of the line “the sloe black, slow black, crow black, fishing- boat-bobbing sea”. That is a really ‘Gothic’ image and his language is so dense and descriptive that I’d sit and read it over again. Then I acted in it. Before we started the band I did a summer as First Voice in Under Milk Wood so all that language was in my head. A lot of characters in Under Milk Wood have a lot to answer for – brilliantly formed characters that he describes in two or three lines and you feel like you know them. Of course, the whole idea was that you’d recognise these characters from your own town. Brilliant stuff.

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“Spending so much time on the road in the white transit van, I would read all day and play cassettes all night. We were entranced by the intricacy of what seemed to untrained ears as such simply beautiful music . The late Beethoven quarters and Bach’s Goldberg Variations had a melancholy and ‘darkness ‘ I’d never heard before , having listened to music made in our lifetimes .  So these influences were all in my mind too and I suppose what came out was a result of all that. There really were no subliminal messages in our songs and no big fashion statements or movements that we wanted to start.

“People used to ask us why we wore black clothes, as if there was some sort of significance in it. The truth is we wore them because we were young, a long way from home and not really familiar with washing machines. Black clothes were more practical as they were less likely to show the dirt. It’s as simple as that really. We were probably all honking but didn’t realise it.

There’s no denying however, that dress style became an increasingly important part of the Goth movement. Not so much a uniform as a means of expression or even escape for those who were part of the movement?

“ I did like the fun of it ll. We were hanging around gay clubs in Berlin and London, simply because they were better places to be. People were making a real effort with clothes and make-up, not in that affluent way of the Eighties were people wanted to look like landowners for some reason, but good, interesting cheap stuff. Heaven was the place to go, full of interesting people, that was their passion, it was a great place to be for the disenfranchised. For a lot of people, this was their big moment; they may have had very bland lives or nine to five jobs but this was their chance for self-expression and they seized it. I think that sometimes we’re guilty of using the term “Goth” as almost an ethnic term and assume you can just lump people together based on a perceived uniform. We never actually think of the person behind the appearance and we should do.

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“A lot of money goes into music and drama tuition but what is never really considered is the audience. The majority of people don’t play an instrument or have any acting skills; they may have some sort of personal issue that they can’t get beyond to express themselves and often the way they dress is their performance and how they define themselves in peer groups. It’s not something we look at with any kudos when really we should as they are doing their thing and turning performances into a real event. I just remember that we felt a lot of kinship with these people when we were on the road, many of whom were outsiders and probably facing discrimination like the victims of racism and homophobia that we were fighting for.”

The musical influences on the sound of Goth often tend to be stereotyped but those of the UK Decay frontman certainly can’t be.

“I can’t think of anything that Black Sabbath or The Stooges said that gave us any ideas. There was nothing about the individual or the issues people faced, t was all largely nonsense in the lyrics, much as I love Search and Destroy.

“We grew up with Bob Marley and Junior Murvin which is a whole different area of music. We didn’t want to be a reggae band but what we loved was the whole message in those songs – Get Up, Stand Up – what a message that is. There’s a reggae club in Ladbroke Grove where I did some DJ’ing a few weeks ago and the messages in the songs are just amazing, record after record, about all the things that need changing in the world.

“We took our message a lot from songs like that, and from stuff like The Temptations, Law of the Land and Stevie Wonder, Heaven Help Us All, great songs with a powerful message. They all had a positive attitude which we took as our inspiration. We grew up totally without prejudice and unable to understand why the Black Man was demonised or why there was prejudice towards homosexuality. These were attitudes we took on because to us it was like “what’s the problem, it’s all just people?” It was pretty radical at the time but sadly those sort of attitudes are still with us. There’s prejudice worldwide against people who just have their own sexual preference and it’s such a small part of life but it almost seems to define you.

 

So looking back on that period, and particularly the wide range of artists captured on the compilation album, is there even a definable genre or movement that we can identify as Goth?

“Yes definitely, but the movement is the fans. The bands moved in their own direction but it’s the fans that define it. It’s like a football club, the manager comes and goes but the fans remain as the constant, they are what matter. It’s the same with music, les so now but in that time I think was a tribalism and the tribe defined the name, not the bands. I don’t think any band set out intentionally to fit into a “Goth identity” as it didn’t exist. We all knew each other in the bands but it was very competitive between us. We all begrudged each other any credit in the developing movement but it was a shared thing with the same venues and promoters.

 

I think it’s a positive thing, even though I still get some good natured abuse about it, “bloody Goth” etc. It’s like people think they can look down on you and it’s some sort of slur but actually I’m very proud of it. “

It’s clear from speaking to Abbo that Goth is a vital part of culture, with roots wider than many would think and an influence that is probably still unfolding. It is a movement that is very much defined by those who are part of it, led by the crowd not leading them; an enduring cultural phenomenon.

 

Silhouettes and Statues is available now on Cherry Red Records.

Dave Jennings is on Twitter @blackfoxwrexham

Studio photo credit Pirate Hatter

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