Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Well well well! We have now come to that point. The final stop in our meandering journey through the various genres and musical artists that serve as inspiration to the working artists here in the underground.
But first off, let me wish everyone a merry Xmas from everyone here at Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles. I hope everyone is staying safe and enjoying this day as healthy as they can. I'm sure most everyone has a myriad of things going on today that the last thing on their mind is "hmm, I wonder what that crazy ass apprentice over at Speakeasy has in store this week in his ramblings." For those of you who are here; welcome. Strap in. It's gonna be a wierd ride with many curves and speed bumps.
To say that music is one of the most important factors in my life would be a gross understatement. Music not only manages to inspire and invigorate, but for a lot of us on the fringes of the weirder side of the underground, music is defining. It is a lifestyle and a way of being. More than just something to enjoy in the background but driving forces. Movements.
Over the past three weeks, I have tried to limit to three artists or albums per Speakeasy artist just to keep the reader from going cross-eyed trying to keep up but this week, I fear this may be futile. I beg your indulgence and please bear with me here as I have always intended on writing something like this.
Limiting that which goes into creating the Sweeve to three genres, let alone three artists or bands, is akin to asking someone to list only three favorite blood cells. To say my tastes are eclectic is putting it mildly. Were you to get in my car it would be just as likely to hear Michael Jackson as it would be to hear some esoteric Norwegian Black Metal album that was recorded on an answering machine. Steadfast staples like Morrissey, Guns 'n' Roses, Megadeth, the Smashing Pumpkins are all just as omnipresent as the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. But for the sake of sanity, both yours and mine, I will try to keep it brief and enjoyable. Rather than just rattle off a list of "here's stuff to put on your next spotify playlist" let us focus on movements.
Let us start off with what started everything in my life. Where everything went......well, it certainly went. One look at the picture on the side here at a 14 year old Sweeverton betrays right away that this obnoxious kid was nothin but a damn punk. Through and through. I don't think I need to go into controversial and contended history of the punk movement, let us just say that it spawned as an act of rebellion. Be it against the establishment, authority, social norms, class, whatever. It was rebellion. This spoke to me as an adolescent. The anger. The aggression. The sound and fury. It was through punk that this skateboarding weirdo nerd found something other than Star Trek to feel a sense of belonging. Sure at the time I had a deep passion for Metal, but it never felt like something I was a part of. Where most see a nihilistic and deadbeat subculture in Punk (certainly bands like the Sex Pistols with lyrics like "No Future" or the Ramones singing about huffing glue did little to abate this perception) it was through punk that I found a higher calling in political awareness. Were it not for out-spoken leftist bands like Crass or the Dead Kennedys, I never would have had my political awakening; something that to this day is a driving force in my daily life.
To the novice listener, Crass sounds just like their name. Driving, almost primal beats, buzzing guitars with a rhythmic chanting of thick, almost indecipherable, cockney accents. But Crass was far more than a band. In a materialistic era in a nihilistic scene, they spoke of geopolitics, peace, freedom, radical feminism and women's rights, animal rights, self determination. Crass wasn't just a band but an artist collective that changed the face of punk forever. Where the Sex Pistols said "Anarchy in the UK" as a snub to sociatal norms and an expression of angst, Crass sought a true form of cooperative Anarchy through peace, bringing the ideology more into the mainstream as a potential viable economic system since the Spanish revolution.
A few years later, over the Atlantic and across the entire continent, in San Francisco, we have an equally important band in the movement; the Dead Kennedys. The Dead Kennedys brought just as much wit as they did intelligence in exploring Reagan-era politics. Defined by a fast, almost surf-influenced sound, what truly sets the Dead Kennedys apart are the vocals of front-man Jello Biafra. Like a tenor opera singer on speed, the Colorado-born Biafra bellows sardonic social commentary and satire as profound as it can be off-putting. Certainly not for everyone, but today the Dead Kennedys have since gained legitimate recognition and critical praise that few other bands of the genre can stake claim to.
Once out of the angsty days of teenage rebellion, Punk began to find new ways to evolve and change. In fact, one can easily argue Punk died out as soon as it became more of a fashion statement than a movement for change, but with that death came other, more mature genres. And much like the genre itself, the Punk years of Sweeve died out almost as intensely as that initial spark. By late adolescence, the need for a more interesting, thought provoking sound than the same driving beats covered with the same power chords was more and more prevailing.
This same feeling in the late 1970s was common among many who quickly became disillusioned with the commodified and commercialized punk rock scene. New, darker sounds started to echo in the underground of the UK. Known formerly to many as "
post-punk," this emerging genre would come to be given a title that is both shunned and embraced by its own members:
Goth is, again, more of a movement than a sound. Bands under the "goth" moniker are wildly varied, making it difficult to convey truly what the movement itself is now, how it differs from what the general population thinks of it and how it differs from what it once was. Naturally many associate the genre with the morbid, the morose, the melancholy and the depressing. And while from the outside, this can seem a reasonable assessment of a bunch of black-clad people posing in cemeteries, the origins actually come from humor and joy. Finding joy in the macabre and morose, humor in the darkness. The origins of the gothic movement are as tongue-in-cheek as they are serious. Over the years, this spark has faded and gotten lost in translation, making the term "goth" almost a parody of itself. A hollow caricature as empty as a tin Marilyn Manson lunchbox. For this reason, the term is almost meaningless in the modern era. The nuance is lost, the humor is ignored and the satire abandoned. To quote The Smiths "that joke isnt funny anymore." With that said, the era of 1980s post-punk, prot-goth, firstwave, traditional, "gothic" music has been and remains the most important source of artistic inspiration and joy in the life of Sweeve.
Rather than go down a meandering timeline of its post-punk origins in bands like Joy Division, The Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees, I think it would be better to focus on what I view as not only the most quintessential bands/albums of the genre, but also the most beautiful albums ever written.
We start with what many rightfully credit as the "godfather" of the entire Gothic movement:
Formed in 1978, Bauhaus is without equal. Neither contemporarily nor to date, Bauhaus sounds like nothing else. How can one even describe the "sound" of the avant-garde force that was Bauhaus? Deep, heavy drums create a pulsating booming that shakes one to the core. Driving bass riffs create a foreboding and brooding atmosphere that is sliced open with sharp cutting disharmonic guitar chords. As the dark atmosphere seems almost like a coffin surrounding you, the resonant baritone poetry of Peter Murphy howls through the sound like a demon-possessed David Bowie. From the opening guitar riffs of Dark Entries, the opening track to their debut album In the Flat Field, the intensity pulses to your core as guitarist Daniel Ash shreds reverb-filled steel. The dark and ominous bass intro to the powerful track Double Dare, played by bassist David J Haskins, is bolstered by aggressive pounding drum beats blasted out by brother Kevin Haskins. Peter's disembodied shrieks howl on tracks like Stigmata Martyr. Just when you think the intensity of the darkness is overpowering, bassist David J injects elements of dub reggae, even some ska elements. The late 70s recording technology truly does not do justice to the intense power that is Bauhaus; a band that must be experienced, rather than listened to. Their carefully crafted, stark imagery only serves to flesh out the mystique and aura of Bauhaus that to date cannot be rivaled.
As the goth scene matured, it still had yet to find its specific sound. Bands ran the gamut. Sure a powerhaus like Bauhaus was at the pinnacle of the genre, but from the depths of the Batcave club in London came a myriad of sounds. Demonic glam rock like Specimen. Grinding zombie electronica from Alien Sex Fiend. "Goth" seemed to be a garbage bag term without one specific sound.
Enter possibly the most important band to the genre of Gothic rock as well as easily the most important band in the life of your crazy narrator Baron Sweeverton von Killjoy, apprentice extraordinaire:
Skulking in the shadows of Leeds, his black sunglasses only illuminated by the omnipresent cigarette comes Oxford University dropout Andrew Eldritch. His emaciated frame barely able to support his own weight let alone disproportionate ego. Along with Gary Marx and Craig Adams, initially the Sisters came across as more of a poor-man's Joy Division clone with Eldritch performing double duty of singing and supplying the drums. It quickly became clear that the formula was flawed. Enter one of the most important members in helping to define the Sisters sound: Doktor Avalanche. A Boss DR-55 drum machine. From that point forward, the Sisters would never have a "live" drummer ever again. As the Sisters progressed, they began to find their sound with releases like the hip-gyrating Alice, or the Jim Morrison-infused Burn. It was with the addition of Wayne Hussey and his 12-string guitar that, what many refer to as the "golden age" of the Sisters, would begrudgingly come to solidify and define what the true "gothic" sound was. While they had a number of releases to date, 1985's First and Last and Always would not only serve to be their first full-length album, their last release under this classic lineup and will always be viewed as a genre defining album.
It opens with foreboding pianos lulling you in just to be struck with the signature
Wayne Hussey arpeggiated guitar riffs of Black Planet. Complex 12-string melodies pair perfectly with the pulsing bass of Craig Adams. Doktor Avalanche pumps out classic 80s synthetic beats as Eldritch's deep and brooding voice bellows out poetry and sardonic commentary on anything from heartbreak to critiques of the very scene the album would come to represent. Much to the chagrin of the reluctant Eldritch, First and Last and Always would be the template for nearly every subsequent goth band for the next decade or two: Deep vocals, synthetic drums, driving bass with layers of reverb-laden guitar riffs, more often than not on a 12-string guitar. And while there are countless clones, no band and no album can compare to the mastery of First and Last and Always. From the opening of Black Planet, to the heartbreaking wails of Eldritch on Some Kind of Stranger, First and Last is not only the sound of a movement but the sound of turmoil laced with biting sarcasm. Immediately following the release, the band would dissolve. Hussey and Adams would go on to form The Mission, Marx would join forces with Anne Marie Hurst of Skeletal Family to form the incredible and underrated Ghost Dance and Eldritch would charge forward. Almost immediately upon the split, Eldritch would recruit Patricia Morrison to play bass for the Sisters of Mercy, now a duo. Under this lineup the divisive Floodland would be released. Many early Sisters fans felt this release betrayed their early roots but the album proved to be almost as equally genre defining as the album prior.
Beats to dance by, powerful guitars and the everpresent driving bass, all while eldritch bellows out his deep vocals filled with biting commentary on his former bandmates. As quickly as Patricia joined, she was gone. The Sisters would see numerous subsequent line-up changes under the tyrannical leadership of Eldritch, yielding one final full length album entitled Vision Thing; a further venture into harder rock. While Andrew still pushes on under the Sister's moniker, nothing has or will compare to the golden era of 1980-1985 Sisters of Mercy.
While many bands took the most obvious elements of the Sisters and copied to the best of their abilities, one band took the best elements of classic sisters and expanded and grew upon them. With a definitive sound now set in stone, Goth was growing up. Like cowboys channeling ancient Sumerian gods from Cthulu's, Fields of the Nephilim ride into 1984 to a soundtrack of Ennio Morricone.
On the surface, Fields of the Nephilim come across as yet another goth rock band trying to ape what the Sisters unwittingly created, but take any track of their sophomore full-length The Nephilim and it immediately becomes clear that Fields of the Nephilim are an astral force to be reckoned with. Looking like ressurected cattlemen brought back to life by some bizarre incantation from Allister Crowly, Fields of the Nephilim create an ambiance more akin to a parallel universe's desert rather than Victorian romanticism. Complex swirling guitars create a transcendent atmosphere over classic goth rock, punching bass lines. Haunting vocals dripping with equal parts creepiness and seductiveness bellow out of vocalist Carl McCoy. Bucking convention, Fields of the Nephilim ditched the drum machine that had become a staple of Gothic rock, instead bringing back expertly played live drums, multiple guitars, an ever-present synthesizer and even a saxophone making the occasional rare appearance on super-early tracks. With each full-length release, starting with their debut Dawnrazor, the soundscapes and concepts began to layer and layer, culminating with the masterpiece Elizium.
Elizium is not an album for casual listening. It is something one must devote the full 50 minute runtime to experiencing. From the opening note, the entire album is a cohesive work or art, with each song perfectly flowing to the next. In fact, the opening song is divided into four parts, kicking up the intensity with For Her Light, the second part, only to give a relaxing respite in the hypnotic At the Silent Gates of Memory. The tension is finally released with part four: Paradise Regained. However, the album's true power comes from the latter half. After a brief venture into the chaotic guitar shredding of Submission, the real journey begins with Sumerland (What Dreams May Come).
Sumerland starts with an almost Aerosmith style guitar riff thats been into the depths of some Lovecraftian nightmare. McCoy's impassioned vocals crescendo and culminate to some of his most commanding lines in his career. To date, the line "we're but fools of our fate" never ceases to give me chills. As Sumerland closes, we enter the dreamscape that is Wail of Sumer, the first part of the album's two-part closure. Swirling guitars and synthacizers carry you through the song into the album's most emotive and heartbreaking track: With the opening line that still brings me to the brink of tears, of "we must suffer to free our pain," Elizium is closed out by And There Will be Your Heart Also. I can only describe this song as depressingly perfect. No flowery descriptions I can offer up can even begin to convey the beauty of this song. I can think of no more perfect closure to an already perfect album.
With that, I feel this too needs to be brought to a close. I could easily spend countless more hours talking about countless more bands that hold high esteem in my heart. Did I mention the beauty of The Cure's Disintegration? The evocative witticism of The Queen is Dead from The Smiths? The cold, blasphemous atmosphere of Darkthrone's Under a Funeral Moon? Will we be here until Christmas 2021? Probably.
For those of you, if any, made it through this journey on this Christmas Day, I thank you so very much and I commend your patience. This marks an end to our month-long journey through the wildly varying musical influences here at the Speakeasy cult. Hopefully, at the very least, I was able to expose someone to a new sounds to help get through these cinematically strange times.
If any of this spoke to you, you are just the kind of client that myself, and everyone else at Speakeasy would love to work with. Feel free to check out some of my artwork here and get ready for 2021! If and when you are ready to get tattooed by any of the artists we have discussed over this past month, send in your submission here.
We welcome 2021, for the wind will blow my name across this land.