Hello Snarklings! The Lady of the Manners has decided it’s time to regale you all with some goth history. (An earlier version of this article appears on on The Lady of the Manners’ Patreon.
Back in the Lady of the Manners’ day (she says, waving a stick of clove incense around because she stopped smoking 20+ years ago), finding new goth music was hard, especially in the early 90s. Barely any of us were on the internet, and band websites were virtually non-existent. Which meant any or all of the following:
- You hoped that the DJs for your local goth night, if you had a local goth club night, played new-to-you music. At which point you ran to the DJ booth and shouted over the din to get a band name, which you probably misheard thanks to the club volume, or would have forgotten by the next morning. Yes, some of us carried a pen and notebook in our lunchbox purse, but deciphering something scrawled by candles and blacklight when you were probably a bit tipsy was often an unsolvable mystery.
- You went to the local alternative record store or Tower Records, and you flipped through Every. CD. There. Most stores didn’t have a way to preview every item in stock, especially if the CD was from a small independent label, which meant most times you made your decisions based on the band name, the cover art, and the song titles. Did the cover look like an Aubrey Beardsley illustration and have song titles like “The Decay of Midnight” or “Lilies”? Then you probably (well, possibly) found a band you’d like. Good luck ever finding another album by them.
While you could ask the clerks for musical selections, you never knew if your question and examples of bands you liked would get you a sneer and a reply of “Yeah, those aren’t goth”. But sometimes the sneering reply would be helpful, because the bands the disdainful employee then rattled off would lead you to something interesting.
- You bought compilations because you recognized one or two bands on it, and then spent months searching for albums by the other bands. More often than not, those other bands had released one other album before they broke up, and it was only available in Germany.
- You squinted at the ads in whatever goth zine found its way into your hands. Squinted, because the fonts used in the “classified” ads section were always tiny and blurry (with an added layer of blurry if it was a photocopied zine), or the actual quarter page paid-for-ads were masterpieces of goth design that were so aesthetic that you were lucky if you could make out the name of the band. (The fonts used by black metal bands owe a huge stylistic debt to those goth zine ads, even if they don’t know it.) The independent record labels usually had slightly more legible logo designs. Slightly.
If you were able to decipher the name and address, then came the step that is probably incomprehensible to The Kids Today: sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to the address in the ad to get a catalog. Or getting a money order to send the to address in order to buy a cassette without knowing what type of music you were getting. (Sometimes we wrapped actual cash money in layers and layers of paper, hoping it was well-disguised enough that someone wouldn’t intercept and tear open the envelope to steal the money.) There were no order numbers. There was no way to prove you’d sent off an order. You sent it off through the mail and hoped for the best. (This is how the Lady of the Manners discovered Trio Nocturna, Faith and the Muse, The Shroud, Mirabilis, and many other bands.)
- Finally, you and your friends traded mix tapes. Sometimes it was a way to introduce them to new music, sometimes it was a subtle (not really) declaration of romantic interest, and sometimes it was a way to console your friend after a breakup, but making those mixtapes was a Serious Undertaking.
In addition to painstakingly selecting every song for maximum coolness or emotional impact, you spent hours creating the perfect cover – be it a drawing you made, a collage of photocopied illustrations from out-of-print books, or a photo carefully chosen and snipped from a fashion magazine – and hand-lettering the list of songs and bands. Does the Lady of the Manners frequently lament the loss of the mix tapes that were given to her Back In The Day? Please forgive her while she takes a moment to sob and dab her eyes with a black-edged handkerchief.
Let the Lady of the Manners end this installment of True Tales of Eldergoth Life on a “We live in the future! It’s amazing!” note: she doesn’t know what sort of dark algorithm magic is behind Music Map, but she adores it, and has yet to search for a band that Music Map can’t find and suggest similar music to!
Speak, oh other Eldergoths! How did you discover new music? Do any of you still have mixtapes of that era languishing on your shelves? (If you do, please leave a comment with the track list!)
And if you were so lucky as to get the full cite for a remix, that was *two* bands you could (try to) check out!
Though I didn’t hear the term “Gothic rock” until the early 90s, I adored that style and aesthetic on sight roughly 10 years earlier. Most artists, I learned about from friends (Oingo Boingo, Dead Can Dance, Danielle Dax, the Damned, Killing Joke, the Cult, Siouxsie, etc.), a few from movies (Bauhaus, Concrete Blonde, Ministry Philip Glass, the Psychedelic Furs), a few from weird occurrences (like having Diamanda Galas blare through our ceiling at 3:00 a.m.), one or two from radio or TV (Gary Numan, the Cure, Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones).
With the 90s came White Wolf Games, my job there, and my total immersion in Goth club culture. At that point, I had enough money to buy tapes and CDs from artists I’d never heard of, so my exposure to new artists came from a combination of coworkers, fans, friends, concerts, Goth rock compilations, clubbing, magazines like Carpe Noctem and Blue Blood, awesome music stores like Plan 9 Records, Criminal Records and the late lamented Tower Records, and taking chances on stuff whose album art suggested it might be interesting.
Thanx Aunt Jilly ! I’ve worn myself out going back through the earliest recordings on the interwebs, classical playlists, hits of the ’20s, 30’s, ’40’s etc. for the gothyest roots I could find. Really should have documented the goth-like (to me anyway) for future reference.
Or if you were really lucky there was a goth radio show in your area, so you could sit listening in the privacy of your own bedroom with a pen and paper to write down new songs that you liked, and maybe even call in to request a song. That’s where I learned about a lot of music, along with comps like the Goth Box and Magazines like Carpe Noctem.
I got into goth in the early ’00s, so I had the privilege of internet access to help me out. I do still remember getting free record label compilations in the mail, mostly weird experimental imports from Europe, and sometimes print magazines would come with free compilations as well. And I also spent hours poring over the used CD bins at my local media store, where I would find the occasional gem.
Of course, I borrowed albums from friends sometimes, and we would make each other mix cds. Oh! And sometimes I would see obscure bands live and decide that I liked them enough to buy an album.
Other than that, the satellite TV service we had at the time had a great alternative music channel that just played music (no videos), and I learned about a lot of my early favorite artists from that; also MSN used to have pretty decent niche genre “radio stations” that helped me out at the time.
I wouldn’t be old enough to go to clubs until later in the decade. Nowadays I hear about most of my new music from DJs and streaming services. I would never go back to the old days now, haha.
Seriously, how did I live without Shazam? During the pandemic I watched tons of goth DJs on Twitch and Shazamed everything that sounded good, then once a month or so I’d buy all the singles on Bandcamp or Amazon (or occasionally have to rip from YouTube). That sentence right there mocks everything I was in the 80s and 90s.
I found the “noughties” very good for music. There seemed to be an explosion of dark music then, especially over in Europe. The whole low-tech hassles you speak of in the nineties fell and suddenly there was access to the most interesting and obscure stuff imaginable. But then the teens and twenties came and it’s hard to find much. Recently, I found my santis – Venite Descendamus on YouTube based on same-name poem by Ernest Dowson:
Silence is best: for ever and for ever,
We will go down and sleep,
Somewhere beyond her ken, where she need never
Come to weep [again]…
I remember having a hand written list of bands that I liked a song or two of theirs on a large piece of paper; I would use that to focus in on the bands I was looking for in a sea of CDs at the chain music stores like Tower Records, FYE, etc. I am/was lucky to have a dedicated music store in my hometown of Philadelphia, PA called Digital Underground that catered to the goth crowd. I’d bring my long list and go on a shopping spree there on my visits. The staff was extremely helpful in guiding me to music I’d enjoy.