The Trenchcoat Mafia: John Robb’s History Of Goth Reviewed

A new history of all things goth is a labour of love, finds Richard Foster

“Another, damn’d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble eh!” This remark of William Duke of Gloucester to the historian Edward Gibbon could also be said of the singer John Robb and his new, 600-plus page tome, The Art of Darkness: A History of Goth. Despite founding and fronting The Membranes and Goldblade, it is John Robb, the writer, who is currently in the ascendant. There are a lot of books being written by musicians at the moment – any more and we should all start to fear for the woodlands of northern Europe. Robb is slightly different, being a writer and musician from the off. He has always written about the subjects that interest and surround him, from his early days editing fanzines about underground culture and music in the early-to-mid 1980s, to producing excellent titles in the past few decades, such as Punk Rock, an Oral History, Death to Trad Rock, and Manifesto: The Battle for Green Britain. And anyone who has spoken to him in the last year or so (and tried and failed to change the subject) will know that The Art of Darkness was an inevitability.

Given its length and the many notes, diversions and repeated assertions, it may be the best way to think of this mighty tome as a form of saga. It certainly has a feel of heroic if slightly gnomic struggles found in the likes of Beowulf, the Kalevala, or The Mabinogion. I would caution against trying to read it all in one go. But The Art of Darkness is in no way an academic book, so praise your deity for that. There are cameos from various academics and thinkers, as the opening chapters attempt to set out what the gothic and goth music, and their provenances, are. Often we feel we are at the back in the classroom, dutifully taking notes on every art form or movement that ever betrayed elements of a gothic character; as well as key signifiers such as Whitby, Mount Tambora, Maila Nurmi, Amiens Cathedral and David Bowie.

Luckily John Robb is too much of an enthusiast to expect his readers to struggle through a quagmire of information. Over the years he has perfected a knack for setting up a story and in The Art of Darkness his fireside tales with the movers and shakers of the scene are quickly transcribed onto the page with a speed of execution that gives the prose a swagger and a charm. He trades in an egoless form of storytelling which counters the dull but slyly ambitious texts of academic music writing and the often shudderingly boring memoirs of those in the music industry. Though the pace of his writing can sometimes crash against more considered chapters where claims are justified or further expounded by the historians he quotes, Robb calls on an embodied memory and a sharp eye to good effect.

After the thorough grounding in goth’s antecedents, the key bands are paraded past us, like floats in a big parade, their potted histories wrapped up in Robb’s energetic and generous appraisals. Those new to the likes of Adam Ant, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Mission, The Sisters of Mercy, The Fields of the Nephilim and Bauhaus will find this book contains excellent primers on each.

The book is worth it alone for a terrific opening chapter which takes you back in time to the early 1980s, down into some murky cellar, doubtless somewhere in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Here, in the basement, amid the clatter and clang of the music and the various scents and smokes of a “goth club”, Robb’s writing style is all you would expect, and want it to be. I marvel that his abiding love for music can translate itself into such an exciting torrent of words. The urgency in imparting what is obviously a set of memories and first hand experiences can be read as a sales pitch for what we are missing in this increasingly regulated twenty-first century. In some ways it’s a shame that the terrific opening chapter couldn’t be reworked as fiction or couldn’t be more efficaciously married with its soulmate, the closing chapter, where Robb and a number of academics consider goth’s international legacy. Here, the two chapters are the classic thwarted lovers, looking mournfully at each other on the dancefloor.

What is Goth, then? And what did I learn about Goth, after 600 or so pages of it? To be honest, despite the wealth of information and ideas I am still not sure. There is an awful lot to process and I suspect this is a book there to start a debate that others, more niggardly and emotionally exacting than John Robb, will want to finish. One thing I can say: given the multiple refutations of the term that regularly crop up the book, it seems no-one who was branded a goth wants to be called a goth. Certainly not Andrew Eldritch. More mystery which, I suppose, is pretty gothic.

The social historian Andy Bennett once wrote that scholars not only study the myths that cultural groups create about themselves, they create myths about cultural groups as well. Similarly, with this book we are dealing not with goth, but with the battles around myth and memory, what can be remembered, reconstituted or denied. The Art of Darkness is also a tale of an audience growing increasingly sedentary; one which, in this instance, is happy for the honest and perennially positive Mr Robb to stand on the barricades for them, a punk-goth version of Eugène Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People. Advice on the work’s efficacy and truth will be doubtless proffered from the back seats.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today