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Post: How a natural disaster led to the birth of Goth music – National



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If you’re into alternative history — thought experiments regarding things that might have happened to alter the course of history — you’ve run across the term hinge points.

The most common probably have to do with the Second World War (Like, if Hitler won, if the Americans didn’t drop the atomic bomb, and so on) plus the gigantic knock-ons from the death of JFK, but I’ve got a couple of not-so-well-known favourites.

Napoleon, for example, suffered terrible migraines. At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, it’s said that his head ached so much that he wasn’t able to conduct his troops, with some reports having him moaning in a cold sweat in his tent while his incompetent generals ran things. This is a controversial theory, but it’s still interesting to imagine what might have happened had Napoleon been feeling well that day and was able to defeat the Duke of Wellington’s British forces.

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Across the channel, a pregnant Queen Victoria survived an assassination attempt in May 1840. What would have become of Britain had she died? What if the South had won the U.S. Civil War or at least fought the North to a stalemate? What if Archduke Ferdinand’s driver didn’t take the wrong turn into a blind alley in Sarajevo that allowed an otherwise inept assassin to kill him.

And what if Mount Tambora didn’t explode the way it did?

Let’s follow up on this last scenario because it was a delayed hinge point for music.

Mount Tambora is in Indonesia’s Ring of Fire, a highly active volcanic zone caused by strong tectonic activity. Before 1815, it was over 14,000 feet high. But then on April 5, a series of eruptions began. And then on April 10, BOOM! Earth saw the largest volcanic explosion in recorded human history and the biggest of the last 10,000 years.

It was heard 2,000 km away and the resulting shockwaves travelled around the world several times. The top 1,500 metres of the mountain were blown off, injecting 129 cubic kilometres into the atmosphere.

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This was bad — VERY bad — for the climate. There was so much CO2, sulfur, dust, ash, and various aerosols introduced that a significant amount of solar radiation was blocked and this cloud drifted everywhere. Twelve months later, the entire planet saw “The Year without a Summer.”

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Depending on where one lived, the average temperature dropped 1 to 4 degrees Celsius. Crops failed. Rivers that normally flowed all year froze over. The summer months were cold, dreary, and rainy. When the sun did come out, sunrises and sunsets were incredible displays of red, orange, yellow, and brown.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her future husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were visiting with friends at a mansion called Villa Diodati. It was far too cold, stormy, and wet to do anything outside for the many months they stayed.

It was particularly bad for three days in June. With no other way to entertain themselves, everyone stayed indoors entertaining each other with ghost stories. It was during those dark, miserable nights caused by Mount Tamboro that Mary came up with the plot for a novel she would call Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

You can make an argument for Frankenstein being the first example of science fiction. But it also created the foundations for the Gothic novel, a story of horror, romance, and the supernatural. The settings are often in gloomy isolated castles or mansions and feature plenty of complex, melodramatic characters who dealt with a lot of madness and death.

Dracula and Wuthering Heights are but two novels that picked up on this thread. Frankenstein and Dracula were first made into movies in 1931, kicking off an endless supply of monster movies and films that leaned heavily on all things noir.

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When some of the more literary-minded rock lyricists arrived in the 1960s, some drifted in that dark direction direction. Jim Morrison and The Doors (think songs like The End), the Velvet Underground (almost everything they did, along with the solo albums from former member Nico), and the dark cartoonish humour of Alice Cooper brought this worldview to many.

When punk rock exploded in 1976, young artists began looking for inspirations beyond blues-based rock. Given the rough economic times in the U.K., many drifted towards dark stuff that reflected how they were feeling about their prospects and life in general. At the same time, rock had become much more theatrical (cf. David Bowie, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, the entire British glam scene) with performers using wild costumes and makeup to get their point across.

Gothic clothing influences were perfect for those looking for a dramatic look. It also made sense for the music to follow in that direction. In January 1979, Bauhaus released their debut single, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, conjuring up the actor who played Dracula on film as well as imagery of bats in belltowers.)

Joy Division emerged out of Manchester with dark songs sung in a deep and dramatic way by singer Ian Curtis (who died by suicide in 1980, adding to the drama of it all). Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, and The Cure were also part of this new highly atmospheric sound with its slashing guitars, spooky basslines, and ominous rhythms.

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So who came up with the tag “gothic rock?” It might have been music critic Dave Marsh in 1977 when he used the term to describe a Philip Glass record. Writer Nick Kent used “gothic” in a review of a 1978 show by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Simon Reynolds couldn’t help but use “gothic” to describe Kate Bush’s debut smash single, Wuthering Heights. 

Other groups followed, among them Alien Sex Fiend, Adam and the Ants (at least at first), Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, and Sex Gang Children. Fans adopted uniforms of velvet, capes, collars, ruffles, and make-up, largely drawn from the styles of Victorian England. Clubs with names like The Bat Cave gave the scene a physical centre of gravity.

Today, goth rock is one of the largest subgenres in all of music, stretching all around the globe, including Indonesia. A couple of years back, I visited a club in Bali, some 300 kilometres west of the Mount Tambora crater. The first song I heard was something from Sisters of Mercy. I wonder how many of the people on the dance floor realized that their music came from a volcanic eruption almost two centuries earlier?

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Lora Helmin

Lora Helmin

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