No Bowie, no Bauhaus. No Low, no Downward Spiral. No Ziggy, no Manson.
David Bowie wasn’t a Goth. It would be ridiculous to claim him in that way, like he belonged to any one scene. Hell, he barely belonged to any one planet. But without him, well, it’s hard to imagine what Goth/Industrial music and style would look and sound like, if it existed at all. That’s why, after so many words have already been spilled since the announcement of his death, [Seriously, everyone and their dentist has weighed in already], and it’s taken me a while, I still wanted to write this. To remind myself, and those who share my love for the subculture, and perhaps some who don’t know the connections at all, why Bowie was so important to this dark corner of the world, too. It’s by no means exhaustive (how would one begin to track 100% of Bowie’s influences on any genre?) but I hope comprehensive enough.
We’ll get to The Hunger in a moment, naturally. But first, let’s start at the very beginning….
1972: Blowing minds on Top of the Pops
One could say, with all earnestness, that the seeds of the modern Goth subculture aren’t really Walpole’s gothic horror novel Castle of Otrano, as bookish types like to claim, but Bowie’s far out July 6, 1972 appearance as Ziggy Stardust on the British music show Top of the Pops. This is where one Daniel Ash, who would later co-found the world’s first proper gothic rock band, first glimpsed this strange creature. He was just shy of 15. Her would later tell Vice:
DANIEL ASH, BAUHAUS: “Morrissey and Marc Almond and Boy George and George Michael, they all talk about Bowie doing “Starman” on Top of the Pops where he puts his arm around Mick Ronson, and it’s looking like, ‘Is that a girl or a guy?’ You know, that whole magical thing. That changed everything for my generation. … I remember going into town in the back of my dad’s car, and I went into the store and bought “Starman” and before I bought this 7” vinyl a voice in my head said, ‘If you buy this record, your life is never going to be the same. Do you want to go down this road?’ Of course I bought it.”
Ash was hardly alone. The whole lot of future British Goth icons were watching that TV night. Robert Smith, Andrew Eldritch, Ian McCulloch, they’ve all spoken about being transfixed and transformed by that performance.
Susan Janet Ballion watched it from a hospital bed. The girl who would soon transform into a Bromley punk then Goth goddess Siouxsie Sioux told Bowie biographer Dylan Jones,
SIOUXSIE SIOUX: “It was the first time I felt that it was music made for me. … He was incredible. The skinniness, the alienation, the otherworldlinesss. …. It was definitely the man/woman of the future. It was a brave new world, a springboard to accentuate your own individuality. But I was never a Bowie lookalike. I found it odd that so many people were content to merely copy.”
Siouxsie hits on something here of great import to this story. Every generation has a new pop or rock star that blows the gates open for the kids, often through a TV appearance. That’s not news. Often they even inspire new fashion trends amongst fans. But this isn’t Beatles haircuts or a KISS make-up on Halloween. Bowie that night, in going beyond stage costuming into a fully formed alter ego, (in fact, several alter egos) inspired those who would most influence what the goth subculture would become to create personas for themselves.
In the essay “Playing Dress Up: David Bowie and the Roots of Goth,” authors David Shumway and Heather Arnet describe it thus: “Bowie’s theatricality freed punk rock performers to indulge their own impulses to dress up. Inspired by Bowie, they would create their own performance masks, costumes and stage personae. As a result, their fans, rather than merely imitating, would go on to create their own world of disguise—goth.”
Exactly. Goth has always been a culture of metamorphosis and masquerade. (Or, as Hebdige might say, style as subversion.) Not every goth puts on their boldest every time they leave the house but there’s a certain commitment on a daily basis to transforming yourself that is as intrinsic to the scene as the music and other culture consumed. Goth fashion traces itself way back past glam rock, of course, but there’s a good chance no teenagers would be walking around in Victorian funeral attire in 2015 if it wasn’t for Bowie, and his influence on the early Goth rockers — they gave us all permission to be strange in bold daylight, to re-imagine ourselves as scary monsters and super freaks.
Much has been written about the influence of Bowie’s gender bending style on all kinds of communities. But perhaps nowhere was it so impactful as goth, where boys in skirts continues to be de rigueur, where fishnets are considered unisex apparel. And consider that goth’s most famous face, Robert Smith of the Cure, is almost as well-known to the general public for the bright red lipstick smeared wildly across his face as for his music. And where did Robert get the idea? That same five minutes of TV.
ROBERT SMITH, THE CURE: “I saw Bowie on Top of the Pops and immediately put on some of my older sisters’ make-up. I loved how odd it made me look, and the fact that it upset people. You put on eyeliner and people started screaming at you. How strange, how marvelous!”
1977: Warszawa becomes Warsaw becomes Joy Division
Although it’s the Bauhaus/Bowie connection that’s the axis on which an entire universe would soon spin, one cannot overlook the Bowie influence on Joy Division, the first group that ever had “goth” tagged to their sound. Their first gig was May 29, 1977 under the name Warsaw, taken directly from “Warszawa,” a haunting track on Bowie’s 1977 moody masterpiece of post-punk, Low. The name was Ian Curtis’ idea. Curtis was an early fan of Bowie, and was particularly switched on after seeing the Ziggy Stardust tour in a club in Manchester, twice, at age 17. It’s easy to imagine him as he appears in the fictional biopic Control, striking his best rock star poses in his bedroom mirror to the sounds of Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” finding in that music, himself.
Curtis remained a fan his entire short life: the Iggy Pop record The Idiot, produced and co-written by Bowie, was famously found spinning on his turntable the day he hanged himself, May 18, 1980, at age 23.
It’s in Joy Division that you really hear the influence of Bowie’s lyrics on the early goth songwriters. Curtis took Bowie’s obsession with alienation to a new level of grimness, drilling deep into themes of paranoia, madness, and other psychological horrors. Forget the romanticized rock star from Mars—Curtis was much more interested in loving the alien within. And while you could say that came from Curtis’ own psyche as much as hearing “Space Oddity,” when you add in the sonic similarities between the Joy Division debut Unknown Pleasures and Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, well… Listen again to “I Remember Nothing” and tell me that wouldn’t fit just as well on Heroes?
1982: Bauhaus’ “Ziggy Stardust” cover hits the Top 20
Six years after buying “Starman,” Daniel Ash co-founded Bauhaus with his three school mates, including singer Peter Murphy. It doesn’t take much more than a glance to recognize how much Bowie (along with Iggy) influenced Murphy. He took Bowie’s androgynous alien make-up, drag-like costuming and mime-inspired dance moves and meshed them with his love for German expressionism and horror—like colourization in reverse, Murphy pared Ziggy down to stark, black-and-white, becoming a thin white duke for for the death chic set.* It’s right here, in Peter Murphy’s hollowed out cheekbones—glam becomes Goth.
Like Joy Division, Bauhaus borrowed its sound in part from the darkest corners of Bowie’s early catalogue. And they’ll admit it. Peter Murphy once declared, “The Man Who Sold the World was the first true goth record.” I double dare you to listen to that 1971 album’s “After All,” a sombre, minor-chord whisper that references occultist Aleister Crowley, or its “All the Monsters,” and not hear the influence all over Bauhaus’ 1980’s debut In the Flat Field, or “All We Every Wanted Was Everything,” from 1981’s Mask.
It all became so bleeding obvious when Bauhaus released their version of “Ziggy Stardust.” Originally a throwaway recorded for BBC Radio, a bit of a poke back at those calling the new band Bowie rip-offs. The 1982 single became Bauhaus’ first hit, and the only time they would hit the British Top 20 charts, even getting their own Top of the Pops appearance out of it. This, and a music video, helped bring Bauhaus, and the world of Goth, to the masses.
For me personally, it was several years later that I first caught the “Ziggy Stardust” clip, on TV in my small town. Being an ‘80s kid, for me Bowie was the “Let’s Dance” guy. Supremely cool, yes. Punk rock? Goth? I had no idea. I’d never seen the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, Ziggy Stardust. Which means I’d also never seen anything like Peter Murphy in this video. Slithering, shimmying, shirtless, across the stage striking his Jesus Christ Pose. Not so much singing to his audience as attacking them. This video also took me inside some low-ceiling, sweaty brick basement filled with glassy-eyed post-punk kids in leather jackets and eyeliner, it showed me Daniel Ash wearing fishnets for a shirt and Murphy singing from within a dog cage. I was already falling in love with the Cult and the Cure and Love and Rockets, all on heavy rotation on MuchMusic back then. But this was my first visit to an underground goth bar. I imagine I’m not alone in deciding that day I was going all-black and never back. It was only later that I discovered this was a cover, and that this Ziggy fellow was in fact David Bowie, he of the sharp suits. Mind blown twice.
1983: Bowie Becomes a Vampire
David Bowie’s portrayal of the immortal John Blaylock remains one of the best vampire portrayals in modern cinema, in one of my Top 5 vampire flicks of all time. (Surely, I can’t be the only goth girl who shows The Hunger to new dates as a matter of ritual?) It would be uber Goth even if it didn’t start in a goth bar. But it does: Peter Murphy’s spikey silhouette emerging from the shadows, staring down viewers through a metal cage, the haunting rhythms of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” ticking a death march as Bowie, as a slick, sunglass-wearing Blaylock, and his vampire lover Miriam stalk the dance floor, coolly hunting the club-goers for prey. It’s possibly the gothiest 5 minutes ever put to film. By all accounts, the band had a passing run-in with Bowie while shooting the scene, possibly their only real life encounter.
The Hunger closed the Bowie-Bauhaus loop (the band would break up shortly after its release) but it was hardly the final chapter in the man’s sphere of influence.
1994: Hey Trent Reznor, how Low can you go?
Since Bowie’s death, few have been posting “’The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ changed my life!” or mentioning Earthling in their obituaries. Fair enough, it’s hard to compete with “Rebel, Rebel.” But it was in the ‘90s that Bowie made his greatest contribution to gothdom— as a direct influence on the two artists that would take this scrappy scene for weirdoes and blow it wide open to the mainstream.
Trent Reznor, industrial music’s most recognizable icon, has gone on record many times about how David Bowie was the most important creative influence in his life, citing Scary Monsters and Hunky Dory amongst his all-time fave albums, and Bowie’s general freakishness as key to his artistic development.
TRENT REZNOR, NIN: “To a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, out of reach of college radio and on the wrong side of the Internet – in isolation – to see this alien creep in, this larger-than-life character who was smart… he’s been a consistent reference point as somebody who is uncompromising.”
If any one thing can be thanked/blamed for goth turning up at every mall near you in 1994, it’s Nine Inch Nails’s record The Downward Spiral. Multiplatinum. Top 5. Grammy nominations. Heavy rotation on MTV. For a noisy concept record about nihilism, addition and self-destruction. And it wouldn’t have happened (or not in the same way) had Reznor not heard David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, a benchmark in Bowie’s own creative evolution and the key to Trent unleashing his most experimental side.
TRENT REZNOR, NIN: “David Bowie‘s ‘Low’ was probably the single greatest influence on ‘The Downward Spiral‘ for me. … I instantly fell for it. I related to it on a song-writing level, a mood level, and on a song-structure level…I like working within the framework of accessibility, and songs of course, but I also like things that are more experimental and instrumental, maybe.”
I’m not suggesting that industrial music started with DWS, or that many goths hadn’t already discovered Bowie’s Berlin triology, Krautraut, ambient and other electronic oddities long before it hit the charts. But this album was a juggernaut, that rare beast that changes the game. It transformed Nine Inch Nails from a synthpop club act to stadium rock stars. And the Bowie connection couldn’t be more clear. Aside from the Low factor, Adrian Belew (who’d played on Lodger, another Bowie album from the Berlin Trilogy) played guitar. And the big hit single, “Closer” rips its opening drum beat from “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop — a song written by …. David Bowie.
1995: Bowie the Industrialist
Bowie, being the observant culture vulture, didn’t let this go unnoticed. His 1995 release Outside, subtitled “A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle,” was a dystopian concept record with multiple voices and enough dark electronic beats to be embraced by goth/industrial clubs, even before Bowie tapped Trent for a remix of the single “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” He then invited Nine Inch Nails to open on the tour.
It wasn’t a typical opening slot: they designed the Dissonance tour to have a seque between their sets, where they would perform together. Bowie sang on “Reptile”; Trent on “Scary Monsters.” It was an experiment that met with lukewarm to bad reviews. And when you watch it today, it doesn’t really click (the way, say, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus singing “Reptile” with NIN does.) But it presented Bowie to a whole new generation. And more importantly, it gave the Bowie stamp of approval to this music, a great validation for us at a time when NIN copycats and bros screaming “I want to fuck you like an animal!” at sports bars, Bowie’s seal of approval reminded us everything was cool, and elevated NIN and industrial music to the place in the history of rock music that it deserves.
[Fun aside: of all people, Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy interviewed Bowie around this time, for Rolling Stone Germany. He referred, in typical Eldritch fashion, to NIN’s muddy performance at Woodstock as “an ephemeral eighties band of the most despicable kind.”
Bowie replied: “Those people would be wrong. I think it was the emergent voice of a new direction.”
And then, more from Andrew: “Now, I hold myself personally responsible for Nine Inch Nails (among others), but not for the fact that they look like Alien Sex Fiend. This makes Mr Bowie laugh some more. ‘I liked Alien Sex Fiend. It’s a fucking great t-shirt.’”]
1997: I’m Afraid of Americans
Straight up: “I’m Afraid of Americans” is the Bowie track most often heard at goth bars, because it’s essentially Bowie’s version of a NIN song. He again tapped Trent for a remix, and to co-star in the video. In the clip, a paranoid Bowie— complete with hoop earing and ‘90s era goatee—is running through the streets of NYC, chased by an apparition of Reznor. A comment by an aging rock star seeing young ‘uns biting at his creative heels, as well as a pointed critique of American gun culture? Seems like it.
1998: Manson — the Mechanical Ziggy
While Reznor was enjoying his bromance with Bowie, conducting audio/video experiments that were very of the moment, his protégée Marilyn Manson was about to indulge his own obsession with Bowie’s glam rock past. The rock star born Brian Warner first got turned on to Bowie when he saw the video for “Ashes to Ashes” (a clip that starred, not co-incidentially, Steve Strange of Visage, one of the earliest figures on the new romantic club scene). He’d name-dropped the Thin White Duke often, and in 1997, released a cover of Bowie’s 1974 funk-soul hit “Golden Years.” But it was 1998’s Mechanical Animals that he let his Bowie fixation fly.
The record is widely acknowledged as Manson’s take on Diamond Dogs, the follow-up to Ziggy Stardust. Thematically, Manson plays two characters who will be quite familiar to Bowie fans: a doped up glam rocker, and an androgynous alien who falls to earth and joins a band. The single and video for “The Dope Show” makes an overt nod to Bowie’s performance in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (and much more). Already a star on the American pop culture scene, this was Manson’s highest charting period—the song earned several MTV and Billboard Music awards, and a Grammy nomination, and it was his most commercially successful record. For a whole new generation of spooky kids, Manson—with his crazy coloured eyes, prosthetic boobs and asexual genitals—became a gateway to the weird world of music and art and David Bowie. With the internet fully exploded by then, it was easier than ever to follow the clues he left, to travel down the rabbit holes of the songs, the personas, the art and the artifice.
2016: Ashes to Ashes
When David Bowie died, on January 10, 2016, there were many expressions of grief posted by the music artists who adored him, tiny flakes in the avalanche of tributes worldwide. One that circulated widely was a letter by Marilyn Manson, printed in Rolling Stone, titled “David Bowie Changed My Life Forever.” An excerpt:
MARILYN MANSON: “Every song of his was a way for me to communicate to others. It was a sedative. An arousal. A love letter I could never have written. It has become and remains a soundtrack to a movie he painted with his voice and guitar. He sang, “Hope, it’s a cheap thing.”
I don’t need hope to know that he has found his way to the place that equals his untouchable, chameleon-genius beauty. The black star in space, that only HE belongs. This crushing moment of fear and loss can only be treated the way his music has affected everyone who was fortunate enough to hear and love it. Let’s NEVER let go of what he gave us.”
More than one fan of this music has wondered wherefore art thou Trent Reznor? He’s been notably silent. I like to think he’ll respond with art, with music. I like to think he’s in a studio somewhere, doing the things that Bowie always inspired him to do. And that he’ll drop his response in his own time.
For me, what lingers in the days and weeks now since that shocking news in the middle of the night, is just how Bowie orchestrated his own end. He wrote his own obituary with his final album, Blackstar— from the lyrics to the videos to the artwork, all clues to be interpreted. Articles like this and this will continue to be written for years to come, analyzing the clues he left in that last work, revering him for dying the way he lived, artfully. Some will believe that he faked his death, others that he’s responsible for that new planet out there. It’s all possible though, isn’t it?
What do I think? That his influence, on goths and other darkly inclined individuals and artists will only grow after death. The man who fell to earth is now myth, one who left us in a cloud of stardust, of ashes, with a requiem to soothe that loneliness. There will never be another David Bowie. But there is sure to be an infinite number of people who, because of him, continue to turn and face the strange. Bowie is dead. Long live Blackstar.