Carl McCoy sits in a west London pub, dressed in black, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. The Fields of the Nephilim frontman is gruffly polite, but with the best will in the world, not the most forthcoming interviewee. He doesn’t like discussing his lyrics and talks about the band’s music in very imprecise terms: “We liked that dark flavour,” he offers, not perhaps the most illuminating insight into a seminal goth band.
He struggles to name any influences on their formative sound, offers scant details about his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness (“you didn’t have Christmas and you didn’t have birthdays … it was interesting”) and declines to elaborate on the interest in the occult that has led him to make regular references to chaos magic in his songs and to perform gigs he calls Ceromonies (sic) on the anniversaries of Austin Osman Spare and Aleister Crowley‘s deaths. “It’s nothing to do with believing, like I believe you,” he frowns, when I ask him if he actually believes in magic or is merely using it as interesting imagery. “It’s knowing. I know. I’ve experienced things that are beyond reality. Many things.” This sounds fascinating, but McCoy collects himself. “I don’t want to go too far on this,” he says hurriedly, “because I don’t want to make a twat of meself.”
But there’s one topic on which McCoy becomes positively voluble: the band’s fans, who have seen Fields of the Nephilim through a turbulent history – McCoy is currently the only surviving member of the original lineup – and who still pack out the Ceromonies. No, he says, he doesn’t mind Fields of the Nephilim being labelled a goth band. “I see that as a label the followers have given themselves. It’s a brilliant following. We’re quite lucky, they’ve stayed with us and grown. We do this festival in Leipzig in Germany and the whole town is taken over for a week – the whole town – by these people draped in black, wonderful, massive, dramatic clothes. It’s fantastic.”
McCoy thinks his religious upbringing and interest in magic may play a role in their undying devotion. “When I formed Fields of the Nephilim, it was about things that were quite real to me. I think that’s probably why the fans have stuck by us, they know there’s a bit more to it than some band parading around in Stetsons, trying to be something they’re not.” A more prosaic explanation is that the Nephilim are beneficiaries of one of the weirder aspects of the scene: the dogged refusal of goths to stop being goths despite their advancing years. Instead of doing what many youth tribes do – abandoning the subculture in middle age – they prefer to “negotiate adulthood” as goths, in the words of Paul Hodkinson, senior sociology lecturer at the University of Surrey by day, goth DJ with a penchant for Bauhaus’ Dark Entries by night. His research on ageing goths was published in The British Journal of Sociology. “There’s a very large number of people who are staying involved as they’re getting older and also perhaps a comparative lack of younger people coming into the scene,” he says. “There are younger people that dress in a gothy way and listen to what you might think of as gothy music – emos and related scenes – but I think there’s a bit of a disconnection between those younger goths and the cohort of goths who are becoming older. You’re not just talking about some individuals who are getting older in an otherwise young scene, you’re talking about a whole scene that’s collectively growing up.”
Goth has been with us for 30 years. The term “gothic” was used by producer Martin Hannett to describe Joy Division’s sound, and a lot of the musical signifiers of classic goth rock – scything, effects-laden guitar, pounding tribal drums – are audible on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1979 album Join Hands. But the notion of a goth as we understand it today – black and purple clad, dyed hair, a liking for the Sisters of Mercy – really formed in the early 80s. The makeup and increasingly elaborate clothing were a glamorous reaction to post-punk’s dour anti-image, the theatrical air of gloom a rejoinder to the jollity of 80s pop. And yet, it never went away, despite or perhaps because it was largely reviled, mocked or ignored by the music press. Bizarrely, goth’s commercial zenith, when Fields of the Nephilim, the Mission and All About Eve made the singles chart and the global success of the Cure’s Disintegration album meant they could briefly claim to be the biggest band in the world, was in the era of acid house and Madchester.
After that, the scene went underground. In 2012, the world of the middle-aged goth is a fascinating alternative universe, big enough to support a plethora of events and festivals, including the bi-annual Whitby Goth Weekend, which this weekend offers not just Gene Loves Jezebel and In The Nursery but a goth pool competition, a goth dog walk and the amazing-sounding Real Gothic Ladies FC vs Whitby Gazette Girls penalty shootout. You can peer into it by visiting gothic-family.net, a German website that organises creches at goth events, does a brisk trade in toddler clothes bearing the legend I’M A LITTLE DARKLING – or, for fathers, T-shirts with the words I’M DEAD in gothic script with the letter E crossed out – and encourages goth parents to send in snaps of themselves with their offspring for their Goth Family of the Month page. If it occasionally sounds faintly tragic – it’s a hard heart that doesn’t break a little at Hodkinson’s stories of goths adapting their appearances to symptoms of ageing such as balding or becoming larger – it is more often a heartwarming tale of strong bonds and lasting companionship. “People have long-term friendships as part of the subculture and their patterns of behaviour were dominated by the subculture,” says Hodkinson. “Some people would say to me, you’re asking why I stay involved, but really it would be odd not to be involved. If you’re so attached to the music and style and it’s something that has got you a good sense of belonging and community and practical friendships, why would you break off with that?”
The music they like hasn’t responded to the ageing of its audience. “You get self-conscious references onstage sometimes to the age of everyone in the room, but I can’t imagine it coming into lyrics and things because there’s a certain degree of backward-lookingness about many people’s involvement in it. In terms of themes they want it still to fundamentally be about what it was always about, not about being a dad,” offers Hodkinson. While McCoy got his daughters to sing on the title track of the last Fields of the Nephilim album, Mourning Sun, the lyrics understandably stuck with the esoteric religious imagery rather than musings on fatherhood. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer resourcefulness with which middle-aged goths have adapted other aspects of the subculture to fit their changing requirements.
I speak to Tim Chandler, 39, who became a goth 22 years ago after a visit to a goth club he chucklingly describes as “the sort of scene that The Terminator and all those bad 80s films used as their idea of what happened in a nightclub”, and today balances membership of three goth bands – Manuskript, Pretentious, Moi? and Sins of the Flesh – with working as an architect. He talks with authority about cybergoth, horror punk, gothic metal and the other musical subgenres, but also about goth bring-and-buy sales (the one at the Whitby Goth Weekend raises money for the suitably vampiric Bat Conservation Trust) and meeting groups for goths who work in the City. “Not bankers,” he quickly adds, lest someone start protesting about fat-cat goths bringing the nation to its knees, “more goths that work in IT for banks”. Hodkinson, meanwhile, encountered a group of older female goths who had started the Alternative Women’s Institute, which met regularly for activities including “zumba fitness”.
If you can tear your mind from the admittedly compelling image of goths doing zumba classes, it’s worth considering that goth isn’t the only youth cult whose adherents have declined to pack it in. I’ve met teddy boy grandads in a rock’n'roll club in Surrey, while anyone who lives in Brighton can tell you about the regular bank holiday influx of middle-aged mods. But as Hodkinson points out, you can be a punk without looking like Wattie from the Exploited, but it’s not so easy to be a goth without dressing at least faintly like a goth, a look that has resisted assimilation into the mainstream of fashion. “If you think about punk, to some people it was always about beliefs that were at least semi-political, so they can be transferred into something that’s less externally obvious or spectacular. Whereas in the case of goths, the subculture is centred on aesthetic themes, primarily expressed in music and style. It is unclear whether there is a unique set of goth values beyond these.”
Indeed, the lack of a unique value system might explain goth’s longevity. “It’s a group that sees itself as being fairly intelligent and well-read in a way that perhaps you wouldn’t find in other subcultures, and even if they were, they wouldn’t necessarily make a point of emphasising it in the context of the group. It is in some ways a group that’s very subversive – you could say that it raises challenges in terms of sexuality, there’s a degree of androgyny, a far greater embrace than usual of bisexuality, elements of fetishism – but I wouldn’t categorise it as a particularly anti-establishment group.”
Chandler agrees. “Goths tend to be middle-class and quite clever. Even when they undergo these life-changing experiences that people have, goths still tend to be on the scene. Certainly, work and growing up and getting a well-paid job are no reason for people to move away from the scene. Most goths I know are basically well-paid professionals.”
There may be other reasons for goth’s continued appeal to its participants. As McCoy says, goth is about more than clothes and music: it’s “a lifestyle, a good culture”, something underlined when you look at the traders setting up stall at the Whitby Goth Weekend’s Bizarre Bazaar. There are certainly a lot of clothing companies, ranging from the straightforward (Nightshades: alternative clothing for big boys and curvy girls) to the saucy (“Lace Me Tighter: bespoke corsetry and lingerie”) to the mind-boggling (“Chandler’s Chainmail: chainmail clothing and accessories”). But there are also authors, fine artists, florists, comic books, a purveyor of “gothic and fantasy giftware” – which turns out to mean everything from goth jigsaws to goth duvet covers to mirrors in the shape of coffins – and representatives from both the Wicca religion and English Heritage.
“To my mind, unlike other genres, goth has got strands of literature and art you would associate with it,” says Chandler. “You could look at art nouveau, or 18th-century romantic poetry or the pre-Raphaelites or 1930s bad horror films and call them all goth. Plus there are elements with goth that go into more spiritual things, there’s a stong element of paganism. There are all these other facets that mean there’s space to manouevre, always things to discover within the scene. As you get older, you can still find things that are interesting and appealing to you. Also, when you’re growing up as a goth, you might find you have more to defend yourself against. There are still hick towns in Britain where you can get beaten up for being a goth, occasionally killed for being a goth. [In 2008, two men were given life sentences for kicking 20-year old goth Sophie Lancaster to death in Bacup, Lancashire.] I can’t help but wonder whether people that have defended their sense of style and identity so hard for so long have maybe got more emotional investment in it and are therefore maybe likely to stick at it for longer.”
They might tone down their look for work, or leave clubs and gigs earlier than they once used to, but neither Chandler, Hodkinson, nor any of the goths the latter interviewed for his research plan to hang up their crimpers and black lipstick in the foreseeable future. “Being a goth is just something that I am now,” says Chandler. “I don’t think it’s something I can leave behind. It doesn’t define me as such, but it’s a facet of my character.”
Certainly, there seems no letup in demand for Fields of the Nephilim: tickets have gone so fast for a Halloween gig in London that they’ve been forced to put another show on the night before. Back in the pub, McCoy is still talking about his fans, marvelling at the way some still travel to every gig, noting how they express their approval by forming human pyramids in the crowd (“I don’t know if any other band has that”), praising the way their behaviour makes shows “ritualistic, full of symbolism and gesture”.
The weird thing is, he says, they never set out to be a goth band. “When we started out, there wasn’t a goth scene as such, just this dark, alternative underground scene of people. I think the name goth developed later on. But we were happy to be one of the bands that audience took on. Fantastic audience. Romantic, intellectual …” His voice trails off. “I couldn’t wish for anything better really.”
Fields of the Nephilim’s Ceromonies is out now on EMI
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