Deathrock is a term used to identify a sub-genre of punk rock incorporating horror elements and spooky atmospherics, that emerged on the West Coast of the United States in 1979.
Deathrock songs use simple chords, echoing guitars, a prominent bass, and drumming which emphasizes repetitive, post-punk beats within a 4/4 time signature. To create atmosphere, scratchy guitars are sometimes used. Lyrics can vary, but are typically introspective and surreal, and deal with the dark themes of isolation, disillusionment, loss, depression, life, death, etc.; as can the style, varying from harsh and melancholic to upbeat, melodic and tongue-in-cheek. Deathrock lyrics and other musical stylistic elements often incorporate the themes of campy horror and sci-fi films, which in turn leads some bands to adopt elements of rockabilly and surf rock.
The frequently simplistic song structures, heavy atmosphere and rhythmic music place a great demand on lead vocalists to convey complex emotions, so deathrock singers typically have distinctive voices and strong stage presences.
Despite the similar sounding name, deathrock has no connection to the similarly named death metal (aside from occasionally similar lyrical themes), which is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. However, bands such as The Birthday Party may have influenced the vocal styles to be used in the latter.
The term "death rock" was first used in the 1950s to describe a thematically related genre of rock and roll which began in 1958 with Jody Reynolds' "Endless Sleep" and ended in 1964 with J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss." These songs about dead teenagers were noted for their morbid yet romantic view of death, spoken word bridges, and sound effects. The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" is arguably the best known example of the '50s/'60s use of the term.
The term deathrock re-emerged 15 years later in 1979 to describe the sound of various West Coast punk bands. The term most likely came from one of three sources: Rozz Williams, the founding member of Christian Death, to describe the sound of his band,; the music press, reusing the 1950s term to describe an emerging subgenre of punk; and/or Nick Zedd's 1979 film They Eat Scum, which featured a fictitious cannibalistic "death rock" punk band called "Suzy Putrid and the Mental Deficients."
The earliest influences for some deathrock acts, such as 45 Grave for example, can be traced to the horror themed novelty rock and roll acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Bobby “Boris” Pickett with "Monster Mash", Screamin' Jay Hawkins with "I Put a Spell on You" and Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages with "Murder in the Graveyard." These songs used sound effects to create a creepy atmosphere, dealt with taboo subjects (such as cannibalism) in a humorous, often campy manner, and are still occasionally played at deathrock clubs.
This horror influence on rock music continued into the 1970s with theatrical hard rockers Alice Cooper and Kiss. Rozz Williams has specifically credited the 1970s output of both Alice Cooper and Kiss as childhood influences, 45 Grave also covered Alice Cooper's "School's Out" on their debut full-length album.
Other rock and glam rock bands who influenced many early goth/deathrock artists include The Doors, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Cramps, T. Rex, New York Dolls, The Damned, MC5, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (For a more complete listing of influential artists, see Punk Forerunners and Gothic Rock predecessors.)
Horror movies also directly influenced deathrock artists. According to Dinah Cancer, Italian horror movies were a large influence on 45 Grave's visual style. Zombie movies influenced many deathrock artists, especially George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels. John Russo's Return of the Living Dead (1985) which featured Linnea Quigley and a mostly punk soundtrack influenced later deathrock bands. Horror-themed TV shows, such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows etc., also provided some visual influence, as did spookily-clad horror movie hosts on TV such as Vampira in Los Angeles, John Zacherle in Philadelphia and New York, Elvira in Los Angeles (then later nationally), and Ghoulardi in Cleveland.
However, horror was not the only influence on deathrock. Film noir, surrealism, cabaret, and various religious iconography (particularly Catholicism and Voodoo) supplied much lyrical and visual inspiration to deathrock artists.
Deathrock first emerged in America in the late 1970s as a darker offshoot of the pre-existing punk rock and the emerging hardcore LA music scene. The most active and best documented deathrock music scene was in Los Angeles, which centered around the bands The Flesh Eaters (1977), Kommunity FK (1979), 45 Grave (1979), Christian Death (1979), Gun Club (1981), Super Heroines (1981), Pompeii 99 (1981), Voodoo Church (1982), Ex-VoTo (1982), Burning Image (1983) and Radio Werewolf (1984). Other western cities in the United States also had bands which would later be described as deathrock such as Theatre of Ice (1978) in Fallon, Nevada and Mighty Sphincter (1980) in Phoenix, Arizona.
These early West Coast deathrock bands took the pre-existing base of punk rock and added dark yet playful themes borrowed from horror movies, film noir, surrealism, religious imagery, etc. A couple of bands blended hardcore punk with a gothic sound, most notably TSOL and Burning Image.
These early post-punk deathrock bands were not immediately identified as part of a new subgenre of punk; they were simply considered a darker flavor of punk and were not yet considered part of a separate musical movement. During this time, these bands would play at the same venues as punk, hardcore and new wave bands. A similar situation arose in New York circa 1978-79, albeit on a much smaller scale, in which influential punk rock bands like The Cramps and The Misfits, as well as The Mad (fronted by future horror-film effects artist Screaming Mad George) had incorporated extensive horror themes into their lyrics, visuals, and stage show, though they did not use the term "deathrock" to describe themselves.
Around the same time as deathrock was emerging as a distinctively darker subgenre of punk rock in the United States, other subgenres of punk and post-punk were developing independently in the UK.
By 1982, a wave of darker, more tribal post-punk bands had coalesced, influenced by punk rock, and the first-generation post-punk bands (and specifically the noisier 1980-81 post-punks UK Decay, Killing Joke, and Theatre of Hate). The primary bands in this new movement were Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult. Along with Brigandage, Blood and Roses, Ritual, and others, they were dubbed "positive punk" by the UK press to differentiate them from other bands who were attempting to fly under the punk banner, such as the UK 82 and Oi! acts. These positive punk bands featured tribal drumming, high-pitched vocals, scratchy guitar, and bass as melodic lead instrument, and a visual look blending glam with Native American-influenced warpaint and spiky haircuts, the first generation of the UK's post-punk goth bands. Other related bands like Ausgang, Inca Babies, and Bone Orchard shared much of the tribal ethos and spiky look, but took more inspiration from The Birthday Party.
During 1983, a related movement was brewing at a London Gothic rock club called the Batcave. Initially envisioned as a venue specializing in glam rock and new wave musical acts, the two main bands which debuted and performed frequently at the Batcave, Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend, developed their own different sounds strongly influenced by horror in British pop culture, which set them apart from the rest of the glam and post-punk scenes in Britain. Also in 1983, The Gun Club toured in Europe as did Christian Death which meant the European gothic rock scene and the American deathrock scene were now able to directly influence one another.
By 1984, the term "positive punk" was outdated, and the tribal positive punk bands, the various bands from the Batcave scene, as well as the bands from Leeds (such as The Sisters of Mercy, March Violets, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, and others) some of which used drum-machines, had all come to be referred to as "gothic" or gothic rock. The same year, California deathrock band Kommunity FK toured with UK Gothic rock band Sex Gang Children (and the following year with Alien Sex Fiend) which continued the trend in which American and British movements intermixed. Influenced more by the British scene and less by California, deathrock bands began to form in other parts of the United States, such as Samhain (1983) in Lodi, New Jersey, Gargoyle Sox (1985) in Detroit, Michigan, Shadow of Fear (1985) in Cleveland, Ohio, and Holy Cow (1984) in Boston, Massachusetts (and later Providence, Rhode Island). The fertile New York scene featured Scarecrow (1984), Of a Mesh (1984), Chop Shop (1984), Fahrenheit 451 (1984), The Naked and the Dead (1985), Brain Eaters (1986), The Children's Zoo (1986), The Plague (1987), and The Ochrana (1987). Irreconcilable differences
The mid 1980s marked the second wave of gothic rock, when the sound began to shift away from its punk and post-punk roots and towards the more serious, rock-oriented approach. Bauhaus broke up, Rozz Williams left Christian Death, and The Sisters of Mercy became the dominant and most influential gothic act. The term "gothic rock" became preferred over "deathrock" (previously, they had been used interchangeably), a change which Rozz Williams attributed to the influence of the The Sisters of Mercy. As a result, the term "deathrock" was seldom used except in retrospective reference to the Los Angeles bands 45 Grave and Christian Death.
The mid 1990s marked a so called "third wave of gothic rock," as the music drifted its furthest from the original punk and post-punk sound by incorporating many elements of the industrial music scene at the time (which itself had moved away from experimental noise and into a more dance-rock oriented sound) and the more repetitive and electronic sounds of EBM. Some clubs even completely dropped deathrock and first generation gothic rock from their setlists to appeal to a crossover crowd. These changes alienated many in the goth scene who preferred the livelier, punkier deathrock sound and led them to seek out their earlier deathrock roots.
Nearly 20 years after deathrock and goth first appeared on the music scenes in southern California and London, the deathrock revival began in southern California. During 1998 in Long Beach, California, owners of the Que Sera, a local bar, asked Jeremy Meza to throw a one-night "old school" Gothic Halloween party. After the success of the one-off party, the event quickly evolved into a regular deathrock club called Release the Bats and a focal point in California for the re-emerging deathrock movement. (The club is named after a song by the Australian band the Birthday Party.)
The current deathrock movement is similar to the original deathrock scene in Los Angeles and the Batcave movement in London, but more unified in the US, UK, and Europe through various record labels. In addition to clubs, the current scene is centered around concerts, special events, parties, and horror movie screenings. The internet is playing a major role in the deathrock revival. There are websites devoted to the discussion of deathrock music, bands and fashions as well as horror movies, such as Deathrock.com and Post-Punk.com, plus mailing lists for deathrockers on various online virtual communities, such as MySpace.
In terms of differences from the original scene, there has been a shift to a more post-punk sound as a result of the influence of the European bands of the '80s. Also, the apolitical influence of psychobilly discourages political debates that have the potential to fragment the scene (however some famous deathrock acts, such as Rudimentary Peni, were originally anarcho-punk bands, and there is still some slight crossover between the two scenes). The Drop Dead Festival, similar to psychobilly's Hootenanny, gave bands with smaller fan bases an opportunity to play before larger crowds. .