Following my Darklands playlist, the release of Jonny Slut and Jon Klein’s boxset Young Limbs Rise Again: The Story of The Batcave 1982–1985 and the publication of John Robb’s The Art of Darkness: A History of Goth, I got to thinking about my own experience of Goth, The Batcave and all that in the first half of the eighties. More specifically I began to think about all of those groups from those out of the way places who released one or two singles yet remain completely unknown. Not only that, but in a twenty first century where everything ever recorded in the history of music is supposed to be readily available, their absence from Spotify and every other streaming service makes it impossible to hear their minimal legacy even if you wanted to.
Buried deep within the murky depths of the underground, far below the genres global superstars, there were tens, perhaps hundreds, of obscure outfits for whom Goth and what it represented in terms of music, fashion and attitude provided a chink of light in the stifling gloom of eighties Britain. As soon as I became seriously involved in music via Criminal Damage Records, I would spend most of my time seeking out suitably brilliant, like minded groups to release into the world, while simultaneously being sought after by their less able peers who naturally believed themselves to be equally brilliant, albeit that hearing just twenty seconds of the demo tape’s posted through my door would often belie such belief.
This playlist features eleven of those who crossed my path and stood out from the crowd but for the most part slipped through my net; those persistent souls from the flat fields, the forests and the satellite towns of our black hearted land who came together to change the world, or at the very least their own small part of it. Four decades on, having forgotten exactly what they sounded like, I must admit I was fearing the worst, fully expecting a bunch of third rate Bauhaus, Banshees, Birthday Party or Cure copyists. And yet, what I heard was nothing of the sort. Recorded direct from the original vinyl, despite the odd crackle and scratch, I was seriously taken aback by just how proficient, potent and truly alive they still sound. I think you will be too!
01. ENGLISH SUBTITLES ‘Tannoy’ (Single A Side May 1981)
All of the groups here would have hated the term ‘Goth’ to describe either themselves or their music. But I can personally vouch for the fact that Oxford’s English Subtitles were not Goth in any way, shape or form, even though the quite wonderful ‘Tannoy’ has assumed a suitably dark reputation amongst those who write about such things. Once a punky, provincial outfit of some repute supporting Adam & The Ants, Wire and Ultravox! at the Electric Ballroom, by the time I got to know them in the summer of 1981 they had been reduced to playing the usual spit and sawdust dives. And yet, they were still only too happy to offer some friendly advice to my naïve, eager-to-learn-about-the-music-biz, 21 year old self, so much so that just a few months later they gifted me four and a quarter minutes of frantic guitars and gonzoid drums with the rather optimistic title of ‘Dance’ for inclusion on my X Cassette compilation Bits.
02. STUNT KITES ‘Lebensraum’ (Lebensraum EP June 1981)
Even today the Stunt Kites are referred to as ‘near’ legendary in their home city; from their status as one of Sheffield’s first post punk groups to vocalist John Allen’s family connection with Jarvis Cocker, to Richard Hawley guesting at their 2005 Sheffield Memorial Hall ‘Cabaret’ show. Of course, in 1981 I knew none of this. All I knew was their rather great four track EP Lebensraum. That EP, in particular the title track, must have had a long lasting effect on me because eighteen months later, when I was looking for the first groups to release on Criminal Damage, I got in touch with John Allen who sent me a cassette of the Stunt Kites recently recorded ‘Leanora’ and ‘Hail To The Roots’. As soon as I heard them I knew I had found CRI 101.
03. THE STILLS ‘Soul Survivor’ (Chorus Of Blows EP August 1982)
Ahh The Stills. A year of high jinks and broken dreams that provided a valuable early lesson in the machinations of the music industry, teaching me above all else that a charismatic front man with that indefinable ‘it’ backed by four brilliant musicians was no guarantee of anything. Not that the Chorus Of Blows EP was The Stills finest work because it wasn’t. Live they were incredible, in particular one night at Reading’s Hexagon Theatre when, with The Bunnymen’s Pete De Freitas by my side, I looked on in amazement as they held an audience of five hundred show starved locals spellbound for more than an hour. No studio recording was ever going to capture that!
04. LUDDITES ‘Doppelganger’ (Strength Of Your Cry EP June 1983)
With their guitarist Yaron Levy as my partner in crime, The Stills were obvious contenders for Criminal Damage’s first release until they split up at the end of 1982, so forcing us to look elsewhere. The Stunt Kites were already in the can but we wanted to release two singles together to make more of an impact and establish the labels identity from the start. Following a lot of toing and froing Hull’s Luddites were pencilled in before opting for their local North Humberside label Xcentric Noise instead. Mind you, forty years later ‘Doppelganger’ still sounds incredible!
05. CARCRASH INTERNATIONAL ‘The Whip’ (Single A Side November 1983)
One of the most imaginative and artistic groups of the eighties and one of my own personal favourites were Sex Gang Children, mainly because of their own unique brand of baroque fury, but also because they were signed to Criminal Damage financiers Illuminated so we would regularly see them around their 452 Fulham Road HQ. Led by the inimitable Andi Sex Gang (who would go on to produce Ausgang’s Head On EP for us), another key member was guitarist Dave Roberts who put together the influential The Whip compilation for Kamera Records over the winter of 1982/83.
Featuring big names such as Marc Almond and Dave Vanian and the first recordings by newcomers Brigandage and Blood & Roses, it proved to be the perfect summation of ‘positive punk's earliest days and what would soon be known as Goth. One of the best songs on it was the oft-overlooked title track. Appearing late in 1983 as a single on the Belgium Crammed Disc label under Roberts new Carcrash International moniker, I knew that Kamera had gone bust so toyed with the idea of seeking permission to release it in the UK before deciding it wasn’t worth the hassle.
06. LEITMOTIV ‘Silent Run’ (Single A Side November 1983)
Bradford’s Leitmotiv were like a lot of groups in the early eighties, Goth or otherwise; big haired yet fairly anonymous looking lads who were great musicians and had a couple of decent songs but were never going to sell in their thousands. I tried to sign them around the same time as we were talking to Look Back In Anger except it never happened. I’m not even sure I got to speak to them. Anyway, I guess ‘Silent Run’ was the record we would have got had I pursued them a little more keenly. And I must say it really is a classic of its time, one of those songs that should be available not only on Spotify but on every Goth box set ever compiled.
07. DORMANNU ‘Degenerate’ (Degenerate EP May 1984)
On most visits to 452 Fulham Road we would raid the ground floor warehouse for other labels records, principally to sell to second hand dealers for some much needed cash, copies of The Industrial Records Story album proving incredibly lucrative. Another reason was to check out Illuminated releases by the likes of 23 Skidoo, 400 Blows and Portion Control. None of them were Goth, but interestingly they were all doing something I hadn’t heard before in what can only be described as ‘industrial indie dance’.
Of even more interest to me were Dormannu who were doing a similar kind of thing but with their own distinctly Gothic twist. I loved their records and could definitely see their potential. In fact I liked them so much that I investigated the possibility of a label switch from Illuminated to Criminal Damage, and yet as ridiculous as it sounds found it impossible to track them down. Apparently they were known around The Batcave. Then again, who wasn’t!
08. UNDER TWO FLAGS 'Masks' (Single A Side May 1984)
09. IN EXCELSIS ‘Eve’ (Creeps In The Trees EP November 1984)
I was always on the lookout for new Criminal Damage signings although it wasn’t necessarily a requirement for groups to be complete novices. Indeed, sales wise it was better if they weren’t. Under Two Flags and In Excelsis (former UK Decay guitarist Steve Spon’s new group) were two names on my radar for most of 1984. Both were experienced outfits, Under Two Flags in particular absolutely brilliant live every time I saw them with the added bonus of a couple of minor independent chart hits under their belt.
As for In Excelcis, producer Tim Parry (who had worked on Look Back In Anger’s Flowers EP) gave me the nod when he began work on their Creeps In The Trees EP. Sad to say that once again nothing came of my grand plan, although for once it was my own decision. Quite apart from the fact that I had a sneaky feeling both groups were a little out of our league, by the autumn of 1984 we had started to experience some serious financial difficulties with Illuminated, so had very little to offer them that they didn’t have already.
10. CHATSHOW ‘Red Skies’ (Red Skies EP May 1986)
I remember inviting Oxford teenagers Chatshow down to Reading in the summer of 1984. Following the same sonic blueprint as Play Dead, unlike most Goth groups (and these boys really were Goth) their demo tape, including an early version of ‘Red Skies’, was fantastically tuneful and I fully intended to sign them. Unfortunately, somehow the wires between our man at Illuminated Pat Smith and me got crossed and he sent out a contract to third rate psychobilly outfit The Creepshow instead. Regrettably, by the time that mess was resolved, Criminal Damage Part One: The Illuminated Years had finally bitten the dust and we didn’t have the resources to release anyone, let alone Chatshow.
11. THE FIFTEENTH ‘She Isis’ (Andelain EP 1986)
I have to hold my hands up here. By the time 1986 arrived I had signed Criminal Damage to a new manufacturing and distribution deal with Backs Records of Norwich and the second coming of the label had started to coalesce around the musical and philosophical ethos of Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power which couldn’t have been more different. There was certainly no room for a group like The Fifteenth, former Look Back In Anger guitarist Jim Newby’s new outfit. And that’s a shame because their brand of Mission influenced Goth-lite was impressive, if completely out of sync with what we were trying to do.