The Naked and the Dead

The Resurrection of Deathrock

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 02.12.14 in Spotlights

In the ongoing narrative that is The History of Popular Music, the style colloquially known as “deathrock” was a blip, a flash in the pan, an evolutionary dead end. Specific to a small pocket of the Los Angeles punk scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was quickly eclipsed by hardcore and goth, its dark energies absorbed into a much wider ocean of post-punk affect.

But late last month, the New York label Sacred Bones resurrected — or, perhaps more accurately, “exhumed” — the term for a new compilation, Killed by Deathrock, Vol. 1, which expands the definition of what “deathrock” itself might have been. Spanning from 1981 until 1987, and culling bands from around the globe — Denver, San Francisco, New York, Sweden, Scotland, Italy, France and Germany are all represented — Killed by Deathrock doesn’t purport to be a history of the genre so much as an appendix to the rock canon. It comes on the heels of a vinyl-only compilation from 2012, Dark New York: Gotham City’s Post Punk, Goth, & Deathrock Bands 1983-1988, Vol. 1, and both volumes succeed in outlining a kind of loose sonic history of a style whose genealogy is hazy at best. In short, a genre that was known only to a small subset of punk-rock subculture is now being constructed retroactively.

Speaking by Skype from his office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Sacred Bones’ Caleb Braaten avers that deathrock “is more of a loose term than anything specific. It brings up an image in your mind, and I don’t think that’s [an accurate representation of] what it is. You think of, like, Alien Sex Fiend, or Specimen” — groups that were famous for their B-movie shtick and acid-tinged camp. “But to me, it just seems like dark punk.”

Sacred Bones, active since 2007, is no stranger to the dark side. Its catalog is stuffed with shadowy records from acts like Zola Jesus, Pharmakon and Lust for Youth; in 2012, the label even reissued David Lynch and Alan R. Splet’s Eraserhead soundtrack. Sacred Bones has put out early singles and demos dating from the early ’80s by UK post-punks 13th Chime and Belgian coldwavers Cultural Decay, but this is the label’s first foray into archival compilations.

When I ask Braaten what attracted him to deathrock, a style so obscure it didn’t even merit an index entry in Simon Reynolds’ post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Again, he says, “It’s just that no one had ever done it. And really, it’s just a great name,” he continues, laughing. “It’s a play on those Killed by Death comps, these great, DIY compilations of amazing songs that no one’s ever heard of. There’d only been a few hundred copies of their record made, and they were lost in the bins for years. I wanted to do one for this genre.”

The album took Braaten seven years to assemble, with much of the track listing coming from either records in his own collection or discoveries he made online. It’s clearly a labor of love. “This is the kind of stuff I grew up listening to,” says Braaten. “I started out more like a punk kid, but like everyone, you hear Christian Death and whatever, Sisters of Mercy, and it’s a slippery slope.”

Braaten’s shorthand descriptor “dark punk” certainly fits the bill for songs like “Factory” (1986), by Germany’s Taste of Decay, with its three-chord churn and galloping drums, or the searing “Carousel” (1985), by New York’s the Naked and the Dead, whose grinding guitars lead straight back to John McKay’s metal-shop whine on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Scream. (The Naked and the Dead also contributed three songs to Dark New York.) “When I’m Alone” (1982), by Edinburgh’s Twisted Nerve, is raw and a little sloppy, and all the more urgent for it. The guitar sounds like a beehive in a trashcan; the drum fills galumph like a dead body rolling down the stairs. The recording’s tinniness faintly recalls Part 1, a terrifying, occult-obsessed punk band affiliated with Pushead’s Pusmort label, but instead of that band’s raspy shouting, Twisted Nerve’s singer Craig Paterson’s dramatic bellow is damn-near operatic.

“Casa Domani” (1986), by the Italian band Move, might be an outtake from Joy Division’s Still, given its propulsive bass line, sepulchral drum sound, and slashing guitars; it’s a strong contender for the compilation’s greatest discovery — but good luck to fans inspired to seek out more by the group.

“It’s just a really rare, Italian post-punk record,” says Braaten. “I know almost nothing about that band. They’re un-Googleable; the records are impossible to find.” That’s not entirely true, but they do go for $50 and up on Discogs .With two cassettes, a 12-inch and a split LP to their name, Move are actually among the more prolific artists on the compilation — which says something about the fly-by-night existence of this scene.

The thread connecting all of this is hard to define, perhaps, but it’s there. You can hear it particularly in the bands’ shared fondness for guitar pedals like flanger and phaser, which lent a layer of artifice that stood in stark comparison to punk’s more spartan leanings. Joy Division’s melodic bass leads are another touchstone, as well as plenty of wiry, contrapuntal guitar/bass interplay and thrumming tribal toms. Finally, there’s the will-to-noise that was post-punk’s defining feature, a leap into the abyss of squealing feedback and scraped strings.

But Killed by Deathrock isn’t limited a narrow set of sounds. (“I think that the comp’s interesting because it’s not all guitar-based,” says Braaten.) Just consider “Liberty,” a bouncy, keyboard-led song by Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons, a Swedish quintet that was active between 1980 and 1981. The organ synths have an unmistakable ’60s feel (file, perhaps, under “Beach Blanket Gonzo”) that faintly recall the B-52′s’ retro kitsch, although singer Anne Taivan’s tortured vibrato and maniacally mournful yowl roots the band firmly in the horror continuum.

“A lot of [the compilation] is as a result of the internet and having the resources to be able to hear anything, basically,” admits Braaten. “A lot of these things I heard on the Kill Your Pet Puppy blog, or [other] weird blogs. The majority of the songs that are on there were songs I wanted on there from the beginning, from when I started it in 2007. It was just from a flurry of finding these great records, or searching through blogs and stuff like that, people posting weird shit.”

Which raises an intriguing point: We tend to think of niche scenes and the subgenres that develop around them as being rooted in a particular place and at a particular time. But, as Braaten’s hunt-and-peck process for compiling Deathrock implies, the internet has changed that. Thanks to MP3 blogs and YouTube — which, when we’re lucky, culminate in anthologies like this one — a fuller, more complicated picture of the past emerges, one in which micro-movements gain increased significance and whole genres can be created retroactively. In that way, Deathrock is the latest iteration of a process that began with Lenny Kaye’s lodestone 1972 compilation Nuggets, which gathered up a host of songs by forgotten ’60s garage bands. In its own way, Killed by Deathrock is a veritable, well, gold mine of Nuggets. Every song on the compilation is worth hearing, and most of them hold their own against some of the most iconic songs in the dark-post-punk canon. But just as striking is the way they tell a coherent story out of seven years’ worth of music drawn from nearly a dozen different cities. Whatever the bands called their music at the time, it turns out that deathrock itself may be the most lustrous Nugget of all.