London invented goth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this was the home of OG (original gothic) novelists Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley. In 1892, Bram Stoker’s Dracula bought property in London. And nine decades later, the dramatic ‘gothic rock’ culture spawned from punk and the flamboyant New Romantic scene found a home here too – at clubs like the Batcave and the Kit-Kat Club, where vampiric outfits and dry ice let the freaky imaginations of introverted club kids run riot.
In the three decades since, goth culture has splintered into sub-subcultures (fetish goths, cybergoths, rockabilly goths, Victorian goths) and spread beyond the UK. But thanks to clubs like Slimelight and Torture Garden as well as online forums and meet-ups, the dark flame still burns in goth’s spiritual home. We asked subcultural experts Youth Club to raid their impressive archive of nightlife photos, and we chatted to the photographers behind the snaps for a look back at 40-odd years of gothic London. Grab a snakebite and black and get stuck in. James Manning
Sloane Square tube, 1981 (above)
By Ted Polhemus
‘This was taken at Sloane Square tube station at [New Romantic icon] Steve Strange’s 21st birthday party, which was held on the Circle line. This woman was a regular on the Blitz Club scene [in Covent Garden] and would have presumably fallen within the label of New Romantic. Many of the New Roms were pointing in a gothic direction and would splinter off when the Batcave opened in Soho a year or so later.’
Batcave, Soho, 1982
By Ted Polhemus
‘I took this photo outside the Batcave on the opening night. I think it was the first goth club in the world. It took place at a Soho club called Billy’s, which had also been the original home of the New Romantic ‘Bowie Night’. The goth scene was always welcoming and, despite what one might think, warm. But as with the New Roms, you did have to be dressed right.’
King’s Road, Chelsea, 1983
By Gavin Watson
‘I was 17 when I took this picture. That’s why my pictures are like they are, because I was one of them. If a photographer had asked to take our photograph we would have tried to look tough. My girlfriend was a gothy punk – we went to London for the day and met these guys. We went to Hyde Park and then King’s Road, bought a couple of bottles of cider, basically doing what most 17-year-olds do. Looking at the clothes and the haircuts now, it doesn’t look rebellious at all. But back then, that defined who we were – we are us, not you.’
Westbourne Grove, 1984
By Dave Swindells
‘This was at Simon Hobart’s Kit-Kat Club Blues Party in Westbourne Grove. The Kit-Kat was a weekly party at Fouberts, just off Carnaby Street, but they did a few Blues Party all-nighters over in west London. Would they have called themselves goths then? I’m pretty sure they would. With The Cure, The Cult and Billy Idol all achieving success it wasn’t as underground as it had been. Still a strong look, though!’
Docklands Arena, 2001
By Neil Massey
‘Marilyn Manson was in town to perform at the London [Docklands] Arena and I was shooting a feature on him for The Face magazine. There was a real buzz in the air – the fans had come from all over the country. He attracted a diverse group of subcultures including goths, cybergoths and industrial metalheads. I took portraits of fans outside the gig. The atmosphere was rowdy, with lots of drinking. One group of fans were burning a bible.’
Set Up Club London, Buffalo Bar, Islington, 2008
By Dean Chalkley
‘I shot this at the short-lived Set Up Club at the Buffalo Bar on Highbury Corner back in 2008. Cave Club, another club night from this scene, had started there a few months earlier. Both were hosted by Rhys Webb from The Horrors. Set Up Club was different to Cave Club – its musical policy leaned towards the more electronic side rather than the psych/garage of Cave Club. Rhys and Tom Furse from The Horrors were headline DJs at Set Up Club. As The Horrors’ reputation grew, Rhys and the other members of the band reached out their dark claws and began turning London on to something exciting and fresh.’ Interviews Isabelle Aron
What is Youth Club?
It’s a non-profit organisation with a huge photo archive that aims to celebrate and preserve the social history of British youth culture. Currently housed at Printworks and supported by volunteer work and lottery funding, Youth Club runs events across the city, and eventually aims to open a museum of youth culture in London.