Cathi Unsworth began her career on the legendary 1980’s music weekly Sounds at the age of nineteen, where she topped a poll to be named the Sounds journalist readers would most like to go for a drink with, her popularity being down to her obvious identification with Goth (just look at her picture!)
Cathi's previous book, Defying Gravity, the life and times of punk icon Jordan, was described by Julie Burchill as 'the only book about punk you'll ever need' and was chosen as 'Book of the Year' by Rough Trade, Uncut and the Daily Telegraph in 2019. She has also written six pop-culture-laced noir books. Her latest book, the excellent ‘Season of the Witch - The Book of Goth’ was published to coincide with International Goth Day 2023. Alan Rider caught up with her over a cup of tea shortly before that day to dig deeper into some of the themes covered in the book.
Outsideleft: Firstly, congratulations on Season of the Witch. It’s a great book. Throughout it feels like very much like it's both a personal musical and a political journey. There's a lot political background included that you just don't see in other books on the genre, or indeed in any rock genre.
Cathi Unsworth: My publisher is really good because some music publishers might have taken umbrage at the and made me tone it down a bit, but he didn't. He let me keep in every single nasty thing that Margaret Thatcher did. My original concept of this book was to go through the Thatcher era, from the moment she gets in, to the moment she gets booted out and have the music as a reaction to what went on in the decade. I think everything connects to each other. I've written fiction for a really long time (I've done six novels) and the thing they always tell you to do when you write stories is show, not tell. After 15 years of doing that, I still feel really angry about everything Margaret Thatcher did. My mum used to rant away every time she appeared on the screen. She thinks the train should always stop in Grantham so we can go throw eggs at her statue, but I wanted to do it in a way where I wasn't ranting because I don't want to put people off. A better way of doing it was to use the music to help to tell the story.
Outsideleft: Goth seems quite fashion oriented and quite inward looking, so do you think it was influenced by external events like politics at the time?
Cathi Unsworth: Some say there's no Politics in Goth, but I take exception to that, as I think there's quite a lot. In 'Heartland' [Sisters of Mercy], written just before the miners' strike, when you read those lyrics now, it’s like he saw the miners' strike coming in a crystal ball. It gives me the shivers. And then on that same record, their cover version of Gimme Shelter – "War, children, it's just a shot away" - is like this scary crystal ball moment.
This is why in the centre of my book I talk about Margaret Thatcher picking off one by one everyone who could be a force against her, with the help of the ultimate evil of Rupert Murdoch. It's at the 'Battle of the Beanfield' at Stonehenge in Midsummer 1985 where that generation gets shown what's gonna happen to them. They call it the Battle of the Beanfield but it wasn't a battle as there were twice as many cops as there were people there and they were beating people up that were doing no harm, smashing pregnant women around the head with their truncheons and burning their homes. When I look back on that it shows people that this is what's going to happen to you. After that happened Crass, who had always been affiliated to the travellers, Greenham Common, CND, all of that, stopped operating. They were hassled by the SPG all the time and they were probably fearing for their lives by this point.
Outsideleft: I guess that musicians don't live in a in a bubble outside of reality. They are immersed in the same situation as everybody else, so they had to write about that experience
Cathi Unsworth: That's why Crass had to come into it. Because unemployment was so high by the early 80s, up to 3 million young people were making their own fun. As Jim 'Foetus' Thirlwell put it when I interviewed him, punk was like the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe. People like Rough Trade and Crass were allowing all these independent networks to set up and connect. People were living really meaningful lifestyles outside the mainstream.
Also the psychogeography interests me – Joy Division came from just outside the cities, that really witchy area around Macclesfield and the Peak District, and The Banshees came from the same suburbs David Bowie was hanging out at as a youngster. That's another thing about Goth isn't it? It's quite suburban.
Outsideleft: Places where there's nothing to do.
Cathi Unsworth: Exactly. It's more exciting, isn't it when you're an outsider finding your way into the secret world? I would make that a running joke through the book that it was the love that dare not speak its name, the 'G' word. In early Joy Division reviews, the word Gothic is mentioned by astute reviewers, but relating to 19th Century Gothic and how that was the reaction to the Industrial Revolution and how that was a sort of Paradise Lost moment for those original Romantic poets. I still think we are coming to terms with the Industrial Revolution, so it was really interesting to look at the past of Yorkshire as well and Leeds and Bradford. In Bradford the hub was that house that had New Model Army, Justin, Joolz and Steven Wells living in it and they had a little makeshift studio in it. That was like the Dial House [Crass' base] of Bradford.
Outsideleft: People look back on the 80s as a golden era of music but there was also a very big recession and the two seem to be connected. If we hadn't had high unemployment those forming the bands wouldn't have had the freedom and time to do that without the pressure to apply for jobs. Lots of people that were also fed up and angry, which is a great mix for creativity. You don't tend to get that so much now really.
Cathi Unsworth: It was quite interesting how punk always had these older counterculture figures, people like Caroline Coon, who founded Release and came with Sid Vicious when he got arrested at the 100 Club because she knew what the police were likely to do to him. Andrew King and Peter Jenner came from managing Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to The Clash and Ian Dury and the Blockheads; they also had a lot to do with the Ladbroke Grove Free School and IT magazine. There were always slightly older people who knew how to do this stuff, get organised, and run presses, and they were like the Godfathers helping, sharing that knowledge. I think it's quite funny that whole Punk thing about "Never Trust a Hippy" that half of these people were hippies.
Outsideleft: Many hippies were more Punk than Punk. They were there. They were protesting about the Vietnam war. They were being beaten by the police. They were pretty radical. They were counterculture. I think there's a lot of debt owed to the hippies.
Cathi Unsworth: Hawkwind and Motörhead were big influences on Goth too. They were in Ladbroke Grove and we were all in squats around there as well, but the politicisation coming from the Clash and that heaviness from Motörhead and Hawkwind, that's quite a big part of Goth as well, I think. Case in point, Robert Heaton from New Model Army had been in Hawkwind at one point.
Outsideleft: That is a nice segue into another point about the way that you've written your book. Most rock histories tend to be quite sequential, covering one band, and then another band, and another band under separate chapters. You come back to them throughout though and interweave them with each other, and that's my experience of what it was actually like at the time and there weren’t those clear divisions. People don't live their life in chapters.
Cathi Unsworth: It's like a series of interconnected circles that are interlaced, so you can't just take one story all the way through. You do have to leave them at a certain point and then come back to them in order to get everybody in, but as you say, they're all mixed in together, a little handful of people who do so much stuff. They come from Australia, Berlin, Yorkshire or New York, but all end up knowing each other thanks to the Batcave and the clubs and all the networking that went on. They were all really pretty big readers too. They weren’t just singers, they were philosophers in a way.
Outsideleft: In the book, you've also got the 'Gothfather' and 'Gothmother' sections you've used as a mechanism for talking about the influences on Goth.
Cathi Unsworth: Having worked in magazine publishing, in my head originally, I saw the Gothfather and Gothmother sections as Box Out sections that, along with those on building a gothic library and midnight movies, would all be supplementary information that help you to understand where these people are coming from and their past influences. The film stuff relates to what they're into, but also is stuff you can watch to see what the country was like when they were living in it, you know, a sort of social documentary. Building a gothic library list the books that they took their ideas from, the writers that they took their ideas from, and how all these people who were there in the past have still have much more to give, so they sort of interweave with each other. I always found when interviewing people like Lydia Lunch, she is such a bibliophile, she will always give you about 10 different books to read and I want to pass that on.
Outsideleft: You mentioned Goth was seen as an insulting term, a derogatory term, but in your book at the end you said it's time to be proud and say, "I am a Goth" Are you happy and proud to be a Goth?
Cathi Unsworth: There's no point in denying it really! I remember the point when that word first started to be used and it was funny. It was when The Cult, Killing Joke, The Cure, were in the charts and I noticed younger girls at my school suddenly wearing fishnet tights with their school uniforms. Then I remember it was these older punk rockers, people who had actually seen the Pistols and the famous Damned and T-Rex gig at West Runton Pavilion looking around at these young upstarts like the Witchfinder General and saying really scornfully: "You're a GOTH!" ' It was all about how much you knew, how long you had been into it. You had to earn the right to be a Goth too, by knowing who was in the first line up of The Damned and so on.
Outsideleft: It was physically dangerous as well sometimes to be a Goth because you were so identifiable.
Cathi Unsworth:Absolutely. Although we were lucky in Yarmouth, because the Goth pub was patrolled by The Outcasts, who were the local chapter of the Hells Angels and they, and the older punk rockers who tolerated us more sensitive types, kept us safe from the Beer Boys marauding outside. I thought it kept me safe wearing Goth stuff. The Beer Boys would look at me and go: " DISGUSTING SLAG!" but then they'd walk away and wouldn't hassle you. Where did you used to go?
Outsideleft: There was a place called the Rose and Crown which was a Gay pub. That's where the punk scene in Coventry started too originally.
Cathi Unsworth: In a really tiny place like Yarmouth I don't think there was a Gay club or pub and everyone was too scared to come out if they were gay, but there was people like Marc Almond just giving them little signals that they could understand they weren't alone. I think Marc did that the first out of anyone in the 80s and he did it the best as well. Your mum probably wouldn't have minded you bringing Boy George home as he would have entertained her and be nice and had a cup of tea, but if she saw Marc Almond, she would have said: "Get him out of my house". She would see he was liable to deprave and corrupt. The first time I saw him on Top of the Pops, that was my moment. The punk generation had the moment when they saw David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Top of The Pops, but for me it was Soft Cell doing Tainted Love. That was my gateway to Goth.
Outsideleft: There are two other books on Goth that are coming out this year and you are bookended (excuse the pun!) between John Robb's book and Lol Tolhurst's one in September. Do you think there’s a market for three books on Goth?
Cathi Unsworth: Well you wouldn't just buy England's Dreaming and not buy Please Kill Me or any other books on punk would you? I think it's really weird that there hasn't been anything for so long. It’s been forty years! The 70s have been under the spotlight for such a long time and culturally have been given a really good going over since the '90s really, that it's now a really interesting time to look back at the '80s and what happened after. That's why it was quite a nice follow on from Jordan's book. Siouxsie was already there at 430 King's Road and following the Pistols, but this is about what she and Joy Division and all of them did next and what then happened and the brilliant record labels of Goth, 4AD, Beggar's Banquet and Mute. I'm looking forward to reading Lol Tolhurst's book though as I'm sure he's got a lot of really interesting things to say.
Outsideleft: Do you think Goth was of its time? Could it happen again?
Cathi Unsworth: It's never really died has it? And that's one of the hilarious things about it. It doesn't leave. I do think that section of time that I'm talking about in my book was memorable. Somebody 10 years younger than me might think more about what came next because I can see how Grunge came out of it. There's definitely a fork in the road where one side goes to electro and dance stuff and more computer made music, and the other side sticks to guitars and becomes Grunge
Outsideleft: Metal comes into it as well. Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, Ministry blending electronic and guitars.
Cathi Unsworth: Killing Joke are kind of the Gothfathers to maybe both of those things. They always had that metal thing about them and that became industrial and is what Ministry sound like, and then of course 'Eighties' by Killing Joke becomes 'Come As You Are' by Nirvana.
Outsideleft: It's good that you included Gun Club and UK Decay in your book because they often get overlooked but also you've got the Three Johns, The Redskins and The Mekons who were not really regarded as Goth bands were they?
Cathi Unsworth: Jon Langford from The Mekons/Three Johns was best friends with both Chris Dean from The Redskins and Andrew Eldritch, he produced and recorded both of their bands, that was all part of the scene they were involved in. Of course, The Redskins are not Goth, but Goths definitely went to their gigs. First time I ever saw The Redskins was at York Rock Festival with The Chameleons, The Sisters of Mercy, Spear of Destiny, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Gothtopia!
Outsideleft: Bauhaus played with Throbbing Gristle too, so you had these juxtapositions that would seem bizarre now but actually were fine at the time.
Cathi Unsworth: Yeah, like you say at these clubs like Centro Iberico in Westbourne Grove where Throbbing Gristle were playing, one the people watching them was Jim Foetus – and he cuts across all the genres that we've talked about, he's done everything. He's just a total one-man utter genius, isn't he? When I relistened to a load of his stuff, I thought, God, how much did Ministry and all those Industrial bands get from him? He doesn't often get credit for that. People like him and Jeffrey Lee Pierce [Gun Club] who was a massive influence on Mark Lanegan/Screaming Trees don't get enough credit.
Outsideleft: I know this is a terrible question to close with, but if you had to sum up what Goth was for somebody who had just landed from another planet, what would you say to them?
Cathi Unsworth: It's a way of thinking that basically is the Addams Family. The Addams Family way is that they are really happy in their own world, but it's not the same as everybody else's world. That is all you need to know.
Outsideleft: That's a really good note to end on. Thank you so much for talking to Outsideleft.
Cathi Unsworth: Brilliant. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed talking to you.
‘SEASON OF THE WITCH - The Book of Goth’ is available on Nine Eight Books from all good high street and online book sellers now.