interview by Damage
The world's greatest goth historian is Mick Mercer, no doubt about that. The man behind Hex Files, Gothic Rock, Gothic Rock Black Book and 21st Century Goth is finally here with us to give us an experienced traveller's overview on the heydays of gothic culture and his thoughts about the scene in general. Mark his words carefully!
THE DOSE: Mick, we're really proud to have the greatest Goth historian manifesting on our pages! Our first question is an often heard one but our younger readers definitely need to hear about how you become obsessed with the Goth genre and how you became THE Mick Mercer you are now.
MICK: I think obsession creep over you, and you're right, it is an obsession, but I believe that is because it is something deep-seated, rooted inside. In the first place as a child I always responded most to the kind of stories, films and imagery that is most generally prevalent in Goth. Things of darkness, danger, morbid curiosity, death and fanciful, romantic adventure.
As a child I lived in a strange place. I had London Airport (Heathrow) literally at the end of my road, but they had built it in a flat rural area, as they do all airports. Apart from Heathrow and the council estate I lived on it was orginally a little village back then, and while I lived in a modern house, among many other boring modern houses, I only had to walk five minutes up the road, and through a field which were full of cows, and I was inside the graveyard of one of the oldest churches in England and when you walked through that you were in a tiny village which still had its own blacksmith. It was a strange but nice place to grow up. If I wasn't out with my friends, often investigating the fields, and mysterious wooded areas you weren't allowed in (which naturally made us go in there), I would be in the graveyard on my own, or with one friend who also liked it there. I adopted that as my place. The vicar got used to me being there, and would often say hello to the yew tree I was sitting in which always amazed me at how he knew I was inside. (Later on I realised he could see me from the Vicarage window, which was the building next to the graveyard.) I used to tidy the place up for him once a week after a while. It suited us both.
We didn't have horror novels back then, when I was growing up in the 1960's, we had Ghost Story collections, in paperback, which were about the only books I would ever read, and I used otherwise to read comics. My favourite TV show which was often British Gothic at its best, The Avengers. Apart from that I loved The Munsters and The Addams Family.
I didn't like music. My sisters were into the Beatles and The Stones, who I loathed, and still do. About the only thing I enjoyed was The Monkees, on their TV show. That all changed when I saw Alice Cooper on TV, because something about a character being there at the front of music made sense to me, and as I got more into music I also saw the New York Dolls on TV on a show which was showing some old Alice footage, so when Punk came along I was already reading music papers. I think I started around 1974, gradually becoming intrigued by the talk of all the American bands which Melody Maker's American correspondent was into.
Punk was all I needed to get excited and enthusiastic enough to start writing, but I think I got more out of the writing and doing my own fanzine than I did out of most of the bands or their music. It was the odd little bands with the less dogmatic lyrics and attitude which I found myself drawn to. The first ones which really hooked into my imagination were Ultravox and Gloria Mundi. A lot of what is now a staple part of European Goth and softly melodic electronic music is the sort of sound Ultravox were doing all the way back in 1977, when John Foxx was singing with them. Often supporting them was the band Gloria Mundi who I believe really were the first Goth band. They looked like urchins, they had a stark lighting set up, a savage musical sound, and they were dramatic onstage.
I wasn't alone in liking bands like them or the early gigs of Adam and the Ants, or any other punk bands who gradually assumed a twisted, dynamically loud but demanding approach and sound. UK Decay and Theatre Of Hate had that wild feel about them and the one thing you noticed at these sort of gigs was that you would recognise faces in the crowd. It was the same sort of people going along, and spreading the word, which was also happening in fanzines which had a feel for this sort of music. This was the earliest Goth audience.
We were all going for the bands who had a dark imagination, whose songs didn't have the simplicity of punk, but had the same attitude and energy. We simply required more, and it wasn't at all odd that so many bands came through because so many of us obviously shared the same imagery and influences when we were growing up.
The more of these bands that came through and formed the underground variety of the Post-Punk bands, the more I became inspired, and it all led on from there. Although I'd become a music journalist by then and was writing about many Punk and New Wave bands, with the first Indie bands following on, it was this kind of music I wanted to write about most.
My fanzine was doing well, and I'd convinced a music paper to let me do a few reviews for them. Back in the late 70's we had four weekly music newspapers, and a few music magazines. The only proper underground music magazine was called ZigZag and I'd sent the editor Kris Needs my zine and he asked me to do a few bits, and that eventually went on to me becoming Editor myself, but the publisher was a lunatic and highly devious and after a few months he wouldn't even let me in the office, so I went off and started freelancing for Melody Maker in 1982, which was brilliant, because I was able to do full page features on the some of the Goth bands, then in 1983 a new publisher brought the rights to ZigZag, and it was published again, with me as Editor once more. That went on until 1986, and was seen as the Goth bible back then, as we treated the bands enthusiastically, while most of the music papers sneered at the Goth bands. When it finally closed I didn't really know what to do although I'd been writing regularly for Melody Maker all through that period so I just concentrated in writing for them.
THE DOSE: You have several books that are absolute necessities for those who want to be wellversed in the genre. Could you tell us how Gothic Rock 1-2 (& Black Book), Hex Files and 21st Century Goth were born and what were the circumstances (scenewise and focuswise) at the times of writing?
MICK: Well, it had all happened by then, obviously, because publishers wouldn't ever consider a book about anything half-formed. They want to know there is a big enough dedicated hardcore audience to make the book likely to make a profit.
The first book, Gothic Rock Black Book, was done by Omnibus who are the big music publisher in the UK in terms of books, and because they'd seen the Goth scene had created band big enough to be signed by major labels they asked me to do the book. That was 1988. I was quite lucky actually because I think they originally asked Mat Smith at Melody Maker, as he'd written a lot about The Mission, but I think he turned them down, honestly admitting he didn't know enough about the scene generally, and recommended me. Weirdly, I recently realised the guy who got me to do it, Chris Charlesworth, may have been the Melody Maker Writer based in America whose American reports first got me seriously into bands!
That was a straightforward book, done to their express requirements. They stipulated they wanted a certain word length, they wanted the main chapters about the main bands, and just a couple of general chapters to fill out the historical aspect. It was fun to do, but very easy and somewhat undemanding I still made it very honest and didn't try and hide my preference for other bands, and the fact I didn't think much of the way the Big Five were going about things.
That view was shared by a guy called Sheldon Bayley who worked for a magazine publisher in Birmingham. A Goth himself and a big fan of The Mission and Sisters he didn't mind that I wasn't a fan of either band, he liked my approach, he understood my type of humour totally, and he asked if I would like to do a second book, for his publisher, and he said I could do whatever I wanted. This was sheer luxury for a writer and I had great fun doing the book, while also editing a monthly music magazine for him, called Siren.
The scene itself had gone downhill by then and nearly all you had in the UK was bands copying the big bands, either to try and get their audiences interested, or to try and get a record deal. So it was all Sisters and Nephilim clones, which was really, really boring.
In the mid-90s with more bands from around the world coming to our attention through fanzines and the early Internet sites it seemed right to try and do a proper International book, also stirring in the overlapping elements of Pagan, Vampire and Fetish matters which had become part and parcel of the scene, and I convinced a guy called Richard Reynolds at Batsfords publishers to let me do it, and he encouraged me to make it as detailed and visually appealing as I could.
It did well, and later I went to him again with the 21st Century Goth book, as he had started his own small publishing company. This book covered the Internet activity as it related to Goth, because I felt it important a book was based around that period, because by now everything had changed, with the huge boom in Goth Club music and the invasion of electro and Industrial, which was initially a refreshing change from the dull copyist Goth bands, but is now a tedious curse.
THE DOSE: Is there even a slight chance that you'd put your work (reviews, interviews, articles, photos) online and make a subscription-based mega-site? That node would have quite a chance to grow into the next bastion of Goth and a focus, this is something you've been pondering on that notion earlier..
MICK: I haven't even the vaguest ideas how to go about it, or how I would sort my stuff out. I write so much on a regular weekly basis online, and have so many plans which are in a constant state of flux that I never find the time to do anything truly ambitious. Even if I thought about it and started doing it something else would only come along and take my mind off it, so I really don't think this will happen, even though it probably is a very good idea.
Instead I am, trying to make sure I re-present my early work in book form through a self-publishing site like lulu.com just as I have made several CD-Roms available, with these CD books in pdf format. It's a rough way of doing it but it means I can get a huge amount of material onto a disc and people seem to like them. I have done two series, Punk History and Goth History. I also aim to cover the ten years I spent watching bands at a pub called the Bull & Gate. All of this will be finished somehow over the next couple of years.
THE DOSE: Why is Goth the genre that's the most alluring to you and are you following bands/trends that are Goth-related but show enormous differences, like visual kei?
MICK: No, Visual Kei doesn't interest me at all, apart from the visuals. The music is mainly shit. I don't wanted greyed-out Heavy Metal or weedy Glam. Goth itself has to have real heart, not be partially designed to try and get a deal, and if it's just surface and visuals with nothing to back it up it means nothing in my eyes. Just like the dozy club music with the naff electronic generic drip-feed of interchangeable sounds. Goth to me changes anyway and assumes different forms, in Ethereal, in Neo-classical (as in string quarters, or Renaissance music sounds given a modern twist), but not neo-folk, which is garbage. The fact the punkier form of Goth has come back, in the guise of Deathrock is a brilliant thing. Things which essentially copy from Goth don't interested me at all. It has to be real, it has to be heartfelt, not contrived.
THE DOSE: Do you foresee any significant difference or change in the Goth subculture in the upcoming years? People still stick with a few choices in bands, shops and infosites, as you earlier said, implying that the underlying mechanisms are still the same. Didn't the appearance of MySpace and web2.0 websites cause that to change?
MICK: The change is see coming is bands moving away from the electronic side of things and into developing more character because we've had too many bands just stuck in a generic flow. I think it's only natural people stick with a few chosen sites and info portals because after a while you realise you can waste too much time looking for things. The problem is there's too much choice in a way, so there is no central focus possible anymore the way you had with papers. In one or two weeks the whole country could know about a band back then. That doesn't happen now. Instead, in two or three weeks you learn about another fifty bands! It's chaos.
It is now very hard for bands to achieve recognition, but they just need to go out there and do it live, then wait for the coverage that creates to gather momentum online. I don't think websites themselves can do very much at all now. They're developing and changing too much. You need a site with compatible search engines sections in-built which will shape-shift and fit your own preferred 'home' site if you like, so all music sites more or less become one, but you filter out what you don't wish to see, but that's a good few years away now. Myspace helps bands a bit, and is a good info tool, but it isn't fantastic by any means. If a band is good, and active, it can use sites, and through that get to people. Nothing sites themselves have tried to do has really created any great shift.
THE DOSE: This is a Britain/London issue and we'd really love to hear your thoughts about THE British/UK Goth scene, how it changed during the years, what were its heydays, generations and what are its spectacular key points that make a difference from all the other Goth scenes in other countries.
MICK: Spectacular key points? There was, but only in that it started here, with a real intensity, but if you look at how the German scene has its big festivals and magazines they took it over in that sense and our scene is now tiny. We started with Punk, Post-Punk and the big important 80s boom, then we went through a dark dismal period, the club scene took over mid-90s and even with Whitby fighting a good rearguard action and trying to interest people in the spirit of Goth and having a variety of bands, people here prefer to go to a club rather than supporting bands who now find it hard selling 500 copies of an album when back in the 80s bands would gig two or three times a week if they wanted to and could sell ten thousand albums over the period of a couple of years. Many of the big names would sell 100,000 which seems remarkable now.
Thanks to the Net people also copy and share and virtually expect everything for free. Bands have a real uphill struggle ahead.
The UK heyday is gone, and won't be back, but if bands get out there and compete with the indie bands who are now so boring they're a disgrace then Goth can become popular, more popular than it has been for nearly 20 years and that would be a good change, because we have great bands here.
We have bands here who do have great character, and who take chances. They have wit and a sense of attack. I try and pay attention to music from all around the world, and I think the British bands shine in terms of attitude, when they get it right, and are less worried about how others view them now. A lot of countries have bands who seem far too polite, or too desperate to fit in with certain scenes. I think the British bands have in a way got a defeatist attitude - they don't ever expect to get anywhere now, and don't see any way out, even though there is ways of doing it. They've gone about it the wrong was for far too long now, but the one good thing to come out of it is finally people are staring to think well fuck it, we're a Goth band like it or not, we don't care because this is what we do, and that is a form of integrity other people take note of.
It's a weird thing now that on myspace there are lots of new UK bands appearing who call themselves Indie but also Goth, or Gothic Indie. They see Indie is shit, but that Goth is Good. Suddenly Goth is good! Not briefly cool, but Good! There's so much shit music made on the European mainland or in Scandinavia which is all Goth-metal types of crap, or two men and their laptops. That is much for the brain-dead, not Goth music.
THE DOSE: What are those places in London (and in England) that you'd consider your favourites and would recommend to our readers to include in their sight-seeings (and nightly excursions)?
MICK: I wouldn't. They can check out net.goth for club activity if they like, but hardly any of those nights have bands on, so they're just clubs and I don't even want any knowledge of them.
THE DOSE: You deal with terrific amounts of bands and demos.. who would those new generation Goth bands be that you'd definitely recommend to anyone with even a mild interest in the scene? And who are those who're worthlessly under-appreciated?
MICK: History Of Guns are this decade's Alien Sex Fiend, mixing beats and ideas with scandalous ease. They're geniuses, who seem to live in the pub. Siiiii just returned after over 20 years away and made the best album of last year in 'Ancient' with a new one coming soon. I love Rome Burns who aren't ashamed to be remarkably wordy. Solemn Novena are trad Goth done in a modern way. Razorblade Kisses are funpopgoth, and bands like Zombina & The Skeletones, Screaming Banshee Aircrew and All Gone Dead have humour but also tons of energy. And all come up with cracking, crafty melodies. The punk politico-gothfriendly Action Directe, and the gracious Goth of Voices Of Masada.
The thing is there's tons of bands all over the world, with new ones appearing all the time, Miguel & The Living Dead, DHM, The Naughty Zombies, La Peste Negra, Ultranoir, The Tunnel Of Love, Tor Lundvall, Quidam, Those Poor Bastards, The Citiziens, Hearts Fail, No Tears, Bohemien, Ikon, Katzenjammer Kabarett, Calabrese, Necrostellar, Dvar, Villa Vortex, Redemption, The House Of Usher, Black Ice, Pins & Needles, The Arid Sea, Flipron, Doppelganger, A Spectre Is Haunting Europe, Frank The Baptist, Ego Likeness.....all different styles of music but all dark in one way or another, all with beautiful good points, and individual flourishes.
THE DOSE: What was the best initiative that you've seen in the Goth scene?
MICK: Er…..none? I suppose people who have organised and sustained festivals, really. They give people something to aim for? But iniatives? Nope, I'm lost.
THE DOSE: And what would the best moment of the best concert be?
MICK: Best gig ever for excitement, watching the Ants as they reached the potential we all knew they had, unveiling early 'Kings' songs with majestic savage power, but then utter disgust as they threw it all away on puerile pop.
THE DOSE: You're hatching plans for your fifth book, could you elaborate on that and perhaps drop a few exclusive details?
MICK: Hmmm, it's about Goth now, looking at what's happened, why we have reached the mess we now have, and what's the way out, plus covering a hundred or so bands. It's all about music this time, with nothing else allowed to get in the way.
THE DOSE: We'd also love to hear on how Killing is Naughty started and why you specifically chose lulu.com to release your writings through..
MICK: I didn't specifically, I just assumed they're the biggest and best self-publishing firm, so that's what I will use. Maybe there are others? I've wanted to write novels since the late 80s but things kept getting in the way. All of the music projects I have which are ongoing are now like mental baggage I need to get rid of before I can fully concentrate on what I want to do, which is doing my weekly writing, a monthly online mag, plus two novels a year. That's the way I want things to go.
The 'Killing Is Naughty' book is about two grandmothers who fight zombies. It's not all they do, but it's certainly more than a hobby. They feel a duty to do it. It's the first of a ten part series which ends with the potential obliteration of England as a country. It also has something, as series, which I am not aware of anyone else doing, so I have to make it work, but I can't tell you what it is.
I know I'm not a great writer so I'm not the sort of person who would sit and agonize over a book. Once I get into a rhythm and know what I'm doing then putting out two books a year would be easy because I will streamline what I am doing.
Life at the moment is just demented. Last year was horrible for me, really awful. I was constantly ill and it became demoralising, but just this week I found out why. You know how people seem to be becoming more prone to allergies? Twenty years ago you hardly ever heard of it but now it seems almost common and everyday, probably because of all the extra ingredients they put into our foods. I am allergic to peanut butter! I didn't know before because I'm not allergic to actual peanuts, just peanut butter so for the past year I have kept eating it, kept making myself ill, living in a perpetual state of food poisoning. Now I know to avoid it I expect to be back on top form by the Summer and writing like an absolute fucking maniac the way I always used to, so I am going to get all my projects knocked off, one after the other, including the new Goth book, and I can start to have some fun again.
I have also started two online myspace groups for two bands. My favourite dead band, The Dancing Did, who split up in 1983, and my favourite current band whom I didn't mention earlier, Italy's Ataraxia, who I think are magical in their own way. They're very strange and yet often quite formal and relaxed. A world without their music is not a world worth living in. I also get to do the sleeve notes for a compilation of all the Dancing Did material which Cherry Re are releasing soon, so that's something to enjoy. I've never stopped telling people about them since they split up, so hopefully now people can listen and enjoy it all anew. Being a totally unique band in the way they wrote, and their own sound, they should be just as fresh to new generations as they were back then.
THE DOSE: What are the current films, books, comics, series and other artistic stuff that you love nowadays?
MICK: Not much, as I hardly ever watch TV, and I don't really read much. I try and go to the cinema once a week with my partner Lynda. Just recently it's been all gurly films (Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen, that sort of thing), but I'm looking forward to 300. Best film of the year so far is Hot Fuzz. I daren't start buying comics again (favourite ever, Daredevil, closely followed by Cerebus) at the moment because I'm supposed to be saving up to try and buy a few photo archives Last year I bought the Linda Rowell collection and copyright, as she was always the best photographer of the early Goth scene in London. I hope to buy a few more, so all my spare money must go towards that. I want these collections in my hands rather than rotting away somewhere, as I know has happened before as I have met photographers who stopped taking pictures, forgot all about their collections and found they hadn't stored them properly and all their negatives were ruined. I want to have a serious archive available to people at some point.
THE DOSE: What's your opinion on Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis film "Control"?
MICK: I can't help you there I'm afraid. Haven't seen it. I liked Joy Division on record, but live found them infuriating and Curtis very dull in interviews. I can't say the idea of going to see a film about him fills me with excitement.
THE DOSE: With all the work you do, what keeps you going after so many years, where do the roots of your energy and anger management lie?
MICK: I'm 50 this year! Officially a boring old fucker. I have a nice life with Lynda and our five cats. I am surrounded by music and every day I don't know what the emails will bring, or the post. There is always something new to hear and to assess. My life gets weirder than I expected thanks to Lynda who sings opera in local societies and I photograph all their events, which is very strange. They often perform in churches, where I can sit there listening to CDs and making notes while they take their breaks, or I can watch bemused as they wander about in 18TH Century costumes. The last one Lynda directed had a dozen or so zombies which looked brilliant in a church.
What keeps me going is what keeps anyone going – I am genuinely interested in things, occasionally influenced by things and frequently inspired. I always want to be doing more.
THE DOSE: How are you progressing with your churchyard photography project?
MICK: I'm not. It's slowed down, but the churchyards aren't going anywhere soon so I can get back to it when I like. My plan is to photograph every church with graves in Sussex and Surrey, as I was living there but moved last year, so these two counties are currently closest to my heart.
THE DOSE: You always plan so I guess I have to ask what your plans are for the future - in case that's public, of course.
MICK: I think I covered all of that above, in saying what I aim to be working on, but of course there will also be a few other things which crop up, such as trying to get Lynda to release a CD of melodramatic Victorian songs, and some other books will happen. I have ideas for a few things knocking around in my head.
THE DOSE: Mick, thank you so much for dedicating so much time for us - do you have a final message to the readers of THE DOSE mag?
MICK: Never, ever let anyone tell you your ideas aren't good enough if you have a real desire to do something creative. It may be that you aren't any good, but you must find that out for yourself, not be forever wondering 'what if' later on. Find ways to make things happen and remember this: of the people in your generation only a certain % have ideas which they pursue, and many of them will eventually let them fall by the wayside for any number of reasons, which means that by an organic process if you keep going you will stand a better chance of getting somewhere than your natural contemporaries, so persevere, but be realistic. If you think you can do something good in a couple of years make a sensible mental adjustment.
It's going to take three times as long. Just don't have nightmares about it. Enjoy the journey and the discoveries, but be warned: if you speak your mind, as I do, expect others to mind, because they will.
Then again, what do I know? I'm an idiot.