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Credit Donna-Marie Whatmore
Marie Whatmore

Life as a goth in 1980s Yorkshire

How economic decline and the spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper shaped the subculture in its formative years in the north of England

There are few subcultures as globally and universally recognisable as goth. Derided by those outside of it, it is the quintessential subculture for misfits. Defined by its alternativeness rather than any geographical centrality, anyone anywhere can be a goth. But while the Batcave club, which opened in Soho in 1982, gave goth the platform that would spread the scene across the globe, it was in Leeds and its surrounding suburbs that goth evolved from punk to have an aesthetic and identity of its own.

Like other subcultures that had their origins in punk, the scene was the product of a generation that felt it had little or no future. Under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, economic instability caused mass youth unemployment in industrial cities across the north of England. As in other provincial cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, a lack of jobs created a sense of disenfranchisement in Leeds and its surrounding towns. Adding to the city’s gloomy atmosphere was the on-going spate of murders committed by serial killer Peter Sutcliffe — dubbed the ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ by the press — who was responsible for 13 murders and several attempted murders of women around the city from 1975 until his arrest in 1981.

Describing the atmosphere in the city during the germination of the scene in the late 70s, music promoter John Keenan said Sutcliffe “held the city to ransom”, creating a climate of fear. “Leeds was a bit of a dump in those days, a dark and gloomy industrial city. The whole of Boar Lane (at the bottom of the city centre) was crumbling and the pavements were dug up,” he says, “It was a pretty doomy city.”

“They didn’t clean the buildings and there was a lot of pollution. All the buildings were blackened with exhaust fumes, and it just had a depressing feel to it. The (Yorkshire) Ripper had been on the loose for a few years and there was an atmosphere of ‘What’s he going to do next?’ People were paranoid. They didn’t want to go out, parents didn’t want their daughters to go out or their own, or even with friends.”

“The (Yorkshire) Ripper had been on the loose for a few years and there was an atmosphere of ‘What’s he going to do next?’ People were paranoid. They didn’t want to go out, parents didn’t want their daughters to go out or their own, or even with friends.”

Keenan, who had promoted gigs at university in the 60s, returned to the Leeds music scene after the emergence of punk and post-punk, putting on ‘darkwave’ bands such as Joy Division, The Damned, and Siouxsie & the Banshees, who would each heavily influence gothic rock.

Bands at the forefront of the local music scene such as the Sisters of Mercy and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry styled themselves in all-black, wearing the jewellery and hairstyles that would come to define and differentiate the subculture from punk. The release of Bauhaus’s single “Bela Lugosi's Dead” was a seminal moment for what would become gothic rock, leading to a number of bands in the city to combine the sound of the record with influences of punk and glam rock.

The arrest of Peter Sutcliffe in 1981 ended the sense of danger in the city at night, and there was a rejuvenation of the city’s nightlife. Along with gigs hosted at venues in the city, a number of bars and clubs began to host darkwave club nights. At the centre of these clubs was the now legendary Le Phonographique — more commonly known as The Phono. Located inside the city’s Merrion Shopping Centre and commonly accepted as the first goth club, its unique layout — with a pillar in the middle of its dance floor — led to and popularised the ‘two steps forward, two steps back’ style of goth dancing.

In being a product of circumstance rather than a conscious choice, the invention of the dance is emblematic of the scene. Unemployment meant buying clothes second-hand as well as making them was the only choice available, and similarly snakebite — which would become the goth ‘drink of choice’ — was first drunk out of thrift.

Sara, who was part of the scene in the early 80s, describes first going out to clubnights in the city at 16 whilst she was signing onto the dole. “There were loads of live gigs and clubs you could go to,” she says, “All our clothes we got second-hand from junk shops, so it was cheap. Then you’d go out in Siouxsie Sioux makeup and crimp your hair.”

“I’d get a few halves, then nurse them all night. People didn’t really go out and get drunk — it was more about dancing and listening to the music. It was quite an artistic and creative time, and there was sense of anything goes. People were quite shocked when they saw us. You’d get stared at on the street, but it was a reaction against the 80s mainstream. If you felt a little bit odd as a teenager then the music offered you that outlet; we were all like a family in The Phono because everybody knew one another. You’d go out, but you’d also go to the city centre parks to hang about and swap records.” 

“People were quite shocked when they saw us. You’d get stared at on the street, but it was a reaction against the 80s mainstream. If you felt a little bit odd as a teenager then the music offered you that outlet; we were all like a family.”

Leeds began to be referred to as ‘Gothic City’ after local paper the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a story in 1983 around the annual Futurama 5 festival. The paper headlined the piece ‘A Day In Gothic City’ and described the line-up as sounding “a bit gothic horror”. The scene took its name from the description.

Donna, who was a regular at The Phono and other club nights in the city, described being a goth as being about dressing as outrageously as possible. “The Phono was a dingy basement club and we use to dance round this mirrored pillar in the middle of a very tiny dance floor, so we were fighting for some space,” she says, “It was also about experimenting and trying to be the most outlandish or loud or flamboyant. You wanted to be noticed and you definitely got noticed. The more outrageous you looked, the better. It was a really special scene and looking back I feel proud to have been a part of it.”