|Cultural origins||Early 1980s, Los Angeles, California, United States|
|Derivative forms||Dark cabaret|
Death rock (or deathrock) is a rock music subgenre incorporating horror elements and gothic theatrics. It emerged from punk rock on the West Coast of the United States in the early 1980s and overlaps with the gothic rock and horror punk genres. Notable death rock acts include Christian Death, Kommunity FK, 45 Grave, Zombina and the Skeletones, and Super Heroines.
Death rock songs usually incorporate a driving, repetitive rhythm section; the drums and bass guitar laying the foundation within a 4
4 time signature while the guitars either play simple chords or effects-driven leads to create atmosphere. Lyrics can vary, but are typically introspective and surreal, and deal with the dark themes of isolation, gloom, disillusionment, loss, life, death, etc.; as can the style, varying from harsh and dark to upbeat, melodic, and tongue-in-cheek. Death rock lyrics and other musical stylistic elements often incorporate the themes of campy horror and sci-fi films, which in turn leads some bands to adopt elements of rockabilly. Despite the similar-sounding name, death rock has no connection to death metal, which is a subgenre of heavy metal.
The term "death rock" was first used in the 1950s to describe a thematically related genre of rock and roll, which began in 1958 with Jody Reynolds' "Endless Sleep" and ended in 1964 with J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss". The term was also applied to the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack". These songs about dead teenagers were noted for their morbid yet romantic view of death, spoken word bridges, and sound effects. In 1974, the term "death rock" was used by Gene Grier to describe the same phenomenon in rock music.
The term later re-emerged to describe the sound of various West Coast punk bands. It most likely came from one of three sources: Rozz Williams, the founding member of Christian Death, to describe the sound of his band; the music press, reusing the 1950s term to describe an emerging subgenre of punk; and/or Nick Zedd's 1979 film They Eat Scum, which featured a fictitious cannibalistic "death rock" punk band called "Suzy Putrid and the Mental Deficients."
The earliest influences for some death rock acts, such as 45 Grave for example, can be traced to the horror-themed novelty rock and roll acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Zacherle with "Monster Mash"; Screamin' Jay Hawkins with "I Put a Spell on You"; Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages with "Murder in the Graveyard"; and Don Hinson and the Rigormorticians with "Riboflavin-Flavored Non-Carbonated Poly-Unsaturated Blood". These songs used sound effects to create a creepy atmosphere, dealt with taboo subjects (such as cannibalism) in a humorous, often campy manner.
This horror influence on rock music continued into the 1970s with theatrical hard rockers Alice Cooper and Kiss, both specifically credited by Rozz Williams as childhood influences. 45 Grave also covered Cooper's "School's Out".
Horror movies also directly influenced death rock artists. According to 45 Grave singer Dinah Cancer, Italian horror movies were a large influence on 45 Grave's visual style. Zombie movies influenced many death rock artists, especially George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels. John Russo's Return of the Living Dead (1985) featured Linnea Quigley and a soundtrack by bands associated with the punk and death rock movements, including 45 Grave, the Cramps, the Flesh Eaters, T.S.O.L. and the Damned.
Horror-themed TV shows, such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Twilight Zone and Dark Shadows, also provided some visual influence, as did spookily-clad horror movie hosts on TV such as Vampira in Los Angeles, John Zacherle in Philadelphia and New York, Elvira in Los Angeles (then later nationally), and Ghoulardi in Cleveland.
Death rock first emerged in the United States in the early 1980s as a darker offshoot of the pre-existing punk rock and the emerging hardcore L.A. music scene. The most active and best documented death rock music scene was in Los Angeles, e.g. around the Anti-Club, which centered on acts such as the Flesh Eaters, 45 Grave, Christian Death, Super Heroines, Pompeii 99, Kommunity FK, Voodoo Church, Ex-VoTo, Burning Image, Radio Werewolf, and Screams for Tina. Other bands included T.S.O.L. from Long Beach, California, Theatre of Ice from Fallon, Nevada, and Mighty Sphincter from Phoenix, Arizona.
These early West Coast death rock bands took the pre-existing base of punk rock and added dark yet playful themes borrowed from horror movies, film noir, surrealism, religious imagery, etc. A couple of bands blended hardcore punk with a gothic sound, most notably T.S.O.L. and Burning Image.
These early post-punk death rock bands were not immediately identified as part of a new subgenre of punk; they were simply considered a darker flavor of punk and were not yet considered part of a separate musical movement. During this time, these bands would play at the same venues as punk, hardcore and new wave bands. A similar situation arose in New York City circa 1978-79, albeit on a much smaller scale, in which influential punk rock bands like the Cramps and the Misfits, as well as the Mad (fronted by future horror-film effects artist Screaming Mad George) had incorporated extensive horror themes into their lyrics, visuals, and stage show, though they did not use the term "death rock" to describe themselves.
By 1980, a wave of post-punk bands such as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, and The Cure abandoned the intensity of punk music in favour of a more elaborate style characterized by moody guitars and dark droning bass guitar patterns combined with romantic and morbid themes. This style of rock became known as "gothic rock" or "positive punk". A second wave of bands had coalesced a few years later, headed by acts such as Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult, along with Brigandage, Blood and Roses, and Ritual. Many of those bands featured tribal drumming, high-pitched vocals, scratchy guitar, and bass guitar as melodic lead instrument and a visual look blending glam with Native American-influenced warpaint and spiky haircuts.
During 1982, the scene was brewing at the London gothic rock club Batcave. Initially envisioned as a venue specializing in glam rock and new wave musical acts, the two main bands which debuted and performed frequently at the Batcave, Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend, developed their own different sounds strongly influenced by horror in British pop culture, which set them apart from the rest of the glam and post-punk scenes in Britain. In 1983, Gun Club toured in Europe as did Christian Death in 1984, leading to cross-pollination between the European gothic rock scene and the American death rock scene. By 1984, California death rock band Kommunity FK toured with UK gothic rock band Sex Gang Children (and the following year with Alien Sex Fiend) which continued the trend in which American and British movements intermixed.
Influenced more by the British scene and less by California, death rock bands began to form in other parts of the United States, such as Samhain (1983) in Lodi, New Jersey; Holy Cow (1984) in Boston, Massachusetts (and later Providence, Rhode Island); Gargoyle Sox (1985) in Detroit, Michigan; and Shadow of Fear (1985) in Cleveland, Ohio. The fertile New York scene featured Scarecrow (1983), Of a Mesh (1983), Chop Shop (1984), Fahrenheit 451 (1984), The Naked and the Dead (1985), Brain Eaters (1986), the Children's Zoo (1986), the Plague (1987) and the Ochrana (1987).
The mid-1980s marked the second wave of gothic rock, when the sound began to shift away from its punk and post-punk roots and towards the more serious, rock-oriented approach. Bauhaus broke up, Williams left Christian Death, and the Sisters of Mercy became the dominant and most influential gothic act. The term "gothic rock" became preferred over "death rock" (previously, they had been used interchangeably), a change which Williams attributed to the influence of the Sisters of Mercy. As a result, the term "death rock" was seldom used except in retrospective reference to the Los Angeles bands 45 Grave and Christian Death.
The mid-1990s marked a third wave of gothic rock, as the music drifted its furthest from the original punk and post-punk sound by incorporating many elements of the industrial music scene at the time (which itself had moved away from experimental noise and into a more dance-rock oriented sound) and the more repetitive and electronic sounds of EBM. Some clubs even completely dropped death rock and first generation gothic rock from their setlists to appeal to a crossover crowd. These changes alienated many in the goth scene who preferred the livelier, punkier death rock sound and led them to seek out their earlier death rock roots.
Nearly 20 years after death rock and goth first appeared on the music scenes in southern California and London, the death rock revival began in southern California. During 1998 in Long Beach, California, owners of the Que Sera, a local bar, asked Jeremy Meza, Dave Skott and Jenn Skott to throw a one-night "old school" gothic Halloween party. After the success of the one-off party, the event quickly evolved into a regular death rock club called Release the Bats (named after an iconic song by the Birthday Party) and a focal point in California for the re-emerging death rock movement.
The death rock revival movement was similar to the original death rock scene in Los Angeles and the Batcave movement in London, but more unified in the US, UK and Europe through various record labels. In addition to clubs, the revival scene was centered on concerts, special events, parties, and horror movie screenings. The Internet played a major role in the death rock revival. Websites and online communities sprang up devoted to the discussion of death rock music, bands and fashions as well as horror movies.
In terms of differences from the original scene, there was a shift to a more post-punk sound as a result of the influence of the European bands of the 1980s. Also, the apolitical influence of psychobilly discouraged political debates with the potential to fragment the scene (however some famous death rock acts, such as Rudimentary Peni, were originally anarcho-punk bands, and there existed some slight crossover between the two scenes). The Drop Dead Festival, similar to psychobilly's Hootenanny, gave bands with smaller fan bases an opportunity to play before larger crowds.
A later trend toward "lo-fi goth" music in the indie scene developed partially out of the death rock revival, exemplified by Grave Babies, which some described as the fifth wave of gothic music.
Artists and bands
Only Theatre of Pain, Christian Death's 1982 debut album, is cited as the first American gothic album and cannot be easily classified as either a darker flavor of punk, horror punk or gothic rock. As a result, Williams, the band's deceased lead singer (also known for Shadow Project and Premature Ejaculation), was considered one of the most influential artists in the goth and death rock scene. Other influential male death rockers included Patrick Mata of Kommunity FK and Larry Rainwater of Ex-VoTo.
Dinah Cancer has been referred to as the "Queen of Deathrock", the "Goddess of Deathrock" and the "High Priestess of Deathrock" for her role as the frontwoman for 45 Grave during a time when female lead singers were still considered somewhat of a rarity. Other influential female death rockers included Eva O and Voodoo Church's Tina Winter.
Many artists in the United States released EPs and LPs prior to 1982 which would now be considered death rock, such as Theatre of Ice and Mighty Sphincter. British bands also made major contributions to the death rock sound by adding a strong post-punk influence, including Joy Division, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Other bands from around the world added their own unique contribution to death rock, including Xmal Deutschland in Germany, Virgin Prunes from Ireland, and the Birthday Party in Australia.
- Gitane Demone: 20 Years in Death, published in Matzke, Peter; Seeliger, Tobias: Gothic!, Schwarzkopf Verlag, Germany 1999, ISBN 3-89602-332-2, p. 42
- Bag, Alice: Interview with Dinah Cancer of 45 Grave, Women in L.A. Punk, November 2004
"The first prowlings of death rock came in the early '80s before we were labeled as our other counterparts – the gothic movement. There were no Goths. The Death rockers were splintered off from the punk/hardcore scene that was going on at the time. We played punk rock but we loved Halloween and we looked like vampires. So the phrase Death rock was born."
- Stylus Staff: England Fades Away. Stylus Magazine’s Guide to Goth, 7. August 2006
- Sheppard, Oliver: Interview with Kommunity FK, CVLT Nation magazine, 6 January 2014
- Larkin, Colin: The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music, Virgin Books, 1st edition, 1998, ISBN 0-753-50268-2, p. 353
"In 1958 the band went to Los Angeles, where they were signed to the new Demon label. The label did not use the Storms but did record Reynolds, backed with a number of professional session musicians on his 1958 single 'Endless Sleep' (covered in the UK by Marty Wilde), a song Reynolds had written with George Brown (credited under the pseudonym Delores Nance). The song reached number 5 and became one of the first of the so-called 'death rock' hits of the 50s and 60s (others in that category included 'Tell Laura I Love Her', 'Terry', 'Teen Angel' and 'Leader Of The Pack'). Reynolds made the charts once more with 'Fire Of Love' (also in 1958), but none of his subsequent recordings for Demon, Smash or other labels charted."
- Miletich, Leo: Rock Me with a Steady Roll, Reason magazine, March 1987
- Bernards, Neal; Modl, Tom: The Mass Media: Opposing Viewpoints, Greenhaven Press 1988, ISBN 0-899-08425-7, p. 130
"There was a trend, of a sort, in 'death rock' in the early '60s, epitomized by morbid teen songs like 'Deadman's Curve' and 'Last Kiss.' But before death rock came 'Gloomy Sunday.' According to David Ewen's 'All the Years of American Popular Music', the song was 'promoted by its publishers as a "suicide song"' because it was reputed to have encouraged the suicidal tendencies of the tormented and the harassed of the early thirties."
- Grier, Gene: The Conceptual Approach to Rock Music, Manual, Charter Publications, 1st edition, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1974, p. 6
"In class, discuss the History of Rock Development Chart. A. Use an overhead projector to present this or any other appropriate materials. NOTE: Not all types of Rock are listed on the Chart. The students may name some you might want to include, such as Death Rock, Surf Rock, etc. Use your own discretion. B. To really give the student a good insight into the historical development of Rock, he should be exposed to the development of the European influence and the African influence."
- Kilpatrick, Nancy. The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2004, ISBN 0-312-30696-2, p. 89.
- Hawkins, Joan Defining Cult Movies, pp 227-228. Manchester University Press (2003). ISBN 0-7190-6631-X, 9780719066313. 
- Ohanesian, Liz: Egrets on Ergot at The Echo, LA Weekly, March 2015
- Sheppard, Oliver: Deathrock: A Brief History, Part I, Souciant magazine, 16 April 2012
- Greene, James: This Music Leaves Stains. The Complete Story of the Misfits, Scarecrow Press 2013, ISBN 1-589-79892-9, p. 33
- Rasen, Edward: Is there life after Death rock?, Spin, May 1985, p. 75
- Gitane Demone: 20 Years in Death, published in Matzke, Peter; Seeliger, Tobias: Gothic!, Schwarzkopf Verlag, Germany 1999, ISBN 3-89602-332-2, p. 45
- Finkel, Markus: Dying Stars. Rozz Williams, Soulsaver 2012, ISBN 3-942-89305-3, p. 22
- Chris Graves: Rozz Williams. Biography, RozzNet.com, 2009
- IMDB: Return of the Living Dead, Soundtrack
- Sheppard, Oliver: Interview with Kommunity FK, CVLT Nation magazine, 6 January 2014
"The blue spark ov founding my own band in which I could express myself as I desired began in 1978 but it didn’t blossom into fruition until 1979-80 when I was joined in alliance by 2 other like-minded musicians."
- Sheppard, Oliver: Deathrock: A Brief History, Part I, Souciant magazine, 16 April 2012
"As mentioned before, the narrowest sense of 'deathrock' refers to a specific style of music made in Southern California in the early 1980s."
- Isabella van Elferen, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock: Goth Music: From Sound to Subculture. Routledge Studies in Popular Music, 2015, ISBN 0-415-72004-4 p. 45
- Robbins, Ira A.: The Trouser Press Record Guide, Collier Books, 1991, ISBN 0-020-36361-3, p. 128
- Cogan, Brian: Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture, Greenwood 2006, ISBN 0-313-33340-8, p. 232
- Schmidt, Axel; Neumann-Braun, Klaus: Die Welt der Gothics. Spielräume düster konnotierter Transzendenz., Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2004, ISBN 3-531-14353-0, p. 262.
- Greene, James: This Music Leaves Stains. The Complete Story of the Misfits, Scarecrow Press 2013, ISBN 1-589-79892-9, p. 32
"Los Angeles bands like T.S.O.L., 45 Grave, the Flesh Eaters, Kommunity FK, and Christian Death focused on a grim, discordant, and echoey musical offering very much in line with overseas goth proprietors such as Bauhaus and Joy Division."
- Thompson, Dave; Borchardt, Kirsten: Schattenwelt. Helden und Legenden des Gothic Rock, Hannibal Verlag, 2004, ISBN 3-85445-236-5, pp. 13−14
- Reynolds, Simon: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, Faber and Faber 2005, ISBN 0-571-21569-6, p. 423
- Thompson, Dave; Borchardt, Kirsten: Schattenwelt. Helden und Legenden des Gothic Rock, Hannibal Verlag, 2004, ISBN 3-85445-236-5, p. 182−189
- Matzke, Peter; Seeliger, Tobias: Das Gothic- und Dark-Wave-Lexikon, Schwarzkopf Verlag, 2003, ISBN 3-89602-522-8, p. 144