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Stylistic origins: Punk, pre-Hardcore Punk, Post-Punk, Glam rock, Horror film scores,
Cultural origins: Late 1970s, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, Germany
Typical instruments: Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Drums, Keyboard
Mainstream popularity: Generally low although in the 1980s a few bands closely identified with Deathrock music did have top 40 hits.

Deathrock (also spelled death rock) is a term used to identify a subgenre of punk rock and/or gothic rock, which incorporated elements of horror and first emerged most prominently in the West Coast of the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The music and the scene of "modern" (post-1990) Deathrock bands have a stronger post-punk influence than the earlier Deathrock bands. Additionally, the term "deathrock" can be used as a synonym for first generation gothic rock and is sometimes written as Deathrock/Batcave.


Characteristics of deathrock

Deathrock emphasizes a creepy atmosphere and an introspective mood within a characteristally punk or post-punk music structure. Songs typically use simple cords, echoing guitars, a prominent bass, creative drumming, and repetitive or tribal beats, all within a 4/4 time signature. To create atmosphere, scratchy guitars and/or keyboards are used and experimentation with other instruments to produce unusual sounds is encouraged. Lyrics are typically introspective and angsty; they deal with the dark themes of isolation, irony, disillusionment, loss, death, etc. all of which are designed to strike an emotional chord with the listener. However, this places a great demand on the lead vocalist [1] to convey complex emotions, so the lead vocalists are typically charismatic and have strong, distinctive or unusual voices in order to stand out from the heavily atmospheric and rhythmic music.

The heavy emphasis on mood means that Deathrock DJs spin their music to match moods instead of matching beats as Techno and EBM DJs typically do [2].

History of deathrock

Etymology of 'deathrock'

The origin of the term 'deathrock' can be traced back to the 1950s when it was used to describe a genre of rock and roll called "death rock", beginning in 1958 with Jody Reynold's "Endless Sleep" [3] and ending in 1964 with J. Frank Wilson's The Last Kiss [4]. In these songs, teenagers sang about the tragic deaths of their boyfriends or girlfriends from accidents, suicides, illnesses, etc. The Shangri-Las' Leader Of The Pack is arguably the best known example of 1950s style "death rock", but other well known songs from this era would include Mark Dinning's Teen Angel and Ray Peterson's Tell Laura I Love Her [5]. These early "death rock" songs were generally more serious, introspective and romantic in nature than the novelty songs of this era which humorously dealt with encounters with vampires, monsters, werewolves, etc.[6]

The term deathrock re-emerged as early as 1979 to describe the sound of various bands which would later become associated with the deathrock scene. Mark Splatter of attributes it to Rozz Williams [7], although some attribute it to the lyrics from the 1982 Misfits' song All Hell Breaks Loose ("And broken bodies in a death rock dance hall") [8], while still others attribute the term to a label applied by the media to describe Los Angeles based punk bands obsessed with spooky imagery and death, in much the same manner as positive punk was used by the media to describe the early Batcave sound in the U.K. In any event, the term deathrock appears to have first caught hold in the West Coast of the United States then spread outward from there. [9]

Deathrock was used interchangeably with gothic rock [10] until sometime during the mid 1990s when eventually deathrock as a label fell out of vogue and was seldom used except in reference to the Los Angeles bands 45 Grave and Christian Death.

Origins of deathrock

While the aforementioned "death rock" songs of the Shangri-Las, Mark Dinning, Ray Peterson, etc. helped to initially establish some of the themes (death, grief, loss, tragedy, etc.) [11] which would become associated with Deathrock, both the sound and visuals of Deathrock were perhaps more influenced by the less serious late 1950s/early 1960s novelty music acts such as Bobby “Boris” Pickett with the Monster Mash and Screamin' Jay Hawkins with I Put a Spell on You in the United States, and Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages with Murder in the Graveyard in Great Britain. These songs used sound effects [12] to create a humorously creepy atmosphere while dealing with taboo subjects. Screamin' Jay Hawkins had elaborate an stage act which would include coffins, skulls, shrunken heads, fireworks [13]. These novelty songs are still occasionally played at deathrock clubs [14].

Other influences from the 1950s include the darker themes and often campy visuals from B-movie horror films and the atmospheric and mood setting sound of horror film scores all of which were eventually incorporated into Deathrock. These types of influences continued through the 1960s with TV shows such as the Addams Family, the Munsters, the Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows as well as the frequent TV showings of Universal Horror films, Hammer horror films, B-movie horror films. However, The dark side of American pop culture was not the only influence on Deathrock. According to Dinah Cancer, Italian horror movies were a very big influence on 45 Grave's visual style [15]. Both Deathrock bands and fashion were influenced by spookily clad horror movie hosts on TV such as Vampira [16] in Los Angeles, John Zacherle in Philadelphia and New York, Elvira in Los Angeles (then later nationally), and Ghoulardi [17] in Cleveland.

Well known rock bands from the 1960s and early 1970s such as The Doors, the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and The Stooges, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS, etc, explored darker themes and sounds, and in some cases by presenting horror themed visuals with their shows which would later influence Deathrock artists. For example, Rozz Williams specifically credits Alice Cooper and KISS as two of his biggest influences [18].

(For a more complete listing of the early musical influences on Deathrock, see Gothic Rock predecessors.)

Emergence of deathrock

Deathrock first emerged in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a horror movie influenced offshoot from the pre-existing punk rock and pre-hardcore L.A. music scene. [19].

The most active and best documented deathrock music scene was in Los Angeles which centered around the bands The Flesh Eaters (1977), Kommunity FK (1979), 45 Grave (1979), Christian Death (1979), Gun Club (1981), Voodoo Church (1982), Burning Image (1983), etc. However, other cities in the United States also had bands which would later be described as Deathrock such as Theatre of Ice (1978) in Fallon, Nevada (and later Salt Lake City, Utah and Phoenix, Arizona), Gargoyle Sox (1985) in Detroit, Michigan, Shadow of Fear (1985) in Cleveland, Ohio, and Holy Cow in Boston, Massachusetts (and later Providence, Rhode Island). The New York scene featured Scarecrow (1984), Of a Mesh (1984), and The Naked and the Dead (1985) [20].

Many of these deathrock bands were at least partially influenced by the more theatrical glam acts such as David Bowie, Alice Cooper, T. Rex, The New York Dolls, etc, as well as punk progenitors MC5, The Stooges, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, etc. The older Los Angeles bands were not yet influenced by the more post-punk sounding first generation Gothic Rock bands Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, etc, from Europe.

These early Deathrock bands took the pre-existing base of punk rock and added dark yet playful images and themes borrowed horror.[21] And in some cases blending hardcore punk with a gothic sound; a prime example of this would be TSOL [22]; and Burning Image [23]. During this time, however, these early Deathrock bands were not immediately identified as part of a new subgenre of punk; they were simply considered a darker flavor of punk or maybe even horror punk. During this time, these bands would play at the same venues as punk, hardcore and New Wave bands and were not yet considered part of a separate music scene [24].

A 1981 review of the Veil, a Los Angeles club catering to a gothic clientele, indicates that "downtown art types" may have also been an indirect influence on the deathrock scene by supporting clubs where Deathrock and gothic rock were played [25]. Unlike some of the sub-genres of punk, many Deathrock songs have a strong strong dance beat. The lyrics of the Dead Milkmen's 1987 satirical song "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything)" [26] supports the notion that art school students continued to be some of the more enthusiastic supporters of the Deathrock and gothic rock club scenes through the 1980s.

Merger with gothic rock

Around the same time as deathrock was emerging as a distinctive horror and glam influenced subgenre of punk rock in the United States, another extremely similar horror and glam influenced subgenre of punk and post-punk was developing independently in the UK [27]. The main focal point for this emerging UK scene was a London club called the Batcave [28].

Initially, the Batcave was envisioned as a club which would specialize in darker glam and post-punk musical acts [29]. However Specimen, Alien Sex Fiend and Sex Gang Children [30], three bands which debuted and performed frequently at the Batcave, were also strongly influenced by horror in British pop culture. These bands developed their own horror influenced sound which set them apart from the rest of the glam and post-punk scenes in Britain [31]. Initially, this new Batcave inspired sound was referred to as positive punk, but this term positive punk quickly gave way to gothic rock [32].

In early 1983, the Batcave scene in the UK had acquired the label "positive punk", but in less than a year it had changed to "goth" and "gothic" [33]. In 1983, The Gun Club began touring in Europe [34] as did Christian Death [35] which meant the European Batcave and American Deathrock scenes were now able to directly influence one another. Two years later in 1985, deathrock band Kommunity FK began touring with the Batcave band Alien Sex Fiend [36] which continued this trend. Around this point in time, deathrock and Batcave began to merge with one another and evolve into gothic rock [37]. Eventually, the term 'gothic rock' replaced Deathrock, which Rozz Williams attributes to the influence of the Sisters of Mercy [38].

The mid 1980s also marked the second wave of gothic rock which is when the influence of Post-Punk began to wane and be replaced with a more serious and more rock oriented approach [39]. The tempo of the gothic rock gradually slowed down and become more mechanical from the widespread use of drum machines instead of live drummers [40]. Also, the growing influence of atonal lead vocals would replace the more Punk and Post-Punk styled vocals. This shift in sound was largely due to the influence of The Sisters of Mercy [41].

During the third wave of gothic rock in the mid 1990s, the music would begin to incorporate many elements of the harsher, factory inspired sound of industrial music and the more repetitive and electronic sounds of EBM and electro-industrial while losing some of the remaining introspection and romanticism inherent in first and second waves gothic rock. Some goth clubs even dropped gothic rock from their setlists and instead focused on alternative electronic music (EBM, futurepop, darkwave, power noise, etc.) to appeal to a crossover crowd [42]. These changes alienated many in the goth scene [43] who preferred the livelier, punkier Deathrock and Batcave sound [44]. Their growing dissatisfaction with the new direction of gothic rock and the club scene led some to seek out their earlier Deathrock/Batcave roots [45].

(For a more complete description of 2nd and 3rd generation Goth, see the gothic rock article.)

Re-emergence of deathrock

Dinah Cancer and other Deathrockers at Release the Bats. Dinah Cancer and other Deathrockers at Release the Bats.

Nearly 20 years after deathrock appeared on the music scene in Southern California, the deathrock revival began in Southern California.

In 1998 in Long Beach, California, Dave and Jen Skott (AKA Dave and Jenn Bats) were asked by the owner of the Que Sera, a local bar, to throw a one night 'old school' Gothic Halloween party. After the success of the one night party, the event quickly evolved into a regular Deathrock club called Release the Bats [46] and the focal point in California for re-emerging deathrock scene. (The club is named after a song by the Australian Deathrock band the Birthday Party.)

The current Deathrock scene is similar to the original deathrock scene in Los Angeles and the Batcave scene in London [47]. In addition to clubs, the current scene is centered around concerts, special events, parties, and horror movie screenings. The internet is playing a major role in the Deathrock revival. There are websites devoted to the discussion deathrock music, bands and fashions as well as horror movies, such as and, plus mailing lists for Deathrockers on Yahoo! and on-line virtual communities on LiveJournal and MySpace.

In contrast to the early Deathrock scene, the current scene has four additional influences which didn't exist in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

First, there is the influence of post-punk and glam which came from Batcave bands such as Specimen, Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend, etc. Their influence on modern Deathrock has caused a shift in sound away from early hardcore punk towards a more post-punk sound. Some of the darker sounding songs from modern post-punk revival bands are also occasionally played in Deathrock clubs.

Second, there is the influence of psychobilly (another music fusion genre of horror and punk) which is noted for being strongly apolitical. This influence has discouraged political debates which have the potential to fragment the scene. And the Drop Dead Festival, featuring several days of about 60 bands with psychobilly, horror punk and Deathrock bands, is similar to psychobilly's Hootenanny, which emphasizes fun and gives bands with smaller fan bases an opportunity to play before larger crowds [48].

Third, there is a more serious horror movie influence on Deathrock, based in part on fewer unintentionally campy horror movies being made, plus the increasing availability of horror movie film scores through CDs and legal online music download. Deathrockers also frequently participate on internet discussion forums and mailing lists for horror fans, and many deathrock discussion forums have separate sections specifically for horror movies.)

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there now exists the influence of older Deathrockers still active in the scene on a new generation of Deathrockers. A significant percentage of modern Deathrockers were part of the deathrock scene in the 1980s and are now in their 30s or 40s. Members of the original Deathrock scene did not have the benefit of a group of 'elders' to pass on the oral history of music and the traditions of the scene.

As the modern goth scene continues to drift further away from its horror and punk roots under the influences of more melodic EBM and futurepop, more deathrock bands and clubs are appearing as a reaction against this trend [49]. Cinema Strange, Bloody Dead and Sexy, The Brides, The Deep Eynde, The Vanishing, Bella Morte and Devilish Presley are popular modern Deathrock bands, while Release the Bats in Long Beach, CA; Funeral in Pomona, CA; the Asylum in San Francisco, CA; Wake the Dead in Sydney, Australia; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in Melbourne, Australia; Dead and Buried in London, UK; Pagan Love Songs in Bochum, Germany; Onderstroom in Nijmegen, Netherlands and The Wake in Nottingham, UK remain popular deathrock clubs.

Influential deathrock artists

Rozz Williams

Christian Death's 1982 debut album, Only Theatre Of Pain is widely held by many as the first purely Deathrock album [50] which could not be easily classified as either a darker flavor of punk (as with T.S.O.L or the Damned), horror punk (as with 45 Grave or Voodoo Church), or post-punk (as with Bauhaus or Joy Division). As a result, Rozz Williams, the lead singer of Christian Death, Shadow Project, Daucus Karota and Premature Ejaculation, to name a few, is considered by many as one of the single most influential musicians in the deathrock scene.

Dinah Cancer

In the 1980s, Dinah Cancer has been referred to as the Queen of Deathrock[51], the Goddess of Deathrock [52] and the High Priestess of Deathrock [53] for her role as the front woman for 45 Grave during a time when female lead singers were still considered somewhat of a rarity. She eschewed the more "pretty" gothic look for one more horror inspired, and emphasized the more fun side of death [54] as opposed to the more serious and sensual gothic side.

Other artists

However, this is not to imply that Los Angeles were solely responsible for the formation of the deathrock sound; many bands in the United States released EPs and LPs prior to 1982 which would now be considered deathrock. Also British bands made major contributions to the sound by adding a strong post-punk influence, including Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, etc. Other bands from around the world added their own unique contribution to the deathrock sound, including Xmal Deutschland in Germany, the Virgin Prunes from Ireland, and The Birthday Party, etc.

Sisters of Mercy, which is frequently played at Deathrock clubs, is generally not considered a major influence because Sisters of Mercy's sound which has more in common with second wave gothic rock bands (As they were the second wave's prime infuence) than the punkier sound of first wave gothic rock bands [55].

Deathrock compared to other subgenres

Deathrock synonyms

Deathrock probably has more synonyms than any of the other subgenres of punk, and they help illustrate it's similarities and differences to these other punk related subgenres. These synonyms include the 1980s terms death punk, gothic punk, goth punk, horror rock, splatter rock, spooky rock and roll, positive punk, Batcave, PIB (Person in Black), and monochromatic punk; the 1990s terms punky-goth, gothic punk, old school goth, '80s goth and new grave; as well as the 2000s terms dark post-punk and dark dance punk.

Horror Punk is sometimes used as a synonym for Deathrock although it is a different subgenre of Punk.

Other punk and horror fusion genres

The subgenres of punk most closely related to Deathrock are horror punk and psychobilly. While Deathrock is a fusion of pre-hardcore punk, post-punk and horror, horror punk is a fusion of punk and horror, and psychobilly is a fusion of punk, rockabilly and horror. Because of the strong influence of horror on these three subgenres, there exists considerable overlap between their sense of fashion, musical preferences and bands.

Generally speaking, horror punk sounds louder, faster and closer to it's Misfits inspired hardcore punk roots. Conversely, Deathrock sounds more introspective, serious, and romantic than horror punk. Keyboards are another differentiating point: deathrock bands frequently use keyboards (mainly for atmosphere) whereas horror punk and psychobilly bands do not. (From a more humorous perspective, deathrock bands do not use "whoas" in their choruses, frequently use the word spooky to describe their music, and prefer Deathhawks over Devilocks [56].)

Psychobilly, however, is easier to distinguish from horror punk and Deathrock because psychobilly bands normally use an upright bass [57] whereas horror punk and Deathrock bands do not.

Post-punk, especially when dealing with darker themes, sounds very similar to modern deathrock; however post-punk seldom includes horror related themes and images which are important components of Deathrock. Additionally, post-punk bands generally do not put on highly theatrical shows emphasizing spooky imagery.

What deathrock is not

Despite the similar sounding names deathrock (which is a subgenre of punk) has no connection to the similarly named death metal, which is a subgenre of heavy metal.

Additionally, Deathrock should not be confused with shock rock. Deathrockers and Deathrock bands do not deliberately seek to shock others or cause controversy; their fashion choices are generally done in a playful, tongue in cheek manner. However, as it has been previously noted, Deathrock was influenced by earlier shock rockers such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Alice Cooper.

Lists of Deathrock bands

Classic Deathrock Bands (through 1990)
Modern Deathrock Bands (1990-present)

Related genres

Web zines

Online communities

Internet Deathrock radio stations


Deathrock Festivals

Club Nights

North America


South America


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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