How Leeds Led the Goth Scene

Although the emergence of the goth subculture is often cited as developing around the Batcave’s 1982 founding in London, cities in the north of England paved the way for this gloomy subset of post-punk years before. Leeds clubs like the F Club and le Phonographique cultivated an artistic and experimental division of the punk scene which cross-pollinated with the New Romantics, creating some of the earliest phases of the goth subculture, although it was more likely to be referred to as simply “alternative”.

The alternative culture of Leeds got its start in the summer of 1977 when John Keenan founded the F Club, a punk rock clubnight in a common room at Leeds Polytechnic. Although the night swapped between a variety of locations throughout the city, it attracted a large following from musicians and fans alike, hosting performances from acts like
the Vibrators, Buzzcocks, and the Damned within its first few months of existence.

“[Dave Wolfenden and I] started to go to the Ace of Clubs on Woodhouse Moor and the International in Chapeltown [two early locations of the F Club]” says
Sisters of Mercy and the Mission founder Craig Adams, who had met Wolfenden when both of their early bands had performed together. “My school band opened for his band [the Anorak Faction] at our school youth club. I used to go to his house where we played along to the newest records.”

The pair formed the Expelaires in 1978, recording a Peel session the next year, and promptly disbanding by 1981. While their post-punk style put them firmly in line with their local contemporaries of the Mekons, Gang of Four, and Scritti Politti their breakup made waves in the scene as members soon found themselves in groups such as Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Music for Pleasure, Girls at Our Best, and Groovin’ with Lucy.

While at Brannigans, the F Club was the location where Andrew Eldritch and Gary Marx first met and decided to form a band together, culminating in the Sisters of Mercy. While the band’s lineup was incredibly unstable, especially in its earliest days, the trio of Marx, Eldritch, and Craig Adams, released their first single that could accurately be described as a goth song: “Body Electric”. The band’s new-found style of partially electronic post-punk with macabre theatricality and decision to refrain from having a drummer, by using a drum machine that they referred to as “Doktor Avalanche” was a major development on the still burgeoning genre, and led to the group quickly becoming influential in not only their own scene, but worldwide.

Capitalising on the success and culture that grew from the establishment of the F Club, Keenan organised the first Futurama Festival in 1979 at Queens Hall. Headlined by the newly reunited Hawkwind and former Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon’s recently established band Public Image Ltd, Keenan billed it as “the world’s first science-fiction music festival”. With both the name and slogan being in reference to the musical experimentation of its acts, primarily through the means of synthesisers and effects pedals. The festival became so popular that in 1981 it even spawned a copy-cat festival including many of its commonplace act, also at Queens Hall, called Daze of Future Past.

The Warehouse opened on Somers Street in 1979, based more around new wave and electronic music than punk rock. Through Soft Cell’s frequent performances, and new wave clubnights run by the band’s vocalist Marc Almond, as well as Claire Shearsby, the club attracted a significantly different alternative subculture to punk: New Romantics. The subculture promoted 19th century-inspired fashion and androgyny to the extent that for many who attended the club, there was an unspoken competition as to who could wear the most makeup each night.

This subculture was not entirely confined to the Warehouse, as Primos on Call Lane also became a hotspot for young New Romantics. “I started going to a club down by the Calls, called Primos,” says Shelley Pride who was a part of the community during the early ’80s, “[I] saw wonderful fashions. Both males and females wore makeup and I recall a chap who wore a long glitter kaftan, a turban, lots of makeup, and a glitter-sprayed loo seat round his neck! I was told he was a mime artist. Then a chum told me about le Phonographique.”

In the Merrion Centre, le Phonographique (or simply the Phono) was founded in 1979, after being rebranded from the WigWam club. It was here where the groups from both the F Club and Warehouse cross-pollinated, creating a dark culture of teased hair and androgyny that would lead to the location often being considered the first goth club in the world. The pillar that sat in the centre of its dance floor, even being what led to the invention of the gothic two-step dance. The club’s sign bore the French translation of “Wine. Bear. Food. Nightclub”, and although most didn’t eat at the club, its free admission to students on Monday nights, comparatively cheap drinks, and willingness to admit alternative people into it, made it a staple of the scene.

“Thursday was The F Club in the early days, Monday was either the Warehouse or the Phono. The drink was cheaper at the Phono. Then the Warehouse started on Fridays. Everywhere was a lot of fun, lots of dancing, sex and drugs,” says Adams, who often began these nights at pubs like the Fenton and the Guildford.

Tiffany’s, another nightclub in the Merrion Centre, located upstairs, had a mixed relationship with goth. At times, it was a proponent of the scene, playing host to some F Club nights, being the location of multiple performances by the Sisters and having Clair Shearsby DJ. For a period the club even ran a new wave night in its adjoined room Bali Hi, however, other times it attracted significantly different attendees to those at the Phono, a fact that often led to conflict.

“At kicking out time on the way to the taxi rank both clientele would be leaving the centre at the same time. We were often shouted at by the townies and called ‘freaks’ or ‘weirdos,'” says Carla Abraham, who frequented the Phono between 1984 and 1988, going on to explain the occasional fight that would break out amongst the two factions. Pride echoes this sentiment, “[I was] often verbally abused, whilst waiting for buses and I know it was tough for young men, wearing makeup… many would arrive at Phono and ask us girls to do their make-up/”

In Issue 7 of i-D magazine from 1982, an article was published on the scene, particularly the Phono and its dress sense. However, much of the fashion still wasn’t set in stone, as this was only its earliest days. There was some cohesion throughout it, but boarders were generally undefined in what differentiated goths from punks and new romantics. Pride, for example, preferred to align herself with the New Romantic aesthetic as she “could be a little more individual, against the all-black goth look”, while Abraham coordinated herself with that all-black style at the beginning of the decade, before regarding herself more as a “post-punk” by 1984.

Despite shops in Leeds like X (on Call Lane), Bad (on New Station Street), and Other clothes (in the Empire arcade) selling alternative fashion items, DIY was still a core component of this early goth culture, just as it had been in punk. “Individuality was important to myself and friends so we often trawled markets for second-hand stuff we could adapt and dye at home incorporating bits of suede, chain, etc.,” says Abraham, “At the Phono, there was a diversity of styles. I think some people got extra credibility for handmade creative outfits.” “Most of my clothes, I altered from items given by my grandma, aunts, etc. Plus Leeds had a brilliant outdoor Flea market… which sold cheaply lots of pre-owned clothes [and] accessories from [the] ’30s to early ’70s,” says Pride.

Futurama continued annually, with its final date beginning 17 September 1983, headlined by the Bay City Rollers and Killing Joke. In an article about this iteration of the festival, the Yorkshire Evening Post referred to Leeds as the “Gothic city”, which marked one of the earliest uses of the term in reference to the music and subculture during its existence. However, the scene rejected the name, as many had previously done with post-punk: Andrew Eldrtich, Wayne Hussey, and Ian Astbury all famously distancing themselves from goth.

“We hated the term post-punk at the time and refused to be labelled by it as did many others, no one likes being put in a box.” says Paul Nash, guitarist of the Danse Society “The ‘goth’ label came about really with the rise of the Sisters in the late ’80s… by that time the Danse Society had split up so I never really thought about it.” Interestingly, in 2016, John Keenan stated that he had fed the newspaper the term.

Despite many of the frequented locations for members of the scene being in the city centre, the cultural heart of it was the Leeds suburbs that made up Woodhouse and the postcodes LS6 and LS4. These locations were, and still are, areas where large amounts of University students choose to live, leading to them being the homes of most of the city’s alternative subcultures. Members of the band that would become the Mission even lived only a few streets away from Andrew Eldritch during their 1986 court battle over the ownership of the name “Sisterhood”.

On top of this, Woodhouse possessed the Faversham, which despite its high prices when compared to other locations on the University of Leeds campus, attracted goths in hoards. “The pub to be seen in was the Faversham” says Pride “band members from the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission, the Rose of Avalanche, and Salvation would be having drinks and wearing sunglasses indoors.” The pub’s link with the burgeoning electronic scene in the city likely playing a part in this, holding performances from Carl Cox, Danny Tenaglia, David Morales and house regular Stuart Douglas.

The emergence of the goth scene in Leeds, despite often being understated, was nonetheless important. “It made a big impact on the music scene in the north in general, it was different, it was alternative and no one wanted to be part of the crowd, we all wanted to be individual, different, and that included dress, music, and culture,” says Nash “I think compared to the southern counterparts we had a better, more ‘real’ background having lived through the miners strikes and it being much closer to home.

“There are even reports from sixth formers in the ’90s, who claimed that the University of Leeds advertised themselves by referring to the city as “the birthplace of goth”. “Looking back it does seem sort of odd how Leeds produced so many of these bands,” says Adams “there was no shortage of cheap speed and booze… maybe we did a lot more than other places!”

However, as the culture progressed, it became less localised and began to have the same separation between musicians and fans that punk had originally rebelled against. By 1988, the two were so separate that the Astoria Ballroom hosted a Sisters of Mercy convention, that included a costume competition, where fans could dress up as members of the band. The goth culture many have persisted to this day through clubs like and Carpe Noctum, Resurrected, and Cyanide, but its direct relation to the old guard had waned by the late-’80s.