“There was nothing already out there about deathrock that was book-length when I started. But in the time I’ve spent on it, I’ve actually learned tons more myself that I was never aware of, bands I never knew existed.”
Last January, I got a rather large package in the mail from England. Inside was a proof copy of Mikey Bean’s long-awaited Bible of deathrock, Phantoms: The Rise of Deathrock from the LA Punk Scene. It’s out now. At 630 pages, the impressive tome is the size of a University textbook or the phone book of a mid-sized American city (anyone remember phone books?). Mikey Bean’s Phantoms is a staggeringly thorough exploration of the history of deathrock. It is an essential document of American underground music of the latter part of the 20th century, and it’s a brilliant sourcebook about the music that would later become better known under the general term “goth,” exploring much of that larger musical phenomenon’s West Coast roots. Below, I interview Mikey about the book’s contents and the research he put into it.
Deathrock was itself, of course, the dark punk and postpunk music phenomenon of the 80s (and beyond) that was primarily local to Southern California (with some important exceptions), and it has generated much recent interest. Caleb Braaten’s Sacred Bones label, for example, put out the two-volume Killed by Deathrock compilations a few years ago; these comps took an expansive view of the “deathrock” genre tag. But strange as it may seem, up until now deathrock has had no exclusive book-length treatment. And so along comes Mikey Bean’s much-needed, absolute beast of a document — a goth genre devotee’s wet dream come to life.
Don Bolles (of the Germs and 45 Grave, among others) provides the foreword for the book, and it was he who suggested Mikey pen Phantoms about 12 years ago. Mikey has assembled a large cast of characters here—well over 150 interviewees, as far as I can count, documented oral historian style. In Phantoms, the stories of deathrock’s constituent bands are relayed via interviews that have been cut up and arranged into easy-to-read, conversational chapters.
Starting on page one, Phantoms (which is named after the 45 Grave song) charts an ambitious course, beginning with the days of the Southern California punk scene in the late 1970s and the death of Darby Crash and the Germs, key figures in the development of everything that would happen in the LA music underground of the 1980s. The arrival of deathrock on the West Coast existed in parallel with the new, dark post-punk scene that was happening over in the UK (viz. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Bauhaus) and also with the nascent hardcore punk scene of Southern California (Adolescents, Black Flag); elements of both musical movements were reflected in the California deathrock phenomenon. I’ve written several article-length treatments of deathrock before, and one of my favorite quotes about deathrock is from Dinah Cancer, the singer of 45 Grave and one of the scene’s principal figures, who gave this statement several years ago to Alice Bag:
“The first prowlings of deathrock came in the early ’80s before we were labeled as our other counterparts—the gothic movement. There were no Goths. The deathrockers 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 ‘deathrock’ was born. […] At the time when I was performing with 45 Grave, we were just playing music and we didn’t consider ourselves a pioneering movement. We were playing with bands like Christian Death, Black Flag, and TSOL, to name a few. And it wasn’t until later that we were named as part of the pioneers of the deathrock culture.” — Dinah Cancer, singer of 45 Grave
As Mikey’s book makes clear, deathrock was indeed different from the hardcore and punk scenes alongside which it grew (although there were significant areas of overlap). Whereas hardcore punk tried to boil down 1970s-style punk into its rawest and most aggressive forms, deathrock took a different tack and absorbed some of the experimentation of acts like Throbbing Gristle and PIL, the imagery of groups like The Damned and Alice Cooper—as well as old horror movies filmed in the Hollywood area. “You had the thrift stores selling old decaying Hollywood memorabilia [in the LA area]. Plus stuff like Vampira, Monster zines, the Munsters and Addams Family, even Disneyland,” Mikey notes below. “It all started getting not just ‘spookier’ but ‘artier’ at the same time.”
Some deathrock acts were also a conscious reaction to what was felt to be the overly-confining and formulaic constraints of the burgeoning thrash and hardcore scenes (not to mention the chest-pounding machismo often attendant therein). But there were as many different takes on “deathrock” as there were bands participating in the movement—and there were indeed a lot of bands, as Phantoms makes clear. Mikey admits, “Not all the bands that I feature, or projects they created, can be classed as purely ‘deathrock.’ Some were musical projects, some were performance-based, and some were film projects, but they all played their part.” The main bands are all in Phantoms: 45 Grave, Kommunity FK, Christian Death, Superheroines, Voodoo Church, and more. Additionally, there are chapters devoted to other bands that are (undeservedly) not as well known as the big guns: Nervous Gender, Red Wedding, Aphotic Culture, Die Schlaflosen, Radio Werewolf, Screams for Tina, Fade to Black, and many more. And there are the “fellow travelers,” too: Gun Club, Tex and the Horseheads, Flesheaters, and the like. Indeed, any one of the bands in Phantoms could command their own lengthy book. “I think one of my favorite quotes,” Mikey notes, “was from someone in the book who mentioned that it’s almost as if ‘every band was a scene.'”
Phantoms is supplemented with an incredible amount of flyer material, photographs, and zine imagery. Mikey has taken pains to ensure that his survey of deathrock includes not just the musicians, but club owners, promoters, ‘zine-makers, poets, filmmakers, and indeed the whole of the community that made the deathrock movement possible, including some of those responsible for the unique fashion the scene would have (Ron Athey and Shannon Wilhelm, among many others).
Author Mikey Bean was interviewed by Oliver Sheppard for Post-punk.com.
Mikey, I just got the proof of PHANTOMS: THE RISE OF DEATHROCK FROM THE LA PUNK SCENE in the mail and it’s a massive, wonderful tome! I’ve spent the past few days poring over it and trying to absorb as much as I can. How has the publishing process been so far?
Mikey Bean: I had the proof copies published myself, and when they came through it was so great seeing it in book format finally, instead of just reading it all on a screen. And I have to admit that even I was kind of shocked by the size of the book at first. But the amount of information in there could not have been put into a smaller book.
A couple of proofs went to publishers who have expressed interest, so we’ll have to wait and see what comes from that. That said, I was impressed enough with the quality of the proofs that print-to-order online is still a viable option. The book is now available via Lulu.com here.
Are there any misnomers about deathrock, about your book, or any questions you frequently get asked that you want to set the record straight on right away?
Mikey: Yes—an important thing to note is that the deathrock scene in the 80s didn’t revolve around any one particular person. Yes, some musicians and figures did leave a bigger impression than others did, but all participants were as relevant as the next. And as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a huge fan of the guy’s work—and I need to be careful how I phrase this so as not to offend, lol!—but the scene did NOT revolve around Rozz Williams. He was one of a few key people on the scene who made it what it was, but there are so many others of equal merit who are forgotten in his wake.
Also, the deathrock scene was incredibly incestuous and an ever-revolving bunch of relationships formed between different people. Whether it was simple friendship, romantic involvement, sexual or drug-related, each relationship played its own creative and sometimes destructive role within the scene, but it all drove the scene along. Not all the bands that I feature, or projects they created, can be classed as “deathrock.” Some were musical projects, some were performance-based, and some were film projects, but they all played their part.
There are so many threads of relationships between musicians, overlapping bands… I think one of my favorite quotes was from someone in the book who mentioned that it’s almost as if “every band was a scene.”
Based on all the interviews you’ve done, how would you define “deathrock”? How does it fit in with what’s now called “postpunk” and “goth”?
Mikey: There is a clear (…ish) lineage linking those three; many punk bands inspired by the likes of Joy Division became postpunk. Darker, “horror” influences caused the terms “gloom” or “horror punk” to be used early in the deathrock scene’s beginnings; that soon morphed into “death rock.” UK Batcave influences morphed it into “gothic,” then “goth.” So really, although they are all a very different styles, there was a progression from one through to the next.
I like the format you chose; it’s like a Studs Terkel book of oral history. What inspired this particular interview/oral historian format?
Mikey: I’d read Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me, John Gruen’s Keith Haring biography, and Brendan Mullen’s We Got The Neutron Bomb, all of which are in this oral historian style. It makes more sense for the people who were there to tell the story themselves. My own personal spin on it was that most oral histories use paragraphs by each person, whereas I chose to break it down further. It made for much more work but reads like everyone is in the room together chatting.
As it was, there was nothing already out there about deathrock that was book-length when I started. The punk market has been flooded with books, which is not a bad thing. When I began Phantoms I had a rough idea of what I wanted from it—it was from a fan’s point of view. But in the time I’ve spent on it, I’ve actually learned tons more myself that I was never aware of, bands I never knew existed. I’d like to think that there are others out there who are in a similar situation to me.
Who are some of the bands and performers you think are all too often overlooked in articles or histories of deathrock?
Mikey: I would say that the first true LA deathrock band would be Castration Squad, who don’t get the influential credit they deserve. Shannon Wilhelm’s style and image certainly helped pave the way. Fortunately some live performances still exist. Eva O and Ron Athey don’t get the credit they deserve on the scene. Bands like Aphotic Culture and Die Schlaflosen are totally overlooked due to lack of recordings. Few people I interviewed recalled Aphotic Culture until I mentioned Lucy Amaro on electric violin; suddenly high praise was given by most. I learnt a lot about bands and performers that I was unaware of when I started the project. There definitely are some lost gems out there.
So what were some of the surprising areas of overlap you found while researching the book? (For me, it was finding out that Patrik Mata of Kommunity FK and Z’ev had been in an experimental project together; and many of the connections with the ’77 punk scene a la The Bags, the Go-Gos (!), and UXA, among other things, were interesting.)
Mikey: The overlapping was an eye-opener at times. For me, it was discovering connections between the likes of Alice Bag and Christian Death, or Eva O and DJ Bonebrake from X. But like I said the scene was very incestuous, and camaraderies were bound to happen within such a small scene. People with similar interests connecting at the same venues, or doing the same drugs…and a lot of it WAS drug-related.
I do think you did a good job getting folks like Alice Bag and De De Detroit (UXA), folks from the ’77 LA punk scene who perhaps bridged that scene with the 80s deathrock phenomenon, to participate. So, when do you think the ’77 punk scene in L.A. ends and deathrock begins?
Mikey: That’s kind of covered in the earlier question in some ways. It just morphed over time. It was while reading We Got The Neutron Bomb that I started noticing the connections between the two scenes, and I wanted to hear the next phase, what happened after the ’77 punk scene in LA. It wasn’t available anywhere, so I ended up doing it myself in Phantoms. The bigger the range of people I could include, the more the connections between ’77 punk and deathrock could be told.
As I mentioned elsewhere, when it comes to how deathrock started, the end of the original LA punk scene is tied in with the death of Darby Crash. The jocks who used to beat up the punks were now becoming punks themselves. Hardcore brought in a lot of tough guys. The original punks grew tired of this and veered off in other directions: some went into the then-upcoming hip-hop scene (a logical shift when you take Malcolm McLaren into consideration). Some settled down with families, and some moved into a darker area.
Both PIL and Siouxsie and the Banshees had a couple of very influential albums released around the same time. Combine with this Throbbing Gristle’s influence, even the Screamers, the Cramps and Misfits. You had the thrift stores selling old decaying Hollywood memorabilia. Plus stuff like Vampira, Monster zines, the Munsters and Addams Family, even Disneyland…. It all started getting not just ‘spookier’ but ‘artier’ at the same time. Then the drugs started getting harder and played more of a role in the scene. Acid and heroin had a big influence on what was happening.
What do you hope that readers will learn, first and foremost, from the book?
Mikey: Each chapter of Phantoms is a self-contained story in its own right and as much of a complete timeline as possible, but because of all the overlapping I would suggest starting at Chapter 1 and learning about the whole scene and its history. Also just how intertwined it all was. The book is designed to be read from cover to cover and, although they can, I would prefer that the reader doesn’t skip straight to any particular chapter. As I’ve said, the cast is incredibly interwoven and because timelines run concurrently there is a lot of crossover between chapters that could be missed by reading just one of them.
The book truly does cover a lot of ground. You’ve been working on this since… 2007? It originally had its own MySpace page back in “the MySpace days,” right? How does it feel to FINALLY have it finished?
Mikey: The book is 12 years’ worth of work and I had to draw the line. In the end I could have included so much more, taking yet another 10 years! I reached a point where I was happy enough with what I had covered. It was time to get it out there finally.
There are some fascinating personal anecdotes in the book. Rikk Agnew says “Romeo’s Distress” was originally supposed to be an Adolescents song! And then there is the juicy insinuation in the book that Rozz Williams slept with Darby Crash? Is that true?
Mikey: I guess we’ll never know that for certain! But, yeah, there’s some interesting stuff in there…
I notice you never refer to yourself as an author in the work; you are always referred to as “the editor.” Tell me about your philosophy or vision for your own role in putting together PHANTOMS?
Mikey: As I said, the story is not mine to tell. So, although it’s my book, it’s my “interpretation” of the story, and therefore I only edited the interviews together to form a logical timeline for each chapter. When I started I had an idea of what I wanted, but as I learned more about the scene and different inter-band connections it sort of took on a life of its own, and I’ve had to move whole chunks from one chapter to another so it flowed better. A new piece of information from somewhere has occasionally meant going back to the drawing board!
Do you think in the role of editor you had to make any painful, referee-like choices in how you presented some interviews? Reading PHANTOMS, I am struck by the fact that for many of the players in the SoCal deathrock scene, “deathrock” is not a concluded part of history. That is, many of the key players of the classic LA deathrock scene are still in bands and are making music, and many of the stories and conflicts presented in PHANTOMS are unresolved. Their lives and careers are still unfolding. There are some band stories, like that with VOODOO CHURCH, where it seems like there may be some acrimony or multiple versions of the same band, something that has happened with several bands over time in the deathrock and punk scenes of the 70s and 80s (Christian Death, Black Flag, etc). Did you ever feel you were having to tread softly to get everyone on board to tell their story?
Mikey: I realized partway through that I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg so I had to make a few executive decisions about leaving some bands out. T.S.O.L., for example, didn’t really fit in with any particular chapter and although they did touch on the deathrock side of things it was too much of a tangent and not what I was trying to tell so they only get a mention in passing. Also, I heard Jack Grisham was writing his own book and knew he could tell their story much better than I ever could. But it’s great that so many of these people are still around and some of the stuff they are doing now is superb.
As for acrimony…unfortunately people fall out with each other and time can also alter the perception of the original story. My role is trying to relay an as-accurate-as-possible, true timeline, hoping to not step on anyone’s toes while attempting to put the puzzle together. Some of it is knowing what is “off the record,” so to speak. Although I did manage to clear up a few unresolved urban myths, there are some that will never get resolved.
Another thing that struck me was how some of the folks you’ve interviewed have passed away since you started work on PHANTOMS. Again, I think of Z’EV, or Sindie Ardia of PARTY DOLL. Did you feel there was pressure to get this work out in a certain timeframe because the principal actors are, well, aging and dying off?
Mikey Bean: A lot can change in 10 years, and unfortunately some interviewees are no longer with us. I’m fortunate and grateful that I was able to communicate with them, a couple of them became friends too which always makes it harder.
Was there a standard process you used to get hold of folks? There’s an incredibly ambitious assortment of voices in this book, and it couldn’t have been easy to get them all to agree. How did you do it?
Mikey: At the beginning, MySpace (and later, Facebook) were invaluable! I initially started chatting to a few people on those, then when I actually made the first trip across to LA from the UK they could see that I was serious about the project. Interviewees would suggest others, and where possible put me in touch with them. A couple of people flatly refused, which is a shame; but most were exceptionally helpful and welcomed me into their lives. I’ve struck up some continuing friendships, too.
If you could list a “Ten Essential LPs” for beginners to check out to get a feel for what deathrock was, as covered in your book, what would those ten LPs be, and why?
Mikey: A lot of them are pretty obvious to be honest, although unfortunately too many bands either hadn’t recorded or didn’t release anything.
In no particular order, essential listening would have to be:
1. Various – Hell Comes To Your House Volume 1 (1981)
2. Nervous Gender – Music From Hell (1982)
3. Christian Death – both Only Theatre Of Pain (1982) & Catastrophe Ballet (1984)
4. Super Heroines – Cry For Help (1982)
5. Kommunity FK – The Vision And The Voice (recorded 1981, released 1983)
6. Red Wedding – 1981-1985
7. Fade To Black – Corridors Of Gender (1984)
8. UXA – Illusions Of Grandeur (1980)
9. Sleepless – Thurst EP (1985) see also Die Schlaflosen on YouTube
10. Consumers – All My Friends Are Dead (1977)
Then to hear what people are up to these days:
• Gitane DeMone Quartet – both Past The Sun (2017) and Substrata Strip (2018)
• The Crystelles – Attach And Detach (2009)
• Eva O MDX1 – Mental Mayhem (2014) and The Rise Of Eva O (2018)
• 45 Grave – Pick Your Poison (2012)
• Penis Flytrap – both Tales Of Terror (1998) and Dismemberment (2002)
• Elvorian & The Veins – Elvorian & The Veins (2017)
• The Elegant Rabies – The Elegant Rabies (2018)
• Frankenstein – An Ugly Display Of Self Preservation (2003) and Random Cuts (2017)
Also worth tracking down are Kali’s Thugs and Ravens Moreland, and new Nervous Gender recordings as yet unreleased. There’s some great stuff out there!
Mikey Bean’s Phantoms: The Rise of Deathrock From the L.A. Punk Scene can be ordered from Lulu.com here.
There is a Facebook group for the discussion of Phantoms here.
Thanks to Kuren Velez for use of flyer imagery and to Peggy Morrison for the photograph featured on the cover of Phantoms.
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