There was a moment when I found myself veering in the direction of “Goth”, which was perhaps one of the most derided youth culture movements in the 1980s – perhaps the closest I came to going full-on Goth came with the release of “She Sells Sanctuary” by The Cult (formally known as the Southern Death Cult) in May 1985, just as I was about to embark on taking my O Level exams. At that time, I was 16 so I was obviously filled with my fair share of teen angst and hormonal frustration, and Goth seemed to provide an obvious visual personification of that frustration and isolation that dominates many a teenage internal monologue.
Except that I wasn’t.
I’d already gone through my obligatory teen mental breakdown due to a combination of internal personality crisis and external exam pressures, so by the time that I got through the exam period of May / June I was ready to bloody well enjoy myself. I turned away from the path leading to Goth, and sometimes I wonder whether that was the right choice. I suppose we shall never really know.
“She Sells Sanctuary” came from what, for many people, came to be one of the defining albums of 1985, “Love” – a great album that really kicked the entire idea of what Goth was perceived to stand for into the mainstream, particularly as “She Sells Sanctuary” went on to be a big commercial success. Listen to it now, and it still stands up as an amazing piece of music that could easily be released today.
Be prepared to rock (oh that sounded a bit Smashy and Nicey):
Oh, the jangle of that opening guitar, played so brilliantly by Goth guitar maestro turned LA guitar hero on later albums, Billy Duffy, brings back so many memories – but more of that later.
Oh, the heads that turn
Make my back burn
And those heads that turn
Make my back, make my back burn
The sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive
And the sparkle in your eyes
Keeps me alive, keeps me alive
Play it again, go on I dare you, if only for the amazing vocals of legendary wolf child Ian Astbury, who would later go onto provide vocals for the reformed Doors in place of the deceased Jim Morrison. The Doors connection will become important later on in my insane rantings.
When I returned to school as a bright eyed sixth former, I had decided to study English Literature, Art & Design, and Drama & Theatre Studies. We were still expected to wear school uniform back then but were given the distinction of having a somewhat different school tie to signify our superior status (and an added badge if we become prefects or house captain) within the hierarchy of school students. Of course, people attempted to wear their uniforms with a slightly different slant to show their individuality. I’m pretty certain that I wore my tie skinny coz I was still an art-rock post-punk kid at heart, with a huge Bowie obsession.
Unsurprisingly, there was a small but dedicated band of Goth devotees within both my English and Art classes – no surprise considering that self-expression seems to be one of the central pillars of Goth as a youth sub-culture (to be honest, that probably includes every single youth sub-culture every invented). They somehow managed to take the primary black aspects of our school uniform and do something with them that made it a shade darker than black (50 Shades of Black anybody? Was that too far as literary humour goes?) – probably helped by additional lashings of mascara and black hair dye. Funnily enough, now that I think back to that little band of gothic romantics, I cannot think of any boys being part of the group. However, I remember them with huge fondness for two reasons:
Reason number 1 is the “chicken dance”. You may be wondering why the hell Goths would want to dance like chickens (not that I’ve ever seen chickens dance, whether in their local chicken nightclub or in a chicken based piece of musical theatre), but this is simply due to the inaccuracy of the nickname given to this particular form of dancing. At some point, during Friday or Saturday nights at Lazers Nightclub on Stow Hill in Newport (the same Stow Hill as immortalised by the Manic Street Preachers in their song “The View from Stow Hill” on their rather fantastic “Futurology” album), there would usually be a mini-Goth section that usually involve something by The Cure and possibly The Mission or The Sisters of Mercy. Invariably, “She Sells Sanctuary” would create a stampede in the direction of the dance floor where there would be a wild and glorious swinging and shuffling accompanied by a distinctive movement of the elbows not entirely dissimilar to the waggling of chicken wings – hence why it became known as the “chicken dance”. Indeed, you learned to avoid the elbows of Helen in particular because they were deadly weapons designed to create maximum space for her to swirl around the dance floor. I got too close one time and caught an elbow in the ribs – yup, I learned to respect the chicken dance.
Reason number 2 is due to what we shall call the pecking order (see what I did there?) of the sixth form common room. It may be age playing havoc with my mind, but I am convinced there was a definite order of hierarchy even in the supposed freedom of the sixth form common room, which was signified by closeness to the kitchen area. If you were allowed into the kitchen area, you had achieved a nirvana like moment of grace and popularity bestowed upon you by the guardians of that mystic portal – known as the Upper Sixth. (As a side comment, I managed to gain entry to the kitchen on one occasion, when nobody was around – ah the power and the glory! – I made a cuppa with a thrill in my heart, feeling ever so slightly naughty too.). The Goths sat in a small and compact group during break and lunch times, one of several that claimed their own unique space in the common room, in just the right place where they could see the kitchen (and the kitchen could see them) but treated the inhabitants of the kitchen area with the necessary sense of disdain that I imagine was an essential element of living the Goth life. It was a thing of beauty to see.
I say that because my group of friends were unable to see the kitchen – we secluded ourselves in the farthest area away from the kitchen, ignored and forgotten but where we could (and often did) unleash our own brand of friendly chaos. We were a little band of misfits and rejects who enjoyed giving ourselves electric shocks and, whenever we were able to claim ownership of the common room stereo, we would choose music that had a good chance of winding people up. I kid you not – we were that immature but it still makes me smile looking back on it now. I can give you a concrete example: my love of slightly weird music possibly came from a friend (the great Gareth M) who had a love of 70s Prog rockers Focus so we would play their epic “Hocus Pocus” on repeat and at volume because it contained possibly some of the best yoodling ever to feature in rock. I piss you not!
Don’t believe me? Listen to this:
Yeah, can you tell that we were cool in our own special way?
The common room ghetto blaster was central to the ongoing war of style or ideology or whatever between the various groups that were dotted around the room. Memory fails me sadly to remember precisely what appeared on the playlists of the different groups. The Doors were a prime choice, although I cannot exactly remember which group or groups were their primary supporters – I would imagine it was probably English students, which is not surprising considering that the English students quite fancied themselves as the gatekeepers of cool literary music choices. The Smiths were also often a key choice from English students – no surprise there really, eh? (Although I was determined not to like either The Doors or The Smiths as I was going through a period of determined anti-popularism. I probably thought I was showing an anti-establishment kinda cool. I was actually being a twat.)
Our group of sixth form friends shared a friendship based in our perceived lack of cool, for a variety of different reasons, some of which were personal, so we ended up embracing that combined sense of strength and acceptance for who we were (or who we were trying to be – we were teenagers after all, and reinvention remains one of the most important aspects of that time in life). Obviously, the fact that this period of my life coincided with meeting the wonderful woman who would eventually become my wife of nearly 25 years (and partners now for over 30 years) makes those sixth form memories seem even more special looking back on them now!
Sal and I were talking over those times today, as we were having a wander around some National Trust gardens in the glorious spring sunshine. We talked about how our shared experience of Mr Roberts, an art teacher who was really tough on us both but who also really pushed us both to do exceptional things, gave us a shared bond that contributed to us getting together as a couple. I took on the responsibility of cheering her up after she had a lesson with Mr Roberts (from such acorns grow the strongest of relationships). We talked about the various student couples who got together at various points, such as one of our friends who went out with a fireball of energy called Nicola. We talked about who Miss Symonds who was one of the most feared teachers when we were both further down the school. She was both my tutor and one of my English teachers in sixth form. My love of Shakespeare is purely down to her brilliant and inspirational A Level teaching. “Hamlet” also saved my arse in our disaster of a Drama exam. We talked about the mini-scandal when we started going out with each other as we were seen by many as diametrically opposed characters: at the time, I was loud and brimming with the confidence of a visual artist and performer who was really deep into the process of developing his skills whilst Sal was an ultra quiet artist and dancer who lacked social confidence but who displayed artistic confidence and bravery that was far superior to what I was doing at that time. One day, I will tell you how this relationship was the subject of attempted sabotage by somebody who I considered to be a close friend. Oh yes, the intrigue!
The fire in your eyes keeps me alive
And the fire in your eyes keeps me alive
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary
Inside her you’ll find sanctuary
And the world the world turns around
And the world and the world the world drags me down
And the world and the world the world turns around
And the world and the world and the world and the world
And the world drags me down
Yes, I saw a “fire in her eyes” that perhaps nobody else had noticed at that point in her life, and together we created a sanctuary against a world that seemed designed to drag us both down. Sounds like the basis for a novel featuring werewolves and vampires or something, don’t you think?
We are still friends with nearly all those people who sat furthest away from the hallowed kitchen area, including some of those brilliant Goths showed more dedication to their chosen youth-subculture than I ever could, especially with my increasingly eclectic tastes that were developing not only in music but also across film, television, literature and fashion. I look back on those friendships with huge fondness, and I would like to thank them for all those fun times of rubbing our feet against the carpet to work up enough static charge to pass an electric shock around the entire group. Yes, remember that there were no mobile phones and other crap like the internet etc. so we really did have to make our own entertainment, especially when we could not get our hands on the common room stereo.
That is the sort of stuff that comes into my head when I hear “She Sells Sanctuary”. Hey, enjoy the long version coz it was the 1980s after all:
Yeah but if you want a really interesting interpretation, may I recommend that you go for the following “Howling Mix”?
Yup, that was what happened with 80s remix culture: you could either get a brilliant mix that seemed to build on everything that you loved about the single mix, or you could end up with a steaming pile of dingo’s kidneys (extra points for spotting the 80s popular literary reference).
Oh, I’ll give you one more version just for the hell of it – here is the apparently ultra rare “Assault on Sanctuary” mix:
Oh I loved this messing about with stuff.
Yeah, this song brings back some amazing memories of an amazing group of people who I consider myself lucky to have called my friends, and I continue to be lucky that I am still friends with many of them today despite being separated by some considerable distances. Good old social media.
Oh, and as I was writing this, I popped onto a well known streaming service and listened to the whole “Love” album – it still rocks like a bitch. Go and buy it, coz it’ll be worth every single penny.