The Whitby Gothic Weekend IX: 26 - 28 April 2002
~reviewed by Uncle Nemesis
(photos courtesy of Uncle Nemesis)
The great thing about the town of Whitby is that so much of the modern world - motorways, burger bars, tower blocks - seems to have passsed it by. It's still essentially the same picturesque fishing community that Captain Cook (or even Bram Stoker) would recognise if they came back today. The ruins of Whitby Abbey stand stark on the headland above the town - a monument to King Henry VIII, who always got his own way. Cottages jumble down steep hills, as if flung there by a child. The screech of gulls and the slap of rigging against sailing-boat masts is constantly in the background. The river Esk decants itself implacably into the North Sea. This is the way it's been for centuries.
But this weekend, one of the modern world's more bizarre manifestations has arrived in town. They've come by the four trains a day that make it as far as Whitby (it's literally the end of the line). They've come by cars and motorbikes over the twisting moors road. There are people on the streets in outlandish clothes - everything from black leather coats to pink fun-fur Captain Sensible jackets. Hairstyles stand tall in defiance of the sea breezes. And everyone is wearing Nice Boots.
All this can only mean one thing - it's time once more for the Whitby Gothic Weekend.
It all starts, unofficially, on Thursday night in The Elsinore. Banners have been hung on the exterior of the pub - 'Goths Welcome'. Now there's a sentiment you don't see every day! In the street a black-clad throng stands laughing and joking, knocking back the beers and revving up for the weekend ahead. Two local folk musicians turn up with an acoustic guitar, and to the delight of the assembled goths they busk a few Rammstein songs - a surreal moment that somehow makes perfect sense. It's a Whitby thing. Inside the pub, it's crush loading. Old friends meet, and complete strangers become old friends. If you listen carefully through the hubbub, you can hear the traditional cry of the Fuzzygoth, as he greets aquaintances and strangers alike with a merry "I know you!"
Up at the Metropole Hotel, there's a club night running, by the name of Creamy - a recent addition to the Whitby revelry. But the Thursday night warm-up session in The Elsinore is the way old Whitby hands like to kick off the weekend. It's hard to believe that this tiny pub, with fishing memorabilia and battery-operated bats hanging from the ceiling in crazy juxtaposition, was the venue for the original Whitby Gothic Weekend in 1994. Yep, it was *that* small when it started. We've come a long way since then. We'll drink to that - in many pints of Strongarm Ruby Red, a very fine beer that I've only ever seen in The Elsinore. It goes down a treat, and the bar staff even remember my order as I go back to the bar for refills. You don't get that personal touch in London pubs. Oh, it's good to be back!
Friday morning brings with it another Whitby phenomenon that must make the local people stare in bewilderment. Every grocery store in town finds itself besieged with goths buying...cat food. Jo Hampshire, mistress of the WGW, collects food for animal charities - this time, a condition of admission to the event is a donation of one tin of cat food per person.
Having loaded up with Kit-e-Kat, it's up
to the Spa Theatre on the cliff, where Whitby tickets are exchanged
for wristbands. The WGW's goth-market, the Bizarre Bazaar, is in full swing,
and the bar is open. Time to indulge in the two favourite pastimes of Whitby
goths - enthusiastic drinking and scary shopping. Credit cards are given
a hammering all over the place. Downstairs in the market, you can buy everything
from 6" stiletto boots to hand-made corset dresses, and stock up on music
from two London-based music retailers who've transplanted themselves for
the occasion: Resurrection Records and Grave News. What's the big seller?
"Icon Of Coil's new one, and anything by Apoptygma Berzerk," says John
at the Grave News stall. Hmmm. It would appear the revival of guitar-driven
music in the goth scene, of which we've been hearing so much of late, hasn't
quite reached the UK!
Still, Action Directe throw themselves into their music with gung-ho enthusiasm, the singer swigging neat Vladivar from the bottle. It's thunderous, revved-up industrial stuff, driving along like a train. The PA (which is of a quality seldom heard on the normal UK gig circuit) is brain-munchingly loud but also impressively clear - and Action Directe's music needs that kind of clarity, I think. There are layers in the sound that would vanish if played through the usual piles of bricks that masquerade as PA systems in many UK venues. I particularly liked the fire alarm bell effect that ran right through the opening song. An effective noise - although many of the more 'gothic' goths quailed in the face of the band's sonic onslaught.
Arkham Asylum are the Wasp Factory label's tame (or maybe not so tame) nu-punks. It's a slight surprise to see them on a WGW bill, because although goth is a broad church in both music and style, Arkham Asylum's natural home is surely on a support tour with Linkin Park, or something of that sort. Even the Wasp Factory crew - busily getting drunk on the merchandise stall - were surprised when the band got the Whitby booking. "Out of all our bands we didn't expect Jo to go for *them*," says a bemused W-F rep, Mark Eris. The band nevertheless tumble onto the stage in a flurry of beats and tortured guitar-noise, just like they owned the place. They've got two dancing girls on stage in pink ra-ra skirts (Hey! The 80s are back!) and a guitarist with an exploding pineapple hairstyle. It's an entertaining spectacle, as the band shriek and hammer through a set of ramalama punk-rap-metal, but the audience divides neatly into the punky moshers up front and horrified goths towards the back.
Little Match Girl, I'm told, come from Leeds via Greece. Or from Greece via Leeds, whatever. One of them is called Asterix, which entertains me greatly. They've definitely been swigging the magic potion of rock 'n' roll - they're a needle-sharp, well-drilled, modern rock machine, with a sound that's definitely contemporary. Thankfully they steer clear of nu-metal hell, although when the backing vocals come in with that identikit 'Huuuurrrgh!' noise that everybloodyband seems to use, they get dangerously close. Their major asset is the lead vocalist, a striking blonde girl who has bags of stage presence and a gritty, powerful voice. They roar into action with all the confidence of a headline-status act, and although in the general run of things I wouldn't rate this style of rock as my favourite, I find myself convinced. They just need to lose those same-as-anyone backing vocals and they'll be a force to be reckoned with. Although maybe they also need to lose the name - 'Little Match Girl' makes them sound like a twee, jingly-jangly indie band. 'Big Rock Monster' would be far more appropriate.
The last band of the four is Synthetic, and it's odd to see them playing the new band night. They've released two albums, gigged everywhere, and are by far the best known name on this bill. How old does a band have to be before it officially stops being new? Still, it seems that not everyone is familiar with their music, or indeed their full-on stage show. Looks of astonishment break out all over the crowd as Paul Five launches into his one-man rock-god masterclass, and Tim goes manic at the mic. Sarn V is resplendent in an unfeasibly huge PVC military cap (what is this, the Synthetic Barmy Army?) and the music pumps like a fire engine. It's exactly the kind of pedal-to-the-metal show that the audience has been waiting for: energetic but accessible, and - dare I say it - the most 'goth' in terms of sound and style of any of tonight's bands. Wild dancing breaks out all over the place, and after the set Synthetic easily win the vote.
DJ John Gothwin, of Southampton Dungeon fame, takes over the music immediately after Synthetic finish, and the first two tunes he plays are 'OPS' by the Dream Disciples, and 'The Fall Of The Evergreen' by Belisha - two guitar-dominated tracks that work really well after Synthetic's guitar-driven set. In true Whitby style, the revels continue far into the night...
Bedraggled and hung-over goths stagger
haphazardly about the streets of Whitby in the cold light of Saturday morning.
The Bizarre Bazaar is still in full swing (today with a slightly different
line-up of vendors) and there are yet more opportunities to spend money.
The Elsinore is busy with goths doing that old hair of the dog thing, and
Fuzzygoth still knows everyone. It's shaping up to be a classic Whitby.
Back at the Spa, it's soundcheck time for the bands. Or rather, it would be, if tonight's headliners, Paradise Lost, had turned up. They're running two hours late - and they only have to come from Bradford, just over the other side of the Yorkshire moors. The sound crew chew their fingernails and pace the foyer of the Spa restlessly, until finally a ludicrously huge nightliner bus looms into view on the clifftop road. The rock stars have arrived. The crew's problems aren't over, however, as Paradise Lost then spend hours on end setting up and soundchecking, resulting in the other bands being forced to wing it on a brief line-check.
The sound crew work a small logistical miracle and the doors to the main room of the Spa open only slightly later than the advertised time. Tonight's DJ is Lucy*Fur, who I'm told presides over an Edinburgh club (I confess I've never seen her except at Whitby). Her first track is a rather groovy number by Death In Vegas - it sounds so good through the big PA that I walk over and thank her for playing it. After a few more tunes, the live bands are ready to go. Our opening act is Jesus Loves Amerika, who, in spite of their name, come from Glasgow. Maybe there's a band called Jesus Loves Glasgow somewhere in the USA. Hey, I'm a great believer in yin and yang, especially after a few pints. They're an intense industrial outfit, all freaked-out yells and bells and bashed-up beats. At a previous WGW, they won the battle of the bands thanks to a loyal bunch of fans who tonight crowd to the front and give them a rousing reception. The band play with frightening intensity - it's real take-no-prisoners stuff, all freaking and screeching, which many of the more traditional goths find hard to accept. But on its own merits - it works.
the briefest of interludes (the crew are trying to make up for lost time)
Play take the stage. There's a new line-up tonight - the band's former
guitarist, Lin, and bass player, Mike, recently left due to the birth of
their first child. So, Justin, the group's vocalist/guitarist, has recruited
John Berry (ex-Die Laughing) and Mattias Dopp (ex-New Days Delay, also
in Avaritia) for tonight's show. Although they've only had minimal rehearsals,
the line-up seems to gel immediately. The band dives headlong into a set
of punchy gothic rock which somehow touches base with the traditional style
of the genre while remaining entirely individual. Passion Play's great
strength is the quality of their songwriting - I'd defy anyone to stand
still when the band launches into 'Chameleon'. It's one of those lodge-in-your-brain
numbers that really *works*. The crowd greets all this with great enthusiasm
- Passion Play are the most 'gothic' band of the entire event so far, and
that seems to be what a large chunk of the audience have been waiting for.
All of a sudden people are building human pyramids in the moshpit, and
when that happens a band can be sure they're having an effect.
Craig, the WGW's deliciously camp compere, comes on to announce the headliners. 'You might not think it to look at me now,' he says, 'But I used to be a heavy metal fan. And I didn't just like the pretty bands. I liked the *ugly* ones, too. So let's have a big Whitby welcome for....Paradise Lost!'
Paradise Lost (who, in fairness, aren't *that* ugly) were a controversial choice for this event. This is the Whitby *Gothic* Weekend - what on earth is a *metal* band doing in the top spot? Well, quite apart from the difficulty of finding bona-fide goth-scene headliners who have the necessary clout to head up the WGW (and are willing to play without having kittens about the G-word), Paradise Lost have shown themselves to be something more than just another bunch of metal merchants these days. Their recent music has taken a step or two in a Depeche Mode direction - which effectively brings them into the goth-envelope, if we assume that envelope to be reasonably large. In any case, it's clear that the band have a strong fan-base among Whitby goths. The foyer of the Spa (where many people spend the entire night, socialising and chatting with friends) empties out as *everyone* pushes into the main room to see the band. Down at the front, there's a real crush as the band stroll out and launch into their set. It's effective, robust rock which clearly strikes a chord with many of the audience - there are plenty of people singing along - although for me, unfamiliar as I am with any of Paradise Lost's stuff, it all blurs into one long grind of rocknoise. There's a cover of the Sisters' 'Walk Away' somewhere in the set, and storms of applause at the end of every song. The band clearly do the business for most of the audience - but I'm left wondering what all the fuss is about. All the other bands had to curtail their soundchecks for *this*? Decent enough rock stuff, to be sure - but for me, that 'something special' element which a headline band really *needs* to have is, alas, absent from the set.
But what the hell. The dancing continues after the bands, and in the foyer the social whirl just keeps on whirling. Bunny Peculiar, who's turned up in a Strawberry Switchblade-style polka-dot dress, meets Rose McDowall, who of course *was* in Strawberry Switchblade. Rose takes one look at the polka dots, and exclaims 'I approve!' I chance upon Matt North, of Corrosion and All Living Fear, talking to Scary Lady Sarah. They're both decked out in purple/black threads, both with long crimped hair. 'I must get a photo!' I cry, 'You're both wearing the same outfits...although, Matt, I think you need to do a bit of work in the cleavage department!' I take the photo and beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the bar.
How did I get home that night? Don't ask me, I can't remember. Must've been a good one, then...
Sunday is the traditional chill-out day at Whitby. A bunch of us load ourselves into DJ Taoist's midnight-black PT Cruiser with the darkened windows (all part of Chrysler's 'Goth' option package) and head for Robin Hood's bay, a few miles down the coast. It's become a tradition to go for a nosh-up in the vegan restaurant there, in a converted chapel tucked into the cliff. Impolitely, I shove a notebook in front of Scary Lady Sarah, and prevail upon her to write down some Whitby thoughts for use in this very feature. This sparks off a discussion along the lines of 'Whither goth?' We put the goth-world to rights over the apple crumble, until distracted by the mother of all rainbows which suddenly appears outside.
On Sunday night at the WGW, there's a choice of entertainments. At one end of Whitby, there's the 80s night - a club full of cheesey chart-pop from the decade of frilly shirts and big hair. I went to the first such night, a few Whitbys ago, but I haven't been back. I had a good time, but chart-pop wasn't my thing in the 80s and it's not my thing now. If there was an 80s *alternative* night, playing everything from Cabaret Voltaire to Pylon, I'd be right there - but, alas, I fear so few people remember that strand of music now that there would be no audience for such a club. Demographics mean that Dexy's Midnight Runners win every time, while I'm forlornly holding out for Dormannu. So, it's off to the *other* end of Whitby, for Sexy Sunday - a club night in the Metropole Hotel ballroom, where a crowd-pleasing goth-selection is played at massive volume in the main room, and civilised conversations can be had in the front bar. A pleasant way to wind down.
And then Monday kicks in, and the goths kick out. The Whitby Gothic Weekend is over for another six months. Whitby connoisseurs compare notes, and conclude that this event was a fine vintage.
It's probably not possible to extrapolate much about the UK scene as a whole from the WGW - the event is a law unto itself in too many ways - but it's definitely something that must be experienced by anyone who has even a passing interest in this mysterious subculture we call 'goth'. It's a rites-of-passage thing. You just haven't earned your goth-stripes until Fuzzygoth has insisted that he knows you in The Elsinore, or until you've tumbled down the 199 stone steps from the Abbey to the town, or until you've talked amiable bollocks to all and sundry in the foyer of the Spa.
When all's said and done, the Whitby Gothic Weekend resembles a conventional festival in much the same way as a double-decker bus resembles a rowing boat. It's surreal. It's a phenomenon. It's the best party on planet goth. It's...a Whitby thing. If you haven't been there - *be* there.
See you at the next one!