Deathrock (also spelled death rock) is a term used to identify a subgenre of punk 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 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.
Deathrock emphasizes a creepy atmosphere and an introspective mood within a punk or post-punk musical structure. Deathrock songs use simple chords, echoing guitars, a prominent bass, and drumming which emphasizes repetitive, tribal beats within a 4/4 time signature. To create atmosphere, scratchy guitars, keyboards, and experimentation with other instruments are sometimes used. Lyrics can vary, but are typically introspective, surreal, and deal with the dark themes of isolation, disillusionment, loss, life, death, etc.
However, the frequently simple song structures, heavy atmosphere and rhythmic music place a great demand on the lead vocalist to convey complex emotions, so deathrock singers typically have strong, distinctive voices and a strong stage presence.
The term "deathrock" was first used in the 1950s to describe an unrelated genre of rock and roll called "death rock" which began in 1958 with Jody Reynold's "Endless Sleep" and ending in 1964 with J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss" . These songs about dead teenagers were noted for their morbid yet romantic view of death, spoken word bridges, and sound effects. The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack" is arguably the best known example of the 50s/60s use of the term. .
The term deathrock re-emerged 15 years later in 1979 to describe the sound of various West Coast punk bands which would later become associated with the deathrock scene and most likely came from one of three sources; Rozz Williams, the founding member of Christian Death, to describe the sound of his band . Or the less popular theory; Nick Zedd's 1979 film "They Eat Scum", which featured a fictitious cannibalistic "death rock" punk band called "Suzy Putrid and the Mental Deficients".
The earliest influences for some deathrock acts, such as 45 Grave for example, can be traced to the horror themed novelty rock and roll acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Bobby “Boris” Pickett with "Monster Mash", Screamin' Jay Hawkins with "I Put a Spell on You" and Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages with "Murder in the Graveyard". These songs used sound effects to create a creepy atmosphere, dealt with taboo subjects (such as cannibalism) in a humorous, often campy manner, and are still occasionally played at deathrock clubs.
This horror influence on rock music continued into the 1970s with theatrical hard rockers Alice Cooper and KISS. Rozz Williams has specifically credited the 1970s output of both Alice Cooper and KISS as childhood influences, 45 Grave also covered Alice Cooper's "School's Out" on their debut full length album.
Other rock and glam rock bands who influenced many early deathrock artists include The Doors, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Cramps, T. Rex, New York Dolls, the Damned, MC5, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, etc. Most of these artists explored darker themes, sometimes incorporated horror-themed visuals into their shows, or had their music used in horror movie soundtracks. (For a more complete listing of influential artists, see Punk Forerunners and Gothic Rock predecessors.)
Horror movies also directly influenced deathrock artists. According to Dinah Cancer, Italian horror movies were a large influence on 45 Grave's visual style. Zombie movies influenced many deathrock artists, especially George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels. John Russo's Return of the Living Dead (1985) which featured Linnea Quigley and a mostly punk soundtrack influenced later deathrock bands. Horror-themed TV shows, such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, etc., also provided some visual influence, as did spookily-clad horror movie hosts on TV such as Vampira in Los Angeles, John Zacherle in Philadelphia and New York, Elvira in Los Angeles (then later nationally), and Ghoulardi in Cleveland.
However, horror was not the only influence on deathrock. Film noir, surrealism, cabaret, and various religious iconography (particularly Catholicism and Voodoo) supplied much lyrical and visual inspiration to deathrock artists.
Only Theatre Of Pain, Christian Death's 1982 debut album, is widely held as the first purely deathrock album and cannot be easily classified as either a darker flavor of punk, horror punk, or post-punk. As a result, Rozz Williams, the lead singer of Christian Death, Shadow Project, Premature Ejaculation, etc. is considered one of the most influential artists in the deathrock scene. Patrick Mata of Kommunity FK is another influential male deathrocker.
Dinah Cancer has been referred to as the Queen of Deathrock, the Goddess of Deathrock and the High Priestess of Deathrock for her role as the frontwoman for 45 Grave during a time when female lead singers were still considered somewhat of a rarity. Other influential female deathrockers would include Tina Winter and Eva O.
Los Angeles bands were not solely responsible for the formation of the deathrock sound; many artists in the United States released EPs and LPs prior to 1982 which would now be considered deathrock such as the previously mentioned Theatre of Ice and Mighty Sphincter. British bands also made major contributions to the deathrock 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 deathrock, including Xmal Deutschland in Germany, Virgin Prunes from Ireland, and The Birthday Party in Australia, etc.
However, The Sisters of Mercy, who are frequently played at deathrock clubs, are generally not considered as a deathrock band, as the most prominent example of their sound Floodland has more in common with second-wave gothic rock bands (as they were the second wave's prime influence).
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees through narrow chinks of his cavern."