A group from sunny California out-gothed them all

A group from sunny California out-gothed them all

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Christian Death, Only Theatre Of Pain (1982)

When we think of goth, we think of England—pale, pasty people in a gray, rainy country making glum, creepy music—and the groups that usually spring to mind are British: Bauhaus, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Cure. All with good reason. Although those pioneering bands have far more range than can be summed up in the single, soggy syllable of “goth,” they inspired legions of grumpy groups who seem to carry around their own clouds—perpetually shrouded in fog, raincoats, and bats in their belfries.

And then, hailing from sunny Los Angeles, there was Christian Death.

In 1979, just as English goth was congealing into a dark mass of mope, Christian Death formed against a backdrop of beaches and bikinis. Singer Rozz Williams grew up in the L.A. suburb of Pomona; guitarist Rikk Agnew was a member of The Adolescents, a bratty hardcore band that typified melodic, West Coast punk (a sound that would go on to influence decidedly un-goth groups like The Offspring and NOFX). Between the two of them, Williams and Agnew created a debut album that cast a pall over the sunny clime from which it crawled: Only Theatre Of Pain.

Only Theatre Of Pain came out in 1982. That year, Bauhaus released its sprawling, haunted masterpiece, The Sky’s Gone Out; Siouxsie And The Banshee unveiled its lush, atmospheric A Kiss In The Dreamhouse; and The Cure produced its darkest, eeriest album, Pornography. Made under a blazing, Southern California sky, Only Theatre Of Pain out-goths them all. The album begins with the tolling of bells, an ominous, Black Sabbath-esque premonition that bleeds into the plodding, oppressive drums and chiming distortion of “Cavity—First Communion.” It’s an opening song for the ages, one of the most singular and distinct introductory statements in the history of rock. Goth had already established itself by 1982, a thespian yet misanthropic outgrowth of post-punk. But none had exemplified the nascent subgenre with as much sinew, vision, and iconoclasm. In Bauhaus, Peter Murphy sang “Stigmata Martyr,” but that’s as close as Christian Death’s contemporaries came to the direct engagement with organized religion that “Cavity—First Communion” heralded. This was punk rock made poetic, subversive, and gracefully savage.

The “theatre” in Only Theatre Of Pain is no accident. There’s an air of dramaturgical alchemy to the album that had only two precedents at the time: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and, more contemporaneously, glam rock. Williams minces and prances throughout Only Theatre Of Pain, but the scenery he’s chewing is strictly metaphysical. Shades of the devilish Alice Cooper and the cherubic Bryan Ferry can be heard on “Figurative Theatre,” the de facto theme song of the album. “In the shallow holes of a thousand eyes / In the knee-deep graves of future survivors,” Williams leers malevolently, “The fleshless guests live off / Children of the past.” It’s an unofficial sequel to David Bowie’s “Quicksand,” in which Brecht and Weill’s dingy, Weimar Republic mock-opulence is given a Nietzschean spit shine. Williams envisions the logical dead end of the fixation on the superman—then pirouettes through its wreckage.

The rest of the album is as relentless in its morbid embrace of Christian eschatology. Williams was raised in a Southern Baptist family, which makes his adversarial appropriation of Catholic imagery more nuanced than simple blasphemy; he’s approaching the cross from the perspective of both Protestantism and what one can only assume to be either atheism or Satanism. Granted, those are all indistinguishable in the eyes of Rome, which makes Only Theatre Of Pain’s celebration of ecstasy, annihilation, and showmanship that much more complex.

Those elements all culminate in the album’s most infamous track, “Romeo’s Distress.” The infamy is not unearned. Besides being the disc’s most immediately catchy song—Agnew’s guitar work is a marvel of inventive, celestial hooks—it opens with Williams’ most-quoted lyric: “Burning crosses / On a nigger’s lawn.” Taken out of context, it doesn’t look good. But hearing him sneer it, it’s clear that Williams’ contempt is for those who use the racial slur rather than those it’s applied to. Later in the song, after unnerving the listener with moral ambiguity, he makes it clear where he stands in regard to the racism that’s long been associated with the faith he was raised in: “Dance in your white sheet glory / Dance in your passion / Your days are numbered.” Rather than making the band appear racist, “Romeo’s Distress” renders Christian Death 100 percent more socially conscious than the remainder of goth combined. 

Coincidentally, there’s another band from the L.A. punk scene that released its debut album in 1982 and has a name that baits Bible thumpers: Bad Religion. But even that group’s provocative moniker withers in comparison to the ballsy grandeur of Christian Death. Back then, with the religious right on the rise in Reagan-era America, a name like that was less cultural homicide and more commercial suicide. Popped collars on pink Izods still ruled. Hollywood had begun championing the nerd, thanks in part to the rise of home computers and the tech industry; goths were as useless as they were inscrutable, barely worth noticing, let alone lampooning. 

It wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that goth became fully recognized—and fully ridiculed—by the mainstream. Siouxsie And The Banshees found chart success in the States, as did three members of Bauhaus in the band Love And Rockets. The Cure became a stadium act. Among Christian Death’s open admirers were Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. Along with that higher visibility, though, goth became a punchline, and Williams lived to see it. After leaving Christian Death in the ’80s, he played in various, less-successful outfits before hanging himself in his L.A. apartment on April Fools’ Day, 1998. In lieu of a note, he left a tarot card. Its title: “The Hangman Is A Fool.”

Williams had battled alcoholism, heroin addiction, and bipolar disorder for decades, but he’d also made Only Theatre Of Pain, a depraved masterpiece that was never taken as seriously as the work of his British peers. Like Chris Kattan’s Saturday Night Live character Azrael Abyss—a goth kid who skulks in the nonexistent shadows of Orlando—Williams dwelled in a state of ironic, sun-drenched absurdity, never far from a Disney theme park. Or did he? Is it actually more fitting that one of the most demonic albums in the goth canon was created in The City Of Angels? What’s so radical, after all, about donning dark overcoats in England, a nation full of them? The disconnect between Christian Death’s radiant surroundings and its blackened music is central to Only Theatre Of Pain’s enduring appeal—the perversity that lurks within goth’s decadent heart. No wonder Williams went nuts. Those weren’t bats in his belfry; they were seagulls.