This morning, it was reported by Trancentral TV that Olli Wisdom of psychedlic trance outfit Space Tribe had passed away. He was better known in our subculture as not only the lead singer of pioneering goth/glam/punk band Specimen, but also the co-founder of the Batcave club night in 1982, setting the template for the burgeoning goth scene’s sound and style.
Wisdom formed Specimen in Bristol in 1981 with Jon Klein and Kevin Mills, before relocating to Soho, London in 1982. It was here the Batcave opened in the upper storeys of 69 Dean Street. The site has its own riotious history even before the ‘batcavers’ arrived – it was the alleged residence of Nell Gwynne, mistress to King Charles II in the 1660s, before the building became home to the Gargoyles Club from the 1930s.
Counting such flamboyant creatives as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Sir Noël Coward, the Gargoyle even hosted Francis Bacon’s Soho Club before the War, had one of Henri Matisse’s most famous paintings L’Atelier Rouge on the wall, and went through various incarnations including a strip bar and alternative comedy club that launched the careers of Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall and French & Saunders. It is into these celebrated shoes the denizes of the Batcave must step.
Which of course they do with style and success; imagine rubbing shoulders with Siouxsie and Steve Severin, Marc Almond or Nick Cave at the bar. All the while, Olli and Jon are performing with Specimen as the Batcave house band – in between running the night! It’s here that the fishnets, big hair and stark makeup become a staple and stereotype of the goth look, whilst the bands hone their sound and amass their earliest fans.
As befits so many of these pioneering bands, Specimen may have to sustain some allegations of style over substance. The iconic Jonny Slut, keyboardist and self-declared ‘gothic pinup’ looked fantastic, even as he learned to play his instrument with stickers on the right keys. Whatever the efforts required, Olli led his band to record one of the most definitive goth singles – Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang released in 1983.
The video perfectly illustrates the genesis of goth style as we recognise it today – dark extravagance, overt sexuality, androgyny over a soundtrack of monotonous pounding drums, jangling hectic guitars and vocals alternating between a gravelly growl and high-pitched shriek. Not only did Olli and the band help lay down so many of the guidelines for goth music, they left a legacy that is still celebrated today.
It’s guaranteed to fill a dancefloor between the elder veterans who recall it coming out, and upstart youngsters discovering it for the first time. As recently as 2011, the band – minus Jonny – performed at the top of the bill of DV8 ‘fest in York, where good friend of The Blogging Goth Mel Butler was on hand to snap Olli Wisdom continuing the fine traditions he’d established three decades before.
In between these times however, the band had – like so many contemporaries – fragmented. Olli began to travel and fell in love with the psytrance sound he encountered in Thailand and India. He DJ’d around the world, before founding the Space Tribe clothing line, through which he would end up releasing more music – including collaborations with his former Specimen bandmate and Batcave co-founder Jon Klein.
And it is a formidable legacy, having defined Batcave as a genre itself, laying a foundation upon which so many classic bands could stand and project this bizarre subculture far into the future, further than Olli could see or even imagine. Despite existing erratically for just four short years, the Batcave exists as a spiritual, mental and conceptual home for every weird kid who fell in love with the drumming of the goth tribe.
I am very grateful to journalist and author Mick Mercer, one of the finest writers who lived through the emergence of goth and has written widely on the scene and sound. He responded immediately to my enquiry about any recollections of Olli and spoke candidly, saying
“You could easily rub people up the wrong way when being in a position where you had fingers in various pies and yet I never once heard anyone slagging him off. In person he always seemed to be on the cheerful side of things, always encouraging people, always active, and he could be a real laugh.
He was a livewire but clever with it and to this day I still try and convince unbelievers that Specimen were a really fine band. I did try listening to Space Tribe, but they really weren’t my sort of thing, but he found his own way into things and is well respected for what he’s done, always a sign of worth in my eyes.”
Olli Wisdom leaves a daughter, family and friends, and many fans – and our thoughts are with them all today.