Bands: Their relative importance in the early scene
Note: This is not a definitive list of early goth bands, it's simply highlighting the ones who were most important in the early scene (and in one case specifically pointing out a band who were important later on but not in the early scene). It is, however, gradually being expanded to include the less important bands, who are distinguished by blue type.
Joy Division are not usually thought of as being goth, despite being referred to as "gothic" at the time, but their influence on goth bands was considerable. Their sparse, haunting sound was quite unlike anything else around at the time and spawned a host of imitators, especially after Ian Curtis' death (Bauhaus' first album and the Sisters' first single were both slammed as being the work of poor Joy Division copyists, which was rather unfair on Bauhaus). Their use of minimalist and gothic art on record covers also had a lasting influence (for instance, the cover to the March Violets "Grooving in Green", designed by Andrew Eldritch, has definite similarities to the cover of "Closer").
Additionally, they were a major source of the term "gothic" as applied to post-punk music.
However, Joy Division were never really a goth band and were certainly never part of the goth scene; by the time the goth scene proper started to emerge Ian Curtis was dead and the rest of the band had become New Order.
They were never really regarded as "goth" musically by goths, either, despite the obvious debts owed to them by a lot of goth bands. A lot of first-era goths viewed them as too "mainstream" owing to their posthumous popularity; also, their image was rather too bleak (from a Batcave point of view, they were decidedly unsexy). And they had their own following, the "long raincoat brigade".
Siouxsie and the Banshees were not involved in the goth scene as such, but had a massive influence on it in terms of both music and image. Their music had been called "gothic" as far back as 1979, and their music formed the template for a lot of female-fronted goth bands in much the same way that Siouxsie's looks provided the style for many female goths. Between them, Siouxsie and Bauhaus pretty much designed the early goth look.
And, once again, the Banshees may have been important in establishing the use of the word "gothic".
Their authorised biography contains some comments from them about the goth scene, here.
Bauhaus are the first band who cannot be comfortably classified as anything other than goth. UK Decay and The Banshees could be considered punk, The Cure could be considered New Wave, Joy Division could be considered post-punk, but Bauhaus were unmistakably goth in music, looks, lyrics, art and style right from their first single. In many ways they were the archetypal goth band. They were also involved in the early goth "scene", and had a major influence on goth fashion.
UK Decay are almost forgotten now, but they were important movers in the early goth scene. Abbo, from UK Decay, was responsible for using the word "gothic" to tag the emerging movement.
Sex Gang Children, along with Southern Death Cult, were one of the leaders of the new wave of goth bands who appeared in the early 80s. They are also most likely the inspiration of the term "goths" as applied to members of the emergent subculture.
Southern Death Cult were the other leaders of the "Positive Punk" scene which sprang up in 1982 and effectively became the goth scene. It's quite likely Ian Astbury was the first person to use the term "goths", originally about the fans of Sex Gang Children.
The Cure, like the Banshees, were not part of the scene, and were less influential. However, their music and image fitted, and they were adopted into the goth canon. After "Pornography", one of their bleakest albums, they suddenly went in a pop direction, moving away from a goth sound but inadvertently helping to bring the idea of "goth" closer to the mainstream.
The Sisters of Mercy, despite their later dominance of the goth scene, were not that important in the early scene. Their main claim to fame in the early years is being the first of the second wave of goth bands to release a single, though their first gig wasn't until several months later. It's odd that the Sisters came to dominate goth, since they were so different from the rest of the early goth bands: they had deep vocals and a drum machine whereas most of the early goth bands were characterised by tribal drumming, and none of them had vocals much like Eldritch's. In 1982, the important bands were Bauhaus, UK Decay, the Banshees, the Cure, Southern Death Cult and maybe Sex Gang Children: the Sisters had yet to emerge from the shadow of Joy Division (reviews regularly commented on their similarity).
The Birthday Party came to England in early 1980, at much the same time that Bauhaus & co were gaining popularity and some of the second wave of goth groups were forming. Whether they were actually a "goth" group as such is highly debatable (and I would be inclined to say they were very much their own thing), but they arrived at the time the scene was forming and played with a fair few of its protagonists, including Bauhaus. The "goth" tag may have been a result of this and the "Release the Bats" single (July 81), which the band regarded as something of a joke.
Play Dead were never major movers within the goth scene. Although they formed in 1980, they didn't start picking up popularity until 82/83 and whilst they eventually put out three consistently good albums and an impressive number of singles, they never enjoyed the influence or relative mass appeal of the Sisters, Banshees or Bauhaus. However, in Mick Mercer's opinion: "they were important early on, because their crowd were one of the first to go to most gigs, as that whole touring ethos kicked in, where people started following one band at the expense of all others."
Danse Society at one stage seemed poised to take over as leaders of the goth scene, but it never quite happened. They formed in 1980 and by the end of 1982, when they'd released their excellent "Seduction" mini-album, there was a major buzz about them. They had a distinctive and promising musical style and in Steve Rawlings they had a good-looking and charismatic frontman. However, they signed to a major label and things went downhill from there. In the end, their major contribution was probably in getting people interested in the bands around them by having attracted attention themselves.
The Virgin Prunes were complete oddballs, and as with so many other bands, their main connection with the goth scene was having a sufficiently avant-garde sound and image in the right time and place. They were mainly noted for their extremely theatrical and OTT live shows, whilst their recorded material was of variable quality ("If I die, I die" is probably their most accessible album).