This week sees the fortieth anniversary of the release of Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ – an event which, as my colleague The Blogging Goth points out, has been largely unheralded. So here are my two forints on the matter.
‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ is widely – and probably correctly – regarded as the first Goth single. Although a rather obvious assessment it is nonetheless controversial, not least because like all other acts of the first wave of goth Bauhaus fervently denied having anything to do with the genre; naturally suspicious of the label and considering it a gauche contrivance, these acts could not consider Goth a broad enough genre to include their obviously unique and revolutionary ideas. Ultimately there was indeed enough room in Goth not only for Bauhaus’ art-punk stylings, but also for the amphetamine pomp of the Sisters and the romantic idealism of All About Eve, and their protests would eventually subside as the scene took shape over the past forty years.
At the time of its release in 1979, there was a ‘gothic’ but no Goth; there was no Goth scene or Goth clubs or festivals, just various morbid bands on the post-punk horizon. Several acts that would become linked to goth, from Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Damned to the Cure and UK Decay, were around in one form or another but there was no lightning rod for the scene. All that changed in the years after Bauhaus dropped their debut single. So what made it so unique?
The most immediately striking thing about the track is, of course, that title. Talk about on the nose (or on the neck). At a time when post-punk acts veiled their lyricism behind a heap of European and classical influences this track was as blunt a name drop as The Adverts ‘Gary Gilmores Eyes’, and delivered more or less exactly what the title implied. Furthermore, this wasn’t Christopher Lee or even Boris Karloff being canonised but Lugosi, a man whose posthumous reputation had sunk in comparison to his more celebrated contemporaries. Such a public tribute led to the huge upsurge in interest in the Hungarian actor that has continued ever since.
The next unique element was the tracks dub influence. Bearing no resemblance to the mechanical beats and chiming guitar that would become the template goth sound, ‘BLD’ was instead a shuffling echoing hum that owed more to dub-obsessed contemporaries such as PiL or Killing Joke. It is also an attempt to create a dub without creating an original non-dub cut to work with, meaning that the track attempts to create drop-outs and pan reverb sections through its own arrangement. It’s not a perfect attempt, but in its chillingly bleak late-night atmosphere it vividly creates a sense of dread that was unique and compelling at the time.
Another unusual element is its length. At just under ten minutes, for a debut single it is audacious – not to mention preposterous; a track full of cavernous silences, echoed guitars, extended intros and codas, none of which appeared to be deemed surplus to the Northampton bois’ requirements. In 1979 this was only one step down from Emerson, Lake & Palmer; but as an uncompromising opening statement, it was unique.
But probably the most unique aspect of the track is it’s simplicity. A descending three-note riff, slowly and awkwardly unravelling, and the faintest idea of a melody, it is nonetheless given all the time in the world to slowly (some might say ponderously) reveal its secrets. Also striking is the awkwardness, even the naivety, of the performances: it was the sound of a raw, young band only beginning to get to grips with their instruments. Bauhaus’ live performances often had a slightly off-balance, rough and ready quality to them, and this track – recorded in one six-hour session – was practically the bands’ first ever cut. They eventually improved beyond recognition, but the charming awkwardness of their debut has lost none of its odd appeal.
All the above added up to a single that was audacious, uncompromising, even a little ridiculous. It was a bold, punk rock statement that was not made in the white heat of social commentary but in the murkier dimensions of popular culture – what came to be known as ‘dark alternative’. As blunt an instrument as the stake in the heart of the eponymous Count, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ was bold enough to express an idea of a culture that did not yet exist – and subsequently brought it to (un)death.
In the following decades, the track would become the go-to cliché for every goth club scene in every horror B-movie ever made, a trope that began with ‘The Hunger’ and has continued more or less unabated since. But becoming a trope is actually a measure of real success; an idea that has become accepted, commonplace, a reference point. And ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ certainly achieved that, and much more – becoming the universal starting point for the new movement of popular gothic.
And forty years later, the bats never really left the belltower after all.