Listen to this track by art movement-inspired goth-rock forefathers from Northampton, Bauhaus. It’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, their first and most influential song released as a 12″ single in August of 1979. At over nine minutes long, it still managed to make a cultural impact, even if it failed to chart in the UK.
The single is thought to be the first goth-rock song in much the same way as “Rocket 88” is thought of as the first rock ‘n’ roll tune. It’s initial impact on the listener might be mostly centered around waiting for the vocals to kick in, which they eventually do a full third of the way through. It’s not exactly in line with the received wisdom about the immediacy of pop music, then. But once the approach of this song is established, the listener begins to get that immediacy doesn’t really suit this tune anyway.
The song isn’t even about hooks or musical events as most pop and rock music generally is about. But what this song does feature is very specifically designed psychological mechanisms we trip up as we make our way through it that may be as important to our psychology as any love song is.
There is a deliberate sense of disquiet in this song, fed by a slow build of tension and a distinct black and white musical spectrum that fits the German expressionist imagery found on the record sleeve. The band vamps (pun not intended, honest!) on a single hypnotic chord progression pushed along by drummer Kevin Haskin’s steady bossa nova-like rimshots, and further punctuated by guitarist Daniel Ash’s unsettling effects using the bottom four strings as he slides up and down the neck. Bassist David J holds down the mournful progression while Ash improvises around it. Also, the production on the song is soaked in reverb, which gives it a real sense of murkiness as if the song is being performed in a cellar or a crypt. This is pretty typical of post-punk music in general as inspired by echoey dub records, and would be a notable production element well into the 1980s.
But here, because of the subject matter, the imagination is fired up even before vocalist Peter Murphy fades into the mix with his darkly elegiac lyrics about the titular film star, a figure responsible for the classic image of the black-clad vampire enrobed in a bat-like cape, stalking the nightmares of generations of people. The combination of what the band is doing behind Murphy’s very Iggy Pop-inspired vocal and along with the classic universal horror movie imagery in the lyrics is pretty hard to resist. This isn’t the first time that musicians have taken horror imagery and poured it into their music. But there’s something about the spareness of this song, its slow movement, and the lack of musical events in it that make it the most effective example. It’s no wonder that it would appear multiple times in pop culture thereafter, including in the 1982 horror film The Hunger, which brought the song into a modernized vampire tale.
I think another thing this song and those it inspired help to outline is the idea that morbidity and dark impulses can be as much part of the human experience as falling in love is. The difference is the cultural resistance to it. Today is Halloween, a day when there is a particular thrill in embracing images of horror and fear. Yet many people vilify those things, attaching them to forces that are bad for us. That same vilification is often attached to many strains of goth rock, metal, and industrial rock which “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” helped to inspire, and of which there are now many examples. But a song like this puts death and our fears around it into our conscious psychological arena, which I think is important to our health.
We need to acknowledge that sometimes a fear of the unknown and attraction toward the frightening and even the horrific can become the ballast for a healthy psychology. That acknowledgment means that we are allowing ourselves to confront and deal with our fears deliberately in our own minds even as we seek to travel towards a more enlightened path, while doing so in a culture that shies away from talking about our fears openly. Maybe that’s what’s at the heart of this song; a pure acknowledgment of the dark side of the human psyche, called out through art to give us a fuller picture of what it’s like to be alive.
Bauhaus put out four albums until their initial break up in the early eighties. Since then, they reunited a number of times, including one album together in 2008 before becoming inactive again. Singer Peter Murphy is an active solo artist today. Catch up with him at petermurphy.info.
And happy Hallowe’en, kids!