One Track Minded | Inside The Head Of Bela Lugosi’s Dead
This year sees a lot of anniversaries – forty years since Joy Division’s masterpiece, Unknown Pleasures, thirty years since The Stone Roses first record. It also marks four decades since a new sub-genre of music interrupted the airwaves. The Goth scene emerged, a dark-wave noise of human despair put to music. Giving rise to acts such as The Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees and, of course, Bauhaus.
The dark entity of Goth can be traced back to a single moment of dense, doomed sound and a band who were a mere six weeks into their lifespan. Bauhaus walked into a studio and recorded a nine minute epic in one live take – a moment of energetic genius. That recording was the genre-defining ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’.
“The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box
Bela Lugosi’s dead”
The likes of Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack, Sepultura, Nouvelle Vague, Chris Cornell and, more recently, CHVRCHES, have all covered the song.
So what is the appeal of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’? A track appearing overlong and anything but commercial?
Mostly, it’s the mood resonating with that of the teenagers who bought it, offering a mirror image of fascinating darkness. Another outlet for those embracing the “cool-need-to-be-scared” horror movies of the time. For those who felt teen angst, and needed a way to express it, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ was a revelation, offering a new idol. Of course, with a new declaration of art, came a new fashion statement. An all-black uniform to match the mood and embrace the darkness. From this point on, sales of eyeliner and mascara soared with the birth of Gothic Rock.
Others had touched on the darkness before. In the same era as Bauhaus in their infancy, Joy Division may have sounded Gothic, but this was more a result of their style than a purposeful effort. Bauhaus, on the other hand, were Michael Myers (Halloween) hiding and waiting to jump out. They wanted to scare with an eerie intensity. A new-wave, post-punk Sgt. Pepper’s wrapped in the sleeve is the poster art for 1926 movie The Sorrows Of Satan.
Looking at ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ in technical terms, its release as a twelve inch record meant it wasn’t suitable for editing down to a smaller format. It became a case of “you take it all or nothing!”. At its core, it’s one record you want to age, to get scratched and develop that irremovable static sound, because all those factors add eerie atmosphere. For this very reason it became the anti-Christ of the vinyl record world – the worse it looks, the better it sounds.
The song quickly found cult status upon its release in August 1979, the band themselves less than a year old. They formed in late 1978, under the name Bauhaus 1919. They took the name from the influential German art school and the date of its birth. Soon after, they shortened it to Bauhaus. The Northampton-based four piece consisted of Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and David J.
That last name David Haskins (David J) was integral to the creation of the track. He was solely responsible for the spark that generated the song. Inspired by his own binge on horror movies, the formation and lyrics for ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ came quickly. A raw, rushed six hour session in Beck Studios, Wellingborough resulted in five tracks, including ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Thankfully, these sessions now exist, coinciding with the ruby anniversary of the band itself.
Looking directly at the band’s collective influences, a picture forms. They were all lovers of psychedelia, glam-rock, art-house and even funk, all which are prevalent in their output. In the end, the Gothic sound was a small part of the bigger picture which made up Bauhaus. After all, their highest charting song was a cover of the David Bowie classic ‘Ziggy Stardust’. In music terms, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ is a “Helen Of Troy” moment – a track that launched a thousand bands, while making it safe for the vampires to find their way in society.