Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus (Small Wonder)

BAUHAUS were four arty white boys from Northampton who made a big deal about driving around in a hearse and wearing pointy shoes with big buckles on them. In 1979, they inadvertently invented Goth with an anaemic dub reggae homage to an icon of the Silver Screen who was forever defined by his most famous role.

I have no idea of what Bauhaus thought they might possibly be doing when they recorded Bela Lugosi’s Dead but whatever it was, a works like a charm (I’m thinking alternating little bats and skulls, in platinum, natch). It’s an extraordinary piece of music.

“Bela was just a simple bossa nova rimshot beat with a slowed-down glam-rock guitar riff and a ton of reverb,” says jpsst34, on former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s site forum, spoiling it for everyone. “None of the individual sounds in that song were original. Only once put together to form a complete work did they become ‘groundbreaking’.”

Meanwhile, according to some clueless NME worker drone: “Bauhaus are to Goth what Radiohead are to Prog ..” Really? What the fuck does that mean? I don’t even know what it’s supposed to mean. Do they really think that Radiohead invented prog rock? Are they mad? Bela Lugosi’s Dead was the band’s first single and it was released on the label run by Pete Stennett out of his record shop, Small Wonder in Walthamstow. One of the more interesting labels of the period, Small Wonder worked with artists as diverse as the Cure, Menace, the Angelic Upstarts, Punilux, the Fatal Microbes, Patrick Fitzgerald, the Cravats, Poison Girls and Crass (and also employed one Colin Faver, initially as the Saturday lad).

I used to spend hours studying their ads in the back pages of the music papers. I’m not sure if I ever actually bought anything from them.

I heard Bela Lugosi’s Dead on John Peel’s weeknight Radio One show and was struck by its eerie otherworldliness and dubby stylings, although again, not struck enough to actually put my hand in my pocket and buy it.

Bauhaus never really floated my funeral pyre. Doug was bang into them, but their expensively fashionable hair, unnecessarily pointy shoes and unnerving eye-liner just irritated me. I found it all a bit poncey. And Goth kids themselves always seemed a bit conservative to me, in those days at least. As far as alternatives go, the whole thing seemed pretty mainstream.

Having said all that, after tripping the light fantastic to it at the Baths a few times, I ended up buying Bela Lugosi’s Dead two or three years after it came out, probably secondhand from some record fair – it had the white vinyl of the original pressing, which was limited to just 5000 copies. The idea of something so very dark being in the form of something so very white always amused me for some reason. I remain easily amused to this day. It’s tragic.

The great tragedy of Bela Lugosi’s life was that success as Dracula in Todd Browning’s seminal 1931 talkie led the Hungarian-born actor being typecast for the rest of his life – although he wasn’t helped by his heavily accented English. A man with a taste for esoteric pursuits, Lugosi had dalliances with the likes of Clara Bow, married five times and had a longterm opiates and methadone habit.

Towards the end of Lugosi’s life, the only person who would employ him was the notoriously ungifted director Ed Wood. Lugosi’s last proper job was in 1955 and, ironically enough, he had no dialogue whatsoever. He had become so inexorably linked with the role that made him famous that people looked at Lugosi and saw Dracula. Vincent Price used to tell the story that, after Lugosi’s death, as he and Peter Lorre were viewing Lugosi’s body, the esteemed movie bad guy had said to him: “Should we drive a stake through his heart, just in case?”

Ed Wood quickly cut together some unused Lugosi footage he had lying about and wrote Plan 9 From Outer Space around it. He shot additional scenes with his wife’s chiropractor standing-in for Lugosi, hiding the lack of facial similarity with a black cape. ‘Undignified and exploitative’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. The film is now a trash classic.

The song inspired by these events has become something of a classic itself over the years (being covered by Poison Idea, Sepultra and Nouvelle Vague). I’m pretty sure I sold my copy to Nosferatu the Record Dealer, who lived around the corner from me in Leeds 6 in the early Nineties. And did I just imagine Ali Cooke playing it in the early days of Back to Basics?

Amusingly enough, despite remembering the minutiae of who said what three decades ago, I can’t actually recall where I bought Bela Lugosi’s Dead again – I’ve a sneaking suspicion it might have been Endless Music in cosmopolitan north Manchester at some point in the last couple of years – but the sticker on the front tells me I paid six quid for it. It’s on the regular black vinyl of any number of represses over the years. I am mildly disappointed by this.

Listening again reveals dub stylings and gothic horror colliding in a way unmatched until 1981 and the release of Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires. Gothic horror dub remains a not overly-popular sub-genre of popular music to this very day.

While Murphy puts in a great performance, alternately crooning, wailing and bellowing his tale of “virginal brides” filing past the tomb, “strewn with time’s dead flowers, bereft in deathly bloom”, this is all about the music – the parched, dry bare bones of drums and bass, and guitar that occasionally sounds like a particularly angry swarm of bees – which builds and builds before finally deconstructing back down to the exact point it began.

But this prime slice of double-time reggae for the spectral steppas, bounding along at a steady 136bpm, smothered in phantasmagorical echo and ghostly reverb, somehow manages to be fantastically camp too. If they ever remake Carry On Screaming, we’ve got the perfect theme tune.

The band have got back together again, toured and released one last final album. Peter Murphy converted to Islam, married a Turkish woman and now splits his time between Istanbul and New York, making music influenced by the traditions of Sufism.

He recently played the original bloodsucker, the Cold One, in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. “Who else could have and should have done it?” he laughs. “It was really lovely and smart of David Slade to ask me .. I was honoured, actually.”

So, did Bauhaus invent Goth? I haven’t a clue. While they played around with explicit images of romantic mortality, so did the Velvet Underground, Suicide, the Banshees, the Cure and even Joy Division, all of whom could claim to have contributed to what we now call Goth – never mind the Sisters and all that crew. But who cares anyway? Musically at least, Goth is pretty lame as rock genres go. When was the last time you heard an interesting Gothic rock record?

I’ll tell you when. About 30 years ago.


Filed under hip replacement, post punk

6 responses to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus (Small Wonder)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Hip Replacement: Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus (Small Wonder) « expletive undeleted --

  2. linda

    I have to say, this is great writing:) Thoroughly enjoyed it….but do I now have to go see Twilight just to believe everything I read? Please….NO!!!!
    When I first played the album Closer to a modern day goth friend a few years ago…….her whispered comment was…..”this is dark…” in complete awe-naturally but I was amused….

  3. What a lovely comment to come home to, thanks very much Linda, you are a sweetheart.

    Don’t go see those Twilight movies! My lady is absolutely addicted to all that stuff. Don’t do it! But yeah, Pete Murphy is in it, looking all thin and interesting, apparently.

    I read a thing about Joy Division the other night, I think it was a Tony Wilson quote. It was something along the lines of: Punk rock was all about ‘fuck you’ until Unknown Pleasures. Then Ian Curtis turned up and said, ‘I’m fucked’.

    You did a very good thing, playing your friend Closer, I reckon.

  4. dan

    check out grave babies. stupid as fuck lo-fi goth punk from seattle, kinda like if big blacks drum machine fucked with shit-fi sisters guitars

  5. Good name. Link us up Dan.

  6. Mark

    I also remember hearing Jon Peel playing Bela Lugosi’s Dead on a cheapy AM clock radio whilst going to sleep. It was many years later I finally bought a copy of the CD single somewhere in eastern Germany……

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s