August marked the 30th anniversary of the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single by goth pioneers Bauhaus. I knew in the back of my head that the song would hit the three-decade mark this year, but the exact date of release slipped my mind, otherwise I would’ve written a glowing tribute to the song two months ago. My forgetfulness works out all right, given that there’s no better time to ruminate on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” than in the light of Halloween.
Listening to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed. Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division). But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth. In this nine-and-a-half-minute requiem for the actor who played the title character in the classic 1931 film version of Dracula, Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins lay out all the tricks of the form for later practitioners to follow: the ominous bassline, the spectral guitar, the foreboding low-range vocals, and (of course) the horror-movie imagery. Most importantly, Bauhaus constructs the perfect mood: sepulchral, gloomy, and with a hint of fear. Will Hollywood’s most famous bloodsucker stay in his tomb? When Peter Murphy switches his mannered intonations from commenting “Bela Lugosi’s dead” to repeating the word “undead”, it seems frighteningly unlikely.
Even if one is not a fan of gothic rock (and there are a lot of people who aren’t, finding it too pretentious, too introverted, too silly), Bauhaus’s importance as the author of the first goth single cannot be denied. But there’s another honor owed to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that is largely unrecognized: it can be very well be called the first true alternative rock record.