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"Bela Lugosi's Dead": 30 Years of Goth, Gloom, and Post-Post-Punk

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Saturday, Oct 31, 2009

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.
  


Now, to understand how “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” fits into the history of alt-rock (and why its importance is overlooked), we need to understand the nature of the genre.  Alternative rock has long been an unwieldy beast, quite possibly the most diverse form of rock music.  It encompasses disparate artists ranging from Nirvana to Oasis to Mogwai, to name but a few.  There’s no clear overarching sound.  While traits such as distorted guitars, prominent basslines, quiet/loud song dynamics, and sardonic and/or abstract lyrics can be attributed to scores of alt-rock bands with ease, they are not universal.  Although there are clear evolutional lines at times (from goth to dream pop to shoegaze, or grunge to post-grunge, for instance), in essence alternative rock is just a grab bag of music that emerged from the direct descendants of punk rock: post-punk, new wave, and hardcore.  It’s a genre defined more by shared lineage and attitude rather than common elements of sound.


That’s why the best definition I can think of for the genre is “post-post-punk”.  It’s music that rejected the anti-historical tendencies of post-punk and hardcore, while using its roots in those forms to reinvent and subvert elements of pop music’s past.  In his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, author Simon Reynolds contrasted alt-rock with its predecessor post-punk by noting the latter was based in a sense of futurism that the former lacked when it emerged as a distinct musical style in the mid-1980s.  Reynolds noted that “‘alternative’ defines itself as pop music’s other”, which explains why so many alt-rock movements carry heavy echoes of the past. Grunge relegitimized ‘70s heavy metal, Britpop at times wholesale replicated the leading lights of the preceding 30 years of British guitar music, and the biggest movement in the genre recently has been the post-punk revival, where bands like Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers draw their sound primarily from the year 1980.  In the case of goth, it filtered glam rock through the twisted prism of post-punk and Gothic horror.


Another issue is that there is no in-depth study of alternative as a whole, unlike punk or heavy metal, for which there are several (this certainly frustrates me, and has led me to spend the last few years researching the genre in the hopes of writing a book to address that problem).  Of all alt-rock’s forms, grunge and Britpop are the best defined and most documented, which is understandable given their cultural and generational importance.  As such, music histories focus on the strands that led up to their emergence, which don’t include goth.  There are a few great accounts that cover important eras without being restricted to one style: Michael Azerrad’s biography compendium Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 traces how the American punk scene gave way to alternative rock at the dawn of the 1990s as its unstated thesis, while John Harris’ Britpop: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of English Rock spends a good deal of its first few chapters explaining how the British indie scene of the 1980s led to the rise of Suede, Blur, and Oasis.  But even these works are limited in scope, leaving huge gaps in the narrative of the genre as a whole, particularly prior to 1991.


What all this ultimately means is that no single, clear origin point for alternative rock has really been indicated.  There are some documented important markers: American hardcore bands expanding their horizons, R.E.M.’s landmark first releases, etc.  Still, no one point of origin.  Regardless, if one wanted to pinpoint a specific record as the first clear-cut example of the genre committed to vinyl, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” has a stronger claim than any other.  Goth was one of the earliest (if not the first) alt-rock styles to emerge, and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is roundly established by goth historians as the first true record in the genre.  For comparison’s sake, goth icons the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees were certainly releasing records at the same time that Bauhaus delivered its premiere single, but the aforementioned bands didn’t go full-on goth until 1980-81; in 1979 they were both still very much part of the post-punk vanguard (aside: ever notice how prior to adopting his classic wild hair and eyeliner look, the Cure’s Robert Smith looked an awful lot like John Cusack?).  “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” also precedes all the early recognized alt-rock masterworks; in addition to mid-‘80s genre-defining works by Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, it beats the first recorded works of R.E.M. and the Smiths—the two groups who more than any others marked the emergence of alternative rock as a distinct form—by a number of years.


But “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is not recognized as such an epochal work.  For starters, goth has long been the loner older brother of alt-rock subgenres: off to the side, largely evolving separately from the others.  As a result, it’s often ignored by the rest of the genre.  It was also the alt-rock subgenre to hold onto its post-punk roots the longest; in fact, it could be argued that goth didn’t fully divest itself from the dying movement until the early 1990s.  There’s also the plain truth that Bauhaus just isn’t as important to the evolution of the genre as a whole as were other artists.  For example, while Bauhaus kicked-started goth and has been a major influence on some notable non-goth alt-rock bands (Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Interpol), its legend pales in comparison to that of R.E.M., the band roundly considered to be the first proper alternative rock band—even though goth was well-established by the time the Athens, Georgia, group released its debut single “Radio Free Europe” in 1981.  Really, if someone randomly asked you to name ten alternative bands from the 1980s, would Bauhaus’s name even escape your lips?


And there’s the unfortunate fact that it is easier to regard “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as a curiosity rather than a pivotal work of music.  There’s the excessive length, after all, and the fact that it represents one dark little corner of the alternative rock genre rather than acting as an overview of the form.  It’s certainly no “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “Dazed and Confused”, defining their genres perfectly while allowing for lots of variations on that basic sound.  There’s also the kitsch factor: put “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on the stereo and it immediately conjures images of teased hair, ankh necklaces, and lots of black.  For many, it’s the only Bauhaus song they know, if they know any at all.  The band’s second single, the thrilling rocker “Dark Entries”, provides a more likely point of reference if one were to consider Bauhaus the bearer of all alternative rock to follow.  Except most alt-rock bands didn’t follow them; they followed R.E.M., the Smiths, the Pixies, Nirvana, Oasis, Radiohead, and so on.


Regardless, I see no more likely band to label the creator of the first alternative rock record than Bauhaus.  The group made the first recorded work in the earliest style of the form to emerge, and even if it isn’t the most influential band of the genre, that achievement shouldn’t be neglected.  Consider: the first wave of punk lasted a few short years before giving way to new wave and post-punk, which were dead by the end of the 1980s.  But alternative rock has been here now for 30 years.  Grunge, twee, Britpop, shoegaze, indie rock, post-rock, and yes, goth: it’s been a mess of styles, a ton of arguments over the underground versus the mainstream, and a hell of a lot of great music.  There have been huge groups that defined a period of time, and scores of small bands who are only remembered by a devoted few.  And Bauhaus was first.

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