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.
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.
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.
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?
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.