“White on white, translucent, black capes…”
Nine and a half minutes of exploratory, indulgent and spine-tingling music courtesy of the most recognizable post-punks going – the Bauhaus anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was released on August 6, 1979.
It’s an homage to the legendary black-and-white movie actor Bela Lugosi, who codified forever the visual version of Count Dracula in the 1931 film from Universal. The song manages to continue this legacy-defining journey, by becoming an unofficial anthem to the nascent goth subculture of the early eighties, and even if it didn’t trouble the charts overly much, it became a helpful point of reference for baffled music journalists struggling to interpret the baritone vocals, hypnotically rhythmic drumming and jangling, other-worldly guitars of the latest alternative music ‘sound’.
So it has remained for four decades, aural shorthand for a complex and contradictory subculture and sound. Even when it was unseated, to the surprise of many, by prolific competitors The Cure on BBC Radio 6, you can still rely on it as a common touchstone for visual as well as audible style for the goth scene.
A talisman, and perhaps an albatross. Certainly for Bauhaus, in the same way that all their peers regard the entire goth scene – a jet-black weighty bird of pompous, verbose origin forever pinned to their necks and forcing them into a box that is the enemy of any creator. And, perhaps, for newer creators – forever striving for recognition of their individual creations, even in the sprawling shadow of this forbidding midnight monolith.
Goth is, for all its intended subversiveness, bad at changing and innovating. Ask any DJ and they’ll despair at the difficulty with which new songs are adopted on dance floors. Even after some hot new outfit has finished playing to a rapturous audience, those same fans will not want to dance to anything except the hits of forty years hence.
Indeed, those seeking the biggest audiences at the leading music festivals for goth might consider it a safe bet to diligently check off the dusty list of tropes that Bela Lugosi’s Dead established in 1979… stifling true innovation and creativity, instead encouraging us to resurrect the Count from his red-lined box time and again and again…
This shouldn’t be taken as approval of every wild burst of new creativity in the alternative genres. Attempts to anoint nu-metal, emo, or even Marilyn Manson as the ‘inheritors’ of goth should be furiously resisted. Equally, we should welcome vibrant new outfits that wear their Peter Murphy influences proudly on their flowing black sleeves. Continuity is critical, especially in this bizarrely long-lived subculture of ours, and it gives new sound a legitimacy that can be fleeting and fickle in a community regularly riven by vicious and petty internecine war.
What I hope for is the goth scene to remember that once upon a time, Bela Lugosi’s Dead was startling and risky in its unusual nature – utterly unshackled by precedence and forging a new path for musicians and fans alike. It is that dare to be different that once upon a time typified goth, and not the slavish adherence to orthodoxy that the surliest gatekeepers insist upon.
So, celebrate this Bauhaus-infused birthday and remember where we came from, but do not forget to think about where we might go, as David Haskins, Kevin Haskins, Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash did before us. We’ll never lose that classic sound after all… it’s undead…