Though none of its constituent tropes were entirely without precedent, Goth was and is a singularly unique expression of post-punk art rock, and as a template for misfit-kid identity it’s been as durable as punk itself. Black Sabbath brought a gloom-and-doom vibe to bear on rock music; The Velvets romanticized malaise; The Misfits injected horror movie tropes into punk; Siouxsie and The Damned can claim prior art on vampire-film inspired stage wear. But none of that counts. The beginning of Goth was the August, 1979 release of the single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus, period.
This is a truncated version of the 10-minute original, from Top Of The Pops. I’m sharing this version because it’s sufficient to convey the point, and because the announcer’s dickhead comment at the end is pretty hilarious in retrospect.
The song was wholly novel, and it codified almost all the elements the genre adapted from contemporary post-punk—ominous mood set by a bassist transcending mere rhythm section functionality; sparse, modulated guitars; a dramatic Bowie fan histrionically chanting UNDEAD UNDEAD UNDEAD. The song was given a global hearing when it was used in 1983, with performance footage, as the opening credits music for the vampire film The Hunger, but for the most part the black cat was already out of the bag by then. The band’s bassist David J, who wrote the lyrics, was kind enough to discuss with us in an email exchange the sources the band tapped in crafting the song:
At that time in 1978 there was a season of classic horror films which was running on late night TV. Daniel [Ash, Bauhaus guitarist] and I had both seen ‘Dracula’ starring Bela Lugosi and the night after the screening we were in the phone, setting up our next practice / jam session. We got into talking about the film which we had both seen for the first time and loved. Campy rubber horror bat n’ all! We were especially taken with Bela’s strong Hungarian accent which we agreed was perfectly suited to the ‘otherness’ of the character and especially as the actor delivered his lines in that weird stilted way. We also loved that the whole thing was quite subtle. The delicately implied sexuality and elegant, romantic style was most appealing. So, with that conversational dwelling on the subject the seeds had been sown. The next evening whilst riding my bicycle back home from my crushingly boring day job, working in a distribution warehouse, I was suddenly struck by the first verse: “White on white, translucent. Black cape’s back on the rack, Bela Lugosi’s dead.” Then, every few yards, another line would come to me and by the time I got home, 20 minutes later, I had the entire lyric written out on the delivery labels that I would tie to the boxes which were to be dispatched from the warehouse. These original words included the line, ‘sleeping through the long drugged hours’ which I dropped as it didn’t really scan. At the time I was not aware of Mr. Lugosi’s morphine addiction so that pretty interesting in retrospect. Anyway, the next night we had our rehearsal and I handed the newly transcribed lyric sheet to Peter [Murphy, Bauhaus vocalist]. The epic song came together in an instant, we all got the shivers and simply knew that we were onto a winner!
Bauhaus spent four totally indispensable albums demonstrating that the genre they spawned was far too small to contain their creativity, expanding artistically while most of the rest of Goth ossified into a life-sized cartoon about trench coats, eyeliner, and ape scrotum hairdos. The band split in 1983, but all of its members remained active in various configurations, and within two years the entire lineup minus Murphy were together again in the trio Love and Rockets. Inevitable ‘90s and ‘oughts reunion tours ensued, culminating in the sadly less-than-edifying 2008 album Go Away White. Currently, J and Murphy are on tour celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary, and Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins last year sort-of resurrected Tones On Tail, their project in between Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, under the name “Poptone,” for an ongoing series of excellent performances.
And there’s one more bit of Bauhaus news—the “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single is being reissued with some choice goodies. It’s been expanded to an EP called The Bela Session, featuring all five of the songs the band tracked during their first ever recording session, three of which have never been released. Of particular interest is “Bite My Hip,” an early song that was abandoned in 1980 only to be rewritten and issued as a single in 1982 under the title “Lagartija Nick.” It was a weird choice for the follow-up single to their wildly successful cover of “Ziggy Stardust”—it’s a spiky, tense song, laden with references to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the refrain changed from “Bite My Hip” to the somewhat more menacing “Crack The Whip.” While we had David J on the hook, we asked him about the transformation.
That was one of our very first songs, written by Peter and Daniel. Later on, we felt that the lyric was a bit too simplistic and so the song sat on the shelf for several years until we dusted it off when Peter and I came up with the revised lyric which was a description of Sadomasochism and the Devil, the latter known as “Lagartija Nick” in ancient Spain. In retrospect I think that it was all too obscure for a single and the original blatantly erotic lyric would have been a better way to go. I’m glad the original has finally seen the light of day (or maybe that should be the light of twilight?!)
The Bela Session is scheduled for release today, and to celebrate, we have here for your A/B-ing enjoyment “Lagartija Nick” and the original “Bite My Hip.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy and Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre to star in horror film
That Old Black Magic: Stan Lee duets with Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy
‘Undead’: The Book Every Bauhaus Fan Will Covet is Arriving Soon