Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #91. Bauhaus – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 7, 2007

“The bats have left the bell tower / the victims have been bled / red velvet lines the black box”

It’s all about the drums on this one. Nine minutes and thirty-four seconds of slithering bass, unsettling sound effects, slinky guitar and Peter Murphy’s graveyard wail, but the entirety of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” don’t mean nothing without that insistent, off-beat drum tapping running throughout the whole thing. Remove everything else in the song–as some sections of it even do–and leave drummer Dennis Haskins with that tap…tap…tap…tap…tap…, and it’s still the creepiest song of the 70s.

The result of a largely improvised, live-in-the-studio nine-minute jam session, the song’s Wikipedia entry cites a variety of inspirations and analogues for the song, including early Pink Floyd, The Doors (and I do think the drum part is somewhat reminiscent of “Break on Through“), Kraftwerk and Can, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s relatively spooky Rumours track “The Chain.” Some of these make sense, but they ignore the group’s roots in post-punk, which I think is important, especially considering that a lot of post-punk groups were starting to sound like this in ’79.

Really, I think the most obvious predecessor to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is Suicide’s ten-minute murder anthem “Frankie Teardrop,” from their ’77 self-titled debut. “Frankie” set the tone for “Bela” in its semi-biographical narrative, seething tension, brutally dark subject and of course, near-prog rock length–perhaps the song’s greatest innovation, considering the near-didactic avoidance of excessie song length by most of the class of ’77. By ’79, “Bela” was one of a series of midnight-black exercises undergone by soon-to-be extremely influential post-punk bands, among such fine company as The Cure’s “Subway Song,” Public Image Ltd.’s “Poptones” and Joy Division’s “I Remember Nothing,” and I see “Frankie” as the root of most, if not all of these.

There’s a reason why “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is on this list and not “Frankie Teardrop,” however, and that’s mostly because as a song, “Frankie” kinda sucks. The lyrics are ridiculous, the structure is extremely poor, there’s little melody to speak of, and the horror of the (admittedly blood-curdling) screaming section of the song isn’t really earned by the rest of it. “Bela,” despite lacking the obvious pay-off of “Frankie,” is actually consistently brilliant throughout its nine and a half minutes, the instruments intertwining to create one of the deadliest and most compelling post-punk grooves ever created, and the lyrics somehow manage to avoid the trappings and cheesiness of most songs about things like bats and vampires and undeadedness.

And oh yeah, I’ve managed to avoid the “G” word for the first four paragraphs of this entry, so I may as well get it over with now–“Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” and Bauhaus in general, will permanently be associated with Goth rock, Goth clothing, Goth Talk, and really just all things alternative and gothic. And it’s not hard to see how this song (sort of) started it all–the darkly (to say the least) imagistic lyrics, the trance-inducing pacing and length, Murphy’s funereal baritone, and that brilliant, brilliant fucking title–I don’t get how it would be possible not to build a whole subculture around this song.

It might’ve been too iconic for the band’s own good, because I’m not sure they ever really got out from its shadow. There are probably plenty of superfans that know the rest of their catalogue by heart, but for me at least, I think I can only name one other Bauhaus song (aside from their almost-near-hit cover of “Ziggy Stardust”), and it’s not even a song I particularly care for. When you’ve got a song that summarizes a band’s strengths and ethos (whether they like it or not), how much more of a back catalogue could you really ask for, though? Just keep listening to that tapping.

(Oh yeah, and a couple members might’ve gone on to do some other stuff, but more on that another day)

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