“The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for the post-punk era.” That was the singer’s description of the song which came out, to a roaring indifference at the time, 42 years ago. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus was released in a limited run of 5000 copies this day in 1979. Even though it was obscure, and on a tiny indie label called Small Wonder, it was obvious this record was something different – starting with the white vinyl it was pressed on.
The ode to vampires can be seen as rather a Gen X “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and was unlike anything else you were likely to hear at the time. Long, ghoulish, full of echoes, creaks and reverb, not to mention that one had to wait for several minutes before Peter Murphy even began to sing in his menacing baritone. All in all, it would be considered the first “Goth” record, and play a huge role in influencing the likes of The Cure and Joy Division later on.
As astonishing as the record sounded, it was all the more so because it was recorded live in the studio in just one take! In fact, Bauhaus recorded four songs in one six-hour take earlier in the year, made it a demo and got the deal with the tiny record company. All of that was happening less than 2 months after they’d formed (initially calling themselves Bauhaus 1919), with school friends David J. Haskins on bass, his brother Kevin on drums and Daniel Ash on guitars. They added in Ash’s friend Murphy to sing mostly because they thought he “looked the part” despite never being in a band.
The song came out of Ash and David J.’s fascination with vampire movies, in particular the old Dracula ones starring Bela Lugosi. David says he wrote the lyrics (all four are credited as writers) after thinking “a vampire cannot retire from being a vampire, because that’s for eternity” and likening that to Lugosi’s inevitability of being forever typecast as the one character alone.
The record, and band, might have gone unnoticed and faded into obscurity like a vampire with a stake through it, if it didn’t somehow come to the attention of influential DJ John Peel in London. The BBC personality played the record and then had them on his show, and recorded a “Peel Session” which included another, similar version of “Bela”. All that not only garnered them public notice and approval but a deal with a slightly-larger record company, 4AD. Although it never made the top 40, the song did linger on the British indie charts for two years! It failed to chart on regular sales charts in North America, but over the years they became a major concert draw and the song was voted the third-best of all-time by listeners of Toronto station CFNY in 1991.
The Goth epic has been used widely for mood in movies and on TV, including works like Good Luck Chuck and American Horror Story, not to mention the ’83 film The Hunger for which it was the theme. Interesting, because that film starred David Bowie. And while the song is dark and gothic, David J. points out “if you look at the catalog, it’s pretty diverse.” Indeed, they drew heavily from glam rock influences and had their biggest chart hit with a cover of “Ziggy Stardust”… the David Bowie song.
Bauhaus split up in 1983 when Murphy decided to go solo, with the other trio soon forming Love and Rockets. While they didn’t have a great deal of commercial success in their run, they were vastly influential and have ironically become far bigger concert attractions in two reunions since, despite waiting 25 years before putting out any new material, in 2008.