In order to really appreciate just how radical Bauhaus was in the early stages of their career, one must recognize what they did seemingly as a matter of course – how different it was from everything else, and how boldly the band did it from day one. The group’s first release, the “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single, is an ideal illustration of that difference
In 1979, when the single was first released, pop music was still reeling from the punk explosion and songs were short again, at that time, for the first time in what seemed like ages. Solos had been phased out in many circles, tempos had sped up and everything was a little less understated and a little more garish – if only to ensure that it could stand out in the new artistic landscape.
Bauhaus had none of that. The A-side of the band’s very first single was nine and a half minutes long, featured guitar as a more textural instrument than a lead one, and singer Peter Murphy was darker and more theatrical than his peers in bands like the Sex Pistols and Heartbreakers.
Simply said, the first rumblings of punk was still making waves in 1979, and nothing had become formulaic yet – new ideas and sounds were still erupting and some of it had ventured so far from the music’s ground zero that it could easily be argued that the new breed were peers to the old in geography only. That was definitely true of bands like Bauhaus.
Now, before we dig in, it’s important to point out that this “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” twelve-inch single is a reissue – but it goes a little further than that too. On top of the three songs which originally populated the release, Leaving Records has also included an additional pair of previously unreleased cuts for the devout to devour. For those who are unfamiliar though, the extra music offers the release the added benefit of a picture which is closer to complete – this way, it’s easier to get a sense of where the band was headed with the benefit of a couple of aborted offshoots too. That’s very handy, from both a creative and psychological standpoint.
… And does the package as a whole ever prove to be worth the asking price. As soon as needle meets groove and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” begins to emanate from speakers as this EP’s A-side plays, longtime fans will instantly remember why they became fans in the first place – while other bands which came along at around the same time were compelled to gun for a hit, Bauhaus attains an eerie and methodical movement instead.
The sound effects and tape manipulations which open the song are as capable of inciting an infectious sense of unease as effortlessly in 2019 as they could in 1979 and, when Peter Murphy finally offers the songs first lyrics over Daniel Ash’s descending guitar riff (“White n white translucent black capes/ Back on the rack/ Bela Lugosi’s dead/ The bats have left the bell tower/ The victims have been bled/ Red velvet lines the black box/ Bela Lugosi’s dead”) eyes will widen and pupils will contract – and the whole wide world will seem to get a little dimmer and more grey.
Then as now, while the song makes its way along, a sense of inevitability will begin to loom over listeners. Those new to the experience may find that they feel more than a little disarmed – but those who have walked along this way before will feel a calm satisfaction. That “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is nine minutes long and takes up the entire A-side of this twelve-inch release just feels all alright.
After that, listeners will certainly be hooked to follow along for the B-side but, as was the case when the single was first released, they’ll find that the shorter cuts do pale in comparison to the EP’s A-side. “Some Faces” enjoys a brighter and more articulate melody as well as a more rousing rhythm while the simultaneously catchy, ominous and danceable “Mite My Hip” previews basically all of the gothic nightclub culture that would dominate college bar playlists throughout the 1990s, and still sounds pretty fresh twenty years after that too.
Now, as solid as the first couple of cuts are, the B-side does stumble a bit with the inclusion of the ska-touched song “Harry” (the pallor of goth does not now, nor has it ever, worn the warmth and sunshine of ska and reggae well, and herein lies the undeniable proof of that), but the running does recover well as the side closes with the hissing, slithering and still danceable demo, “Boys.”
The way the B-side plays perfectly illustrates that, yes, the finer points of what would work for goth weren’t yet hammered flat, but that does not mean listening to how this EP plays out isn’t really enjoyable. As a time capsule, the “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” reissue is excellent and engrossing because it bravely illustrates both all the best and most questionable turns of the moment that a band came into being. It’s not perfect, but that imperfection makes it fascinating and essential. [Bill Adams]