Staking out "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus
“Listen to them, children of the night, what music they make.”
Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)
The Goth of the early ‘80s was a half-formed, patchwork monster.
Goth’s roots lie in the late 18th/early 19th-century gothic revival, the dark shadow of the Romantic movement. (Two foundational texts of gothic horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, were inspired by a ghost story competition held in 1816; fittingly, that year became famous for not having a summer.) Goth is as gloomy and stormy, cemeteries and skull rings, black and silver. Goth is nihilism and depression, but it is also romantic and abandoned. The morbid fascinations of Goth are as much a memento mori as they are a death wish; the skull on the mantelpiece is there to upset the parents and épater les bourgeois, but also to remind us that life is short, but art is long.
But in the Britain of the late ‘70s, it was hard to be romantic. The weathered gargoyles and corbels of the gothic revival had been replaced by the rain-stained concrete of the municipal car park, and there was a new housing development on the windblown heath. Instead of a crumbling castle teetering on the edge of a Transylvanian ravine, the setting was a suburban underpass, creaking swings in a scrubby playground at midnight, drinking cider in a car park round the back of the shopping centre, and it’s 10:15 on a Saturday night and Robert Smith is sitting in the kitchen sink, and the tap drips under the strip light. Drip, drip, drip, drip.
Like so many ‘80s subcultures, this new Goth rock was the sound of suburban kids escaping to the big city. Siouxsie from The Bromley Contingent, The Cure from Crawley, Depeche Mode from Basildon. (There was also Joy Division from Salford, and The Birthday Party from Melbourne). The suburbs were serried ranks of whited sepulchres, deadened by repression and zombie consumerism; the cities - hollowed out by the economic malaise of the ‘70s and now under the relentless iron grip of Thatcherism - were deserted ruins.
And it wasn’t yet Goth, not really. The term was new and no one much liked it. Even Bauhaus, the band responsible for that primal, defining Goth hit ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (1979), always insisted they weren’t Goth.
Now, let’s be clear: ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ is a very silly song indeed. A manifesto for ‘80s Goth - gloomy bass, showy guitars, sixth form poetry and pretentious affect - it managed to parody the genre even as it created it.
The Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi was a kind of Goth, in that he was a permanent outsider in Hollywood, haunting its shadows, an emigré banished to the graveyard of horror films. By 1979 he was also dead. A long time dead. He died in 1956, in the middle of working with enthusiastic amateur auteur Ed Wood Junior. Wood spliced bits of Lugosi’s last filmed performances into his delirious masterwork Plan 9 From Outer Space, padding it out with shots of his chiropractor in the same costume. The chiropractor was taller than Lugosi and looked nothing like him, so Wood got him to hold a cape over his face.
It was a bathetic end to Lugosi’s career, but it had been a bathetic sort of career. His star-making turn in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) damned Lugosi to an unlife in schlocky B-movies. Fleshy and stolid, he was an unlikely gothic figure; he had none of the sepulchral chill of Boris Karloff or the saturnine thrill of Christopher Lee. His Count is creepy in the manner of an uncle who has to be kept away from children, leering and looming, wide eyed and wooden.
Dracula has its moments, particularly Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield and Helen Chandler’s unnerving Mina, but it’s a creaky bit of business. A barely opened-out stage play, it has dated badly and is peppered with moments of unwitting comedy: Van Helsing’s erratic accent, an infestation of armadillos in Castle Dracula. It is more kitsch now than creepy, an image of horror and the gothic that is as old-fashioned and outmoded as the Count himself in the film, lost in the streets of ‘30s London in a Victorian opera cloak and European finery. This kind of gothic was unsuitable for the computerised and laser-lit ‘80s.
It was time for Bela Lugosi to die, and for the Count to be reborn, again. (Dragging Dracula into a new era was nothing new: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel updated Polidori’s vampire, pulling the ancient European evil into a modern nineteenth century Britain of telegrams and blood transfusions; Lugosi’s Dracula had itself been reinvented for the 1930s.) The ‘80s saw vampires taking Manhattan in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), which starred Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. And Bauhaus.
There is next to no music in Tod Browning’s Dracula, other than a bit of Swan Lake slapped over the opening credits. It’s part of what makes it so ponderous to watch now. The credits to The Hunger, on the other hand, have ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ playing over them. And Bauhaus performing in a goth club under them.
It’s a long way from being Bauhaus’s best work: that would be the paranoid twitch of ‘Terror Couple Kill Colonel’, the skeletal funk of ‘Kick In The Eye’, or the queasy Day of the Dead carnival of ‘Spirit’. But it still has their sparse, stark sound, the sound of your nervous system whining on the edge of audibility. It’s perfect for an ‘80s vampire movie, especially one directed by Tony Scott with a vinyl and gauze vision. Pete Murphy’s razor sharp cheekbones and razor sharp hair, David J’s sunglasses and dark suit. Kevin Haskins’ clean, snappy drum sound and the criminally underrated Daniel Ash stripping his guitar strings to their scraping cores. This is not crushed velvet and mouldering lace: this is pointed leather boots, skin tight jeans and a hard stare.
And while those original Romantic goths, Mary and Percy Shelley and their coterie, had been inspired by the French Revolution, the continent-spanning destruction of the Napoleonic wars and the global climate upheaval caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora, the kids of the ‘80s had a far more cosmic horror looming over them. The Hunger came out in 1983, the year of NATO’s ‘Able Archer’ military exercise, so realistic that the Soviets thought it could be a prelude to a first strike and prepared to respond. The world has rarely been closer to mutually assured destruction. ‘80s Goths danced in a stark, destroying light, the imminent light of a thousand suns; the ever-present awareness that the next instant we could be nothing but carbon shadows burnt onto a blasted wall.
You can hear this despair and nihilism in Joy Division’s sonorous, funereal exaltations, in The Banshees’ keening and wailing in the ruins, in the deep, soft grey depression of The Cure’s Faith or Seventeen Seconds. But there is also a desperate fervour, the herky jerky flailing of Bauhaus’s Lagartija Nick or Nick Cave’s unhinged yelping on Release the Bats. There was a knowledge that tomorrow all this could be ash and radiation; this could be our last dance before the cold and endless night.
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It is no mistake that David Bowie was cast as one of the vampires in The Hunger, because he is the ancient and unquiet spirit that haunts the early ‘80s; he is the Gothfather. Musically, these bands are the inheritors of his ‘70s Berlin period, the children who grew up listening to Low, Heroes and Lodger; dark, insistent records that lay out the shape of ‘80s post-punk. It is also no mistake that Bauhaus covered not only Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ but also his Berlin collaborator Brian Eno’s ‘Third Uncle’.
The rest of the music in The Hunger is a mixture of classical pieces and uneasy interruptions from what sounds like a waterphone (an odd, spiky metal instrument invented by Richard Waters, which makes peculiarly dissonant, unsettling noises). One piece that repeats throughout the film is the andante from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, full of an aching, pulsing melancholy that is far too significant for such a silly film. It was written in 1827, ten years after Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. It is, perhaps, the original Goth music; sparse, resonant, gloomy. It is also appropriately, darkly romantic.
Dark romance is a cornerstone of the vampire myth: for every monstrous vampire like Christopher Lee’s Count in the Hammer movies, or Kathryn Bigelow’s crew of Wild West weirdos in Near Dark, there are doomed lovers like Louis from Interview with a Vampire, or Coppola’s Count in his Dracula. Core to the myth is the sense that eternal life means surrendering an essential humanity. “To be truly dead must be glorious; there are far worse things awaiting man than death,” says Lugosi’s Count in the 1931 Dracula. Deneuve’s Miriam in The Hunger agrees, describing herself as “Doomed to live forever”.
At the end of the movie, in a very traditional sort of ghost story twist, Deneuve is destroyed by the crumbling remains of all her discarded lovers whom she has been keeping, all immortal but not unageing, in the atmospherically lit loft of her New York apartment. (The loft is also full of pigeons that flap romantically about in slow motion, although we get the distinct impression in the final scene that someone off camera is basically pelting Deneuve with doves). It is her undying love that eventually destroys her.
It is immortality that makes vampires monsters; it is death that defines humanity. It is the nature and glory of love that, with life, it ends. And it is this realisation that inspires Goth. ‘80s Goths danced on the grave of Lugosi in their patent leather winkle-pickers and creaking vinyl basques, but The Count was still down there in a red satin box, listening to their stomping. Like the Shelleys having teenage sex on Mary’s mother’s grave (truly, she was the Queen of the Goths), these were kids who had just realised that they too, one day, would die. One day soon, if President Reagan had his way. What else was there to do but dance in the dark, to rail against the coming of that fearsome dawn?
And now a new neoliberal Prime Minister is stalking the land,1 draining the lifeblood from the public services; the Russians are once again threatening nuclear war; the rising sun promises to doom the world with its fires. Perhaps it’s time to don the universal mourning and take one last turn on the dancefloor. Perhaps it's time for Goth to rise from the grave.
Undead, undead, undead.
For a more international 80s Goth, check out our rewatch of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire:
Correct as of 11.59pm on Friday October 21.