This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #127: Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus.
As we get closer and closer to the end of this countdown, we will be taking some time along the way to, not only profile the very best songs of all-time but, also, the most important and influential songs in the various main genres that comprise modern music. Today’s song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus is a prime example. I remember first hearing/seeing this song when I was in university in Toronto. As I have said in previous posts, I was in Toronto in the early 1980s, just when music videos were becoming a thing. So, not only were bands/artists concerned about the content of their lyrics and the structure of their musical composition, they were becoming increasingly concerned with the theatricality of their work, too. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is one of the most theatrical songs you are ever going to see. We will get into the nitty-gritty of the song in a moment but, for now, if you have never heard of this song before then, the most important starting point for you is knowing that this song is the one most critics point to as being Ground Zero in the start of the Goth music genre. So, let’s talk a bit about Goth, about Bauhaus and about some of the bands that were influenced by this song and ended up having huge careers of their own. Here is the story of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.
When I first mentioned the term, “Goth” a moment ago, it is quite likely that you formed an image in your mind of young people, all dressed in black, heavy black eye-liner, morose and dour dispositions and so on. That image is a fairly accurate description of the “uniform” donned by those in the Goth movement but, it is very important to note that Goth is a lifestyle and a philosophy and, as such, to understand it requires moving past the superficial layers of what may seem like costumes. For more people in our society that we may care to realize, living a “normal” life is the furthest thing imaginable from what they want or need. Being “Goth” is a rejection of the middle-of-the-road existence and an embrace of darkness and things related to death. While this may seem like a downer of a personal choice, you may change your thinking when you learn that one of the sub-genres of Goth has to do with vampires and all that they entail. For starters, vampires are highly-sexualized beings that, according to literature and movies, often present as possessing an irresistible, magnetic force that renders sexual conquests as helpless and, as we know, ultimately, lifeless. This rejection of the light of normality and a headlong desire to run to the alluring presence of darkness and sex and immortality, of a sorts, is part of the attraction to being Goth. *Obviously, there is more to the subject that this but, you can use this as a starting point for your own personal growth. If you wish to explore the Goth lifestyle in greater depth, there are numerous articles on the Interweb to help you.
So, when it comes to iconic figures in the world of vampires, who better to have a song written about him than the actor who defined the character on screen, Bela Lugosi, himself! Let’s be clear about one thing….Bela Lugosi was a flesh and blood human! He was only acting in the role of Count Dracula, the most famous vampire of them all. He was never Count Dracula, himself! However, Bela Lugosi was revered by those who were attracted to Goth and so, when he died in real life and was buried in a cape and placed in a red velvet casket, it only helped to stoke the flames of his legend in the Goth world.
This brings us to Bauhaus. This band was comprised of four young men named Peter Murphy (lead singer), Daniel Ash (Lead guitar), David J. (bass guitar) and Kevin Haskins (drums). They came from an Art School background so the “look” of their songs was important. The song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was the very first single they ever released. The inspiration for it came after some of the guys watched a vampire movie marathon on tv. Feeling immersed in the vampire culture and being poetically and artistically-minded, Daniel J. began thinking of lyrics and came up with the opening verse that goes like this:
“White on white, translucent black capes,
Back on the back.
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…”
There are further images of lifeless brides mourning the casket and the question of Bela Lugosi being dead and undead at the same time. The lyrics to this song are one thing but, coupled with a haunting musical score and a deep, slow, droning delivery by singer Peter Murphy, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was completely unlike any song ever released at the time it came into the public realm. Needless to say, the video for this song is filled with darkly coloured hues, wisps of fog and suggestions of danger all around. But, as we know, those attracted toward the Goth lifestyle do not fear this sort of environment, they run toward it. So, when “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was released, it sent a lightning bolt of excitement through the hearts and minds of many. It is not an exaggeration to say that the impact of this song on the Goth community was akin to the impact The Beatles first had on regular folk back in the early days of Beatlemania.
I first saw this song being performed by Bauhaus on a television show in Toronto called, “New Music Magazine” that was hosted by Jeannie Beker, J.D. Roberts and Erica Ehm. I remember finding the song almost hypnotic. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” clocks in at almost nine minutes long. It was recorded in one full take, according to Peter Murphy. Once the band had finished recording the song, they all felt as though they had created something different and important. The first three minutes or so are all instrumental and are intended to create a sense of foreboding. Then, Murphy starts in on the lyrics. He has a rather drawn and boney appearance and projects the perfect image of someone who would be singing a song such as this. As “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” moves forward, the question is raised as to whether Bela Lugosi can actually ever really be dead. Does he now exist in a sort of immortality that the undead have. To ponder such thoughts was thrilling conjecture for some. What was also thrilling was that whole theatrical spectacle of this performance. It was Dark Art portrayed in a musical form unlike any that had been seen before. As a result of this song/performance, a whole host of new and, soon-to-be launched, bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, along with The Cure, all embraced Goth as the foundation of their early sound and Goth music instantly became an accepted genre of music within the actual music industry. For me, one of the bands that I came to know and love as a result of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was “The Sisters of Mercy” and their first hit, “Lucretia, my Reflection”. I am certainly not Goth….that image of me would be laughable by those who know me. But, having said that, there is just something about the darkness and the driving beats that draws me in. Maybe it will for you, too, if you give it a try.
As I close this post, I will do so by talking about the videos you are about to see. I will play the original video of this song. As stated earlier, it is nine minutes long and takes a while to build in intensity but, stick with it. It is as much an experience, as it is a song. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was also used during the opening credits of an erotic vampire movie (aren’t they all, “erotic thrillers”) called “The Hunger”, which starred David Bowie, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. I will play that for you, too. As well, I will toss in The Sisters of Mercy, with “Lucretia, my Reflection”; a song that was directly inspired by Bauhaus and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. “Lucretia” sounds great cranked, for those with the inclination and the speakers to do so.
So, without further delay, here is Bauhaus with their debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. This song is the one that started the Goth music genre off. One viewing and I am sure you will understand why. Embrace your inner darkness and enjoy!
The link to the video for the song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus, can be found here.
The link to the video for the opening scene of the movie, “The Hunger”, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bauhaus, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Lucretia, My Reflection” by Sisters of Mercy, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sisters of Mercy, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP to supporting Goth artists and bands in equal measure to all other genres. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.