Dead Cross’ debut album came out 2 days ago with a cover of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Today is the 38 year anniversary of the single’s original released. Let’s take a more detailed look at the song.
Who are Bauhaus?
Bauhaus were formed in 1978 in Northampton, England. Before that, the guitarist and vocalist Daniel Ash, bassist and vocalist David J (David Jay Haskins) and the drummer Kevin Haskins were in a trio called The Craze. Peter Murphy joined as the vocalist to create Bauhaus. The band was originally called ‘Bauhaus 1919’ in homage to the German art school which began in that year, though by the release of their debut track ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ they had dropped the date from their name.
After setting out with this “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Bauhaus signed with the label 4AD, a subsidiary to the iconic Beggars Banquets and unleashed their second single, “Dark Entries”. Their third, following a European tour, was the headline-titled “Terror Couple Kill Colonel’ was popular on the independent charts.
In 1980 they toured the US and released a cover of rock band T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam”, followed by their debut studio album In the Flat Field which soared to the top spot on the independent music charts and even ranked at number 72 on the pop charts. More hits followed with “Kick in the Eye” and “Passion of Lovers” both making it into the top 60 pop charts in 1981. They broke new ground that year with their second album, Mask, with its metal and electronic hues adding to the gothy darkness already established. Mask hit number 30 on the UK charts.
After a couple more successful singles, they had their biggest hit yet, reaching number 15 with a cover of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, before releasing a third studio album The Sky’s Gone Out which reached number 4 on the album charts.
By the mid-80s the band had split up. They reformed for a tour in 1998 and later released a studio album in 2008 called Go Away White.
Who is Bela Lugosi, and why does it matter that he’s dead?
Bela Lugosi (1882–1956) was a Hungarian-American film star known for his roles in horror movies, most notably as Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation. Lugosi’s heavy Hungarian accent became synonmous with Dracula, and he struggled to shake the typecast of playing the villain in films.
The band play with the meaning of this death and blur the actor Bela Lugosi with the frightful ghouls and monsters he portrayed, Peter Murphy ending the song with a moaning chant of:
Listen to Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
Bela Lugosi’s Dead
Bauhaus’ first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was recorded on the 26th of January 1979 at Beck Studios in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England—23 years after the actor’s death. It was written collaboratively by all the band members: the vocalist Peter Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, drummer Kevin Haskins and bassist David J.The single was first released on the 6th of August 1979 on the independent record label Small Wonder and is 9 minutes and 36 seconds long. ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ did not make it into the pop charts but was a cult hit which remained
The single was first released on the 6th of August 1979 on the independent record label Small Wonder and is 9 minutes and 36 seconds long. ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ did not make it into the pop charts but was a cult hit which remained in the independent music charts for years afterward. With its vampiric theme and its gloom-and-doom mood, the song inspired the then as-yet-unborn goth rock genre. The band’s total oeuvre was a key influence on this style, along with other pioneers such as Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Gothic rock was an amalgam that combined elements of pre-existing glam rock with post-punk and the wealth of literary and cinematic tropes bequeathed by gothic horror. Singer Peter Murphy later said the song was intended to be tongue-in-cheek but has been taken rather more seriously by fans because of its sincere and deadpan delivery. The single came with two additional tracks: the glam-rock-esque “Boys” on side B and an untitled third track in demo form that was later worked into their subsequent single, “Dark Entries”.
Bauhaus did not emerge fully formed: they were inspired by, among others, their fore-musicians David Bowie and Joy Division, whose influence can be heard on ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Yet their debut single made a significant turn in the road that set them apart from their predecessors and left a profound, though in many ways subterranean, legacy. Unmistakably the first gothic rock song, Bauhaus’ 1979 recording was also one of the earliest attempts at what was later called alternative rock. Goth rock was one of the first in the panoply of styles that came to compose this category—from indie rock to post-rock to Britpop and grunge.
Practitioners of goth such as The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees were still firmly post-punk in style when ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ was released, yet to risk the foray Bauhaus was making.
Bauhaus was influential on a number of bands decidedly un-goth in nature, too, such as Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins and Interpol. Still, it’s hard to argue that ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ had a paradigm-shifting impact on music, paving the way for alternative rock: REM, The Smiths, Nirvana and Oasis, to name a few, were obviously more influential.
Yet Bauhaus have to be credited for one thing: getting there first, with this, the original alternative rock record—a lesser known starting shot in a form of rock music that would come to define itself against pop.
The track is still fondly remembered: today, Rolling Stone lists ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ as one of its top fifteen songs about vampires, ranking alongside Neil Young’s ‘Vampire Blues’ and Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’.
The song itself is a groundbreakingly unique work of art. The lyrics are strange, cryptic and spare, recalling the horror-cinematic imagery their title references. To take an example:
Bela Lugosi’s dead
The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box
The band creatively uses rock instrumentation to create a soundscape redolent of a vampire’s castle or another equally uncanny environment, with Murphy’s deep vocals, David J’s foreboding bassline, Daniel Ash’s spectral guitar playing and the pitter patter of drums from Kevin Haskins creating the effect of dripping water in a subterranean lair or the tiptoe of the Count himself.Indeed, the performance of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ itself has often been cinematic: at Coachella in 2005, Peter Murphy gave a rendition of the song while hanging upside down in the manner of a vampire bat.
Indeed, the performance of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ itself has often been cinematic: at Coachella in 2005, Peter Murphy gave a rendition of the song while hanging upside down in the manner of a vampire bat.
Pathbreaking work of art or silly, dated, pretence? You’ll have to decide for yourself whether “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is dead or alive, or perhaps—as Peter Murphy would say—‘Undead undead undead’.
Dead Cross Cover
In August 2017 Dead Cross released their debut album. The fifth track on the album is their cover of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Coming at less than a third the length of the original it’s definitely Dead Cross’ own take on the song – yet brutally similar. Being sped up to only 2 minutes 33 seconds the song is still very slow compared to the rest of the album.
Mike Patton delivers a horrorific performance on the vocals, bringing a low growl to the lyrics. Dave Lombardo brings his precise drumming alongside Pearson and Crain who draw out the gothic drawl of the original.
Dead Cross has been performing the song since they started performing live. It was introduced into their set list to help break up the intensity of the rest of the performance and to help extend the length of the set.
Listen to Dead Cross’ cover of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”