n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
Two images of Bauhaus locked into my mind for years before I heard their music.
They are both, ahem, T-shirt designs. The images were taken from the artwork of the band’s classic, 1979 debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”: one is a stark silhouette of a enormous bat in a room with wings spread for flight—a closer view reveals Bela’s faded mug pasted on the creature; the other image appears to be a movie scene of what is either a mime or a black-clad burglar with artfully messed hair, holding a dead damsel in white under one arm. Both images resemble unearthed stills from 1920s German Expressionist films. Their diminished textures simply heighten the mystery, as if they were half-faded Polaroids sold at a flea market or found in an abandoned house’s attic. I could only imagine Bauhaus producing music just as eloquently subdued, yet sinister and predatory, before I heard any of their songs. I’ve heard countless music with those qualities, but never itself “gothic,” whether it be Thomas Koner’s field recordings of Icelandic glaciers, Alan R. Splet’s symphony of industrial noise in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Joy Division’s funeral wake hymns for the Everyman, or Philip Jeck raising souls from forgotten records through his turntables.
Why haven’t I heard them before? Maybe it was critic Joy Press who scared my teenage self away from those sods in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, as she warned they exploited the LP as an excuse to “indulge in every pretentious whim.” Before last month, the only Bauhaus I heard were their jaunty, agitfunk number “Kick in the Eye” as heard in Hollertronix and Tim Sweeney’s DJ mixes, and fragments of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” I knew the hits by the ex-members’ more commercially successful bands Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets. I pogoed on the Guinness-smeared and cigarette-cluttered dancefloor of a San Francisco pub to the Tones’ “Go!” And I recall listening to Daniel Ash croon out L&R;’s suave, but creepy-as-hell “So Alive” on my elementary school bus. Given that Bauhaus is now undergoing a reunion tour across America, I decided that the time is right to explore them. I stuck to their studio work—which was quite prodigious for their brief existence from 1979 to 1983—instead of their slew of live records. In short, I wanted to hear every bit of those “pretentious whims.”
I first listened to all nine minutes of the goth anthem, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Going back to those two haunting images I spoke about, I could now see the zipper in the monster suit. The song is pure camp. I laughed when I heard Peter Murphy sing the opening lines in something close to Alice Cooper oiled with bourbon and clove cigarettes: “White on white translucent black capes / Back on the back / Bela Lugosi’s dead.” The melodrama is up there with the Cramps’ Lux Interior announcing, “I was a teenage werewolf / Braces on my fangs,” or the Misfits’ Glenn Danzig bellowing, “Whoa oh whoa oh whoa, oh you think you're a zombie / You think it's a scene from some monster magazine / Well open your eyes / Too late, this ain't no fantasy!” However, the instrumental backing is strikingly eerie. Kevin Haskins locks the groove with a brittle, tree-branch crack of a reggae rhythm on his snare, while his brother David J. broods with a night-fallen bassline, and Ash toys with echo effects and tape speeds to scatter his strings about. If Bauhaus were accused of being pretentious, art-school yobs, they knew they were and still had fun, unlike the legions of bands they inspired who fetishized their anguish and took themselves serious enough to threaten suicide, or at least pretend they did.
Curiously enough, Bauhaus rarely played songs about vampires again. The rest of their songs seem to be either sung from the sociopath’s viewpoint, a miserable existentialist’s journal or out of a pisstake. I mean, it’s nigh impossible to keep a straight face to the charmingly dumb “St. Vitus Dance” (about a disco dancer with a flashing light belt) and “Scopes” (a shout-out to telescopes, kaleidoscopes, etc., you sing the rest). The characteristics of goth-rock are all there: trebly and slightly flanged guitar melodies, desolate synth-painted atmospherics, and the vocals of a malnourished aristocrat who either bites hands or pouts in a corner. However, Bauhaus was remarkably tuneful as far as goth bands go. In their early years, they seemingly tried to reinvent their sound on every song. Bauhaus’s deft skills could’ve taken them beyond their cult fandom, if it wasn’t for Murphy’s tacky and cryptic lyrics and the band’s zest for stretching their songs to the breaking point. The band always caught my ear when they dicked around, as best heard in their artistic peak, Mask. “Harry” and “Ear Wax” make me wish that more goth bands played dub reggae than the usual death-metal grind. Bauhaus also plays some nasty agitfunk on par with Solid Gold-era Gang of Funk in “Fear of Dub” and its reprise, “Fear of Fear.” There is also a charming throwaway with each member flaunting their indulgence over an electro-funk beat—witness Murphy’s fishcake recipe. Two songs that I repeatedly played (and made Mask a keeper) were “Of Lilies and Remains” and “Satori.” The latter is a LCD Soundsystem-caliber street percussion number with David J. seeping in hazed bass, while “Lilies” is a baffling death-disco walk where Murphy narrates a tale about classmates deceased, or in one poor bastard’s case, suffering an ectoplasm-spitting fit.
The rest of Mask is rather dour with the suffocating, Red Death-plagued title track, the detached, hands-in-pocket dirge of “The Passion of Lovers,” and the moonless gloom of “Hollow Hills.” Those songs seemed carried over from Bauhaus’s muddled, schizophrenic 1980 debut, In the Flat Field. Released the same year as Joy Division’s Closer and shortly after Unknown Pleasures, there are a few parallels: “Double Dare”’s tom-tom rumble, craggy guitar riffs and venomous baritone vocals is akin to “Atrocity Exhibition,” and there are several up-tempo downer-rock numbers that march for days. While Joy Division never wasted a beat and melody, Bauhaus dragged its feet. “Stigmata Martyr,” “God in an Alcove,” and “Dark Entries” are basically punk skirmishes bloated into glam-rock epics. Elsewhere, Murphy sheds alligator tears over a piano in the irritating “Crowds.” Their cheeky, karaoke cover of T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam” self-consciously assumes that Bauhaus is the next chapter of glam, and they were right. The band later repeated that point with their faithful cover of Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and a rollicking punk assault on Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” in their 1982 album, The Sky’s Gone Out. They also do an unintentional parody of a glam power-ballad in “Exquisite Corpse,” where its “the Phantom takes off his mask!” melodrama is interrupted by a dub reggae part that skanks in to see what the fuss is about. By ’82, Bauhaus wholeheartedly embraced their “goth” tag and mired themselves further into ponderous doom and gloom. The experience is as exciting as hearing a next-door neighbor mope the night away—I wanted to shut off the stereo a minute into “Silent Hedges” and when the multi-part “The Three Shadows” quickly falls flat. Despite the dork-disco zinger, “Watch that Granddad Go,” and the grinding assembly-line rhythm of “Swing the Heartache,” the band’s momentum had fallen.
The band’s 1983 swan song, Burning from the Inside was recorded without Murphy at the helm; our man suffered from pneumonia at the time. The record could arguably be Love and Rockets’ debut. The delicate, flower-powered acoustic guitar melodies that trademarked that band bloom here, but with drowsy, boring results. “King Volcano” is the only song where the formula (haunting Renaissance guitar melodies, prancing rhythms, and a beerhall chant) works. The boogie nightmare of “Departure” and the beat experiment of “Here’s the Dub” are somewhat interesting, but it was clear that the band felt empty and had to dissolve.
I found that the more I listened to Bauhaus, the more I yearned to hear Joy Division. If anything, Ian Curtis and company’s music better embodied the “Bauhaus” architecture movement’s embrace of minimal design. When I got halfway through the cumbersome dirges of Burning from the Inside, I realized why I loved Joy Division so much: they didn’t bullshit anyone. Curtis took the mental repression of everyday life in post-industrial Britain as a matter of fact. His band crafted each sound to nail that observation home, while somehow also allowing a sense of hope for a better future to crack through the bone-grey sheet of an overcast sky. As for Bauhaus, the fact that they embraced the Vampire Rock Star image just traps them in the world of make-believe.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-10-20