Many great songs have been written over the last five decades that capture the spirit and frightful spirit of Halloween. However, when it comes down to expressing everything that is macabre about All Hallows’ Eve, none of them hold a candle when compared to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” By Bauhaus.
In a nutshell, Bauhaus was a massively influential band comprised of brothers Kevin and David Haskins, Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash. The Northampton band formed in 1978 and split up in 1983. Murphy went solo, although he did make an album with Mick Karn of Japan under the name of Dalis Car. Ash, and Kevin Haskins formed Tones on Tail with Glen Campling before settling in as Love and Rockets with David J (Haskins) replacing Campling in the band. David J also recorded several solo albums and collaborated with Alan Moore.
Dispensing with formality, a young and feisty Bauhaus went into Beck Studios in early 1979 to lay down tracks that went on to become the band’s debut effort. They had only been together for a month and a half but already had ideas for the aesthetic and sound of the band. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was knocked off in quick fashion, requiring just one take.
When it was released as a single the following August no one had any idea that it would not only serve leave as the band’s signature tune but also contribute to a completely new style of music.
Despite gaining zero traction on the commercial charts, the song achieved critical accolades and managed to hold its own by loitering on the British independent charts for two years, solidifying Bauhaus as the go-to band for Goths.
Clocking in at over nine minutes it is nothing short of shuddersome terror; it has been hailed as the first “gothic rock single.” Sources claim that David J wrote the song. For over two and a half minutes the track plods along before emerging form the shadows. The creepiness builds and the light passes into darkness with a somewhat minimal bassline, which is accompanied by a spurious round of grimy guitars and soft percussion before Peter Murphy’s murky vocals enter the scene.
As the song proceeds the music twists, contorts and scratches as if it were buried alive. There is something buried in his singing, like a breath outside on a cold night. When Murphy’s vocals end the melody continues, spiraling out of control into a freefall before suddenly silencing itself. The lyrics themselves are somber, serious and filled with black angst. They are short and to the point. They also capture the essence of Lugosi‘s posthumous fanatic following.
Despite being tagged as a Goth band, Bauhaus was a fourpiece that wore its influences on its sleeves. Their careful blending of punk, glam, dub and krautrock styles was refreshingly new for its time. The shoegazer movement that emerged later in the decade was due in part to Bauhaus. Their sound, style, attitude and personas offered an alternative for the new wave heavy UK of the early 1980s. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is the most obvious culmination of these styles and it was a game changer.
The song really went mainstream in 1983 when Bauhaus appeared in The Hunger. This brought both the song and the band into the forefront of the emerging Goth music scene. This also resulted in it getting played in bars and clubs–more so during Halloween, which led to it becoming a cultish Halloween tradition. Tragically the band called it a day that year and never fully capitalized commercially from the exposure that came with it.
Gloomy, brooding, sprawling, mysteriously dark and magnificent, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” remains one of those great Halloween songs that is equally perfect for dancing, sulking or feeling morose. As a result the track has become as synonymous with Halloween and the actor it is written about. And when you think about it that’s what makes it both a treat and a treat.