Undead, Undead: Bauhaus celebrates 40 years of sound, vision and vibe

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Bauhaus | photo by Graham Trott | courtesy of the artist

For all of what “Goth” would become, and has become, in its mass-mediation — everything from an inspiration to the monsters of Columbine to creating all-in-black characters in South Park — its roots were humbler and less violent (if no less theatrical), with its flashpoint occurring after its first focus had splintered: Bauhaus.

Though the British quartet assembled right after post-punk fellowmen The Cure, Magazine, Siouxsie & the Banshees and Joy Division had, Peter Murphy, Kevin Haskins, David J and Daniel Ash were on their own, loners stuck out in Northampton, England with their German art movement magazine images, stuffily serious bat wing impressionism and their T. Rex records before forming Bauhaus. Frankly, the four members of Bauhaus seemed like a gang of one without connection or camaraderie from other acts, coming into the end of the 70s.

“Yes, we were a gang of one, and I think geography played quite a big part in that,” said drummer Haskins. “Our hometown of Northampton was really cut-off from London and Manchester. I seem to recall the idea of us moving to London at one point, but we were afraid that if we did that, then we might get influenced by other bands, and lose our sound. So we were consciously aware of that. There was one band, namely Killing Joke, that we used to be booked on the same bill together. So, we sort of struck up a friendly rivalry with them. But we really didn’t know any other bands.”

What made Bauhaus stick out in 1979, more so than the aforementioned acts with their low-charting hits (The Cure had 1978’s “Killing an Arab” / ”Boys Don’t Cry” before Bauhaus released a record), was that THEY had an anthem as their first release, a spooky, spidery one that Murphy swore that he penned with a tongue-in-cheek toss of the hand, but in reality, got performed with the seriousness of Tosca: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

It may be hard to consider now, but that song – a long song on 12 inch single, its grooves necessary to handle the deep dub bass line and skittering, tick-tocking rhythm – did herald loud a return to the puckered showiness of glam (of Bowie, at the very least) while maintaining punk’s minimalism, post or otherwise with Murphy purring and perusing the breadth of his baritone range. Forty years later, as part of the newly reissued “The Bela Session,” and as the centerpiece (surely) of a new tour with Bauhaus’ Murphy and J on stage at Union Transfer on February 12, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” has epic impact, even with the semiology of all-things-Dracula-ian.

Though the goth genre wouldn’t truly spring up hard and heartily in America until after Bauhaus busted apart in 1983, pockets of UK post punks (hello, Specimen) began to adopt a vampire’s kiss as its badge of honor, as did an underground of U.S. kids in 1980 who attended Bauhaus’ earliest shows in America. That these dates included “The Swingers’ Weekend” in the summer of 1980 at The Elks Center in Philadelphia (three nights including Pylon and Bunnydrums) and a June 1981 show at the teeny-tiny Omni’s in downtown Philly gave the City of Brotherly Love its own edge in the early goth stakes.

“I have very strong memories of driving over the bridge into Manhattan and it being an assault on all senses, a rather wonderful assault,” said Haskins of Bauhaus’ arrival into America. “Coming from a small market town in England, New York was a sensory overload. The rattling noise of underground trains, the continuous wail of police sirens, the unrelenting horn honking and steam belching from manhole covers. We checked into the Iroquois Hotel and came across Iggy Pop in the hotel bar.

“In respect of Philadelphia, I’m not sure if I’m getting mixed up with Chicago, but we were picked up in a silver van with the Bauhaus logo painted on the side,” continues Haskins. “What I do certainly recall about Philadelphia is that after the show, some young doctor invited us to spend the night at his apartment. After hanging out for an hour or so, he duly supplied us with a nice big spliff, and showed us our sleeping quarters which were two bunkbeds. He then put on Before and After Science by Brian Eno, and I remember drifting off to sleep listening to this amazing LP for the first time, in a dreamy and blissful state.”

On a personal tip, the one thing I remember about the Elks Center show was that Philly had a real predilection (as did Murphy and Ash at that point) for really tacky white make-up, almost as if Bauhaus were mimes, rather than vampire punks. Being there was zero ventilation in the Elks and it was a usual hot-as-fuck summer, there were more shirtless bodies, on stage and off, a highly unusual thing for the usually buttoned-up pre-or-post Goth types at that time. As for Bauhaus’ sound, the quartet was raging with a level of angsty, theatrical post-punk metal that acted as a noisy soundscape for Murphy to croon and caterwaul.

Going back to Bauhaus’ start with his (literal) brother David J by his side, Haskins recalls the usual closeness of school, bands and neighborhoods bounding them together musically, though none of the other band members (beyond the brothers) were socializing big buddies.

“We didn’t really hang out, but, there was a sense of unspoken kinship,” said the drummer. “Daniel actually started Bauhaus by inviting Peter to jam with him. Remarkably Daniel had no idea if Peter could sing, but they were friends at high school. After a week or so, Daniel called me up and invited me into the band. We did have a different bass player to begin with, but I felt that David would bring some missing element to the band. I had to nag Daniel several times before he gave in and agreed to have David join. I think what drove the four of us, was partly boredom and just being inherently driven to make music. It was also a reaction to bands like Genesis and Yes, and I guess that was an influence from punk rock.”

Mention to Haskins the dub reggae vibe of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” “She’s in Parties,” and elements of Bauhaus’ first album In the Flat Fields, and he perks up to his time in the 1970s as a teenager. “There was quite a big ska scene in England when we were growing up, and there are quite a lot of hit records in the charts such as “Liquidator,” “Monkey Man” and “It Mek.” So I think that we were we were all influenced by that. And when punk exploded there was just one club in London where Don Letts DJ’d. Because there were only a handful of punk records released, so he used to play a lot of dub reggae, and so that became part of the scene. We were already naturally into this type of music with Mikey Dread, King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry being some of our favorites.”

As for any notions of what could or would happen with Bauhaus as ‘goth avatars,’ Haskins naturally eschewed all possibilities, noting first a youthful love of all things, growing up in the UK, of Hammer Horror movies with stars such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, “I’m not sure if it was just a coincidence, but just prior to David attending his first rehearsal with us, he had written the lyric for “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” The night before Daniel had written the haunting guitar part, and when we began playing it together for the first time, it just wrote itself. It was instant. Quite remarkable really. After we had played it the first time we knew that we had something very special. And yet, none of us came into it from a Goth standpoint. Goth didn’t exist. That was a movement that sprang up after we had released “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

Having that 1979 single appear in the 1983 horror film The Hunger (with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as centuries-old vampires in Manhattan) around the same time Bauhaus was splintering certainly aided in giving new life to the “undead” anthem.

“Some people say that we are the godfathers of Goth, but I think you could also place that tag on The Cure and the Banshees,” noted Haskins. “If we had any idea it was just to be as original as possible and shake up the status quo. I think we were more experimental art rock than anything else. I think we were quite surprised when we were tagged as being Goth. We had no idea we were Goth. I think that it’s a very inventive and amazingly visual movement, and the world would be a very boring place without it. However I don’t think we really related to it in a big way.”

Peter Murphy plays Union Transfer with David J on Tuesday, February 12th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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