13 Songs for Halloween: "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus

Features
10/31/2019
Janice Headley
photo by Graham Trott

🚨WARNING: For Halloween, KEXP is exploring the horrifying true stories behind some of the creepiest songs we play. Please note, most of these posts contain highly disturbing and graphic content, but not really this one. Please continue at your own risk. 🚨


White on white translucent black capes
Back on the rack
Bela Lugosi's dead

Throughout the month of October, KEXP has been investigating the inspiration behind creepy songs, unveiling ghastly true stories of murder, mayhem, and more. But sometimes, a song is just scary all on its own. Such is the case with the 1979 single "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by UK post-punk band Bauhaus, one of the pioneers of the "goth rock" genre, much to the band's chagrin. (Frontman Peter Murphy was reputed to hang up the phone on journalists who dared utter the "g-word.") True, Bela Lugosi was a real person, but he had already been dead for 23 years by the time this single was released, and he died from a heart attack, not a gruesome murder. Lugosi was an actor known best for his role as Dracula in the 1931 film of the same name, though he went on to star in many horror films like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Those films were playing on TV one night that guitarists and childhood friends Daniel Ash and David J. Haskins were watching. The two had just recently formed the band Bauhaus with Haskins' younger brother Kevin and Ash's junior high friend Peter Murphy, who was invited to join the band because — according to the 1994 book Dark Entries: Bauhaus and Beyond by Ian Shirley — he had the "right look."

In an interview with Songfacts.com, David J remembers:

It was very simple. There was a series of old vampire movies showing on TV in England, and Daniel and I had been watching them. We were on the phone arranging a rehearsal, and we just started talking: "Did you see that one last night?" "Oh, yeah, that was a good one. Yeah, Bela Lugosi." And we were talking about other actors that played the part [Dracula], like Christopher Lee and Max Schreck. It was in my head the next day, that conversation and the film, and it was just the easiest thing to do. That's what I found with songwriting: I don't try to write a song, they just bubble up. It's always the words that come first.

I came up with that first line, "White on white, translucent, black capes back on the rack." And it was like, "Oh, this is interesting." It's so descriptive —  it is about the vampire. It's also about the actor — it's about retiring from the part, but then he sort of plays with the idea. A vampire can never retire from being a vampire, because that's for eternity.

It came out very quickly. It was that night that we had the rehearsal and I just handed that sheet to Peter. We all just launched into it as if it was pre-formed, and it was pretty much as it is on the record. We recorded it a couple of weeks after that first run-through.

Ash remembers that phone conversation, telling Louder Than War in 2014:

The story with "Bela" was, I called Dave up, or he called me, and said, "Dave, I’ve got this riff, it’s a really haunting riff, and I’m not using normal chords. And it sounds really haunting." And he said: “That’s really weird, you say that, I’ve got this lyric about Bela Lugosi – the actor who plays the vampire" and I said: “really?”

So the next rehearsal, Dave gives the lyric sheet to Pete and Kevin starts playing that bossanova beat right off the back, and I start playing the riff, Dave comes in with the bass line – and Pete sings that melody pretty much as you hear it on the record, right off the back — boom! – it was written immediately, strange things… It was just magic right from the get go – we didn’t have to work it out – it was very strange that it was written within about half an hour.

The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box

The band had only been together for six weeks when they went into Beck Studios in Wellingborough to record that demo. In an uncharacteristically enthusiastic interview with Kerrang from earlier this year, Peter Murphy reflected on the power of this song:

Something’s coming. What the fuck’s coming? It’s been three minutes and nothing’s happened! But something’s coming. It’s so beautiful. It’s like a Gregorian chant, or a piece of a holy hymn. Or something from a holy space. Not really, but you know what I mean. Something’s coming, so it’s very dramatic suddenly. You don’t know what’s coming. What is this? Who do they think they are? What’s going on? People are listening already. Then boom. “White on white transluscent black capes…” Whoa! Who’s that? It’s him. The character talking to you. Who’s he? He’s a narrator, isn’t he? But it’s perfect. It is me, but then you see me and you go, “FUCK!” It just is right. I know what to do. It’s all very intuited. Very dub. And then that last bit, “Poor Bela!” and I hit this note that’s kind of atonal. I don’t know where it came from. I think when you hit a note sometimes, the throat goes to a harmonic rather than an actual note you’re going for. So there’s a note, and then there’s harmonic notes around it. And I just held it. It’s chilling! So it wasn’t trying to be Dracula — it was evoking that beautiful lyric. We talked about the sensuality, the beauty, and the attractiveness of eternal life. Dracula is very seductive. So that [character] had to be that. So live, I just went for it. And hammed it up! I’m a bit of a ham, really (laughs).

...Gary Oldman, who played Dracula [in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola remake], said he played ["Bela Legosi’s Dead"] every day before he went to get into the mood. And that’s just a 4£ demo! The first song Bauhaus ever recorded in a studio in my hometown for 12£. We were going to record four songs. One of them was "Bela Legosi’s Dead", that’s the first one we recorded, and it was the first time I was in a booth with a microphone hearing myself. And it was one take! A one-take vocal. That comes through — it’s magical.

They spent only six hours in the recording studio that day and came out with a song that is timeless. The band shopped the recording out to labels, but at 9-and-a-half-minutes long, the response they got was that it was too long to be released as a single. Only Small Wonder Records got it, declaring it a "future classic" and refusing to edit it down. In the January 2019 issue of Uncut Magazine, David J remembers label owner Pete Stennett comparing it to the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" adding, "You want to hear every second of it, and it's as long as it needs to be, lads." 

It was released in August 6, 1979, and as they were driving home from Small Wonder Records in Walthamstow with freshly pressed copies in their hands, they decided to stop at BBC Radio on the way home. In Uncut, Peter Murphy remembers:

We walked up to reception, passing Motörhead on their way out, and said, "Hello, we're Bauhaus and we're friends of John Peel. We'd like to go up please." Somehow we were allowed up there and we put the record in front of him. After we'd all introduced ourselves, he said on air, "We've got Bauhaus in the studio, they're from Northampton and they have a new single out called 'Bela Lugosi's Dead.' It's nine-and-a-half minute long and this will probably be the first and last time I'll play this." Then we left and went down to listen to it in the car. Apparently, the BBC switchboard was jammed with listeners wanting him to play it again.

To celebrate the song's 40th anniversary, Stones Throw Records reissued that magical 1979 recording last year as The Bela Session, remastered from the original analogue tape. 

Undead, undead, undead

Much like the vampire, Bauhaus keeps rising from the grave. The band broke up in 1983, but have reunited quite a few times since then, including their iconic 2005 performance at the Coachella Festival where Murphy performed the entire song while hanging upside down like a bat.

In 2008, they released their first new studio album since 1983, Go Away White, but sadly, the band unraveled yet again, and there wasn't even a promotional tour.

But after 13 years (13!), the band are reuniting yet again for three nights at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Palladium. Both the November 3rd and 4th shows are sold out, but tickets are still available for the December 1st show. In addition, Murphy has rescheduled his NYC residency at Le Poisson Rouge and can be seen there in January. Back in August, he suffered a heart attack and had to cancel his original dates, but he has thankfully made a full recovery. After all, "a vampire can never retire from being a vampire, because that's for eternity."

Bauhaus 2019 Tour Dates:
11/03 – Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Palladium
11/04 – Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Palladium
12/01 – Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Palladium

‪Peter Murphy Residency at Le Poisson Rouge:
1/20 — Solo Greatest Hits + Signature cuts from Lion‬
1/21 — Mr Moonlight: Bauhaus Greatest Hits
1/23 — Tribute to David Bowie
1/24 — Tribute to David Bowie‬

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