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The origins of Goth: The source of Bauhaus masterpiece 'Bela Lugosi's Dead'

Today, August 16th, marks the 65th anniversary of the death of one of the most recognisable actors to have ever graced the screen. On this day, way back in 1956, Bela Lugosi passed away aged 73. One of the most iconic actors to have been a part of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, Lugosi’s life could be made into a film of itself. His best-known role is undoubtedly his sinister portrayal of the dastardly yet complex Count Dracula in the 1931 film, Dracula. The monochrome scene of him coming down the stairs to greet Jonathan Harker is one of the most recognisable ever put to film. The devilish smirk on his face as he says, “I bid you welcome”, has been etched into the collective mind forevermore. 

His overtly gothic take on Count Dracula stands out as the finest adaptation as it is the closest to the source material. Owing to his Hungarian origin, Lugosi’s accent wickedly delivers the Count’s lines, and it feels natural rather than forced. Furthermore, his portrayal of the vampiric master exists at the centre of the Venn diagram that is comprised of the countless adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1987 novel, the gothic staple, Dracula. His take is iconic as it is effortless, not overly sexualised like Gary Oldman’s in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the over-complicated playfulness inherent to the recent BBC adaptation. 

Lugosi is up there with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. In fact, the latter would succeed Lugosi as Dracula in the Hammer Horror films, starting in 1958. Since its release, Lugosi’s portrayal has inspired countless references across the spectrum of popular culture. His image has even endured through other people’s works of art. Even the pop art mastermind, Andy Warhol, was touched by Lugosi. The American artist’s 1963 silkscreen print, ‘The Kiss’, depicts the scene from Dracula where the Count is about to bite into the neck of the film’s leading lady, Helen Chandler, portraying the doomed Mina Harker. 

In fact, even ‘British Invasion’ heroes The Kinks would not escape the spectre of Lugosi. His star on the illustrious Hollywood Walk of Fame is mentioned in their soft-rock piece ‘Celluloid Heroes’, taken from their 1972 album, the aptly named, Everybody’s in Show-Biz.

However, the most definitive example of the Lugosi influence arrived on August 6th 1979. Legendary British post-punk’s Bauhaus’s debut single, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, would change the face of music forever. Widely hailed as the first goth-rock record, it has been a staple of our death discos since its release.

Over nine minutes long, the goth classic is actually steeped in irony. Although they got the name from the death of the titular on-screen hero, the song’s composition was actually inspired by possibly the most un-gothic genre of music out there; reggae. Seeing the words reggae and gothic-rock in the same sentence automatically discombobulates the brain. It is a marriage that shouldn’t work on paper, but it does. 

In 2018, Bauhaus bassist David J revealed: “We were very influenced by reggae, especially dub. I mean, basically, Bela was our interpretation of dub.” This revelation is made less shocking when we note that reggae and goth are at core concerned with subverting the status quo and paving out a path uniquely their own. 

Credit: Alamy

The gloomy, atmospheric piece is unmatched in its sonic embodiment of the Count. Frontman Pete Murphy’s lyrics are unforgettable. The first verse openly references the star’s death and the darkness inherent to his character: “Bela Lugosi’s dead/ The bats have left the bell tower/ The victims have been bled/ Red velvet lines the black box”. In fact, the discussion of red velvet can be taken as Murphy acknowledging the sexual undercurrent of Dracula.

The song is also hailed as critical in the development of goth-rock for the reason that it influenced two of the biggest goth acts we know today. Whilst Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure were very much active and putting records out in 1979; it was not until the advent of Bauhaus and the release of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ that the shift from post-punk into full-blown goth was enacted. 

In 2011, Alex Petridis hailed this sentiment in the Guardian: “‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ would have been just another piece of post-punk experimentation had it not been for the lyrics, which depicted the funeral of the Dracula star, with bats swooping and virgin brides marching past his coffin. The effect was so irresistibly theatrical that dozens of bands formed in its wake. So many, in fact, that goth quickly became a very codified musical genre.”

Just like its titular actor, the song has endured and has since been covered by so many of our favourite artists, within and outside of the realm of goth. These include Nine Inch Nails, Chris Cornell, Massive Attack, Chvrches and The Damned, to name but a few. Just like Bauhaus, the goth-rock forebear will be continued to be spun by our gothic peers for as long as they exist. Given the yearly advent of the black-clad hordes that descend upon the British seaside town of Whitby, where Dracula was written, this trend shows no sign of abating.

So on the anniversary of Bela Lugosi’s death, why not revisit this gothic masterpiece?

Listen to ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, below.