A look back at the seminal goth quartet at the time of their penultimate album
If writing about music is indeed, as Elvis Costello once put it, “like dancing about architecture”, then few bands gave as much grist for that mill as Bauhaus.
Not only did they steal their name and (unrenovated) logo from the profoundly influential Weimar movement, they were also the chief conjurers of a subgenre whose etymological roots sprang from the arch-heavy design style which first appeared around seven centuries earlier. As millstones from rock writers hungry to coin things go, “goth” was apt and also reductive, both limiting and lucrative. But however comfortably that platform boot fit Bauhaus, that they kicked off their career with a nine-minute song about Dracula made the term feel fair enough.
Goth as we know it was less directly foreshadowed by Gothic architecture than 19th century Gothic literature, so-called because of its writers’ association of decaying Dark Ages buildings with the gloom, unease and terror they mined for their art. Several foundational texts took place in Gothic era settings – i.e., nearly anywhere in Europe from roughly the 12th to 16th centuries. Yet today, the goth aesthetic seems better defined as “vaguely Halloweeny, without the orange.” This is not to suggest a lack of enlightenment on the part of your average goth – the keenest and most committed embark on lifelong projects of marrying cultural homages of the highest order with fashion choices of the highest caliber, albeit within a limited color palette. But it’s so passionately specific, it can get a little silly.
The group to which the term “goth rock” was first applied was one of the silliest, and one of the spookiest. The Doors’ most portentous moments – “I want to hear the scream of the butterfly”, “you canNOT petition the lord with PRAYER!”, the whole end of “The End” – were so over-the-top, it made them hard to take seriously. This was a problem, because The Doors were very serious. But that fueled a conviction that proved to be their secret weapon. Jim Morrison wasn’t just a bad poet, he was a brilliant performer, so charismatic and beautiful and worked up about the images in his head you couldn’t take your eyes or ears off of him. The pervasive organ kept things a little ghoulish, but the band was tight, and the music could be kinetic and fun.
AUDIO: The Doors “The End”
Then Black Sabbath appropriated The Doors’ vibe for a genre they were unwittingly inventing called heavy metal, and the zillion bands that followed in their wake monopolized the “doom & gloom & rock & roll” approach for many years. Many pop stars looked like vampires at given times – Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie in that era where he was only consuming peppers and milk – but it wasn’t a conscious thematic choice again until Bauhaus made their post-punk bow. Looking like a sexy vampire was, in fact, one of their lead singer’s chief concerns.
What made Bauhaus distinctive, and nearly as influential as their namesake, was their musical commitment to darkness as an overriding principle. Other bands were deploying dissonance, or harnessing chaos, in service of foreboding atmospheres – Suicide, Magazine, the up-and-coming Joy Division. But Bauhaus’s commitment was to the bleakest possible objectives, typified by a sequence of four album covers with barely any color between them, and lyrics you’re grateful Peter Murphy doesn’t let you understand. They meant to let no light in, and it went hand-in-glove with the strange and sometimes vicious chemistry between their three musicians, who diligently stripped away melody wherever it intruded or, God forbid, brightened something. (No light doesn’t mean no space, of course – their music left caverns for ghosts to wander into.)
Post-punk was inevitable and necessary, but bucking punk’s rigid formal guidelines (hard, fast, simple) was risky – you could end up too soft, too slow, or too complicated, where punk was always at least an up. This was not a lesson Bauhaus neglected. Even the spacious graveyard groove of their dub-drunk debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was insistent enough to dance to. Peter Murphy’s regulated bellow both reified and made fun of the lyrics’ “gothic” slant, with Daniel Ash the real threat – his metallic, amelodic guitar slashing madly and unpredictably through spaces in the mix, only to vanish abruptly the next moment. Bassist David J repeated the same riff with disquieting authority, three notes like sinking concrete blocks. His brother, drummer Kevin Haskins, blithely perpetuated the gentlest of bossa nova grooves. In tandem, they understood: the key to the scariest horror movies is the stillness the danger disturbs.
Dub was always innately eerie, but the techniques that defined the innovative reggae offshoot were mostly meant to evoke wonder – either at the sonic tricks, or the aural landscapes which result. So it was novel to exploit its atmosphere-forward approach for spookier returns. But it didn’t exactly feel like a novelty – Bauhaus really sold you on the something wicked this way coming. The subsequent single, the brilliant “Dark Entries”, was the sound of danger having arrived: the Haskinses thumping out a hectic beat, Ash raining fire at a punk-rock pace, Murphy caught in a fervent spasm, rattling the ungainliness out of the lyrics with his possessed delivery. This music wasn’t just winkingly Gothic, it was verifiably avant-garde – and it had a pop rush.
The mix of horror and good humor thrived apace for four classic singles: the smooth- strutting “Terror Couple Kill Colonel”, fettered with rippling guitar cascades; their quick-fuse cover of T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam”, whose words Murphy ruthlessly ripped the mystery out of; the bone-rattling faux-funk of “Kick in the Eye”; and the ominously alluring “The Passion of Lovers”, which featured one of the band’s most definitive and deathless choruses. But where these singles still kept to a certain formal construction – and boasted strong hooks – they used their albums to stretch out, to explore even more adventurous and frightening textures. In a Flat Field was all steel and soot, coruscating when it wasn’t leaden; forget color, it hardly left room for grey. But like the yellow title adorning its creepy cover drawing, the follow-up, Mask, had dabs of other things, climaxing in the shimmering notes that close in on the title track’s long coda.
Bauhaus were always popular in the indie market, and this hype allowed them to flicker at, if rarely singe, the lower edges of the UK pop charts. Out of evocative, often intensely imagistic music, they’d worked up a stage show that with light and makeup and the dynamism of their wild-card frontman rivaled the fervid impact of their records. However many attendees of those shows were proper goths, more and more of them began pledging their allegiance to Bauhaus. The band’s sound and vision were too singular, and too visceral, not to seem like something special, something to be drawn into and followed down dark passageways. But, seen as vulgar and indulgent, they were afforded no such respect by the press, which was nearly as harsh as their music. Embrace and scorn – this dichotomy was very much on Bauhaus’s mind going into 1982.
For a band so challenging as to have been actively confrontational when they began (literally: Murphy would sometimes, to the others’ dismay, instigate fights with front-row attendees), a sense of gratitude, and compulsion to outreach, were blooming inside them. This found its key form in a song they first released as a single: “Spirit”, which boasted the prettiest melody Bauhaus had allowed themselves to date. The lyric was a fond rumination about the moment before you’re about to perform; the music had a stately and ceremonial, even reverent quality. Bauhaus had regularly produced themselves, preventing contamination of their close musical chemistry. But for “Spirit”, they hired pro hand Hugh Jones. The result was sturdy and affecting, but overworked, robbed of a certain (cough) spirit. It hit #42, their biggest hit yet.
Chagrined by the final product, the band set about preparing a third album whose centerpiece would be a remake of “Spirit” – to be recorded in the same Welsh studio, Rockfield, but with only their favorite engineer, Derek Thompkins, on hand for guidance. His light-touch approach with the band would be particularly beneficial to their intent on writing the entire second side of the album in the studio. Touring had interfered with amassing enough new material, and in any case, Bauhaus was always defined by a collective openness to chance and experimentation. Thompkins would be a buffer between the band and the studio’s in-house engineer, helping translate ideas that were outlandish or oblique, or safeguarding them from interference.
Bauhaus had always felt confident that their music wasn’t only original – it had real value and vitality, and their audience was the evidence. But all that critical pushback had the band’s twin engines, guitarist Ash and bassist J, mulling their identities a little. Moreover, Murphy’s image had elicited widespread intrigue – his transgressive choices complemented his model’s face in a beautiful juxtaposition – and made the other two musicians feel overshadowed. Restlessness had crept in – March saw the first release from Tones on Tail, an experimental outfit Ash began with fellow guitarist Glenn Campling. In the air was carefully worded speculation that maybe the Bauhaus sound could go in new directions, or weather even more unconventional approaches.
The result: the most divisive album of the original quartet. Four decades ago was a big moment for Bauhaus – their heat and hype at all-time highs, their rapport with their fans at a fever pitch, their first American distribution deal inked. The Sky’s Gone Out, originally issued with a strong and sometimes searing live album called Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape, is the flag they planted at their peak. Yet it never quite unites its brilliant moments with its baffling ones.
The opener is one of two prizes born basically by accident – one of two covers by post- punk-pertinent heroes for a session on the BBC’s David Jensen Show. Whatever was in the air that day, they ended up with a furious, glorious tear through Eno’s “Third Uncle”, one of the more obscure tracks on his notoriously spiky second album Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy). The original raises plenty of hair as it is, a gripping careen through cryptic lines, diffidently intoned, as Robert Wyatt’s frantic percussion weaves in and out of its forward motion. Bauhaus rev up the speed by roughly the same factor as “Telegram Sam” – to Absolutely Dangerous for Travel. They infuse the song with a whole new momentum, turning it into a galvanic headlong tumble. Murphy, who liked a bit of drama with his deadpan, wrangles the original lines into something more explicitly menacing (“THERE IS WRONG, THERE IS RIGHT” “BURN HIS LEGS, JUST IN CASE”) as a faint yet equally crazed vocal counterpoint stabs through. It’s a ride you hope never stops.
VIDEO: Bauhaus perform “Ziggy Stardust” on Top of the Pops 1982
The other fruit of this session became the band’s biggest single – #15 on the charts, helped in no small part by the fact that it was a very catchy and famous David Bowie song. Among the other slings and arrows, Bauhaus were regularly derided in the UK press for ripping off glam-rock artists. But Bauhaus didn’t really sound like T. Rex or David Bowie or Roxy Music. In their distaste for ingratiating melodies, and preference for raw power over fashion flash or ironic detachment, they resembled only one glam- era artist: Iggy Pop, their only forbear whose menace felt as authentic and absolute.
But, animated by frustration and insubordination, they decided to cut “Ziggy Stardust” on a lark, as a kind of “oh yeah?”. Released that autumn as a single, the take is nothing if not joyous – not only is the sheer loveliness and immediacy of the familiar melody instantly infectious, you can also hear it illuminating Peter Murphy, who sings tartly through his nose to get the Bowie effect. It’s one of many moments in Bauhaus’ canon where it’s quite clear what a terrific vocalist he is, and how rarely he elects to simply show that off. Adding almost nothing but energy and clarity to the original music, the band sounds terrific, and you can hear their joy too – “that’s the one!” someone enthuses right after they wrap it up. Excluded from the LP, attention from this single nevertheless helped push The Sky’s Gone Out to number three. It’s the friendliest track they ever released.
Friendliest, but not most loving – that would be the remake of “Spirit” everything on the first side feels like it’s building up to. The middle three songs are subtle but strong. After a sweet, almost folky opening, “Silent Hedges” lurches into the brutally alternating dynamics that filled much of In the Flat Field. (Its lyrics are mostly quotes from Brave New World). “In the Night” sports the same razor teeth and mechanized surface, and attains a velocity the band rarely reached, its grim lines about suicide disguised with gonzo vocal filters. And “Swing the Heartache” is as industrial as the band ever got, its march-like pace funereal yet insistent. Synthesizers rumble direfully overhead as Murphy wrestles out berserk declamations.
None of these stands out much from one another, but all help sustain an excitement. And then suddenly, the musical abrasions cease, and the sense of doom dispels. We hear a thin, echoed note on guitars in either channel, steady as a drip off a roof into a puddle, and then sparkling harpsichord flourishes, a brittle wash of keyboard chords glowing in the background, the stately roll of drum and bass, and Murphy’s evangelized vocal. The elements boil and rise together; the effect is beatific. As the proceedings elevate, and Murphy draws the band closer to the show’s start (“call the curtain! Raise the roof!”), you’re filled with an ecstasy resembling nothing so much as the thrill of waiting for your favorite band to come on. “WE LOVE OUR AUDIENCE!” they chant – the most poignant possible tribute to the cult that validated their iconoclasm.
The three-part suite that opens side two is where things get dubious, though you’d be hard-pressed to find classier-sounding Spooky Rock. But the doleful, artfully furnished minor-key settings of “The Three Shadows” just aren’t engrossing enough to offset the ridiculous things Murphy chooses to sing about (“the wind of prostitution”, “fish”, “piss”, “pus”). After all the eyebrow-raising lines he’d so skillfully concealed on previous releases, why he decided to articulate “I hold the fresh pink baby with a smile/I slice off those rosy cheeks because I feel so thirsty” so there was no mistaking it is hard to crack. The last segment heats up nicely, but the lack of words worth supporting is fatal. The gentle “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything”, the most consciously beautiful song from the band to date, washes some of the poor taste away.
For a slow-descent closer, Bauhaus resuscitated a trick they’d tried on the back of the “Passion of Lovers” single, this time naming it after the method itself. “Exquisite Corpse” is the result of several artists drawing a piece of a person or creature whose full view is concealed until each participant has added to the final product. Rather than dividing a space of musical time into clean quadrants, different contributions from each member were overdubbed without mutual consultation, and then choppily combined for the final mix. There’s enough strong atmosphere and flashes of wit (the snoring, the twisted snatch of reggae) to justify its existence, though it’s as unabashed as filler gets. The shaken cry of a repeated phrase near the track’s end provided the album its title, a stark and striking image elaborated beautifully by Daniel Ash’s cover art.
That title proved more of an omen than the album’s success. Their new wave of heavy attention notwithstanding, the album’s lack of its own single (“Third Uncle” had been one of the “Ziggy” b-sides) hurt its momentum. A deliciously fitting appearance in the classic David Bowie vampire vehicle The Hunger, playing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, proved irksome; only Murphy got significant screen time. The rift between the frontman and rest of the trio was solidified when he caught pneumonia and had to bow out of most the last album’s sessions. Burning from the Inside was their tenderest, most democratic album, but it landed like a tombstone. “Rest in peace” were the final words uttered from a Bauhaus stage, in July 1983. Murphy and the others would finally find commercial success apart, the latter with their new indie-pop group Love and Rockets.
Their old band’s mythos grew as quickly as its flame extinguished. Legendary on arrival, the bloodcurdling midnight scream of their original run echoed in the hearts and minds of their beloved audience, who made ravenous returns home for their numerous reunions. The Sky’s Gone Out stands as an arresting testament to how uncompromising Bauhaus were even at the height of their commercial success.
Yet no matter how bleak or brutal their sound or subject matter got, you could always tell it was in service of a strange good time. Bauhaus was a gas.
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