first round game
(1) bauhaus, “bela lugosi’s dead”
(16) switchblade symphony, “clown”
and play on in round 2
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 7.
michael d. miller on “bela lugosi’s dead”
(Or BELA LUGOSI LIVES/DAED S’ISOGUL ALEB)
We all know that beat… that bossa nova doppelganger beat, tick tick ticker of expectations hovering… A beat that does not falter or alter for the nine minute, thirty-six second Goth trance… a flapping beat tapped by Kevin Haskins like an uninvited bat trapped in a well-lit room… Then the echoes—something is not right with this—echoes like an empty catacomb plucking cobweb-lined chambers that we have agreed to dance along with then it slows, delays, and quickens as something shrieks from the black of an unknown space of an empty stone hall which we are only fifteen seconds into. Sounds crawl like insects in a spider’s web. Perhaps rats gnaw on drumsticks in slithering shadows… Then the THREE notes that hang in the air as if from a dark bell vibrating through cold stone. THREE monochromatic David J notes opening the threshold with sounds that claw and creep from the speakers inviting our blackest Goth enclave of deadite pageantry.
Then those guitar strings… Daniel Ash pick scratching like wooden stakes hammered by mallets or bats biting necks and flopping away, it doesn’t matter. We are entombed in Dub-Reggae subversion through re-imagined Carpathian forests—from every angle—bending open e-string evaporating into unearthly cacophony clearing in time for those open bar chords strumming along like the phantom carriage (we can’t help but think this is so vintage we start to see in black and white) leading us into the castle once decorated by Bram Stoker then Hammer Horror and now for an avant-garde funerary vampire’s ball… Then that voice, bouncing from the back of some cave, or above you, where Peter Murphy hangs from the rafters—“Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Three minutes in and six more left on the track but it doesn’t matter how long now for this is the Gothic Underworld (that all songs hereafter must journey to), Charon’s been usurped and we’re not leaving until it’s done (or drained of blood)…
At least that is what a close listen of Bauhaus’ immortal 1979 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” can do to the newly initiated, or the long fervent acolyte. The song is one long continuous push at nerves, expectations, and anticipations, crafted so well it can knock anyone of us over with the buffet of a batwing. Lyrically there are utterances of possibility but no cohesion of any clear order:
Black capes on the rack
Bats leaving the bell tower
Red velvet lined coffins announcing
Bela Lugosi is not just dead, but undead.
Virginal brides, tombs, dead flowers,
A dark room, and the count!
And we are left with that. Or, that maybe Bela Lugosi is (not) Dead, but HIS dead, undead, us—the Goths. Ambiguous horror but enough to imagine a whole new scene: you immediately sought a new hair style, new attire, new music, life in death. Darkness said it all, you were in, and it drove away those who weren’t in—on the joke. Ironically this was never the intent of the band or the song. As Ian Shirley records it in his seminal work on the band Dark Entries: Bauhaus and Beyond its genesis was more like a discussion of a scholarly article with Peter Murphy remarking, “We’d been talking about the erotic quality of vampire movies, even the Hammer type. There was this conversation about the sexuality and eroticism of Dracula. So we carried on that conversation and made it into a song.”
In many ways it bears remarkable similarity to the Gothic Novel literary movement nearly two-hundred years earlier. What lead Horace Walpole to write the novel The Castle of Otranto that initiated the literary Gothic scene was not any of the tropes that scene would embrace soon after but just an urge to break out of the predictable way of doing things, in particular writing a novel, held in fetters by rationalism and uninspired imagination. Walpole set in motion a fad that went back to an earlier time—the Medieval era—and used trappings that would surely chafe against the developing world of science and the rational: crumbling castles, skeletal remains, rattling chains, jump-scare ghosts and the like, not knowing his “Gothic” story would start a literary movement.
The scenario seems repeated when we get to Bauhaus and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” In 1979 the music world was caught between dinosaur rock star bands, disco, and punk. To be different, to do things their own way, the band went back, not to the Middle-Ages, but just fifty years and resurrected the old and original count himself, Bela Lugosi, and his iconic portrayal of Prince Vlad in the 1931 Universal Film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s, Dracula. But twist this the band did. That same year Frank Langella acted out his colorful “romantic” version of the count in the Dracula remake (far from Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the count as a demonic blood-sucker), and Stephen King’s modernized Bram Stoker re-imagining, the novel Salem’s Lot (1975), was adapted into a television mini-series, with a Nosferatu-like master vampire. Somewhere between them, Count Chocula, the emerging “new wave”, and the rising Conservative movement, we get the great Goth anthem, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” refitting the whole monster mash.
Even more, if we compare the remarkably different angle the band approached in writing this innovative game-changing wonder it runs consistent with the Romantic movement that followed the Gothic and certain similar aims, namely 1) expression of extreme emotion unfettered by restraint or reason, 2) narrative (in Bauhaus’ case—song structure) fragmentation by abandoning unity or formalism, and 3) a general appeal to irrationalism. While these ideas might be lurking behind the stanzas of many a good Goth song, what we all really know to be the element that makes a great Goth song above all else is atmosphere. Atmosphere is what Bauhaus conjures up with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in ways that few of that era ever touch, and the band sustains that atmosphere from first snare hit to the last. What they give us is truly more in the realm of weird fiction made into music, yet labeled “Goth” so critics and the uninspired can understand it. I’m not sure that the band meant any of it to be understood, rather the atmosphere opens the door for the Gothic imagination if nothing else.
If John Lydon’s core thought about “punk” was to be one’s self (to thine own self be true), then Goth might be to one’s imaginative self be true, not imagined as in “not true” but true to the early imagination of life, one that centers on the dead, or the return of such, the undead. This intersection is where this song truly gets at something more transcendent than just an identity (that might just be a fad after all—following those silent hedges). We can go right to Sigmund Freud with this from his work The Uncanny:
We—or our primitive forefathers—once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought; but we do not feel quite sure of our new belief, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation. As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs, we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: “So the dead do live on and appear on the scene of their former activities!”
I would wager that almost every Goth song has a touch of that—if not every song on the March Vladness Tourney roster. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” hints at it but before going too far, the musical execution in the artistry of Bauhaus is unwittingly more along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s core idea about weird fiction from his work Supernatural Horror in Literature: “Atmosphere is the important thing.” In fact we can paraphrase his idea a bit further substituting “Goth” for “weird” like so:
The one test of the really weird [goth] is simply this—whether there be excited in the reader [listener] a profound sense of dread, and a subtle attitude of awed listening as if for the beating of black wings on the known universe’s rim.
Is that not really the best in Goth? Is that not why we “don the black” like the Night’s Watch along the icy borders of death? Is that not what “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” achieves and enshrines as unlimited Gothness? Play the track. You know it’s true. The song creates empty catacombs and cellars from ears to minds-eye, places Poe would get drunk in, all echo and delay, the ingredients for the most potent cauldron of Gothic alchemy, to alienate you if you easily falter but turns to paean if you listen long at their altar. Ultimately “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” suggests more than it resolves, which critics and haters never understood.
Bauhaus sought fit to press this in their own imagery, a texture of surrealism from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (as if he was the producer of the band) and all gothic culture emerged from this by fiat (and the press—the irony of the idea of Goth from the art and imagery not the music). The band used visual power in performance to great atmospheric effect. Tony Scott was quick to realize this (with David Bowie’s suggestion) that the band perform this song to open his vampire-art film adaptation of The Hunger. That scene alone is atmosphere incarnate thanks to Bauhaus’ live performance. “Bela” also undoubtedly won new converts to D. W. Griffiths The Sorrows of Satan gracing the cover of the Small Wonder Records single release. Last of the all, the reggae-dub as Goth music is not so far-fetched or discordant—the Caribbean after all, is home to undead of their own, legends of the zombie, and Bela Lugosi starred in one of Val Lewton’s films inspired by the subject, 1945’s The Body Snatcher. There’s even a slight futuristic tinge in the song, I could almost hear it rattling down the maze-like corridors of the Nostromo with a xenomorph lurking about. And so much more.
For me, 1979, was fourth grade, remembering to this day perusing classic horror monster books in our small town elementary school library on any given weekly reading day– books no other kids seemed to touch. Black and white photos of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, the living dead. Bauhaus could have composed a Gothic anthem about anyone of them, ranking up with these Horror classics that never die—Peter Murphy’s vocals alone are as memorable and permanent to Bela Lugosi as Karloff’s are to Mr. Grinch! That Halloween I donned the black (and red) cape as Dracula for a school Halloween party, with Universal monster classics projected against the gymnasium wall as other costumed school mates bobbed for apples. Not until four years later, when HBO and MTV cable makes it to town, lucky to have a friend who could afford it, and encountered The Hunger, late one night and saw the whole monster legacy re-invented before my eyes. I didn’t know exactly what Goth was at that moment, but I felt it. Then a few years later, high-school, college, collecting the albums (“Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape” first), going from there to the Cure, Joy Division, The Birthday Party, Samhain (sure—Goth and should have made the tourney), the list goes on but you and I know where it all started—it was Bauhaus and Bela Lugosi.
When someone is at the top, there are always those who want to knock them down, but “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is no God in an alcove. This song comes at you from every angle, sinking its fangs into open necks, so off-balance that if music could cast a reflection, you know this song would never be caught in a mirror. Undead is Goth immortality and this song (and this band) forty years on will always exist with it. The consequence of Goth goes back to the uncanny. As a Medieval Studies minor during my college undergrad years something stuck out to me when going back to write about this song for March Vladness. The Anglo-Saxon word for “undead” is “undeadlic” which means something like “undeadness of God” or, in other words, eternal, defying time. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” does that without question.
When you think of it, how can a song referencing the original icon of the count himself not be the most Vlad? “The children of the night, what sweet music they make,” wallowing in the epiphany of eternal death… An imagined soundtrack for your own funeral… Electric auras clothed in black… For the Bauhaus fans celebrating 40 years of the band this 2019 (and 100 years of the actual Bauhaus 1919 school) with Peter Murphy and David J on tour as I type this, I double dare you in the flat field, beware the spy in the cab, dance the St. Vitus dance, feel the hair of the dog in the hollow hills kicking in the eye in fear of fear, from those silent hedges, swing the heartache burning inside and cut down those puppet strings.
(PRESS THE ENTER BUTTON AND GIVE THEM YOUR VOTE)
Michael D. Miller is a disparate writer of disparate things. His work has appeared in Lovecraft Annual, Spectral Realms, Dead Reckonings, and the now defunct Crackpot Press. Currently eking out existence through optioning screenplays and teaching as adjunct faculty at GRCC, KCAD, and Aquinas College. Also wrote the Realms of Fantasy RPG for Mythopoeia Games Publications. He dedicates this essay to Leo the King of Cats who passed away just before it was completed.
moira mcavoy on ”clown”
I came of age during the height of mid-2000s pop punk—think Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, My Chemical Romance—which also means I came of age during the absolute peak of Hot Topic’s cultural relevance, and the revival-goth-adjacent aesthetic that it, for some reason, cultivated. The red garrish font, the chain linked entrances sometimes lorded over by actual gargoyles, with screamo playing through the speakers over rows and rows of all black and red clothing? This is what I saw branded as goth as an adolescent—a performance of a stereotype, a caricature of a real musical movement so far removed from the reality that it bordered on offensive. Even without knowledge of actual goth music, it was embarrassing. I still don’t know why Hot Topic became the masthead of this culture in the early 2000s, especially when most of the merch leaned more towards metal and punk, but the simplest answer I can conjure is that it was an easy way to categorize an audience that was on the fringes and liked darkness and enjoyed heavier music. It was goth in name only, but, as we didn’t have another name for the actual genres marketed yet, it was easier to sell something that already has an image—especially at a place that literally sells an image.
I didn’t have a goth phase growing up. I was a bit afraid of it all, to be honest, despite a bent towards sadness and angry music. I still ventured into Hot Topic, though, as it was a right of passage and they sold some sick old school Fall Out Boy merch. As most of the music was unfamiliar to me, I pored over the names on shirts and CDs, trying to figure out who to best name drop with the cashier so as to not seem like the scared poser I was. The only bands I remember being hawked in Hot Topic (in those years) that would even be close to what this tournament defines as goth were Nightwish and Evanescence. Before they were a meme (or embarking on a revival tour), Evanescence made a name for themselves as a breakthrough numetal act thanks to sharp, dramatic writing, tight musicianship with a classical flavor, and Amy’s breathtaking vocals. The group’s music was operatic and forlorn, beautifully composed and dark at its core. Its parts seemed discordant, but the sum worked beautifully, a seemingly singular musical enterprise.
Imagine my surprise, then, upon sitting down to research for this tourney and listening to “Clown” by Switchblade Symphony for the first time. I’d heard very few of the songs in this year’s bracket before, but I’d managed to construct a very niche, very specific definition “goth” based of the ones I did know: ethereal, removed yet emotional, almost sludgy, pulsating and with baroque lyricism, and, above all, sincere. I envisioned goth as The Smiths or The Cure, a sound miles away from the abrasive, unnuanced, image-driven goth brand™ I’d been peddled as a youth, and yet this song rang eerily reminiscent of Evanescence tracks I remembered blasting on my pink ipod mini in my mom’s minivan on the way to the mall. Sure, it’s not quite as operatic, and Tina Root’s vocals are by nature rougher than Amy’s, but their shared grandiosity and classical music influence is hard to ignore.
What do we make of this, then, a song that, on first listen, evoked such strong memories of something so seemingly removed from the actual theme of the tournament? For starters, we acknowledge that the band themselves were never strictly defined as “goth,” or even as one singular sub-genre. Depending on who you’re talking to, Switchblade Symphony is anything from trip-hop or dark wave to industrial rock or goth; their wikipedia article lists no less than seven genres. This lack of categorization is part of Switchblade’s appeal for me—they were at their most active near the end of the original goth movement, when rock was moving to shoegaze and grunge and numetal. There’s much to admire in a band that seemingly embraced all of that, all while adding their own flair to it. Their name references as much, the idea of cutting up sounds and reconstructing them into something new, fresh, and which is highly orchestrated—a proverbial switchblade symphony, one that works.
I must admit, having internalized my aforementioned, almost lo-fi definition of goth, I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Clown” at first blush. I wanted something more directly emotional, neater in its musicality. “Clown” has a thrumming, pounding bassline throughout, an almost trance-like rhythm. This is the sort of music, one imagines, that is enjoyed by the people in the uber-viral, much memed “goths dancing under a bridge” video. “Clown” has many moving parts, between strings and drums and synths and vocals and lyric narrative arc, and it wants to make sure you hear them all. How could it possibly be understated and succeed? The more I listened to it (on repeat for several hours while going about my day), the more I appreciated it. “Clown” offer so much on the surface that’s almost overwhelming, and it’s admittedly easier to tune it out than grapple with its intricacies if it’s not what you’re expecting this sort of track. However, once I settled into its style, I was able to heavily vibe with the synth, with the guitar riffs; it reminded me in equal measure of The Cure and Soundgarden.
Then, we have the lyrics, which are certifiably goth—there’s multiple mentions of the word “weep,” and the entire song hinges on the idea of the speaker seeing someone realizing that they’ve been performing being something you’re not and the subsequent anguish after said discovery. The lyricism is at times almost mocking—”Crying loud, you are crawling on the floor / Just a beautiful baby/You're nothing more”—and the delivery is nearly jubilant, particularly in a bridge comprised of repeated “down you’re going, down”’s. This song, in its genre defying construction and sly lyrics, is a verified powermove, and a surprising one at that. One this song, Switchblade know that they’re winning at what they do; they want to make sure we know too.
I’ve listened to this song over 100 times, and it still reminds me of Evanescence, partial harbingers of the bastardized goth scene of the mid-2000s. This, however, is a strength. Evanescence made (make?) ther music they did (do?) because they were good at it, because they did something that was innately interesting. The musical features they share with Switchblade are timeless and not bound by genre, and instead a sign of vast knowledge of music as a whole, and a good ear for what surprising things sound good together. Switchblade Symphony’s sound expertly bridges the gap between original goth and the music scenes which would follow it. They saw the past and the future and chopped them together until they became their present, offering no pretense, selling no image, simply crafting, and cutting, and shredding.
Moira McAvoy never had a goth phase but was heavily into Joy Division and The Smiths in high school, which explains a lot about her approach to, well, everything. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The RS500, Storyscape, and others. She currently lives, writes, and destroys her hearing in Washington DC, and you can find her tweeting about such things (with bonus memes) @moyruhjo.