the sweet 16
(1) bauhaus, “bela lugosi’s dead”
(4) the church, “reptile”
and plays in the elite 8
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 19.
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.
JAMES CHARLESWORTH ON "REPTILE”
One night in 1987, at a beach house on the central coast of New South Wales, near Sydney, Australia, Steve Kilbey stepped outside to smoke a J.
Thirty-three years old, handsome in a secret-agent sort of way, the singer, songwriter, and bass player for the almost-famous neo-psychedelic rock band the Church was joined by his then-girlfriend Karin Jansson: former guitarist for the Swedish feminist punk band Pink Champagne and the future mother of the first of two sets of twins Kilbey would father. They stepped out into the darkening night, warm and ocean blown, the grass cool beneath their feet. As they passed the joint back and forth, making tracers in the silence, they watched an ocean of stars bloom against Sydney’s muted city glow to the south.
As always, there was a song in Steve Kilbey’s head. “Perhaps I looked up at the wonderful glittering heavens and was inspired,” he would later say sardonically. “I don’t know.” More likely he and Karin were jointly experiencing one of those mystical and revelatory moments for which marijuana is famous, characterized by statements such as “Dude… the universe is so big…” But there is a creative potential in these moments. If you can reach through that murky veil of awe, if you can access the uninhibited mind and harness its ramblings before they dissipate like vapor, if you can delay the race to the telephone to order an extra-large pizza with cheesy bread and garlic knots, you can synthesize a lasting magic.
When the joint was finished, Kilbey and Jansson stepped across the back yard to a little detached flat. Inside, encased in French doors and moonlight, sat a piano. “If it takes longer than a half hour to write the words,” Kilbey once said, “there’s something wrong.” In the case of “Under the Milky Way,” he claims it took them less than ten minutes. And within an hour, the song that would eclipse twenty-six albums and over thirty years of the Church’s material, that would win an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Award that Kilbey would refuse to accept and be voted in the twentieth anniversary edition of The Sunday Australian as the Best Australian Song of the Last Twenty Years—in just an hour, the song that would guarantee Steve Kilbey royalties for life, and follow him like an annoying shadow, was finished.
Though it references the Garden of Eden, “Reptile” lacks an origin story. No pot-smoking Adam and Eve (or Karin and Steve) amble profoundly beneath galactic panoramas in the compositional history of the song that bears the notoriety of being “Under the Milky Way’s” less successful follow-up. It shares a similar lunar quality though; a sort of glitzy barrenness permeates its sonic mood.
It was written in Los Angeles, where the Church had convened to record their fifth full-length album, Starfish, and been put up by their new record company in the Oakwood Corporate Apartments on Sepulveda Boulevard. Two Aussies, a Brit, and Steve, who was a little bit of both, driving tiny rental cars on the wrong side of the road, not a thing to do when they weren’t at the studio but smoke pounds of weed and lie on stuffy beds smelling of sanitizer watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” At this moment, only months after that night at the beach house, The Church seemed poised on the brink of taking their heretofore moderate and mostly domestic success to a new global level. They’d recently finished up a U.S. tour with Echo and the Bunnymen and had another lined up with Peter Murphy, former frontman of the legendary goth band Bauhaus who was now pursuing a solo career. Their most recent album, Heyday, had earned them a four-record contract with Arista, who had flown them to L.A. and signed on Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi, famous for their recent work with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne, as producers.
A long way to come for a band of self-proclaimed “Aussie hippies” that had taken its first tentative steps in 1973 when Kilbey met guitarist Peter Koppes in Canberra at a shared rehearsal space in the back room of—wait for it . . . a church. It was not until 1980, however—after Kilbey had spent four years honing his craft alone, hawking homemade T-shirts on the street to pay the rent while writing and recording hundreds of songs on a four track in his cockroach-infested apartment in Sydney—that the two reconnected and started a band called The Church of Man, in reference to an inscrutable David Bowie lyric from “Moonage Daydream”: “The church of man love is a holy place to be . . .” The name was soon shortened, thankfully, and a second guitarist named Marty Willson-Piper was added a few months later when he wandered into their dressing room after a show—a handsome long-haired cigarette-smoking Keith Richards clone in a leather jacket and tight jeans—and was hired on the spot.
That’s Willson-Piper at the beginning of the video, dressed in his trademark leather, face obscured by dark lank locks, picking out the entrancing opening riff of “Reptile” on his Rickenbacker. Hypnotic and atmospheric, the repeated arpeggio pulses and sets a scene. A single bass note arrives with a rattling cymbal, a brief cameo from drummer Richard Ploog (affectionately known as “Ploogy”). Now a second guitar, Peter Koppes playing long drawn out notes with slow bends on his Stratocaster. The lyrics seem to arrive somehow mid-stream, as if they have been reverberating at a distance and we have simply accessed the correct frequency, Kilbey’s low-pitched delivery—which the Los Angeles Times once deemed “too deep and brooding for mass acceptance”—providing a haunting voiceover to lure us through this ethereal aural landscape.
Too dangerous to keep / Too feeble to let go / And you want to bite the hand / Should’ve stopped this long ago…
Like most of Kilbey’s lyrics, these are not quite unintelligible, not quite accessible either, a “portal into your own mind where I give you a guided mediation… a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.” Abstract they certainly are, but as the song moves along the gist becomes clear: A serpentine woman with diamond eyes has coiled herself around Steve’s arm, has become the apple of his eye only to bite his hand and slither away, all flickering tongue and rattling scales. Like a real reptile. She is fleeting; she is cold-blooded; she is gone.
The video was filmed during the Starfish tour at a show in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater, whose dim lighting and balconied seating arrangement serve as a surreal backdrop to the performance, a crowd of mostly white-clad spectators bouncing zombie-like, entranced. The band certainly seems at the height of their powers. When Willson-Piper scampers across the stage to stand next to Koppes as they both solo their way toward the song’s fade, you would never know that the two barely spoke offstage, except to argue. You would never know that the filming of this video had to be paused at several points because Koppes stopped playing and stormed off the stage whenever he felt the camera was spending too much time on Willson-Piper. You would never know that Ploogy was only months from being thrown out of the band due to a potentially hallucinogen-induced psychosis. And you would never know that Steve Kilbey was smoking so much pot he often coughed up blood, that he was only three years away from embarking on a ten-year heroin addiction.
“It’s like one of those classic things,” Steve Kilbey says now with regard to the way the Church fumbled their success, “where a wrestler has just knocked his opponent out and he’s lying on the floor, and instead of finishing him off and getting the count, he jumps up on the ropes and sort of taunts the audience. Meanwhile the guy on the ground comes back to life, jumps up and throttles him. That’s pretty much what we did.”
Thirty-two years have passed since that night Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson wandered out into the backyard of that beach house outside Sydney. Thirty-two years since the Church signed that four-record deal with Arista and flew to Los Angeles and imagined the vast palaces visited by Robin Leach on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” would soon be theirs. Though they never again repeated the international success of Starfish, their career as a band has continued basically non-stop, through various permutations and hiatuses and lineup changes, three decades of diligently produced output ranging from the eclectic to the mainstream to the bizarre, including a confusing assortment of side projects and collaborations and semi-anonymous releases under pseudonyms with song and album titles often featuring odd punctuation (Refo:mation, Priest=Aura), obscure quasi-religious references (The Hologram of Baal), or just pure nonsense (Pharmakoi/Distance-Crunching Honchos with Echo Units).
Trying to summarize or put a label on the career of the Church is a complicated process, because they’re a band whose legacy differs hugely depending on perspective. Ask the Passionate American Church Fan—someone who grew up on their early bootlegs and witnessed their steady rise toward Starfish—and they will wax poetic regarding the band’s underappreciated-ness and their subtle influence. They will praise the Church as a college-rock act, like XTC or Robyn Hitchcock or the Replacements or R.E.M., who paid their dues for years before achieving moderate mainstream success. The Passionate American Church Fan will remind you that Thom Yorke of Radiohead allegedly once called the Church his “musical roadmap” and claim that they (the Fan) might never have picked up a guitar were it not for Koppes and Willson-Piper’s complex dueling interplay. But ask the average American and they will remember the Church, if they remember them at all, as one-hit wonders—and if it weren’t for “Under the Milky Way’s” inclusion in the 2001 film Donnie Darko and various television advertisements, most Americans under the age of thirty would never have heard a Church song.
And yet we are also talking about a band that was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010, a band that performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, a band that many Australians view not at all as some underground cult classic but rather a mainstream act who roared out of the gate on a major label and with a popular radio hit (1981’s “The Unguarded Moment”) and stood in vast contrast to bands, like the Go-Betweens and the Laughing Clowns and the Birthday Party, who carried the Australian punk and new-wave movements in the early 80s.
Truth is, the story of the Church is the story of a hugely prolific band that just missed being something more than merely prolific. It’s the story of a group that created some truly avant-garde and unclassifiable music that also just happens to be remembered mostly for a four-chord mainstream ballad that, like a weighty prologue, unbalanced everything that came after.
As for Steve Kilbey, he’s carried on. Once famous for his brash eccentricities, generally known as “a bit of a nutter,” known to prance around rehearsal spaces in a silk bathrobe drinking from a carton of chocolate milk and, later, to have once recorded an entire album with a feedbag attached to his face so he could lick opium without putting down his instrument, he has become self-effacing and humble with age. He acknowledges the bridges he burned and the affectations he took too far in his youth. He has managed his way through, in his own words, “my insular, confused, sulky stage, which preceded my arrogant and blasé stage, which gave way to my ugly junkie phase.” He has also been clean of heroin for nearly twenty years, and though Karin Jansson doesn’t speak to him, he has rekindled a relationship with their once-estranged twin daughters, Miranda Anna and Elektra June Kilbey-Jansson, who now front a Swedish synth-pop band called Say Lou Lou.
He even seems to have come to a grudging acceptance that, despite the fact that he has penned something like 2,000 songs, 750 of which are registered with the Australian copyright agency, and was the primary song writer on 26 Church albums, 14 solo albums, and somewhere around 20 collaboration albums, the only song in that entire vast oeuvre that most people remember is the one he jotted off while stoned out of his mind on an otherwise forgettable night on the central coast of New South Wales.
I should’ve believed Eve, Kilbey sings in the final verse of “Reptile,” after the dissonant guitar mash that serves as a middle eight has relented to a cool silence, after Marty Willson-Piper’s hypnotic opening riff has returned to kill the stillness again. But maybe it wasn’t a woman at all that Steve Kilbey was singing about in “Reptile.” Maybe that ephemeral creature that coils around his arm and then slithers away is something else entirely: the unaccountable inspiration that appears to us in unexpected moments, that leads us along damp flagstones into the night and sits us down at a piano bench encased in glass.
She was the apple of my eye, Kilbey sings. It wasn’t long ago…
But really none of that matters. What matters, ultimately, is the question of whether the Church deserves your vote in March Vladness, whether they should earn your approval over any or all of the black-clad legions that make up the rest of the field in this tournament of Goth. Maybe the answer to that too lies in history, on a night when the Church came on stage in some forgotten city in some darkened venue to a surprising sight. Late summer, 1988, the middle of the Starfish tour, and though “Under the Milky Way” was rising up the Billboard charts and Starfish was well on its way to going gold in the U.S., Kilbey and Koppes and Willson-Piper and Ploogy stepped on stage to witness the mass exodus of a third of the crowd, causing a moment of confusion until they realized that these shadows shuffling toward the exits were all pale-faced with black-dyed hair, wearing black period-style clothing and eyeliner and silver jewelry, a somber subculture dispersing into the night because the deity they had come to worship had departed: Peter Murphy, his days in Bauhaus long behind him, the Godfather of Goth now relegated to opening for a bunch of Aussie hippies just because they had an accidental hit song on mainstream radio.
Lifting the strap of his bass over a shoulder, Steve Kilbey stepped up to the microphone and said, “It’s the biggest retreat of the Goths since the fall of Rome!”
James Charlesworth’s debut novel, The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill, was published in January 2019. An early draft of this essay incorporated a discursive section on his roommate, who happens to be a reptile.