Recorded at Bauhaus' first ever studio session, in early 1979, "Bela Lugosi's Dead" was taped live -- none of the bandmembers knew their way around the studio sufficiently to do anything else, while studio owner Derek Tompkins admitted that, for what they were trying to do, they could be the only judges. He sorted out the best sound he possibly could, helped Daniel Ash and David J set up the echo and effects, then left them to get on with it. A shade under ten minutes of clicking, scratching, scraping, and keening later, Bauhaus' masterpiece was complete.
It was Ash and J who created the song in the first place, Ash by slowing down an old Gary Glitter riff, then messing with the chords; J with a chorus he'd recently written, toying with the idea of whether Hollywood's greatest vampire could ever really be dead. From those basics, "Bela Lugosi's Dead" crackles in on percussion alone, a tapping, rattling rhythm into which a three-note bass line only gradually intrudes itself before Ash's treated guitar slides in, echoed and echoing the most atmospheric dub.
The ingredients merge, but the curtain is still rising; it takes minutes before Peter Murphy, his voice a deep, sepulchral rumble, is cued to take the stage, and minutes more before there's even a hint that the tension might be relieved, as the song -- such an inappropriate word -- moves towards its melody. It's relentless, one of those so-scarce moments when performer, performance, mood, and music are so expertly blended that the actual components are absolutely inextricable. Guitars become creaking coffin lids, the bass becomes footfalls in a darkened corridor above, the drum is the flapping of a myriad of bat wings, and Murphy -- Murphy is the count, dead, undead.
The single was originally released, in mid-1979, on the London-based Small Wonder independent label. Since that time, the original studio version has only ever appeared on album once, on 1998's best-of compilation. Other available versions are live recordings.