The Line Between the Devil's Teeth
A sinister baritone, moaning some Gregorian-like chant, oozes from the woofers like so much blood from a sacrificial lamb. Doubling, tripling, and further multiplying the chant creates a multi-harmony, placing the listener in a demented medieval cathedral stalked by a crazed, undead vocalist. Holy Smoke, the latest creation of so-called Goth-rock prince Peter Murphy, provides the perfect salve with which to soothe the vocalist's current fans, as well as those who have felt alienated by his post-Bauhaus work.
The bogey legend began with a deeply introverted and delightfully deranged young man who, as he tells it, "felt at a loss of a role in life." In his deep, rich voice, with its British tinge, not unlike his singing voice, Murphy explains, "The school that I went to gave me half an hour, after five years of education, of career advice. That's really pathetic. We were left to society with no aim." He eventually decided that his calling was to be a painter and vowed that he would attend art school, but decided the need for immediate money was a bit more pressing.
That's when Murphy's former schoolmate Daniel Ash re-established contact with him. "Danny had been in quite a few club bands that had failed," Murphy says. "I had gone to see a few of his shows, and we still had a real affinity. At one point he rang me up and suggested we try to work together." Murphy, who had all along possessed a love for music and singing whether he made money at it or not, saw this as an outlet, as well as "a vehicle for my creative energies," he says. "Naturally, I jumped at it, and that's how Bauhaus came into being."
During their relatively brief career, Bauhaus expanded on the revolution set into motion by innovators such as Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, and especially David Bowie. Rather than imitate or ride piggyback, they managed to set a standard. Best known for a relentlessly dark, foreboding, evil composition, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," the band's Goth-rock style led the "Doom and Gloom" movement best illustrated by the frequency of now-cliche "progressive black" attire.
Murphy's pale, drawn face and slithering movements coupled with his ominous voice lent to the images of the undead conjured up in the band's music. This aura materializes in the opening scene of the movie The Hunger, in which a caged Murphy performs the Bauhaus classic as vampires David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt down and drain the life from their helpless victims in order to preserve their own immortality.
But there was more to Bauhaus than vampires. There was also angst and anger, fear and rebellion. Four post-pubescent kids channeling frustrations into creativity. Unfortunately, there was also tension. "There was a fracturing and a dispersing of the focus away from the band, and that's when I knew that we were dying," explains Murphy of the band's dissolution. "Danny and David [J., Bauhaus's bassist] were really getting into writing their own stuff, and we ceased to work as a unit. I think Bauhaus was at its best when it was a unified expression."
Such is the approach of the band's current incarnation, Love & Rockets (Bauhaus minus Murphy). "That works out great for them, but for me that's rather difficult, really," Murphy says. "Looking back, I guess we could have carried on quite easily if I had been more conducive to their new approach. But I didn't want to go into writing a little piece of a song and letting everyone add their own segments. That's not what Bauhaus was about to me."
So Murphy and the others agreed that a parting of ways was necessary. "It wasn't a `bitching' sort of split," he says. "It was quite respectable, really. It was just a recognition that it should split." Everyone went their own way. Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins (drummer for Bauhaus) created Tones on Tails (best known for the hit "Go!" a.k.a. the "Ya Ya Song"). David J. went solo, and Murphy worked on a project with Mick Karn (formerly of the band Japan) and Paul Vincent Lawford under the name Dalis Car, before commencing his own solo career.
Murphy found himself quite lost after the split. "I felt almost like I would imagine one would feel when a marriage ends," he says, clarifying that he'd never been in the latter situation. "Bauhaus wasn't like a business or anything, it was more of an intense and committed experience. I spent a lot of time trying to clarify whether I was able to, or even willing to, carry on."
Carry on he did. His debut album, Should the World Fail to Fall Apart, was an attempt to set art to music. The songs on it were inspired by the paintings of a close friend, Carlos Sosa. That, as well as its follow-up, Love Hysteria, lacked the anger and raw power common to Bauhaus's work. "They were deliberate attempts to drop any identification with my past," Murphy points out. "I didn't want to rely on the old, easy, safe, secure tricks. I wanted to, basically, be very free."
What these albums had that Bauhaus lacked was a strong sense of unity within the song. Melody is prominent in Murphy's solo work, while the melodies were comparatively concealed within Bauhaus's records. Love Hysteria also marks the beginning of Murphy's relationship with songwriter Paul Statham.
Any collaborative effort has its pitfalls. With regard to Statham, Murphy claims he "finds that my own expression is quite limited that way. Selfishly, I would like to be able to write everything myself, to see exactly what I'm capable of. But I know that doesn't work from a commercial point of view." Murphy sees the teaming, on the whole, as positive. That's obvious in the fruits of their efforts (three albums over four years). "Paul, as a writer, is rather unfocused," Murphy says. "He will come to me with very prolific pieces that seemingly have no end in sight. I've enjoyed catching little moments of his sketches and bringing them down to Earth."
On his third solo album, Deep, Murphy's Bauhaus influences began to seep back into his music, bringing about a sound more relaxed and more powerful - guitars coupled with ballsy keyboards to support the vocalist's melodies. Then Murphy blew Holy Smoke at his fans. On this most recent release, Murphy could no longer suppress the Bauhaus within him.
Wildness characterizes Holy Smoke. "Low Room," for example, is a song that, like Bauhaus, gets its message across both lyrically and musically. "The streets have gone wild defeated wild," Murphy sings, referencing the violent unrest common to modern day life. "It's happening all over," he says. "It's that L.A. thing. In Europe, Yugoslavia, Bangkok. Everywhere you look there's that chaos on the streets." And so he sings, "Sitting in the low room/Where we wind our love loom/Don't y'think it's wrong/That I should get stuck in a room." That image, Murphy says, is drawn from "sitting back, sitting on a fence, not exploring enough."
The new album blends what Murphy has learned about melody and coherence with what he already knew about mystery and plain old oomph. Just like the vampire with which he's closely associated, he entices his listeners, sounding sometimes menacing, sometimes operatic, sometimes discordant. He tempts with sweet melodies and a driving beat. When it is least expected, Murphy will let loose a powerful roar of harmony and pounce on his victim until, with the final fade, the prey is left with a deep hunger for more.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.