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Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

Exquisite Corpse: Another Resurrection of Bauhaus

1982’s The Sky’s Gone Out ended with Bauhaus’ first “Exquisite Corpse.”

As their first new music since 2008, Bauhaus — the seminal early eigthies Goth band that blessed the world (or cursed it, depending on your point-of-view) with the immortal “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” — have returned to a method of songwriting not seen since the last track on their third album, 1982’s The Sky’s Gone Out. That song, “Exquisite Corpse,” takes its name, and method of composition, from a word (and illustration) game played in or around 1925 by dadaists (cum surrealists) André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy. It’s now 2022, and — using that same cadavre exquis style of writing Bauhaus has released “Drink the New Wine.”

The  song’s title refers to that very first exquisite corpse endeavor by Breton and company that, when collected, included the phrase: “Le cadavre exquis boiara le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”). True to its inspiration (and form), Bauhaus’ “Drink the New Wine” is a set of pieces each separately created by the band’s four members  — frontman Peter Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, and bassist David J, backed by his brother Kevin Haskins on drums. With their parts remotely recorded during the pandemic, none had heard what the others had done initially. Not until the song finally came together.

From a press release comes more details: “For the recording, the four musicians each had one minute and eight tracks at their disposal plus a shared sixty seconds plus four tracks for a composite at the end.” It continues to note that “the only common link being a prerecorded beat courtesy of Kevin.”

By no means a toe-tapper, “Drink the New Wine” is a tough tune to like upon first listen. Disjointed by design — but bound in (non)sense by our very need to make meaning out of words strung together — the song’s distinct sections would seem to reflect (as they should) the personalities of each band member. Daniel Ash’s semi-psychedlic Marc Bolan-esque playfulness starts the track. “Off to the funny farm,” he sings, strumming a twelve-string guitar. Then Peter Murphy’s commanding baritone breaks that melody with a rather stark repetition of “dreaming of a perfect world” (reminiscent of “life is but a dream” from “Exquisite corpse, forty years earlier). Next up is David J’s wistful acoustic hum, a refrain of “the roulettista rolls the dice” (a reference most likely to modern illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s act where a man gets rich playing a sort of Russian Roulette until, one day, he is ironically shot by a burglar). That section of the song ends with what sounds very much like a muffled gun shot.

All is underscroed by Kevin Haskins’ steady beat of backmasking and reverb-ladden fills. Then parts comes together, with a return to the center that is Peter Murphy — whose beautiful “you’re the cooling shadow of my cloud” — leads once again to the stuff of dreams (“we talk in dreams”) as he and his bandmates alternate among the musical and lyrical themes from all parts of the song.

The final minute suggests what this cadavre exquis ends up, in effect, becoming: “not building a wall, but making a brick.” These pieces do not divide and confine. Instead, they come together, and make something out of what otherwise would be fragements. Musicians very familiar with being apart, then coming together.

Peter Murphy, back in true form, during a one-off gig in 2019. 2022 will see Bauhaus on the road for an extended tour. (Photo credit: Rolling Stone)

First famously reunited for a short “Resurrection Tour” in 1998, Bauhaus has come together one other time since their initial split in 1983. That reunion (from 2005 to 2008) led to their last official studio album, Go Away White — a solid outing that contains the standout Too Much 21st Century. A one-off show in 2019 would follow. But 2022 and 2023 promises an extensive tour.

Still, no album is planned. Unlike Sky’s Gone Out, no theatrically grand “Spirit, creeping rock of “Silent Hedges,” or manic fun of a cover of Brian Eno’s “Third Unlce” may come to accompany this single exquisite corpse. And that’s a shame. Because Bauhaus are capable of great theatricality and pulse-pounding rock.

In advance of the upcoming shows, what we are left with to judge this particular return is only “Drink the New Wine.”

Is it pop? No. Is it rock? Probably not. Is it art? That’s in the eye, or ear, of the beholder.

But it’s certainly got my attention.

And that’s why the song — as divisive as it may be among old fans and new — is more of an annoucement of resurrection of Bauhaus — one of Goth rock’s most theatrical acts ever — than it is a song you or I will be blaring on the car stereo. It’s a call to attention that this band is back from the (un)dead.

And that there’s never been anyone quite like them.

Not Goth? Genre Labels and The Sisters of Mercy

Of all genres of rock music, goth is the most difficult to define. Now fully cemented in popular culture with acolytes sporting black clothes, blacker nail polish, and the blackest of lipstick, the movement was not so well defined in the late seventies and early eighties when the term began to be applied (by critics mostly) in the wake of punk. Coined by rock critic Critic John Stickney long ago in 1967 when describing a Doors show, goth was seemingly first applied to bands most associated with an atmospheric, gloomy, even angular sound late in the nineteen seventies; see, for example, Nick Kent’s “Banshees make the Breakthrough” in his 1978 review of Siouxsie and The Banshees in NME. Indeed, it is Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus — and some say even Joy Division (labeled by their producer, Martin Hannet as such in 1979) — that are thought of as the pillars of early goth music. And then there is The Sisters of Mercy. More specifically, its frontman (and only constant member), Andrew Eldritch, who has famously resisted the label — even outright rejected it.

THE BAND
The Sisters of Mercy logo
The Sisters of Mercy logo (from Wikimedia Commons)

Formed in Leeds in 1980, The Sisters of Mercy are known for Eldritch’s melancholic baritone, driving bass lines, sharp guitar riffs, and beats supplied by Doktor Avalanche — a drum machine that has been, for the most part, the only constant member of the band other than Eldritch. At first, only singles and EPs were released from the band. Notable among them is the 12″ single for “Alice,” a lament for a girl addicted to pills. It is on this release that a cover of The Stooges’ “1969” — a staple of the band’s set from the very beginning — appears.

In “1969” is found not only one of the band’s key strengths, but also a possible clue as to the motivations of its members to consciously NOT be goth: that is, a desire to honor a wide range of musical styles with their own distinct sound. Eldritch’s deep, reverb-heavy vocals. The synthetic beats of Docktor Avalanche. Guitars that are mesmerizingly fuzzy. The Sisters of Mercy’s cover of The Stooges’ anthem of dillusion and disaffected youth sounds more like a garage band on amphetamines than it does a gothic rock dirge.

Curiously, The Sisters of Mercy turned out many a colorful cover: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” among them. That these songs are all dark in tone contribute to an understandable goth label, but they are each faithful insofar as Eldrith’s voice allows — and are possibly even  a bit tongue-in-cheek, with the band realizing the unique juxtaposition of music like theirs covering such a wide-range of genres (proto-punk, country, classic rock, even soul).

REJECTING THE LABEL

In an interview in a magazine called Under the Rock — dedicated to all things Sisters of Mercy” — Andrew Eldritch once famously said “I’m not interested in what goths think,” adding that it was journalist David Dorrel from NME was “a prime originator of the “‘Sisters are goth and therefore crap’ smear.” Eldritch goes to humourously say “I’m constantly confronted by representatives of popular culture who are far more goth than we, yet I have only to wear black socks to be stigmatised as the demon overlord.”

Still, it’s hard to deny that by the time of their first official album, “First and Last and Always” (1985), songs like “No Time to Cry,” and “Nine While Nine” are hard to describe in any other way than atmospheric and gloomy. “Marian (Version)” alone finds the singer driven along by a quasi-siren song to a watery grave. Yet the apocalyptic “Black Planet” was accompanied by a video that showed the band crusing California on a sunny day in, of all things, the Mokeemobile! If this was goth, its video, at least, eschewed the darker aspects of the band’s image.

Floodland (1987) would find Eldritch developing a more epic sound, full of booming eighties production (e.g., “Dominion / Mother Russia”) and a semblance of pop sensibiltiy on tracks like “This Corrosion” and “Lucretia, My Reflection.”

By the time of the band’s  third album, “Vision Thing” (1990), an all-out hard rock assault is apparent in songs like the titular track, “Detonation Boulevard,” and “More.”

Andrew Eldritch performing with the Sisters of Mercy at Wacken Open Air, 2019 (photo by Sven Mandel [taken from Wikimedia Commons])
Still together (insofar as Eldritch assembles musicians to go out on tour every few years), the Sisters of Mercy have never released a fourth album. Problems with their record company famously turned Eldritch against the industry. Instead, he has focused over the years since on performing live.

After all is said and done with Sisters of Mercy, it is curious to note that practically no early influential post-punks bands particularly like the goth label (see this great reddit post). But why? The simplest answer is that it is reductive, lumping bands with a wide-range of styles into one camp (that is, appropriately enough, often campy). Goth carries a stigma of being a one-trick-pony of sorts: with tired themes and funereal beats. The wide berth given to most other genres is just not open to bands labeled goth.

THE INHERITORS

As for modern goth, the music has splintered further with its labels of death rock, cold wave, dark wave, even ethereal wave.

Bands like Cold Cave, Drab Majesty, and Dark seem to embrace the association of their music with all things sad and scary, morbid and taboo.

In that regard, artists like Andrew Eldritch and his Sisters of Mercy need not even be concerned with labels. The world has moved on. Other artists have picked up the all-black flag (not to be confused with the eighties American Hardcore band) and run with it into the cemetery as the sun sets and the leaves fall.

In the end, it’s all rock and roll, and that’s the landscape where The Sisters of Mercy should ideally find their place. The Cure’s relatively recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has legitimized music (fairly or not) labeled goth, and The Sisters of Mercy may one day be judged not by the doom and gloom of their music, but the unique sound that made them stand out from the crowd.