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Peter Murphy: Burning From the Inside

Post-punk legend plays all Bauhaus material at Town Ballroom on Saturday, May 11

Few movements of the rock-and-roll era have proved as vital or influential as the British post-punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After punk had, on at least a small scale, demolished many of rock’s cliches and conventions, many artists and musicians began anew by drawing upon various music, film, and art influences to create a challenging sound and image that was neither easily accessible nor easy to pigeonhole. The influence of such innovative collectives as Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Throbbing Gristle have all loomed large within the past decade. And although they have maintained a large and devoted following for the last 30 years, Bauhaus is finally getting their due as well.

Often bleak, arty, and pleasingly difficult, Bauhaus delved into various genres of music. With bassist David J’s disjointed funk rhythms colliding with the bad-trip psychedelic guitar of Daniel Ash, Bauhaus’ music often consisted of desolate and haunting soundscapes that sway between the beautiful and the nightmarish. Standing in the midst of the often confrontational sound was vocalist Peter Murphy, an unconventional singer who often spoke as he sang. While comparisons to David Bowie were there from the start, Murphy’s abstract and hallucinogenic lyrics were often much more menacing and otherworldly than those of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. In the end, Murphy was probably the real man to fall to Earth.

Taking their name from the German art movement, Bauhaus formed in Northampton, England in 1978. Signing to the tiny independent label Small Wonder, Bauhaus released their first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” in 1979. At 1- minutes, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was unlike anything before it. A sparse and hypnotic drum beat threads through the entire song while a jagged guitar scrapes against the minimalist structure. All the while, Murphy brings to life the once forgotten black-and-white horror films with his voice wavering between comatose and chaotic. As groundbreaking as the song was and continues to be, the song unfortunately had the media pegging Bauhaus as a “goth band,” a term that was unwanted and would often haunt them their entire career despite the band’s pioneering spirit and outright refusal to fall into cliches. Bauhaus was far too intelligent for such petty labels.

After a few more singles, including the truly mesmerizing “Terror Couple Kill Colonel,” Bauhaus released their first album, In the Flat Field, in 1980. An album filled with some of their most lasting material, In the Flat Field could be described as contorted heavy metal filtered through a post-industrial England. Although nobody would actually mistake it as a heavy metal record, the album marked the initial strands of an already dark journey. Signing to the newly christened Beggars Banquet in the UK, Bauhaus released their second album, Mask, in 1981. Although just as important and groundbreaking as In the Flat Field, Mask could be seen as a transition of sorts. Incorporating acoustic guitar, dub experiments, and spoken word, Mask took many chances and succeeded at most of them. Still, it remains an overlooked gem.

Finding a record deal in the United States, Bauhaus released The Sky’s Gone Out in 1982, which contains both some of their most calm and frenzied material. Surrealist in both musical and lyrical content, the album is a discomforting look into madness and, hopefully, redemption. Although not an easy listen, The Sky’s Gone Out is the pinnacle of Bauhaus; although it contains merely a few of their standards, it is the group as a cohesive whole.

Murphy contracted pneumonia as the band were to begin working on their fourth album, Burning From the Inside. As the studio time was already booked, the band went in without him. As a result, Murphy is only on three-quarters of the record. Regardless, it is their final masterpiece. “She’s in Parties” is the perfect culmination of everything they’d done up to that point, while the chilling “Who Killed Mr Moonlight?” captures an almost unaccompanied Murphy to a frightening degree.

Possibly due to the tension of recording part of Burning From the Inside without Murphy, Bauhaus disbanded. Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins formed Tones on Tail and later joined up with David J to start Love and Rockets. Before Murphy struck out on his own, he formed the often overlooked Dali’s Car, which was a collaboration with Japan’s Mick Karn, one of Britain’s most renowned post-punk bassists of the era. Although the album has since become a fan’s favorite, it did poorly commercially. Following a cover of Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me,” Murphy recorded his first solo record in 1986, entitled Should the World Fail Tto Fall Apart, which featured yet another cover, Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution.”

Murphy’s second solo album, Love Hysteria, reintroduced him to his Bauhaus fanbase. Songs such as “All Night Long” and “Indigo Eyes” were minor hits on college radio. But it was his third solo release, Deep, where Peter Murphy became one of the staples of the 120 Minutes generation. Surprisingly, songs such as “Cuts You Up” and “A Strange Kind of Love” struck a nerve in the pre-grunge underground. While maintaining both his enigmatic persona and tricky wordplay, Murphy retained the Bauhaus crowd while attracting a whole new audience. Gone were the shadows and jarring guitars; instead a warped pop sensibility prevailed all while keeping his artistic credibility fully intact. Despite his image and reputation, Murphy was allowing some light in.

After two more solo albums, Holy Smoke and Cascade, the unexpected occurred. Bauhaus reunited for a full fledged tour in 1998. Although a reunion between all four members had been discussed since the mid 1980s, this was the first time it had gone beyond mere talk. For the next decade, Murphy would balance himself between appearances with Bauhaus and his own solo work. In 2008, Bauhaus regrouped once again to record their first record in 25 years, Go Away White. Unlike so many of their former peers who have regrouped to record and yield only disappointing results, Go Away White is stunning in how timeless it sounds. Instead of trying to recapture some long lost feeling or sound, the album goes its own path without adhering to what people think Bauhaus should or shouldn’t be. The fact that it was ignored upon release is criminal. While it is unfair to compare it to the earlier records, it is some of the best work of all the participants.

Prior to releasing Go Away White, the band announced that it would be their “final statement” and that Bauhaus would disband.

In the five years since, Murphy has released another solo record entitled Ninth and briefly reunited Dali’s Car with Karn before Karn’s passing. This year, Murphy has decided to look back on the storied career of Bauhaus. Arriving this Saturday at Town Ballroom, Peter Murphy will be performing a full concert devoted to his work with his former band. As there is no plans for another reunion, this may be the closest thing we get to the real thing. Either way, it is sure to be a spectacle. Any fan of that important era in late 1970s and early 1980s should not miss this.

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