Monday, February 6, 2012

Kick in the Eye: A Buyer's Guide for Bauhaus and Beyond

It is difficult, as a music fan buying records for thirty years, to imagine anyone out there who hasn't, at some point, explored the music of Bauhaus. Even if you're not a fan of the genre, the godfathers of gothic rock offer something for any fan of rock and roll and should be considered required listening for absolutely everyone interested in exploring the darker side of rock and new wave across the 80s. Bauhaus, their solo explorations and successful spin-offs all offer excellent, timeless listening and, in my opinion, 16 albums essential to any serious record collection. So, for the unwashed or heretofore unwilling, here are the finest of all their dark entries.

Bauhaus, made up of Peter Murphy on vocals, Daniel Ash on guitars, David J on bass and Kevin Haskins on drums, have several excellent entry points at which the curious may dive into their catalogue. Their two-volume 1979-1983 retrospective is often considered the cornerstone with which to begin but I will suggest the newbie start with Crackle, a single-disc compilation from 1998. The material will quickly become redundant as the collection grows but it is a well-balanced view of the band and is the only full-length, domestically-available recording on CD that collects the full-length studio version of the band's best-known single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead."

Bauhaus have a limited studio output and those turned on by Crackle will eventually want it all as well as the odds and sods collected in 1979-1983. To start, though, In the Flat Field, the debut from 1980, covers the exceptional raw, post-punk leanings of the band and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, '83's Burning from the Inside captures a more accomplished, albeit fractured, group recording separately and is a fascinating end to their first era as one can hear the beginnings of what would go on to become Love and Rockets. While often passed over, I highly recommend the BBC collection, Swing the Heartache, as a sampler of the group's middle era. The album-oriented cuts best their studio counterparts and we also get some incredible, atmospheric pieces unavailable anywhere else, such as "Party of the First Part." The reunion document from 2008, Go Away White, is superb, showing how Peter Murphy and bandmates, who had forged very different paths by this point, could still gel and create a new but distinctly Bauhaus sound. Live studio recordings represented by single takes, Go Away White brings the band full circle to their In the Flat Field beginnings and serves as a remarkable coda for a recording career that was far too brief. The band never did turn in an exceptional live album and, in my opinion, everything available in that vein serves only as nice curiosities and shelf filler.

Following the Bauhaus break-up, guitarist Daniel Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins formed Tones on Tail with bass roadie Glenn Campling. A transitional band, Tones on Tail stands as Ash's finest moment as bandleader, fusing the darkness of Bauhaus with the pop he would soon after craft with Love and Rockets. The band's work leans (sometimes heavily) toward the dancefloor and their entire output has been conveniently collected in 1998's double disc Everything!, which is a hands-down must-have. Unfortunately, while his effects-drenched guitars were absolutely pivotal to the sound of all of his group efforts, Ash's solo records are utterly abysmal. While each has a handful of remarkable tracks, there are not enough high points to round out a single-disc compilation and the curious would be best served by cherry-picking on iTunes. Bauhaus bassist David J, on the other hand, has turned in a wide variety of successful musical explorations. Immediately following the Bauhaus breakup the man was prolific and it is from this timespan of '83-'85 that his finest records can be gleaned. Solo long-player Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh cements J's jazz virtuosity whereas On Glass captures the fruit of five more experimental, atmospheric EPs. Finally, 1990's Songs from Another Season is nothing but a success, distilling the folkier, more mellow side that peeked through Love and Rocket's Earth, Sun, Moon.

Similar to New Order's emergence from the ashes of Joy Division, Love and Rockets was a remarkable animal that stood entirely apart from their incredible genesis. Comprised of Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins and producing a blend of sardonic and psychedelic glam, Love and Rockets remain one of my absolute favorites from the 80s. Their first three records, Seventh Dream of a Teenage Heaven, Express and Earth, Sun, Moon explore dreamy psychedelic shoegazing, balls-out alt-rock and introspective, intimate pop with incredible mastery across the span of three fertile years from 1985 to 1987. The band hit it big with their eponymous and uneven '89 set and never quite recovered. Ambient and electronic experiments followed with one doomed - and decent - album (Sweet F.A.) recorded twice and coming much too late for the band to maintain momentum. Those enthralled with the first three records should definitely grab Love and Rockets for its high points and will likely want to try out the latter records as well (and all can easily be found in dollar sections of any used music store).

Peter Murphy, Bauhaus' distinctive vocalist, has delivered a prolific and varied solo career with nine full-length records released to date. Start with his second, 1988's Love Hysteria, which kicks off Murphy's fruitful songwriting collaboration with bandmate Paul Statham. "All Night Long" was the big hit but the entire record is solid and an easy recommendation for Bauhaus fans. Murphy exploded with the success of the follow-up, Deep, an absolutely stacked classic that dominated airwaves just as Love and Rockets were, well, rocketing up the charts in 1989. Deep is a richly produced and remarkably well-written album that includes rockers, dance-worthy singles and incredible ballads. It's also an album Murphy has yet to match. While a personal favorite, Murphy floundered a bit too much to recommend the uneven, over-arty Holy Smoke though he regained his footing with '95's vibrant, heavily electronic Cascade, more or less lost in the shift to a more raw alternative music at the time. The following aLive Just for Love from 2001 remains Murphy's last essential record, an intimate solo double-disc that revisits - and often rebuilds - his best work and, on the second disc, reunites Murphy for a brief set with David J, whetting fans' appetite for another Bauhaus reunion (there had been a significant tour in 1998 with no new studio recordings). Murphy's records since have been disappointing overall (some love the Turkish flavors of Dust, I flat-out hate it). Last year's Ninth is a pretty straightforward affair recalling the energy of the upbeat portions of his late-80s output and, while not as immediately hooky as his early work, gives me hope that Murphy may be on the verge of a creative rebirth.

Recommended Chronology:
Bauhaus - In the Flat Field - 1980
Bauhaus - Burning from the Inside - 1983
David J - Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh - 1985
Love and Rockets - Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven - 1985
David J - On Glass - 1986 
Love and Rockets - Express - 1986
Love and Rockets - Earth, Sun, Moon - 1987
Peter Murphy - Love Hysteria - 1988
Bauhaus - Swing the Heartache: The BBC Sessions - 1989
Peter Murphy - Deep -1989
David J - Songs from Another Season - 1990
Peter Murphy - Cascade - 1995
Bauhaus - Crackle - 1998
Tones on Tail - Everything! - 1998
Peter Murphy - aLive Just for Love - 2001
Bauhaus - Go Away White - 2008

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