BAUHAUS: IN THE FLAT FIELD (1980)
1) Double Dare; 2) In The Flat Field; 3) God In An Alcove; 4) Dive; 5) Spy In The Cab; 6) Small Talk Stinks; 7) St. Vitus Dance; 8) Stigmata Martyr; 9) Nerves; 10*) Dark Entries; 11*) Telegram Sam; 12*) Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores; 13*) Terror Couple Kill Colonel; 14*) Scopes; 15*) Untitled; 16*) God In An Alcove; 17*) Crowds.
First things first: let us get the harmful genrism crap out of the way. Wherever you go to stock up on basic information about Bauhaus, you are sure to learn that they are «the fathers of goth rock» or, at least, «counted among the progenitors of gothic rock as a genre». There is only one piece of serious evidence to back up this idiotic stereotype — namely, the name of the band's first single: ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ. Naturally, every band whose first song mentions Bela Lugosi, vampires, and blood, deserves to be pigeonholed as «gothic rock», but one might just as well tag The Jimi Hendrix Experience as a «folk-rock band», since their first single was a cover of ʽHey Joeʼ. (For that matter, Bauhaus' third single was a sped-up cover of T. Rex's ʽTelegram Samʼ — about as «gothic» in essence as ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ.)
Even if we do accept «goth rock» as a legit musical genre and describe it as, well, let's say, dark, gloomy, bass-heavy, minor-key music with a lyrical and atmospheric fixation on misanthropy, death, suicide, ghosts, and red blood on white sheets, In The Flat Field, the band's first and arguably best album, only fits certain parts of that description. Moodwise, this brainchild of Peter Murphy's is a whole lot more cheerful than Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, from which it draws much of its inspiration — not to mention certain albums by The Doors, Lou Reed, or Nico that I could mention, all of which are far more deserving of the «early goth rock» nametag than this relatively lively, tongue-in-cheek, occasionally quite funny piece of entertainment.
In fact, if you glance at some of the original negative reviews of the record, you can sometimes see people condemning it for not living up to their expectations — "sluggish indulgence instead of hoped for goth-ness", Dave McCullough quipped in Sounds. Indulgence — for sure; sluggish — vile slander. In 1980, there was nothing sluggish about the playing style of Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins. On the contrary, like all those fresh, young, seriously idealistic New Wave outfits, particularly those based in such centers of trendiness as London, they were determined to prove that they could combine new meaningful musical ideas with the verve and energy of their glam-rock and punk rock idols.
Just like the Smiths, Bauhaus' image is generated at the intersection of «the eccentric vocalist» (Peter Murphy) and «the inventive guitarist» (Daniel Ash). Of those two, Murphy is the less interesting component: he adds little to the accumulated legacy of Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, and Ian Curtis, and his trademark gloomy baritone has fairly little emotional range or depth. He is a competent singer, and his singing style matches the moods and the messages of the songs fairly well — you couldn't really imagine somebody like Elvis Costello singing these songs instead, or if you could, you shouldn't — and other than a couple cases of potentially overlong overscreaming, he never does much to irritate the listener; that's about as high as my praise can go.
The guitar playing of Daniel Ash, though, is an entirely different matter. Like most of the prominent guitarists of the New Wave era, he tends to eschew solos, but the style is by no means minimalistic — on the contrary, it is ambitiously synthetic, with little regard for any pre-established «genre rules». ʽDouble Dareʼ, for instance, opens the album with a few nasty feedback blasts, out of which quickly emerges an even nastier growling «industrial metal» riff. Then the title track, in contrast, is all based on distorted scratchy droning, in loving memory of Lou Reed, Phil Manzanera, and Tom Verlaine. ʽGod In An Alcoveʼ updates the old garage sound, where folksy arpeggios alternate with bluesy block chords and psycho trills (and to top it off, Dave J sometimes makes his bass adopt a disco pattern — what a nuthouse, eh?). On ʽSpy In The Cabʼ, he plays a depressing dirge, while the limp, but arrogant shuffle of ʽSmall Talk Stinksʼ could have easily been picked up by the likes of Marc Ribot for a Tom Waits album.
Nothing on Flat Field really hits harder, though, than the looped metal riff doubling the already established bass melody at 0:50 into ʽStigmata Martyrʼ. The song is a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek «religious horror» in music — all due to the expressiveness of Ash's guitar, imitating all sorts of physical (and spiritual?) pain on an almost literal level. There is no real horror here (as in, «vivid musical projection of real life horror or the uncomfortably dark depths of one's soul»), it is all sheer theatrics, but it still perturbs the senses in some way. Even as a cheap thrill, songs like these show that Bauhaus are really onto something.
It may well be so that the original critics were confused — In The Flat Field is, indeed, too flashy, extravagant, and even «cheery» to genuinely convey any dread, doom, and despair (you do know for sure that Peter Murphy is no Ian Curtis, and that the rope is not a solution), but if it does not genuinely do that, what the hell is it here for in the first place? These songs make very little ideological sense; Murphy's lyrics, at best, convey a feeling of stupid adolescent decadence; and the band's being all over the place without firmly indicating where they do belong disorients the potential reviewer into a state of irritated hatred.
But get over it, potential reviewer. So what if these arrogant kids have reduced your precious Joy Division to the sarcastic-vaudevillian framework of a dark rock cabaret? Surely there might be an empty space left for this stuff somewhere on of your empty shelves. And there is really no logic in worshipping Tom Waits, who did much the same thing with his favorite types of music, and despising Bauhaus — who, at least, never took themselves too seriously. In the end, In The Flat Field may not «mean» much, but it is inventive, experimental, catchy, energetic, and fun, right down to the slow build-up (love those suspense-generating tick-tocking keyboards straight out of the local torture chamber) and massive explosion of ʽNervesʼ. Subsequently, I would like to give the album a thumbs up right now, and attempt to explain what particular major changes for the better it introduced to my life later, once I have enjoyed those changes to their fullest.
PS: Any newcomer to the band would do well to pick up the expanded reissue. For some reason, it does not include ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ, but it does include the rest of their early singles, including the brilliant ʽTerror Couple Kill Colonelʼ (dedicated to the murder of Paul Bloomquist, with a delicately crafted folk-pop guitar part from Ash, and with the chorus always misheard by me as «pterodactyl kill carnal», adding even further to the mystery) and the insanely accelerated ʽTelegram Samʼ; also, ʽCrowdsʼ is a romantic piano ballad that should be owned by every admirer of Paul Murphy's (not that I'd ever like to have a hand in convincing anybody to become an admirer of Paul Murphy's, but if you are an admirer, you do have to hear this little Peter Hammill-style depressed confessional), and ʽRosegarden Funeral Of Soresʼ is probably the only song on the entire CD that would indeed be fit for playing at a Goth-themed funeral. (Particularly if you wanted to raise the chances of the deceased person rising from the dead, that is — it is rather painful to have to endure Murphy's hysterical roaring at the end of the initially calm track).
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