Music, Vampire(pop culture)
More than 100 vampire songs appeared in contemporary music in the 1990s, ranging from the superlative to the execrable. Such a spectrum of accomplishment is not surprising, because the same variation occurs in literature, film, and art. What is new and different is the sudden high concentration of rock and roll songs devoted to this subject. No other genre has managed that kind of output.
Perhaps the vampire music trend could be attributed both to the conservative backlash in society and to the fact that rock and roll almost became establishment. When rock tunes began showing up in Muzak, the limits had to be tested further. The few avenues remaining in the antisocial realm were the occult, excessive vulgarity, and nonstandard, bizarre chord changes. Vampires as a musical topic was ripe for picking.
The Vampire in Rock Music: Vampire songs can be separated into five groups: those with obvious vampire lyrics, those obliquely vampiric, those allegedly vampiric, those in which vampires are mentioned, and those found on the soundtracks to vampire films. Obvious lyrics contain references to blood-drinking, the “undead,” nocturnal existence, famous vampires, or other vampire traits. There is no doubt in the listener’s mind regarding the subject at hand. Oblique lyrics are metaphorical, hinting at nocturnal activities, a “victim” being drained, or predatory hunger for another person. Alleged lyrics involve vampires, identified through either the title or some other means; the nature of the music (for example thrash metal or hardcore punk), however, makes it impossible to decipher what is being sung. Songs in which vampires are mentioned have as their main focus something else, often sex, but make references to vampirism. Vampire film soundtracks are often totally instrumental, but occasionally they include a song that falls into one of the other categories.
Vampire Music with Obvious Lyrics: One of the earliest examples of vampire rock comes from the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble’s 1972 album New York Rock and Roll Ensemble (Atco Records). Entitled “Gravedigger,” the song wanders from the gravedigger’s point of view to that of the female vampire and back again. Other than this weakness, the narrative carries nicely, relating the gravedigger’s fascination for the woman entombed: “Her lips are painted red/And it looks like she’s been fed/And there’s a smile upon her face….” Siouxsie and the Banshees were a product of England’s late-1970s punk rock movement. Their angular music is filled with jarring images, and “We Hunger,” from Hyaena (1984, Geffen Records), equates vampires with sucking leeches, rust, corrosion, and rotting seeds—at best a very mixed bag of metaphors. The song is quite direct, employing such phases as “belching foul breath,” “your destructive kiss death” (Siouxsie often slams words together like dancers at a concert), and “the thirst from a vampire bite.” Concrete Blonde’s 1990 album Bloodletting contains not one but three vampire songs. The title cut, also known parenthetically as “The Vampire Song,” sounds as if it was influenced by Anne Rice. References to New Orleans, gardens at night, blood drunkenness, and killing run through the song. The chorus even states, “O you were a vampire and baby/I’m walking dead.” Also on the Bloodletting album, “The Beast” compares love to a vampire and other creatures. Singer-songwriter Johnette Napolitano’s dim view of romance is summed up in these lyrics: “Love is the leech, sucking you up/Love is a vampire, drunk on your blood/Love is the beast that will tear out your heart.” Although superficial, one of the cleverest of vampire songs is “Bela Lugosi‘s Dead” by Bauhaus, from their Teeny album (Small Wonders Records, 1979). The song is a pastiche of verbal and musical images. Even if it hadn’t been used in the opening segment of “The Hunger,” it would still be a vampire song. Here we find black capes back on the rack, bats who have left the bell tower, and victims who have been bled. The opening line of the chorus, “Bela Lugosi’s dead” is immediately followed by the repetitive “undead, undead, undead.” Unfortunately the concept is not developed beyond these scant images. But lead singer Peter Murphy’s deep and plaintive voice creates an eerie aura of otherworldliness that carries the song.
Shockmeister extraordinaire Alice Cooper, the Bela Lugosi of rock and roll, and the singer who virtually began an entire subset of rock and roll devoted to theatrical horror as a concert form, has recorded only two obvious vampire songs to date—“Fresh Blood” on the 1983 Warner Bros. album Da Da, and “Dangerous Tonight” on the 1991 Epic Records album Hey Stoopid. “Fresh Blood” works at an emotional level, with lyrics referring to “a sanguinary feast” and victims dying “of some anemia.” Among the singer’s victims are “showgirls, businessmen in suits in the midnight rain … bad girls and cops on the beat….” A key line is “just detained her and drained her on the spot.” But the music is not up to Cooper’s customarily creepy standard; instead, it rattles along like a skeleton trying to keep up at a dance. By contrast, “Dangerous Tonight” has a menacing blend of elements that add up to an effective threat, and it marked a resurgence for the Master of the Macabre. The music is high-energy heavy metal and the lyrics, “Take another bite/it’ll be alright/what’s wrong will soon feel right/Dangerous tonight” and “take another sip” letting “a little drip on your thigh,” among others, provide a sensuous and snarling serenade.
By sheer weight of numbers, the heavy metal genre of rock and roll has contributed the most vampire songs to the market. On the Metal Blade label, the Houston group Helstar produced a 1989 album entitled Nosferatu. One doesn’t find a more obvious title than this. Nosferatu is a virtual rock opera on Frank Langella‘s version of Dracula (1979). For a speed metal band, Helstar manages some poignant acoustic passages. The songs are punctuated by sound bites of dialogue from the movie.
Helstar’s best song is “Harker‘s Tale,” a thickly woven monologue that follows the original Dracula story only loosely. Harker warns the listener against “the Prince of Hell,” presenting gory details such as, “The host upon his forehead/Then I heard a hellish howl/As it burned into his flesh….” The throng assembled to kill Dracula is instead decimated: “A sea of broken bodies marks the spot/Where he has been/The bloodless cadavers/Here sucked dry of their sins….” Helstar’s “Rhapsody in Black” is a thickly textured statement from a vampire that declares, “I am the dark/That puts the light to shame” and refers to dawn as, “the only enemy/That time has placed on me.” Although uneven at times, Helstar clearly demonstrates poetic inspiration. In “The Curse Has Passed Away” the narrator crawls through “halls of darkness” with a stake to destroy the vampire, referred to as “my feudal tyrant.” We are provided the details lacking in so many other vampire songs: “His body crumbled into dust/Then passed before my sight/Remaining only his cloak and ring by its side/A look of peace not seen before/Upon his face I saw last….” Although not syntactically correct, the lyrics are faithful in detail to Bram Stoker‘s Dracula.
In “To Sleep, Per Chance to Scream” (a pun on a Shakespearean line) there is the crackerjack line, “Eternal youth with one puncture.” Regarding Shakespeare, there is one bit of metaphoric language that occurs in vampire songs that may or may not be deliberately planted. In Shakespeare’s time, “to die” meant sexual consummation. In rock lyrics, the verb “fall” is used in such a way that a similar inference can be drawn. In “Suck It And See,” Grim Reaper sings “I hope she don’t make me fall too soon …” and in “The Beast” Concrete Blonde sings, “The monster wants out of you/Paws you and claws you/You try not to fall….” Given the construction of the lines, almost no other interpretation seems possible.
Grim Reaper’s “Night of the Vampire,” from their 1987 RCA album Rock You to Hell, works at the level of a visceral discovery that some bogeyman does exist after all: “If you think you’re safe at midnight/That’s the last thing you could do/He’ll be looking for that nightmare bite/He could be coming after you.” The chorus, “Night of the vampire, he’s only looking for your life,” misses all of the splendid menace available to the truly inspired.
Perhaps the penultimate vampire rock song is “Blood Banquet,” created by the ludicrously named Mighty Sphincter for their 1986 album New Manson Family on the Placebo label:
I have existed for centuries Living in castles built of your fears And from behind this mortal mask I carry out this deadly task In order to revive myself I plunge into the stream of life That drains into the scarlet seas And holds the red wines of immortality.
Here the vampiric singer summarizes his existence in eight lines. “Living in castles built of your fears” is psychologically insightful, and the last three lines, although they may be metaphorically ungainly, are at least consistently liquid. The singer/guitarist Doug Clark’s dark, rich vocals deliver the song with a delicate balance of ennui and menace.
Vampire Music with Oblique Lyrics: Sting’s 1985 “Moon over Bourbon Street” (Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M Records) was, according to the liner notes, inspired by Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.
More coherent than most other songs in the genre, it is a first-person lament by a night prowler: “I pray everyday to be strong/For I know what I do must be wrong….” The singer is eloquent on his affliction: “The brim of my hat hides the eye of a beast/I’ve the face of a sinner but the hands of a priest….” “Forget Me Not,” from Bad English’s eponymous 1989 Epic Records album, was a well-selected first single release from the band. This one says, “A thousand lifetimes long ago/We made a promise we would not let go/And so I come for you tonight/And we live again before we lose each other….” The scanning is not precise, as in much rock music, but the imagery is vividly seductive. Aside from the vampiric flavor of the lyrics, veteran rocker John Waite’s rendering of the song, full of angst and longing, contributes to its overall impact.
Probably Siouxsie and the Banshees’s finest effort lyrically is “The Sweetest Chill,” from the 1986 Tinderbox (Geffen Records). Here, a vampiric message may be gleaned from references such as “fingers like a fountain of needles/Shines along my spine/And rain down so divine.” Siouxsie’s “Night Shift,” from 1981’s Ju Ju (Polydor), is an awkward and oblique monologue from a male vampire (“a happy go lucky chap/Always dressed in black …”) in what sounds like the local morgue. Once again the point of view wanders from one person to another.
“Sick Things” by Alice Cooper (1973, Billion Dollar Babies, Warner Bros.) is more successful as a vampire song than his “Fresh Blood,” although it is only obliquely vampiric. The lyrics refer to eating and biting, with an appetite presumably for the audience. When he sings, “I love you Things I see as much as you love me,” Alice makes the declaration sound threatening. The song is about feeding off the sickness and derangement of the audience to inspire Alice to even more outlandish behavior and music. Similarly, “I Love the Dead” is more vampiric musically than “Fresh Blood.” “Blood and Roses” by the Smithereens (1986, Especially for You, Enigma) has more going for it vampirically than merely sharing the name of a Roger Vadim film. With lyrics like “I try to love but it comes out wrong/I try to live where I don’t belong/I close my eyes and I see blood and roses,” the song evokes mental images of Phillinon and “Carmilla” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. The seductress in the song can fall in love and get married, but she can’t change her nature enough to quite fit in.
Alleged Vampire Music: Alice Cooper’s “I Love The Dead” (1973, Billion Dollar Babies, Warner Bros.) is a tour de force, opening with a vaguely oriental musical motif and dripping with menace: “I love the dead/Before they’re cold….” The song must be placed in the “alleged” vampire category because a good case could be made for it as a necrophiliac’s rhapsody. Should we choose vampirism, the lines still apply: “While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave/I have other uses for you, darling….” These two lines, central to the skimpy lyric, are not just sung, but delivered to us laden with innuendo. There is a smirking chuckle just before the word “silly,” and the second line is wrapped in multiple meanings, doubtlessly conglomerated from the purring threats of a hundred movie femmes fatales.
“Blood Lust” by Blood Feast, a thrash metal band, can be partially grasped, but “Vampire” is not so much sung as spat and screeched. The group plays at breakneck speed from beginning to end. If there is a point to either of these songs, most listeners will miss it.
Music that Mentions Vampires: Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt Kickers’s” Monster Mash” (initially a number one single from 1962, currently available on Elvira’s Haunted Hits, Rhino Records) was a comedy hit, sung in a Boris Karloff voice. It is a musical cartoon, taking off on the dance crazes of the time. Dracula is referred to three times in the song, lastly as a rival to “Boris”: “Out from his coffin Drac’s voice did ring/Seems like he was troubled by just one thing/He opened the lid and shook his fist and said/‘What ever happened to my Transylvanian Twist’?” Not quite so amusing is the Yugoslavian band Laibach’s, cover version of the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” (1988, Restless/Mute Records). The first verse is sung in a vaguely eastern European accent mimicking Bela Lugosi, in a context in which the words could apply to a vampire as much as to Satan. Beyond that point the accent becomes Russian, appropriate to the “Anastasia” references, and the song takes on political overtones.
Songs from Vampire Movie Soundtracks: Most vampire movie soundtracks consist of loosely connected mood pieces, sometimes extremely tongue-in-cheek. For the most part, moviemakers relied on classical music performed by studio orchestras. “Swan Lake” for Dracula (1931) was the first such instance. The most widely known impression of the vampire—formally attired in evening clothes and elegant cape—arose from theater and movie producers’s need to explain the music. Filmmakers thought that audiences would not understand the rationale for the music unless they were told where it came from. Hence, when Tod Browning made Dracula (1931), “Swan Lake” was established as the main song when Dracula and several of the other main characters spent a night at the ballet.
Innocent Blood provides comedic touches with its soundtrack by concentrating on the music appropriate to the milieu: Italian East Coast Mafia.
Several Frank Sinatra tunes well within the characters’s interests and context are used. From “I Got You Under My Skin” to “That Old Black Magic,” the music provides a sensuous and lighthearted background to the often frenetic images.
“Good Times” by INXS and Jimmy Barnes and “People Are Strange” by Echo and the Bunnymen are two selections from 1987’s The Lost Boys, one of the most popular vampire movies of the 1980s. The theme was one of youth and alienation for two brothers in the “murder capital” of the U.S. The music is theirs, full of hope and disaffection at the same time. “(My Future’s So Bright) I Gotta Wear Shades” by Timbuk 3 (1988, My Best Friend Is a Vampire) is in the same youthful vein, but it takes a lighter approach because the movie is a light comedy.
The songs on the Son of Dracula (1974, Rapple Records) soundtrack have the bouncy sweetness that infected the popular music scene in the early 1970s. “Without You” and “Jump into the Fire” got considerable airplay given their origin on the soundtrack of a vampire film. “Without You” is a poignant song that laments life without a particular loved one. Harry Nilsson sings it, on the edge of weeping: “I can’t live/If living is without you,” and “No I can’t forget this evening/Or your face as you were leaving …. You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows ….” In the movie, Nilsson, as Count Downe, abdicates the throne of the Draculas in favor of his human love, Amber.
Pop diva Mariah Carey released a new version of the song in 1994 that robbed the song of much of its original poignancy.
The soundtrack of Dracula (1979) bears the unmistakable mark of famous conductor John Williams. In several cases, selections could have been used in Star Wars (Williams’s most famous movie score) with the same effect. Williams repeats the theme in several selections.
In literature, vampires are often romantic or at least adventurous beings.
Their lives are far from ordinary. Rock and roll treatments, on the other hand, concentrate on the morbid, without much romance. Intense gore seems to be the thing that gets the most attention.
The New Gothic Movement: A special slice of rock and roll is reserved for the gothic movement. Heir to the classic gothic tradition, mixed with elements from the psychedelic/flower child/rock music subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s, was the gothic counter-cultural movement that appeared in most urban centers of the West during the 1980s. The movement’s origins can be traced to late 1970s musical groups in the United Kingdom. It certainly also had its direct precursors in such bands as Black Sabbath and the punk rock music of the 1970s. Possibly the most prominent of those groups was Bauhaus and the previously mentioned single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” their most popular recording to date. Bauhaus was soon joined by such groups as Siouxsie and the Ban shees, The Cult, The Cure, and The Sisters of Mercy. Together these bands created a variant music called gothic rock or death rock. A circuit of music clubs, most notably The Bat Cave in London, opened to provide a stage for their performances.
Gothic music, as all counter-cultural forms, articulated an explicit nonconformist stance vis-à-vis the dominant establishment. It opposed narrow sexual mores and traditional established religions. High priests, churches, and congregations were replaced with rock musicians, night clubs, and fans. The music celebrated the dark, shadowy side of life and had a distinct fascination with death. Its slow, driving sound was frequently described as melancholy, gloomy, even morbid. Those enthralled by the new gothic culture found the vampire the single most appropriate image for the movement. Both men and women dress in black. Men seem to be perpetuating vampiric images from Anne Rice novels, while women perpetuate what, at first glance, seems to be the persona of Morticia Addams of The Addams Family, Vampira, and Elvira, although some aim for a more Victorian funereal style or a modern vampish look. Vampires, blood and fangs, and bats fill the pages of gothic magazines, whether or not vampirism is discussed.
The movement was especially popular in the early 1980s when it spread to the European continent and throughout North America. By the middle of the decade, however, it showed a marked decline in England. Bauhaus disbanded in 1983, although some of its members reformed as Love & Rockets. Most of the clubs that had provided meeting places for gothic aficionados turned their attention to other new trends in popular music, and The Bat Cave closed. To keep the movement alive when the media announced its obituary, one gothic band, Nosferatu, founded The Gothic Society and the periodical Grimoire, which became the new center of a network of bands and fans. Curve, Rosetta Stone, Mortal Coil, Wraith, and Slimelight joined Nosferatu as bands of the gothic scene.
Even as the movement was suffering in England, it was experiencing the early stages of its emergence in the United States. By 1990, a number of gothic bands traveled a circuit of clubs, and fans kept up with the movement through their own fanzines. Propaganda was the first of the gothic fanzines to hit the newsstands and offer national (and international) coverage to the emerging gothic movement. Founded by “Propaganda Minister” Fred H. Berger, Propaganda provided some structure for “the Underground,” as the new gothic subculture referred to itself. The magazine publicized many gothic bands and personalities and provided advertising space for both gothic records and the variety of clothing, jewelry, and paraphernalia demanded by devoted fans. More recently, it produced two gothic videos, The Trilogy and Blood Countess, the second based upon the life of Elizabeth Bathory.
In 1992, Propaganda was joined on the West Coast by the slick Los Angeles-based magazine Ghastly. The magazine was published by Nosferatu Productions and edited by Tara and Jeremy Bai. More so than Propaganda, Nosferatu Productions markets the gothic subculture through a mail order catalog that includes gothic fanzines, compact disc (CDs) and cassettes, cosmetics, clothing, and even condoms. Nosferatu has also launched two additional periodicals: The Oracle, a monthly newsletter that updates readers on show dates and the latest releases on CD; and The Cabala, a fan networking journal.
The majority of large urban centers in the United States now have at least one nightclub that regularly features gothic music. Many clubs schedule gothic nights once or twice a week and devote other evenings to closely related music such as punk or industrial rock.
A large number of contemporary bands play gothic music. Some of the more well-known are Ministry, Shadow Project, Christian Death, This Ascension, The Shroud, and Death in June. Several bands have adopted specifically vampiric images, including Astro Vamps, Lestat, Neither/Neither World, London after Midnight, and Transvision Vamp. In addition, individual musicians have adopted a stage persona tying them to the vampiric image. They include Eva Van Helsing of The Shroud and Vlad of Nosferatu. Toney Lestat of Wreckage claims to have met the real vampire Lestat de Lion-court, the character featured in the vampire novels of Anne Rice. Toney Lestat adopted his name after Rice made the Lestat character famous.
Through the first decade of the twenty-first century, the goth scene has continued in both England and North America, and to a lesser extent in such places as Australia and Japan. Bands have come and gone, though a few such as Alien Sex Fiend, Inkubus Sukkubus, Fields of the Nephilim, and Rosetta Stone have survived in the highly volatile field. Goth rock still exists, with groups such as the Fields of the Nephilim still active, but both goth rock and the entire gothic scene have markedly declined. Yet, even in the midst of that larger decline, Theatres des Vampires, an Italian gothic metal band, appeared at the end of the 1990s and has specialized in vampire-themed songs through several albums. A new gothic band, Nox Arcana, formed in 2003, released its Dracula homage album Transylvania in 2005. The survival of the vampire theme in goth music is no better illustrated than in the CD collection Vampire Rituals: Gothic Music from the Deepest Depths of Hell (2006), that included cuts from twelve goth bands/artists.
Beyond Rock and Roll: In non-rock and roll genres, there are scant pickings. Perhaps the only modern folk song about vampires is Claudia Schmidt’s “Vampire,” from Midwestern Heart (Flying Fish Records, 1981).
It says: “Far below the world is lying unaware/My soul is crying Vampire. this is my song.” A reasonably good couplet can be found in the song’s last verse: “Life’s not life if you must lose it/Death’s not death if you refuse it….”
The Vampire in Classical Music: Classical music was, from its beginnings, devoted to church-related themes. Until our modern age, musicians were in the employ of church or king, beholden to royal sponsors, and their duties would have precluded experimentation. Gradually, over a period of many years, mainstream classical music lost most of its religious edge. During the early nineteenth century, at the height of the romantic movement’s fascination with the vampire, one German musician, Heinrich August Marschner, wrote a vampire opera, Der Vampyr (1829), one of only two known, the other being Lamia, by August Enna, first performed in 1899 in Brussels, Belgium.
The nineteenth century saw the development of the “tone poem,” which is programmatic in content—there is a subject depicted by the music—though it was never as popular a form as the symphony or the concerto. Among programmatic works, a few dark subjects emerged, but only a few. Hector Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” (1830) concludes with a witches’s sabbath. Much of Berlioz’s work was a radical breakthrough for its time. Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” (1861) is based on a simple folktale in which the devil grabs a violin at a village dance and plays seductive melodies. In Saint Saens’s “Danse Macabre” (1874) death plays the violin as skeletons dance at midnight.
The revels end at dawn. Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (1877) evokes Halloween night, when evil spirits are free to roam (immortalized in Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia). The mountain in question is Mt. Triglav, near Kiev in the Soviet Union; the action occurring on St. John’s Eve (or Midsummers Eve, June 23rd) and Mussorgsky explained it as describing “a subterranean din of unearthly voices.” Once again, the evil celebration disperses when dawn breaks.
Through the first decade of the twenty-first century, several notable trends could be noticed in vampire-related music. First, the great output of this music as seen in the 1990s has passed. Vampire-themed songs continue to appear but at a significantly reduced rate. Second, most of the gothic bands that developed a vampire persona no longer exist and the few that do seem to have moved beyond goth rock into new and evolving forms of music appearing in the rock scene. Quite apart from the goth scene, there are several rock bands that have adopted a vampire persona (Vampire Weekend, Vampire Moose), but are not doing vampire-themed music.
Even as gothic rock declined, several large musical productions built around Dracula appeared. The decade began with the release on VHS of Richard Ouzounian’s Dracula: A Chamber Musical (1997), originally produced to celebrate the Dracula Centennial. Two years later, the Winnipeg Ballet staged a production of Guy Maudin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin Diary (2002), which was soon after released on DVD. Additional productions include: Sergei Kvitko’s Dracula (CD, 2005) written for the Riverwalk Theatre’s production of the play, Dracula; “Dracula Opera Rock,” by PFM, the music for a rock opera version of “Dracula” staged in Rome (2006); and the music by Christopher J. Orton for the off-Broadway musical Dracula (released on CD in 2007). Pierre Henry, a French composer known for his pioneering efforts with electronic music, also released his Dracula album in 2003.
As a matter of course, a number of Dracula and vampire movies produced worthy sound tracks. Among the more notable: the new sound track produced for the 1922 film Nosferatu by Type-O-Negative for a 2007 re-release of the movie on DVD, and the new compositions written by Philip Glass in 1999 for the 1931 Dracula.