Slumped in a sofa in the Columbia Hotel, Alan Vega is not quite the swarthy hunkof existential rockabilly perfection he was in his heyday. Jowly features buried beneath a floppy beret, staring into the middle distance through thick shades, his demeanour might be mistaken for the routine catatonia of a still-living rock’n’roll casualty.
In fact, he’s regarding the seemingly endless procession of scraggily attired personnel of Identikit indie Britbands checking in and out of the establishment and huddling in JCR-type packs at the opposite end of the lobby. You can almost smell the fug of retro emanating from their baggy, faded cords. Vega looks upon the masking tape hanging from their guitar cases in despair, like a senior pilot of the future, wondering when these kids are going to break out of the Sixties and Seventies and catch him up in 1998.
Vega’s New York drawl slithers out thick and fast.
“It’s really strange, as we enter the next millennium, computers and electronics are changing everyone’s lives and still they have problems buying into this new music thing. It’s like a fear of going into the next phase. Fear of the next century.
“I did a panel thing recently. I was with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, some rap guy, and the questions at the seminar were – unbelievable. This is the 20th fucking century, man. And this guy was accusing us of being ‘keyboard-minded people’. I mean, what does he want us to do, play fucking ukuleles, or what?”
SINCE DAY ONE, Suicide have been facing the same, Luddite incomprehension from ‘rock’n’roll diehards. On their eponymous debut album, re-released last month on CD, Alan Vega (vocals) and Martin Rev (electronics) brought rock music back to its first principles. Vega’s vocals, all yelps and Presley-style caresses, homed in fixatedly on a ghost-like gallery of rock’n’roll archetypes – a lyrical world of Frankies, Johnnies and motorbikes – while Rev kept up a minimal but relentless backdrop of elemental organ riffs, drum machinery like rapid-fire camera, echoes and sheets of noise like black ice.
‘Ghost Rider’ and ‘Rocket USA’ were motorik, skeletal, hurtling compulsively and unswervingly down an unlit highway into an uncertain future – like the bikers from Easy Rider roaring on into an endless, moonless night. The centrepiece of Suicide, a pitch-black re-reading of rock’n’roll mythology, was the 10-minute ‘Frankie Teardrop’, a hard-luck story in extremis, descending through poverty, murder and remorse into damnation. “We’re all Frankies!” shrieked Vega. “We’re all lying in hell!” Meanwhile, Rev kept up a merciless wash of abstract noise and a rhythm ticking like a heartbeat in an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.
Compared to Suicide, even the likes of Television seemed folksy. As much as hip hop de- and re-constructed the way songs were assembled in the Eighties, so Suicide did in the Seventies. Suicide mainlined to the absolute essence of rock, its heart of darkness, its logical zero point, up its own black hole. Their influence has been colossal and, among subsequent waves of artists, they are utterly revered. It isn’t just all modem techno and electro-pop which flourishes in the shadow of their influence, from Soft Cell and Sigue Sigue Sputnik through to The Chemical Brothers. Pulp and Spiritualized are avowed fans, as is anyone in rock who has achieved intensity not by the familiar route of tried and trusted chord changes, but by the unnerving throb of sheer electro-stasis. They’ve inspired the good, the bad and The Jesus & Mary Chain.
AND HOW WERE they greeted back in 1977, as punk was exploding notions of how rock music could be played? How did those fearless, restless punk audiences greet this ultimate in Back To Basics? They didn’t want to know. Suicide were too much for all but a tiny handful. Their minimalism, in fact, provoked riots among these gobbing reactionaries. They were legendary victims of punk violence when they supported The Clash in 1978 and were greeted with bovine derision by Euro-punks. Even today, their contribution is still largely unacknowledged. Check the rock reference books and four out of five of them will leap straight from Styx to Talking Heads. They’ve been a partnership, on and off, for over a quarter of a century, yet thanks to the blank indifference of the music industry, they’ve only four albums to show for it.
Yet here they are in 1998, brought back together by the good offices of Blast First, with last month’s shows at the Highbury Garage, guesting with Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, and aware that, in some spheres at least, music is at last catching up with them – the future has finally arrived. Anti-nostalgists themselves, they are the ironic beneficiaries of nostalgia.
“Every 10 years we’re rediscovered,” says Vega. “Now, there’s kids getting into us who weren’t born when we started. How the fuck they get hold of the records I’ve no idea, man. Every 10 years they pull us out of the closet, just as we’re thinking of retiring. It’s vindication, I guess…”
SUICIDE FORMED in 1971, when Martin Rev met Vega at a studio complex on Broadway and Waverly, a 24-hour hangout for “junkies, alcoholics, painters, musicians” where Vega was working as an avant-garde sculptor.
Vega was into Iggy Pop, Rev was into Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Rev’s background was in jazz – he’d been trained by the legendary Lenny Tristano – but he’d been interested in the minimalist school of composers, like Terry Riley and Lamonte Young. At the time, such experimentalism was confined to the classical and jazz fringes.
Vega and Rev wondered about applying these principles to rock and began to hang out on the fringes of the post-Warholian New York art-rock scene, experimenting with bizarre sounds, trying to get gigs, dreaming of sounds and arrangements technology was not yet capable of. The principle was simple, if paradoxical – they wanted to “widen rock’s vocabulary by getting rid of the guitar and getting rid of the drums”. But replace them with what? These were the days when a synthesiser was as big as a room. Drum-machines were barely heard of.
Their first gig was at Ungano’s, a venue with a liberal booking policy. Vega did his sculpted Presleyesque vocal thing, Rev accompanied with a keyboard and amp, all fuzz and feedback and a snare drum.
“We thought we were going to be discovered that night,” remembers Rev. “Instead, all three people present flew for the exit.”
It would be five years before anyone would even let Suicide near a studio. In the meantime, they gigged when and where they could, handing out flyers announcing “punk music from Suicide”. But they were bewildered that when Terry Riley played this sort of thing he was greeted with appreciative applause, but when they took it into the rock arena they were faced with at best, stupefaction, at worst, the danger of a busted skull.
“We tested a lot of kids’ basic values,” says Rev, with typical understatement. “When we first started out, it was the industrial age. Not electronic. A world of steel and coal factories, young kids either working there themselves or with parents who were, kids with a lot to get out of their system, and what we were doing was too divergent for them.”
Suicide found themselves caught between the “old” world of The New York Dolls, last glam gasp of the Warhol era, and the gradually burgeoning New York new wave scene as represented by The Ramones, Patti Smith and Television. They coat-tailed in on the pre-punk American movement, hanging out and gigging at the close-knit scene that revolved around Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs.
Finally, with the labels having moved in and picked off every “new wave” act one by one, only Suicide were left unsigned – whereupon Marty Thau, manager of The New York Dolls, moved in and Suicide copped their first recording deal on Red Star.
Suicide wasn’t the only album to tap into a moment of darkness in American history – this was the time of Eraserhead, Pere Ubu and Patti Smith, among others. Recalls Rev, “There was a whole Baudelaire-Rimbaud influence back then. There’d been darkness before – Bob Dylan, Van Morrison had been dark. But America was facing this moment of nothingness.”
It was a moment Joy Division would echo in Britain a year or so later, a moment of economic recession. As Rev says, “New York was strapped for cash and Detroit was on the verge of collapse.” The Sixties seemed a frighteningly long way back in the past, and there was a sense of having to face the future without the security blanket of illusions.
Vega: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We were freezing our asses off, we were starving our asses off, but we all had the feeling that we were creating something that was affecting the world. And everybody got out, man, we’re still here. Ironically, we were the only ones who weren’t doing drugs, with a name like Suicide. There was a lot of acid around – heroin came in bigtime, man. It was this nihilistic thing that was going down. Suicide wasn’t us killing ourselves, it was a social expression: ‘America, America is killing its youth’.”
It was a New York thing. Suicide came to see themselves as catalysts for a sense of impending chaos and doom at large in urban life which manifested itself through violence at their gigs.
“It’s like when R.E.M. covered ‘Ghost Rider’. I saw an interview where they said they couldn’t understand our music – ’til they took a ride in the subway. Then they understood our music, man!”
Yet somehow, feels Vega, this quintessential American subcurrent was denied credit in its own country. “The weirdness of it all was, the Dolls were doing OK, they got to Europe – and then David Bowie copped their whole thing. Then Bowie emerged as a big star in America and so, when the Dolls returned, America didn’t want to know, there was no room for them any more and they actually disintegrated because of that. I tell you, Bowie, man, he never innovated one thing in his life. Then two years later, The Ramones got going, only for The Sex Pistols to become the vision of punk. The idea was now that punk was a British invention. So The Ramones come back to the USA after that and they were never the same force.
“Then Suicide finally get to go to Britain, in 1978. And sure enough, a year or so later, you’ve got this big techno-pop explosion. Soft Cell, who admit to being influenced by Suicide – one guy on vocals, one guy on keyboards. And what happens? Soft Cell go on to sell millions of records, Suicide sell squat. Soft Cell come to America, they’re huge, we come back, nada. To this day.”
By 1980, however, by which time the plastic blue dawn of Reaganism had descended, Suicide’s fortunes took another bewildering aesthetic turn. They toured with American chromium popsters The Cars, whose mainman, Rik Ocasek, enthusiastically agreed to produce their next album – on the Ze label. It was a weird, quantum leap from black to yellow for the band, yet it had its perverse logic. Ze founder Michael Zilker was a maverick, visionary label boss the like of whom is probably extinct today. These days he’s a Houston-based oil millionaire and eco-philanthropist. Back then, he was assembling an unlikely roster that included James Chance, Lydia Lunch, Kid Creole, Material…and Suicide. Avant-pop with hip, cartoon sensibilities seemed to be the vibe.
SUICIDE’S SECOND album, also eponymous, featured as its cover image blood streaming, Psycho-style, down a shower-plug. The back, however, reveals a shapely female limb being shaved – and cut. Razor-sharp irony. After years of impoverishment, hostility and frustration, Suicide were “like kids in a candy store”. The sense of joy and vivacity that courses richly through the minimalist, electronic veins of these tracks is as much their reaction to getting their hands on some decent studio time and a decent budget as anything else. But the barbed electro-opulence of the album – Suicide’s skeletal frame swaddled in fake pop ermine – was a reminder to the British electro-generation (everyone from The Human League to Depeche Mode) of just who had got there first.
After that, however, Suicide drifted apart as Vega suddenly found himself Big In France after a surprise Top Five hit with his solo single, ‘Jukebox Babe’, with guitarist Phil Hawk. Vega was a reluctant pop hero.
“I just wanted to do a one-off rockabilly thing, but it really took off; in fact, it took me all the way through to 1986. But although I was doing well, I actually felt lousy. I wanted Suicide to be enjoying the success.”
Suicide reformed for gigs in 1986, by now acknowledged as progenitors of the post-punk era. Over the next few years, they would become accustomed to periodic revivals as successive generations rediscovered them.
“Every now and then they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel,” Alan Vega once said. “And that’s where they find us.”
Suicide made two more albums, A Way Of Life (1989) and YB Blue (1992), the latter never released over here. Both were reminders of former glories, as the duo solidified into an institution.
CUT TO 1998. As part of their all-year celebration of all things American, the Barbican have invited Suicide to play a 10-minute set in a lobby adjacent to an exhibition of rock’n’roll Harley Davidson motorbikes. It’s a music biz bash, all chatter and free booze, but among the throng are Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, the Mary Chain and the little one in Pulp who looks like Ernie Wise.
This is no decrepit self-parody. Rev is still as cool as outer space in his welder’s goggles, while Vega snogs the mic with his hollers and lacquered vowels. This is a grinding, avant-electronica that digs right into your ear. The faithful love it, others exchange timid, uncertain glances, especially as Vega passes among the crowd. Over 50 and still splitting ’em down the middle.
“Like the man said,” concludes Rev, recalling a favourite review, “Suicide are never going to make the Hall Of Fame, but they’re going to make history.”