Suicide - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The music of the prophetic NYC duo Suicide has inspired countless others, but Suicide still occupies a territory wholly its own. A drum machine, an enormous keyboard drone from Martin Rev, and the rockabilly street punk croon of Alan Vega create the minimal, layered sound of Suicide’s classic work. Suicide’s recorded work also has a psychedelic aspect, using the heavy echo of dub reggae as well as a variety of effects that manipulate the tone of Rev’s synthesizer drones and chord patterns.
Vega and Rev met at the Project of Living Artists, a publicly-funded space dedicated to radical art and politics in Manhattan toward the end of the 1960s. Keyboardist Rev led a ten-piece improvisational jazz-rock group, Reverend B; Vega, a visual artist who experimented with sound, was enthusiastic about contemporary avant-garde rock bands the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the Silver Apples. The two formed Suicide in 1970 with guitarist Cool P, who left the band after its first few performances. In the band’s earliest formation, Vega would sing and alternate between guitar and trumpet, while Rev switched between drums and keyboards.
By 1972, Vega and Rev’s roles were more clearly defined. With a keyboard (sometimes two) run through effects to a bass amplifier, Rev produced a pulsing, distorted drone, punctuated sometimes with beats on a snare drum or cymbal he hit with his free hand, though a drum machine provided the beat as soon as the band could afford one. Vega, in a black leather jacket with the word SUICIDE emblazoned on the back, prowled through the crowd as he sang in a voice that could take the shape of a rockabilly croon or a hair-raising scream. Vega’s confrontational actions at 1970s Suicide shows are now legendary: he would perform on the floor of the venue swinging a motorcycle chain; he would cut himself and beat himself in the face with the microphone until he bled; he would climb on patrons’ tables, screaming, crying and smashing their cocktail glasses. If he sensed an audience member trying to leave the room during a Suicide performance, he would rush up to the person and block him or her with the microphone stand.
The music and Vega’s extreme performances did not endear the group to local club owners. Starting in 1972, Suicide played a number of shows alongside the New York Dolls and Wayne (Jayne) County at the Mercer Arts Center, though the engagement ended with the venue’s collapse in 1973. The band played at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB in the mid-seventies, but despite Suicide’s growing notoriety in the NYC underground, bookings were few, Rev and Vega were broke, and no record label expressed interest in the band until former New York Dolls manager Marty Thau signed them to the new Red Star Records label in 1977. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Suicide’s career is that the band persisted in these circumstances from 1970 to 1977.
Suicide (Red Star 1977, Mute 1997) was Suicide’s first release, aside from an acetate single (“Rocket USA” b/w “Keep Your Dreams”) the band pressed up for the Max’s Kansas City jukebox. The tone of Rev’s keyboard transforms the fifties rock’n’roll lines he plays into something futuristic, adding drones, delay and bursts of noise that dramatize Vega’s street narratives. Until the hell-harrowing 10½-minute “Frankie Teardrop,” Vega holds back his scream, singing with a focus and restraint that communicate by understatement; he sings as if in a trance, possessed by himself and his own desires. Vega’s controlled singing contributes as much to the air of dread in the doom-prophecies “Ghost Rider” and “Rocket USA” as Rev’s beat. On the ballad “Cheree,” Rev adds delicate touches of piano that give the song an eerie Roy Orbison quality. “Johnny” and “Girl” state the themes of fifties rock in a new context, namely the wasteland of the present.
Like Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Frankie Teardrop” tells a true story about a man driven by poverty to kill his family and then himself. Dylan’s song describes the murder-suicide he saw in the newspaper in the terms of a folk ballad, vividly picturing the circumstances of Brown’s misery before, in the second-to-last verse, respectfully describing the killing from outside the cabin where it takes place: “Seven shots ring out / Like the ocean’s pounding roar.” “Hollis Brown” ends mysteriously with the birth of “seven new people” taking the place of the seven dead, and leaves you to imagine the fate of these newborns. Dylan’s song is heartbreaking, but the form of it gives the tale a narrative that feels ancient and Biblical — the form of the story is familiar and comforting, even if the story itself is not. The lyrics of “Frankie Teardrop” avoid metaphor as much as possible, describing the crime in the simplest words Vega can find— “Frankie can’t make it / cuz things are just too hard / Frankie can’t make enough money / Frankie can’t buy enough food”— and the drama of the song is all in the performance rather than the writing. Vega doesn’t deliver the lyrics as if they fit any conventional form, and “Frankie Teardrop” is so shocking and frightening in part because the listener does not know when Vega is going to open his mouth to sing or shriek. Vega presides over the killing like a voodoo priest; the terror with which Vega describes Frankie shooting his six-month-old child, his wife, and then himself comes disturbingly close to ecstasy. Followed by “Che,” a haunting dirge for the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, the cruelty of “Frankie Teardrop” takes on an agitprop dimension. Suicide’s reputation as a masterpiece continues to grow.
In 1978, Suicide went to Europe to open shows on Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ tour, followed by a number of shows opening for the Clash. Suicide’s performance in Brussels (released as 23 Minutes over Brussels) ended in a riot. Clash audiences were particularly hostile to the band: in Crawley, a skinhead climbed onstage and broke Vega’s nose; in Glasgow, an audience member threw an axe at Vega’s head that narrowly missed. Many UK musicians who saw Suicide on this tour cite it as a formative experience.
Suicide went into the studio with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, an admirer of the band, in late 1979. Suicide’s second album, initally released as Alan Vega / Martin Rev (Ze Records 1980) and reissued as The Second Album (Mute 1999), makes use of Rev’s new equipment, and chooses from a more diverse palette of tones than the band had on its debut; Rev’s music takes on an orchestral quality. Ocasek’s production clears away the sadistic, claustophobia-inducing echoes of Suicide, and the result is something like a more soulful, American version of Kraftwerk’s motorik. The Second Album celebrates New York life. “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” sounds like early Kraftwerk-derived hip-hop. “Mr. Ray” evolved out of “Sister Ray Says,” a Suicide song that referenced the Velvet Underground’s classic “Sister Ray;” in the studio, with lyrics about an Inspector Ray who had hassled the band on its European tour, it found a heavier beat. The live version of “Harlem” on Half Alive (ROIR 1981) sounds like the aggressive industrial noise of Throbbing Gristle, but the understated album version sounds like dance music from fifteen years in the future. “Be Bop Kid” returns to the futuristic Gene Vincent sound of the debut’s “Johnny.” “Las Vegas Man” pairs an Enoesque, ambient Rev tune with Vega singing as Elvis’s ghost, lost in Las Vegas. “Shadazz,” about a revolutionary soul sister who comes to Earth from the Andromeda Galaxy, is one of Suicide’s most seductive sci-fi fantasies.
“Dream Baby Dream,” initially released as a 12” and included on the Mute reissue of The Second Album, may be Suicide’s best-known and most-beloved song. Bruce Springsteen, who dropped by the studio during the recording of Suicide’s second album, peformed “Dream Baby Dream” live on pump organ during his 2005 tour. The song is Suicide’s take on the most basic rock and roll chord progression, one-four-five, which Rev plays as a grand, Bach-like theme. “Dream Baby Dream” is an affirmation of life, delivered in a 1981 performance on Ghost Riders (ROIR 1986) with a warning that your dreams will be all you have when we are all put in concentration camps.
Suicide opened for the Cars at large venues in 1980 and were repeatedly booed. Half Alive (ROIR 1981), initially cassette only but since issued on CD and vinyl, is half live performances, half early Suicide recordings (“Speed Queen,” etc.). Alan Vega’s first solo album, Alan Vega (Ze 1980), casts Vega as the singer of a rockabilly band. The single “Jukebox Babe” was a surprise hit, and Vega pursued a solo career that took him to Elektra Records during the mid-eighties. Rev also released solo records, mostly instrumental, starting in 1980. Suicide was inactive between 1982 and 1987, the year the band entered Electric Lady Studios with producer Ocasek to record A Way of Life (Chapter 22 1988, Mute 2005). A Way of Life is similar in mood to Suicide’s first album, though its sonic textures are those of crisp, digital ‘80s production, as befits a well-recorded 1988 album, and Rev’s keyboard sounds are funkier and more diverse. Futuristic rock’n’roll is summoned up again on “Jukebox Babe ‘96” (“Illegal Alien is my name,” Vega sings, accurately predicting the feelings of many Californians in 1996) and the lovely “Surrender,” a four-chord slow dance somewhere between Roxy Music and Doc Pomus. “Rain of Ruin” is a Rev industrial-metal tune accompanying a Vega prophecy: video images of violence and degradation are everywhere, “future teens” run homeless and hungry through the streets among con men trying to rip them off, and “sufferin’ collides with the sunrise, sunrise.” “Sufferin’ in Vain” is in its way a blues as perfect as the Rolling Stones doing Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed, and “Dominic Christ” is a parable of a modern-day NYC street Jesus who can’t even get a cigarette from passersby.
In the following years, Suicide released a new studio album about once every decade, though Rev and Vega have been prolific as solo artists. Suicide’s fourth studio album Why Be Blue (Brake Out 1992, Mute 2005) establishes a pattern in Suicide’s output that crudely oversimplifies the differences between their albums but that seems to exist nevertheless: a terrifying album of claustrophobic music and prophecies of universal doom (Suicide, A Way of Life) is followed by a celebratory “pop” album (The Second Album, Why Be Blue). Why Be Blue, with its heavy phase effect changing the tone of Rev’s keys in rhythmic loops, sounds akin to the ecstatic acid house music popular at the time. It is a good, satisfying psychedelic pop album that stands alone in Suicide’s catalog as a recording that sounds more or less in step with its time. In 1994, Henry Rollins’s 2.13.61 published Vega’s Cripple Nation, a collection of writing, images and selected lyrics from Suicide and Vega’s solo recordings.
American Supreme (Mute 2002), with its black-and-white cover photo of an American flag, seemed to reflect the atmosphere following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. “If the [World Trade Center] towers had toppled,” Vega says, rather than come straight down, as they did— “they might have hit my building.” The album opens with “Televised Executions,” a song as brutal and oppressive as the title suggests. Rev creates a stuttering, frantic hip-hop collage as Vega cries out through miles of echo. Rev and Vega’s production give the album’s sound a clarity and proximity Why Be Blue lacked. Vega depicts a national landscape of corpses, and people who look and act like walking corpses, with unrelenting images of sadism, as Rev creates tension with unrelenting nightmare funk vamps. Once again Vega summons the incantatory power of a voodoo priest— even his gasps for air on “Wrong Decisions” sound lustful. People who complain that American pop has produced no jeremiads of real power and authority since September 11th, 2001 have not listened to American Supreme, an album as singular and as full of hellfire as Suicide.
Suicide continues to perform occasionally, though Vega has expressed a distaste for long tours. Suicide live 1977-1978 (2007), a limited edition six-cd box set available by mailorder from Suicide’s UK label, Blast First, represents live shows in NYC and on the band’s riotous 1978 European tour.