History Lessons: Suicide (AU Magazine, Issue 57)
November 9, 2009, 3:04 am
Filed under: Features | Tags: , ,


Words_John Calvert

“When the Jews were shipped off to the concentration camps, to Dachau, Auschwitz or Treblinka, they would arrive and there would be a beautiful station and they looked like quite nice places. But then they’d walk past the nicely painted walls through a door right into hell. And that’s exactly what Marty and I were doing with Suicide: we were giving them Treblinka”.

Speaking with the Jewish Chronicle in 2008 Alan Vega provides an all too fitting metaphor for Suicide’s incomparably sinister sound. It’s this limbo, these tranquil auditoriums at the gates of hell, that the duo’s avant electro-pop seems to emanate from. Suicide’s visionary stand was to entomb Rockabilly’s benign vitality in a petrified futurism. Thusly they imbued the semiotics of 50’s America, the country’s very own ‘nicely painted walls’, with an unshakable sensation that all was not well, like how nursery rhymes are creepy. If you listen closely, place an ear to the door, you can hear it in the deadened mechanistic functionalism of Marty Rev’s primitive drum machine and Farfisa organ; the muffled horrors of industrialised mass murder, but by Suicide’s approximation the victims were America’s youth, systematically culled in Vietnam or alienated and victim to the wretchedness of blue-collar slavery. Then, the door would occasionally be wrenched from its hinges, with terrifying results.

It was down to Suicide that music became, for a brief period in late-seventies New York, the preserve of the shock artists – diasporas from the normalizing Soho Art scene and an insufficiently radical Punk scene. Prefiguring No Wave’s extremist art-sleaze were Martin Reverby, a free-jazz buff and lapsed classical musician and Alan Vega a former-Physics student turned installation artist. Who, after meeting in 1974 in a gallery managed by Vega, formed Suicide in the very bowels of the city, to preface both No wave and laterally CBGBs-era Punk. Both a pre and post punk entity.

Whether Punks drawn to the band for its nihilistic-sounding name or perhaps simply leisure-drinkers in the wrong place at the wrong time, bewildered patrons found themselves stooges implicated in a perverse Dadaist prank, only funny if you’re Charles Manson, or Alan Vega. In his mission to jolt the audience from their apathy, while Marty Rev mooched in the background in sci-fi shades, Vega was known to wield a motorcycle chain. With no guitars, drum kit or traditional/punk vocals, the initial confusion evolved into rage in the face of Vega‘s refusal to break character or Rev’s utter indifference. Vega told the New Yorker in 2002: “If we were the future, it was a future that nobody wanted…there was nothing about us that was familiar”.


In the course of their ephemeral existence they would face bottles, lit cigarettes, police tear-gas and on one occasion an axe launched squarely at Vega’s head. These scenes were documented on the many CD reissues, including the startling ‘23 minutes over Brussels’ in which a support slot for Elvis Costello descended into anarchy when Belgian skinheads turned on the duo. “[The act] pushed me to the edge of a nervous breakdown” admitted Vega years later, “We had a reputation as the band everyone loved to hate, and I kind of enjoyed that. But there were times when we thought we were insane”. It was on experiencing a Stooges show in 1970, with Iggy stabbing himself with broken drumsticks, that Vega witnessed up close the power of self-abasement. “It showed me you didn’t have to do static artworks, you could create situations, do something environmental. That’s what got me moving more intensely in the direction of doing music”.

It was an environment generated with the bare minimum of information. Taking their cues from the reductive compositions of Phil Glass, Suicide’s minimalist aesthetic comprised of two components. Firstly, there was Alan Vega’s cadaverously reverbed vocals that often glitch-ed with a close delay, as if transforming him into a human electrical current, predating Kraftwerk’s man-as-machine shtick by about a year. Rather than the German’s tech-fetishism, however, the chilling modulations recalled Marx’s depiction of the proletariat as flesh extensions to the factory machinery. The reverb effect, traditionally used to create the illusion of space or replicate the invigorating atmospherics of a live venue, somehow become in Vega’s hands a mechanism for triggering a claustrophobic response, the oppressive sensation of being trapped, boxed in with the murmuring ghost of Elvis, in a two by six foot chamber.


Kill Your Idols: The No-Wave, Bowery summer 1978: Harold, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman. Photo © GODLIS

Alloyed with Vega’s vocals was the electronic–hydraulic hypnotism of Martin Rev’s drum machine and locked trajectory organ. With aimless repetition and the absence of narrative comes a mood of despondency and desolation, the needling whirr of Rev’s scuffed kit speaking of obsession, monomania, of madness and a lurking evil. From one track to the next, the Roland CR-68 would swish, ripple and wheeze, hiss or throb, but with an interminable certainty it never diverts its focus. Inducing what John Cale described as the state of ‘hyper-alert oblivion’ that was activated by the Velvet’s monomorphic whiteness, similar to night terrors. An even more appropriate analogy is provided by Keith Levene and his description of P.I.L’s avant-funk as ‘like looking at a white wall, if you keep looking at it for five minutes you’ll see different patterns appear; different colours, right before your eyes.’ Rev’s ‘burden’ device was closely aligned with the ideas of auto-destructive art movement, of which they were dedicated followers. Point 5 of Gustav Metzger’s manifesto stipulates that ‘Auto Destructive Art should re-enact the obsession with destruction, the pummelling which individuals and masses are subjected to.’ In David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) Joseph Merrick dreams of the churning apparatus of Victorian industry, masticating human spirit and transmogrified to resemble the elephant that trampled his Mother. An example of the many aesthetic bloodlines it’s possible to trace between Suicide and the psychological milieu explored by Lynch.

Akin to Lynch, Suicide’s work has its closest relative in Pop Art. In Laymen’s terms the art of manipulating pop-iconography with all its charged associations, in order to derive new meaning or expose subliminal directives. While Warhol revelled in the kitsch democracy of mass-production and the dreamy imagery used to sell product, Suicide saw an unintended wickedness ingrained in conformist America’s veneer, and duly exploited it. Specifically in the setting of 50’s Pop and it’s bizarre rhetoric that repeatedly juxtaposed asexual love, the dream-state, death and the concept of eternity. In Suicide’s headspace the great open road of American mythology ends in a back basement on the LES and all the good-time teens have been slaughtered in Warhol’s ‘Red Car Crash’.

If Pop Art was an ageing concept by the mid-seventies, the mode of communication was nothing if not futuristic. Produced by Craig Leon, Suicide’s self-titled debut was more exotic than a thousand hours of Prog fantasia. There’s the proto-ambient shimmer of ‘Cheree’, the denatured Bebop of ‘Girl’, Vega’s numb incantations on ‘Che’, ‘Johnny’’s Sci-fi Surf Rock and the keynote ‘Ghost-Rider’. Long since returned to his Mother in a body-bag, he stalks the back roads “looking so cute” and all the while he’s “B-b-b-b-beep screaming the truth / America America is killing its youth”. Positioned at track 6 is Suicide’s hopeless, punishing masterpiece ‘Frankie Teardrop’. About that door..

Famously described by critic Emerson Dameron as “one of the most terrifying, riveting, absurd things I’ve ever heard”, Frankie Teardrop narrates the tale of a murder-suicide, the perpetrator a beaten-down factory stiff. Frankie’s working ‘Seven to Five / just trying to survive’ and so: ‘Well Frankie’s getting evicted/ Frankie’s gonna kill his wife and Kid’. It is Suicide’s most deranged moment and their most explicit plea to the establishment for mercy, for which Rev saved his most insidious sound – a stultifying pulse, like a robot’s heartbeat, or the pressure of Frankie’s unendurable working day. Vega’s method enactment, seemingly spasmodic and random, disguises a bravura exercise in mounting panic, orientated around the nagging refrain ‘Let’s hear it for Frankie’; Vega turned Zombie-Quiz show host. The vocalist’s trick of ruminating minutely adrift of the beat replicates a modern world gathering speed, out of time and hurtling towards cataclysm. It also has the effect that no matter how many times you listen to Frankie Teardrop its difficult to anticipate Vega’s awful screams, signalling respectively the murder of Frankie’s infant, his wife‘s demise, Frankie’s suicide and worst of all, what The Guardian’s Garry Mulholland called “the greatest scream ever unleashed in music’s name“: Frankie’s pained howl on entry to hell. Vega uses his final transmission, faltering amidst a swirling vortex in Satan’s refinery, to tell us that ‘We are all Frankie’s….We are all lying in Hell”. Featured as no. 14 in Nick Hornby’s ‘31 songs‘, Hornby confessed that “I didn’t even listen to it to write this (I didn’t feel the need, believe me the memory is still vivid), I just don’t want to be terrified by art anymore.”

Their second eponymous release was an attempt to deliver the pop dues promised by Rev pretty melodies. As a consequence the synthesizers that before were cyclical and banal were annotated with chirpy embellishment that served to leaven the intensity. Still, many incidences of Punk subversion remained with the languorous watercolour tone of ‘Dream Baby Dream’ distorted when Vega affixes ’Forever’ to the refrain; a sugared euthanasia pill.

The duo parted ways in 1980 with the advent of Vega’s solo outing and his French chart hit. ‘Jukebox Babe’. Reforming for the first time since The Way of Life in 1988, 2002’s ‘American Supreme’ offered a morbid opportunity to see how the still-fresh pain of a violated Manhattan Island might be assimilated into Suicide’s demonic circuitry. Vega resumed his preoccupation with the American death machine whilst Rev dabbled in Techno and bizarrely hip-hop scratching, flourishes that couldn’t smother the typically ominous tone or Vega’s imagistic brilliance. Irrevocably lost to history, though, was Suicide’s volatile live act, now formal affairs attended by desensitised hipsters or converted muso’s. Bereft of a cowering audience or airborne axes, their sets became PTA-meetings in celebration of a relic. It was a sad defanging of the world’s most surgically effective Punk band, who without resorting to adolescent chagrin or The Clash’s brand of literal, vindicated sermonising, concocted a short-hand for fear, of a nation in pain.

Original Side-bar

We Are All Frankies: Suicide’s Legacy

Bruce Springsteen

Vega’s depictions of spectral youth were hugely influential on the haunted sparseness of ‘Nebraska’, as evidenced in ‘State Trooper’ with its Vega-esque shrieking. Regularly finishes his sets with ‘Dream Baby Dream’.

Soft Cell

Relocated Suicide’s conceptual sleaze to London’s gay West End, so that the synth-duo might document the illicit thrills and sad realities of neon-soaked Soho.

Jesus And The Mary Chain

In thrall of Suicide’s commandeering of pop innocence, the gothic miserable-ists used nuclear feedback, reverb-drenched vocals and a touch of Vega‘s eroticism, in a twisted pastiche of fundamental Rock’n’Roll.


No Wave revivalists. Jettisoned disco-punk for a second album foray into abrasive, unsettling electro-minimalism, produced by Williamsburg godhead Dave Sitek.


Suffused their sound with Suicide’s eerie ironies, the synth-flecked melancholy evoking a deadened Golden Age, made even more poignant in the context of the Sheffield’s faded glory.

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