My comic book fantasy
Oh, I love you
Shut the door, baby
Oh, I love you
Oh, come play with me
Homework exercise*: Take the above lyrics, all fairly lovey-dovey sunshine and flowers-y and without affecting a comedy accent, deliver them in a manner both simultaneously as horny, ethereal and as menacing as hell, all above a tinkling frothy nest of keyboards, anchored by a rudimentary clapped-out beat. If you can manage that convincingly then you are probably, maybe, definitely Alan Vega and therefore, as of yesterday, dead. True story. Sorry.
Chalk up another 1537 icon to 2016. I don’t think music gets much better or more thought-provoking than Suicide, their eponymous 1977 debut LP. After enduring many years worth of unworthy ‘Ghost Rider’ covers I finally cracked and bought Suicide 13 years ago, listened to it and cracked again – infinitely for the better. Hailing from an art and performance background Suicide had been around for roughly 6 years before the duo were given 4 days to cut their debut LP by Red Star Records, co-produced by Craig Leon and, record label owner, Marty Thau, using echoing and delay techniques the former picked up during a Lee Perry session with Bob Marley.
Martin Rev, clad in mantis-like big (BIG!) shades was the still, enigmatic keyboardista – his early love of avant-jazz, now channelled through and/or subordinated to a rhythm machine. Vega on the other hand, was just credited on Suicide as ‘Voice’, and oh, what a voice it was too. Vega was a unique presence, Elvis, Gene Vincent and a thousand overly melodramatic cabaret singers rolled into one, the 1950’s channelled through 1970’s instrumentation out through the wide blue yonder into the 1990’s – it was unique, ground-breaking stuff; no wonder everyone loathed them. Confrontational as fuck live, Vega met violence head-on, cutting himself up on stage in front of a hostile CBGBs crowd when supporting the Ramones and having an axe thrown at him supporting the Clash in the UK, yup they were that popular then.
Mostly and ironically, this was due to their rejection of punk orthodoxy – no drums, guitars, 1-2-3-4s and shout-it-out choruses, just keyboards, emoting and confrontational psychodrama; proper art, if you will. Take ‘Ghost Rider’, which is about as rock and roll as Suicide ever got. A fast three note keyboard bass line, an equally speedy five note figure played over the top and an eerie, disconnected vocal moaning strange truths,
Ghost Rider motorcycle hero
Baby, baby, baby he’s a lookin’ so cute
Ridin’ around in a blue jumpsuit
Ghost Rider motorcycle hero
Baby, baby, baby he’s screamin’ the truth
America, America’s killin’ its youth
You want nihilism and alienation? step right up!
‘Rocket USA’ is the Cold War-era cousin of ‘Rocket 88’ and we’ve lurched away from cruising for chicks to ‘Riding around in a killer’s car / It’s 1977 / Whole country’s doing a fix / It’s doomsday, doomsday!‘. Look beyond the instrumentation and focus in on the structures and we’re right back into the 50’s. Which for me is the whole essence of punk in a nutshell, a sloughing off of the superfluous accretions of the 60’s and 70’s in an attempt to return to that first true moment when teenagers stuck that wet knitting needle of excitement into the electric socket of rebellion – that jolt of lightning that all decent up-tempo music has tried to recapture ever since**.
Suicide gets all misty and menacing with ‘Cheree’ next, a totally sublime moment in their canon. In its’ ambiguities and melody you can virtually hear whole genres and scenes being born. Listening to it five times in a row, like I just have, is a lot like being gored to death by a unicorn, near a beautiful waterfall. My 1999 reissue copy of the album fuckwittedly follows ‘Cheree’ with ‘Cheree (Remix)’. Why do that? The remix is rank too, just sounding like the original heard through a closed bathroom door; but I wasn’t very disposed to like it anyway. ‘Johnny’ is pure rock and roll, transposed for primitive keyboards and the whistling of a jet engine, all PVC leather jackets and flick combs.
Now ‘Girl’ isn’t a track I’d paid too much attention to before tonight but with its Manzarek-style organ rolls and Vega’s decidedly fruity delivery, it has got me feeling a little hot under the collar and a bit restless down the, umm, produce aisle. True story. This is definitely nihilism you could romp to and Mr Vega gives a bit of growl, to good effect.
All of which just sets me up nicely to ‘Frankie Teardrop’, the one track from Suicide that I’ve never loaded up onto my Guy-pod. Why? well because I’m just the type of lame-ass liberal quitter that doesn’t want to face up to the harrowing tale of a desperate man killing his wife, baby over economic ruination, on my way into/after a hard day’s work. Think ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ to the power of ten and you’re just about there, South Dakota ’64 ain’t got nothing on NYC ’77.
Frankie put the gun to his head
Frankie’s lying in hell
We’re all Frankies
We’re all lying in hell
What the above doesn’t tell you is just how fucking harrowing ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is. ‘Screams‘ is all very well to write as a sound affect, but listen to Alan Vega here and you hear a man who’s very mortal soul is being flayed from his body, in tiny increments. 10:26 of this hurts. It is a hell of an artistic achievement, possibly the most notable on Suicide but one I’ll pass on, thanks if it’s all the same to you*^. It overshadows the dark, disillusioned ‘Ché’ almost completely, which is a shame as Martin Rev’s delicately descending declension is remarkable, underneath Alan Vega’s matter-of-fact vocals.
The reissuers strike again on my 1999 copy of the LP, rallying it to a climax, with ‘Keep Your Dreams’ and I don’t mind at all (this time). It’s a surprisingly perky exhortation to keep dreaming the dream, a gentle synth-pop comedown without any Frankies in sight, it is quite literally a decade ahead of its time, at least. Long time Suicide fan Bruce Springsteen^* covered it as ‘Dream Baby Dream’ and included it on his High Hopes LP.
All of which, with glorious Technicolor 3D hindsight has placed Suicide on most lists of classic or notable LPs, usually cited as the moment that showed you can be punk without guitars – in fact reputedly Suicide were using the word ‘punk’ as far back as 1970 on their flyers. It all amounts to one of those revolutionary moments that nobody saw coming and barely anyone noticed at the time, so sit back and pull the pin on this particular grenade of negativity.
Alan Vega – R.I.P.
*For extra 1537 grade credits.
**1537 does not advocate ever sticking wet knitting needles, or indeed dry ones, into electric sockets, ever. Even if you are trying to jump-start a rock and roll kick, don’t prove Darwin right – you’d upset a lot of fundamentalist types.
*^Lou Reed once said he wished that he’d written it. There aren’t many tracks you could add to Berlin, to make it even less listenable for me, but …
^*check out Will Hermes, brilliant book, Love Goes To Building on Fire for the gory details.