Suicide [Special]

Like that of so many trail blazing musical pioneers, the career of New York duo Suicide has been a long and bumpy journey. Their confrontational stance, attitude and musical style seemed tailor-made to insult provoke and annoy but with the passing of time many have come to recognise that their work was and still is truly ground-breaking.

Formed in New York in 1970 and initially a conventionally structured band, Suicide consisted of a group of visual artists who had met at a New York gallery and hangout space called Project For Living Artists. The band's fledgling line up included a jazz drummer and a guitarist, both of whom eventually departed leaving Alan Vega (vocals) and Martin Rev (keyboards) to experiment as an unconventional performance art duo.

With fellow artist Andy Warhol and his house band The Velvet Underground inhabiting the same milieu, their influence on the nascent Suicide was tangible. At early shows Rev extracted monotonous metallic drones out of his keyboard whilst Vega clad from head to toe in black leather swung a bike chain that took chunks out of anything that it came into contact with. However such dramatic techniques failed to attract anything approaching an appreciative audience, in fact Suicide's reputation for destruction and confrontation sacred off even the bravest of venue bookers leaving Vega and Rev to retire to their rehearsal space to rethink their approach. It was Martin Rev's purchase of an early second-hand drum machine that inadvertently sparked the next phase of Suicide's career.

The minimal combination of it's chugging repetitive beat when combined with droning keyboards, simple melodies and Vega's effect-heavy, sub rock 'n' roll vocal delivery was a potent mix which they honed during rehearsals and recorded for themselves in 1975. Reappearing to present this new sound during live showcases on bills that included The New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman, the duo were sometimes joined on stage by The Doll's front man David Johansen playing mouth harp, but with their uncompromising sound, lack of anything approaching a proper song and much grittier image than their more 'glam' associates, Suicide failed to elicit favourable responses from even the most potentially appreciative audiences.

Amazingly, the rise of New York's early punk scene did little to improve the fortunes of the band either, despite them playing regular support slots for bands like The Ramones; at the now legendary CBGBs and Max's Kansas City, the reaction of audiences to Suicide was always the same. They were hated with a vengeance. Despite such apparently dismal prospects for success, Max's Kansas City owner Tommy Dean appreciated Suicide enough to include their track "Rocket 88" (later" Rocket USA") on his "Max's Kansas City" compilation of 1976, ensuring that their harsh uncompromising sound travelled further than the clubs of New York city but is was Marty Thau, the former manager of The New York Doll's who really offered Suicide their first break. His Red Star label released "Suicide" (1977), an album recorded in only four hours and wrapped in an unavoidably striking, blood- spattered sleeve that effectively introduced the duo's sound to the rest of the world. The album was a brutally minimal concoction with Rev's heavy throbbing beats, insistent keyboard riffs and amazingly catchy melodies topped by Vega's vocals delivered in a sub-Elvis rock and roll croon through massive amounts of echo and delay. Vega's lyrics had now evolved, honed from their live show chaos into tales of urban isolation and desperation epitomized by the unforgettable deadly depression of "Frankie Teardrop". These more violent aural assaults were offset by tracks like "Cheree", tender ballads of love and longing, that helped create an album unlike any other in its capacity to thrill, move and shock in equal measure. Suicide had truly arrived.

The album's international sales were far from huge but succeeded in attracting the attention of the UK punk scene resulting in Suicide being booked to support The Clash and Elvis Costello on their UK and European tours. Amazingly given the largely open-minded stance of the punk movement, Suicide live was not well received. Their lack of drummer and guitarist was seen by many audiences as an open attempt to insult them, that somehow this duo was not and could never be a 'real' band. As a result, Suicide's appearance was nearly always greeted by a constant rain of phlegm and bottles when ever they took to the stage. Alan Vega had his nose broken during one UK gig an event that would have forced a more timid artist to flee but Vega and Rev had cut their teeth in the performance arts and used any confrontation to stir up their audiences as much as they possibly could, believing that this all added to the unique nature of their show. A cheap tape recorder captured a show in Belgium and preserved the sound of Suicide provoking a full-scale riot just by attempting to play their material during a support slot for Elvis Costello. With each song the crowd audibly become more agitated finally exploding during "Frankie Teardrop" stealing Vega's mike and leaving him to scream "Shut the fuck up! This is about Frankie!" before exiting the stage to boos, catcalls and cheers. This incredible recording eventually saw the light of day as an 'official bootleg' flexi disc entitled "23 Minutes Over Brussels"(1978) and ranks alongside Iggy and the Stooges "Metallic KO" (1976) as a superb document of an act desperately attempting to triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Thankfully there were enough forward thinking individuals within Suicide's orbit to realise that the duo were something completely unique. Amongst them was
Ric Ocasek of The Cars, (a band who were slowly becoming one of the American New Wave's most successful acts) and the influential figures of Englishman Michael Zilkha and Frenchman Michel Esteban, the brains behind ZE, New York's newest and hippest record label. This grouping created Suicide's next release "Dream Baby Dream/Radiation" (1979) which with it's beautifully obsessive tone and lush, repetitive structure, is now regarded as a classic Suicide record. Ric Ocasek's appreciation of Suicide's talent led him to produce their next album, somewhat confusingly entitled "Alan Vega and Martin Rev - Suicide" (1980) but now more helpfully named "The Second Album".

With a big name producer and a session in NYC's famous Power Station Studios, Vega and Rev's sound was almost given a feeling of pop sensibility that is most evident on "Shadazz" and "Sweetheart" but despite being less minimal than it's predecessor the loose rock n roll and crooning was still in evidence particularly on tracks such as "Be-Bop Kid" and the duo were still able to conjure up images of faded glamour and bleak street life in their narratives. Despite critical acclaim the album did not sell well, even somewhat unlikely warm-up spots for The Cars in stadium sized venues failed to win over the massive audiences and as a result Vega and Rev experienced the sound of 15,000 people booing them! Suicide was put on hold and for much of the1980's with both members pursing solo careers. Vega scored an early Top 5 hit in France with "Juke Box Babe" lifted from his 1980 album, "Alan Vega" which he followed with Collision Drive (1981), Saturn Strip(1983), an album that featured work with Al Jourgensen and Ric Ocasek as well as a cover of Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" and Just a Million Dreams (1985). Rev's solo catalogue included "Martin Rev" (1980) and Clouds of Glory (1985).

Suicide re-formed in1988 and to record and release "A Way Of Life" (1989) .Ric Ocasek was back in the produce'rs chair overseeing the sound of Rev's throbbing sequencers and Vega's dramatic vocals telling tales once more. By now the world had begun to realise that as a drummer-less, rhythm machine driven, guitar free duo, Suicide were effectively the world's first art rock synth-pop band and had begun to offer more respect to their stance and sound. Successful duos like Soft Cell were amongst many who claimed that Suicide, both live and on record had made a huge impact on their own music and image. The 1980's also saw a number of live and studio Suicide recordings surface on a variety of labels and both Rev and Vega continued to develop their solo careers before "Why Be Blue"(1992) became Suicide's fourth studio album. To be fair this record did not win them many new fans and even their most loyal followers struggled with the record's more poppy moods.

In 1999 Blast First/ Mute lovingly reissued "Suicide"(1977) and "The Second Album"(1980) in double packs. The first coupled their debut with an amazing live recording from CBGB's in 1977 and the legendary "23 Minutes Over Brussels"(1978). The passage of time had done nothing to diminish the power of these recordings and in a digitally re-mastered form they found a brand new audience. 'The Second Album" came complete with Suicide's own rehearsal tapes from 1975 and full length versions of the "Dream Baby Dream/Radiation" single, allowing listeners to hear for themselves how the duo's sound evolved. Supporting the re-issues with live shows, Vega and Rev played to adoring crowds finally providing proof that Suicide had always been ahead of their time. Their next studio album for Blast First "American Supreme"(2002) appeared ten tears after its predecessor and offered a further development of the distinctive Suicide sound by combining it with newer programming techniques and their own take on the styles of hip-hop. Funk guitar samples, DJ scratching and Rev's electronic noise combined to create a haunting and effective yet rather paranoid record that seemed to catch the unease of it's time, something that Suicide had effectively been doing since their conception.

Today collaborations, group and solo work continue to occupy Alan Vega and Martin Rev 's time. They have finally found acceptance for their truly pioneering work and as a result there is sure to be more Suicide material when they feel the time is right for it. It's been a long journey to this point but Suicide is one of a few musical acts that can truly claim to have altered the landscape along the way.

[Releted links]

Suicide - American Supreme (2002)
Suicide - Why Be Blue (1992)
Suicide - Surrender (1988)
Suicide - A Way Of Life (1988)
Suicide - Alan Vega Martin Rev (1980)
Suicide - Dream Baby Dream (1979)
Suicide - Cheree (1978)
Suicide - Suicide (1977)

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