Photo : Astrid Edwards
They seemed timeless. They seemed ageless. They seemed detached from the circus and they created a rock n roll that wasn’t rock roll but a space age terror throb that was generations ahead of itself. They had the power and drama of the Stooges but with scuzz electronics – a ghostly nu music that was gripped with fear and claustrophobia and yet listening to it now sounds like the perfect pop they always knew it was. There was just two of them and created a space age and dangerous music that was decades ahead of its time and in many ways remains ahead of time.
Live fast, die old – Alan Vega who died this weekend, was the art rock Elvis from a parallel universe where this kind of music was mainstream – a mainstream the band rightfully felt was theirs but had to settle for ‘highly influential’ and the dread word, ‘cult’ before finally being embraced in the past couple of decades after years of battling against a world that just couldn’t get to grips with them.
Going to see Suicide decades ago was a lonely experience, what there is of an audience , about 20 of of us in a 800 capacity venue, would be entranced by the music. For years they were a best kept secret – a band that a few people loved dearly. A band that changed the way you felt about and listened to music.
There were just two of them on the stage and the throbbing, stripped down music was full of dread and terror and yet it managed to sound futuristic and steeped in the classic at the same time. Their melodies seemed to come from the same big bang as the beginning of rock n roll or the girl groups but had somehow mutated to this enthralling compressed smog of electronic genius. Your body pulsed with Marty Rev’s electro throb and that hissing drum machine – the keyboard was bleeding Stooges style mutoid funk riffs or neo classical sound in the middle distance it was so stripped down and yet so detailed at the same time whilst creating a throbbing bass line for Alan Vega to sing his deceptively sweet croon or his terror dread screams over – it was all at once hypnotising and terrifying.
The pair of them sounded like the biggest band of all time in that parallel universe that we were all heading towards and carried on regardless into their heart of darkness. With his almost homemade and stripped down mini bank of pulsating electronics Marty Rev created that timeless throb that sounded like the power and danger and groove of the aforementioned Stooges compressed into a small box as the electro wizard pressed buttons and stared impassively through his thick black plastic glasses whilst the singer zig zagged across the stage and then off the stage. We would stand at the front watching the psychodrama, hooked into this weird world and baffled by why there were so few people there.
Vega would disappear backstage whilst the electronic pulse built up to a spellbinding cascade only to return for more of his Elvis in dub vocals looking vaguely like Colonel Gaddafi on the twitchiest of magic dust – creative steroids with a brilliant croon charisma that filled the room with an awkward and uncomfortable presence that was utterly captivating. This was the intersection where electronic music met rock n roll – a place where ideas sparked and strange atmospheres were created, a place of possibility and danger and always enthralling and thrilling music.
They looked like the ultimate New York band- like the Ramones, their very image perfectly captured their music. Their photos standing in the broken hearted streets of the then bankrupt New York were somehow perfect – even visually you were pulled into their world and if it’s true that the Ramones were like the gang you wanted to join then Suicide was the 2 piece gang you wanted to join even more – that’s if two people constitutes a gang!
They looked like they had already lived a few lives when they first appeared and the sounded like they had lived even more as they documented the gripping fear and paranoia of the then decaying city in these perfect paranoiac and claustrophobic musical vignettes that created a whole new type of music.
A perfect template for the dread future.
Suicide have gone down in history as one of the key bands but for decades they remained unloved apart from a fierce few, a faithful freak coterie worshipping this curious footnote whose affect on that curious few was so powerful that their ideas and musical adventures were handed into the mainstream by proxy as their ideas were stolen and borrowed by post punk musicians in thrall to the amazing duo. Even the fact that there just the two of them was also unusual at the time before 21st century austerity meant that nearly every band could only afford to be a two piece.
Being influential don’t pay the bills so it had to be celebrated when they finally got the pay off and the new millennium has seen them on an extended lap of honour – going to see Suicide play in the 21st century was to see a band play to huge crowds in festivals – like Iggy and the Stooges the world finally caught up with them in time for them to enjoy the golden glow of success. The last time I saw them was playing a huge stage at Primavera festival where they were the loudest band of the day and were still dealing the beautiful fear.
Suicide are one of the most influential bands in music history. They never have had the ‘big hits’ but their musical DNA and fingerprints are everywhere.
That stripped electronic pulse and their atmosphere of dread is all over post punk, from Soft Cell’s two piece bedsit psychodrama to Sisters Of Mercy’s dark pulse, from Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s lifting of their core ideas to Joy Division’s capturing of their dark heart atmosphere and on into the gothic end of post punk which embraced them first and then on to Steve Albini’s drum machine driven Big Black to even Bruce Springsteen understanding that at their heart lay a brilliant rock ’n’ roll band when he covered their beautiful Dream Baby Dream.
Even my band the Membranes were so in thrall to them that we did our own version of their timeless sound the night after getting beaten up in the streets of Leeds whilst recoding our Kiss Ass, Godhead album.
And it went on. Onto to modern hipster bands and then, of course, their profound affect on electronic music and techno with the then freeing up of music from the tyranny of the guitar and into the never ending possibilities of just what a keyboard and a drum box could do.
The ideas they introduced changed the way people thought about making music. It was the simplicity and that ghostly pulse that made them so jaw droppingly innovative, it was the vast range of ideas and emotional skree they could squeeze from such a simple set up and it was Alan Vega -the ultimate rock star from hell – the beautiful artful king droog and his massive charisma and that beautiful voice that translated all this for us mere earthlings.
The eulogies are now everywhere making it difficult to remember just how confrontational they were when they first came onto our musical radar in the period. It could have been Frankie Teardrop – the song about a very nervous breakdown that got people talking with its deathly banshee screams at the end still the most terrifying screams recorded in rock n roll as Alan Vega lets it all out over that stunning electronic backdrop — it was about as scary as music got as it detailed a very nervous breakdown.
You would think in the middle of punk’s own very nervous breakdown a band like this would have found a ready made home but opinions were very mixed. In the middle of what now seems like punk’s quite conservative love of good old boy electric guitar their keyboard pulse seemed off kilter and out of place when in fact it could be argued that they were the ultimate musical heart and soul of what punk was really about.
The band came over to tour the UK with the Clash – on paper a brilliant piece of booking with the punk band using their support slots to keep pushing forward musically but this was one step too far for the audience and the band was bottled off every night – a real genuine air of danger and dread that showed how provocative and unsettling the band’s music really was.
After that daunting intro going to see Suicide in those days was an interesting experience. There would be a handful of people entranced by their unique and nightmarish vision, their stripped down and stunning music, their futuristic take that was so far ahead of its time. They were ultimate cult band – existing beyond the fringes but making a massive impact on the true believers who finally got to celebrate along with the band when they were finally embraced as the true pioneers that they were.