Suicide: A Punk Mass: Barbican Theatre, London – review
Astrid Edwards reports back from a unique show paying tribute to the Suicide’s indelible influence on the musical landscape, with Alan Vega and Martin Rev, aka Suicide, performing classic material, new work, and collaborations with some famous fans.
Around two months ago I saw an announcement in passing – Suicide: a Punk Mass ‘tickets on sale now’ as part of Doug Aitken’s 30 day Station To Station residency at the Barbican Centre. This felt a bit like the heart-poundingly bonkers premise of seeing Iggy Pop and Motorhead on the same bill as part of a past Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall. Neither should have worked but ended up being a totally visceral and thrilling thing.
So I felt a rather inexplicable and instinctive rush of urgent panic right there and booked tickets immediately. The truth is I had no idea what to expect and then I forgot about it.
Fast forward to last Thursday. Tube strike, a scorching hot day heading for the brutalist Jenga of the Barbican Centre – the venue you love to hate. The dead-end neglected shopping precinct of an arts centre with its forbidding windy corners, maze-like walkways and visually discordant pretend-happy interior.
I went with a bunch of friends from my film school days – some were long time, Suicide-literate fans, others like me had listened and loved here and there but couldn’t quite hold an hour seminar on their entire back catalogue put it that way. I had never seen them play live until now as was annoyingly too young the first time around.
The first thing I noticed was the buzz in the air – clearly the anticipation and attendance was huge. It was a sell-out gig. This anticipation was immediately infectious – a tidal wave of energy satiated by the sight of a long, giant wall of winking analogue synths like a huge electrical substation waiting to be pumped into life very shortly.
The gig, the Mass started unexpectedly with Henry Rollins (allegedly Suicide’s greatest ever fan) giving a eulogy or perhaps I should say more a sermon to his most favourite ever band. Hushed whispers around the auditorium “Is that Henry Rollins? No….Yes! God he sounds old. Look at his grey hair…Oh it is Henry Rollins”. It was ok – this is the sort of thing Henry Rollins is very good at. Charmingly modest stories of how Rollins starting out had tracked Alan Vega down and invited himself round to Vega’s apartment only to lapse into a tongue-tied swoon and be referred to as ‘kid’ for the rest of the rendezvous. A fanecdote of epic legend recanting how Vega and Rev had once refused to leave the stage by chaining themselves to their synths despite being bottled, verbally abused and covered in blood still screaming ‘fuck you’! at the audience. Classic, early Suicide.
Rollins went out of his way to tell us how much of a genius Vega and Rev actually are. We know! And read some lyrics out. Yes we know! And then said “I promise I will stop talking in a minute”. Actually please do we all thought – about ten minutes less would have been just as great. Someone heckled – my goodness at the sainted Barbican Hall! – and Henry conceded. A loud roar ensued and finally the large, bleeping bank of Suicide analogue mothership pounded hard into life like someone running a metal cheesegrater down a live electric wire. Collaborator Finlay Shakespeare was working these banks industriously hard like a figure on a Bolshevik poster promoting the merits of hard land labour.
A large, gothic throne dominated the back of the stage while a single synth at the front remained unattended, a tinge of bemusement in the air. Enter Rev stage right to an almighty roar in a skintight, ubershiny black pvc waistcoat and jeans, giant shades and trademark cartoon blob of crazy poodle curls. Rev has that amazing laid back, naturally cool I’m stoned but not stoned walk. If everyone around the world learned to walk with Rev’s attitude I swear there would be no more wars. It’s an epic, natural strut that also says “I really don’t care, this is me”. His shades were so dark he had to lift them up to saunter the way to his Korg where he lashed and bashed out the chords of Stigmata. Repetitive, loud and cyclic chords, Rev’s arms rising and swooping with the stabs of white noise. It was a cold sharp shock entry as I felt the audience assumed Vega and Rev would come on together. But this is Suicide. What did you expect?
Cue Vega after a good twenty minutes of Korg pounding and some small consternation as to whether it was actually on – his entrance was similarly magnificently rock and roll. Visibly compromised by his stroke and supported with a cane – in the Vega-god tottered to huge applause. He slumped back on to the throne immediately with a quip “Oh I can hardly walk, it’s like the old days” – we laughed at the candour of his humour and the stark honesty of his situation. The opening bars to ‘It’ clanged into life and in an extremely poignant moment Vega just suddenly galvanized, stood up and rasped into life. The laughter almost turned to tears watching the effect of the music on Vega’s innate effort to stand and perform. He wandered about the stage randomly with care, singing “it is all yours, it is all yours” while the single American flag fluttered ironically in the wind on the screens above the stage. I started daydreaming and wondered exactly how much Suicide had influenced Mark E Smith or if they had at all? There were similarities there somewhere but maybe it’s just the generation, the fire in the gut, the words and the desire to do or say whatever you want and actually do it? And so ensued the cacophonous, considered chaotic genius of noise, pictures and art.
I enjoyed the moments of loud shambolic noise that continued on like a mass, a cult gathering, a mental mantra of words that turned into rousing, obliterative techno. This obliqueness was characterized by the Feral Choir opening the second half. A slightly nightmareish (if you let it) gaggle of oddball-looking people singing, chanting, exclaiming, jolting and twitching like demented, pecking hens lost in the middle of busy traffic. It was like a journey through the city, snaps of conversation, the rhythm of everyday life, anger, sadness, excitement then calm. It was actually very clever and powerful and made this strange gig even more quizzical which is a good thing. I imagined Rev and Vega saying ‘yeah let’s put that in there, fuck the audience up a bit’.
They took a while to get going but Suicide are Suicide and that’s what makes them interesting. Raw and free. The venue made it even more mental for the fact that it was in such direct contrast. For the second half, the hall became sticky, dark and taken over by relentless terrorstrobes with slammy, choppy drones and rumbling yelps – electrified sweets thrown straight at the audience’ faces whether they liked it or not. It did not stop. We were on the runaway Suicide train. The people in front of me left – at first they covered their ears and then they covered their eyes. For them I guess this was a mass too far. It made me enjoy it all the more and on the flipside I now had an uninterrupted view. They played Juke Box Baby in all it’s 50’s-esque sweet sensibility. Next up was Surrender in all it’s thoroughly beautiful bubblegum incongruity. Rev says “oh I love this tune” and Vega replies “oh fuck off Marty” as they jangle along through – the humour in the darkness that make them them.
Next Rollins came on stage for a brief stint at Ghostrider but let Vega continue who by this time was visibly flagging plus the audience weren’t feeling yet more Rollins and off he sensibly popped. Of course the finale was the incomparably beautiful Dream Baby Dream rather unnecessarily guested by Jehnny from Savages and Bobby Gillespie whom I admire and respect greatly but just didn’t need to happen. The Barbican Hall was christened, the mass was complete with minor stage invasion and too right too. The gig has had very mixed reviews in the press and has caused quite a varied response from happy or disgruntled fans on various platforms online. My friend Susan sums it up the best. We were talking after the gig and she said to me:
“I’m from East Village. I wore that music like a magic amulet to guide me home through the tough, cool, sexy streets of NY. I wish I could explain how we NY kids looked up to them: they were so tough, smart & full of street swagger. Don’t fuck with Alan Vega and Martin Rev. We needed them. Everyday was pure survival back then. We needed a soundtrack and that was Suicide.”
Thursday’s gig was art and it was noise and it was thought-provoking, powerful and at times perplexing – exactly how it should have been. Suicide rocked. It was history.