Suicide (Clash feature, 2019)

Suicide on the Bowery.

It was my absolute honour and privilege to talk to Martin Rev for Clash about the making of the first Suicide album. Released in 1977, Suicide was a shock to the system for anyone expecting New York’s punk music to conform to any particular mould.

The roots of Suicide go right back to a pre-punk Manhattan of the late Sixties and early Seventies, years of hard slog of playing gigs in art galleries before the likes of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB had embraced the burgeoning punk scene that Suicide were at the centre of. It is a story of friendship, pivotal decisions over how a band should be presented, Elodie Lauten’s Farfisa and a rhythm machine made by a manufacturer more used to very different industries; of chance events, label rejection, the occasionally violent reaction of fans, and an album whose status has only become more legendary in the forty years since it was originally released.

Suicide was reissued by BMG / Mute earlier in July as a special edition red vinyl LP, forming part of their Art Of The Album series.

My interview with Martin Rev, with additional contributions from the album’s producer Craig Leon, can be found here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

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Suicide – All Tomorrow’s Parties, Camber Sands 23 April 2005

With the untimely demise of the legendary Alan Vega at the weekend, I dug out this review of the Suicide performance at 2005’s All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands in the UK. Over time this performance has taken on an almost mythical significance to me, a memory almost as blurred and fuzzy as the photo I took below; but as you can see, at least at the time I was less than impressed with the music. You’ll notice that I did, however, make a point of mentioning just how mesmerising both Vega and Rev were.


Suicide were one of the acts that I’d really been looking forward to at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Camber Sands, East Sussex. And sadly, at least for me, this was not to be the ephiphanic experience I always hoped seeing such a historically important act in the genesis of modern electronic music would be. I’m not sure what the reason was – perhaps the feeling that Martin Rev and Alan Vega were kind of ‘going through the motions’, or perhaps it was the fact that prior to them I’d seen PJ Harvey and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante in very laidback, stripped-down solo performances with only guitars – in contrast, Suicide’s electronic compositions were a little bit too complex; and this from me, ordinarily an electronic music stalwart and a fan of the intricate and unusual.

I’d seen Rev and Vega wandering around the weird jaded / faded seaside glamour of ATP’s Pontins home the day before whilst queueing to check in. Now that was epiphanic – to be just a few feet away from two of my musical heroes while they shuffled past was quite mind-blowing – but the feeling that I got when I saw them perform was of being somewhat less than thrilled. For a start they were at least half an hour late, and then the music appeared to be played on a CD player, with the volume varying considerably from track to track, and often within the same track. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that Rev appeared to be doing nothing more than triggering some noises over the top of the recording, appearing to be the same set of sounds on each and every song. Cymbals, crashes, swooshes and abrasive noises appeared with frightening predictability / regularity, and often out of time.

Another problem was that I really didn’t recognise many of the songs, especially since they were rendered with an eighties pop sheen – none of the grit of their original incarnations at all, and one track even sounded very like ‘Theme From S’Express’ – hardly a counter-cultural statement. The version of ‘Cheree’ was rendered with a rockabilly edge, with Rev taking a stab at some live Phil Spector-esque Wall Of Sound percussion on one bar, then missing the beat on the second bar, finally giving up on the third.

A note on Marty Rev: if Suicide were the unlikely progenitors to the eighties synth duos (Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Blancmange etc), then Dave Ball, Chris Lowe, Vince Clarke and Stephen Luscombe and all the other synth-playing halves take note – this man has a vivid stage personality and an energy that none of these guys have ever shown. He was frantic, like the ubiquitous mad professor, all shock hair and whirling arms with the largest wrap-around shades this side of an athletics track. He really looked like Einstein composing for a Futurist symphony, and when he stood, centre stage, with his back to the audience he was quite a captivating performer. And on Alan Vega, who made showroom dummy shapes with his hands and smoked between (and sometimes during) songs – his voice has become more gravel-filled over the years, becoming the New York post-Beat poet that he always promised to be. I thought he’d totally lost the plot when he started imploring to the audience that you shouldn’t be selfish, that you should look out for your relatives. ‘You should think first before doin’ somethin’ stupid, man,’ he emphatically muttered. And, just when I thought that the fire and rebel spirit had exited the man completely like the smoke exhaled from his lungs, someone thew a bottle at him. ‘Like that,’ he responded; and with that, the punk in him returned. He stepped back from the mic and calmly flipped the bird to the audience member. However, I couldn’t work out whether he was wearing a Davey Crockett hat or a very bad wig. I hope not the latter; it really didn’t match his cyberpunk clobber and similarly-cool shades.

I really thought they’d hit their stride with a totally live version of the classic ‘Ghost Rider’, my favourite electro-punk standard. Sadly, my joyous feeling was to be deflated rapidly as the synth groove failed to run at the same speed as the beat, creating a sickeningly queasy rhythm that was painful after a short while. They followed that disappointment with a track that I didn’t recognise that reminded me chiefly of Depeche Mode‘s ‘A Question Of Time’ with its clanging industrial synth hook and beat. There was nothing especially wrong with their more polished songs, it just always surprises me when a band so at the very centre of their movement become influenced by the bands that they themselves inspired – with results arguably poorer than the newer breed. I left after just five songs, pleased that I’d gotten to see them, but wishing that I was a New Yorker alive in the seventies and able to see them at their CBGBs Bowery prime.

Originally posted 2005; re-edited 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Alan Vega / Alex Chilton / Ben Vaughn – Cubist Blues (Thirsty Ear album, 1996)

  

Cubist Blues was originally released in 1996 and despite the critical reception with which it was received at the time, supported by two live shows in New York and Rennes, it more or less sank into cult obscurity. A reissue by Light In The Attic / Munster in 2015, complete with expansive liner notes and interviews with the surviving members of this one-off collaboration and those who supported the record’s original release, should hopefully act as some redress.

The location is Dessau Recording Studio in New York, housed in an old five-storey factory loft unit just north of Manhattan’s financial district on White Street. The factory building is a window to an older New York, when manufacturing still took place within the cramped environs of the island; a time before rocketing real estate developments, expensive retail stores, art, finance and unabashed ambition were Manhattan’s principal concerns. The studio owners decided to retain the name of the original Dessau Manufacturing Company in the moniker for the studio, despite having no connection whatsoever to its previous occupants.

The date is December 6 1994. The day is fast becoming a distant memory and the night is stretching out before three musicians and their engineer, all of whom are hard at work capturing an unrehearsed, spontaneous jam fronted by Suicide’s Alan Vega. The jam is eventually titled ‘Fat City’.

The jam lasts a little over eight minutes, and finds Vega reeling off words that seem to materialise out of nowhere from the newspaper in front of him, no hesitation or groping in the near-dark for ideas. It is the sound of now, and Vega is as white hot as at any point in his career. The two musicians backing his lysergic utterances with a focussed blues improvisation are multi-instrumentalist Ben Vaughn on bass and Alex Chilton on guitar. A drum machine keeps rigid, chugging time and the duo of Vaughn and Chilton throw out licks and unswerving, constant lines, resonating off Vega’s words but also acting as a musical counterweight. The engineer, Drew Vogelman, manages to record the whole thing. It’s a one take affair. No practices, no pre-jam discussions, just a single, seemingly effortless take. It’s pure alchemy.

The architect of this session is Vaughn, whose idea it was to capture Vega in pure blues mode. Chilton is an unexpected bonus. He hears about the idea from Vaughn and asks to be involved. Vaughn’s up for it but can’t stretch to the air fare to get the esteemed Big Star guitarist across to NYC, so Chilton pays for it himself and jumps on a flight, guitar case in hand. Chilton and Vaughn are both fans of Alan Vega, while Vega recalls standing next to Chilton outside CBGBs smoking cigarettes, but not talking to one another. He thinks of Chilton as a wraith-like character. He calls him The Gray Ghost. Beyond possibly sharing a light and bumming cigarettes off each other on New York’s Skid Row, Vega can’t recall the pair ever speaking.

As ‘Fat City’ wraps, Vaughn suggests they keep on going. They work through the night and record a clutch of tracks, each one created live, in the moment, with no plan. Blues motifs seem to emerge out of the ether, while Vega channels words from any available source, ceaselessly conjuring up images and continually fired up by the setting. At one point he sits on a windowledge, observing the street below and voyeuristically playing back what he sees. As the sun rises, they pack up and head out of the studio, with almost an album’s worth of raw, urgent material in the bag.

They convene at Dessau again the following night and do the same. A synth has been borrowed and Alex and Ben take it in turns to jam out riffs. At times it’s hard not to think about Suicide as fat, looping sequences like the one on ‘The Werewolf’ underpin Vega’s echoing, tremolo purr. It seems appropriate that they would tease out a louche, bar-room version of ‘Dream Baby Dream’ at the conclusion of the session.

Across the two nights of recordings that would eventually be issued by Henry Rollins in 1996 on his 2.13.61 imprint via Thirsty Ear there’s an air of danger, of prowling, vampiric characters staking the eerie side streets of Downtown. It’s mysterious and evocative, drawing on some dark energy as if the players were performing within a pentagram and channeling whatever spirits presented themselves. It stands out as one of the most accomplished and carefully-wrought moments in Vega’s career, and yet flowed forth without any sort of planning except for the idea that they’d attempt to record some blues.

Note: the 2015 reissue includes a download code for the previously unreleased recording of the Rennes concert.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence