Out of all of the groups to emerge from the 1970’s New York music scene, none were as menacing on such a visceral level as Suicide, whose debut studio album was released 40 years ago this month.
Suicide’s duo was made up of vocalist/lyricist Alan Vega and keyboard/drum machine backup Martin Rev. The band had been performing live since 1970 and the volatile energy of these now legendary live performances is perfectly substituted in their debut studio album, released in 1977.
Rev’s pulsating drum machine beats and swirling keyboard phrases create a seductive tension and menace all on its own as if someone was beating relentlessly on a glowing radiator which could set off a spark at any given second. Suicide was consciously influenced by the lengthy instrumental passages of The Doors, along with their confrontational and ambiguous lyrics. Alan Vega’s unnervingly smooth voice takes as much from Elvis or Roy Orbison as he does from Jim Morrison.
The album starts off with the chugging electro-garage “Ghost Rider,” which is not only a proto-punk gem thanks to Rev’s propelling keyboards but it also reveals the band’s roots. Rev and Vega bonded over a shared love of doo-wop music, and the lyrical preoccupation with motorcycles and rockabilly melodies and rhythms permeated into the sweet-sounding “Cheree” and the foreboding but seductive “Girl.”
Second to last on the album is the ten-minute track “Frankie Teardrop,” and it’s a clear and violent whiplash from the previous songs. New York in the mid-1970’s was a grungy, dirty and sometimes deadly place to visit let alone live, and this song pulls out the rug from under the listener and lets them experience this waking nightmare for themselves.
The song is about the titular Frankie, a 20-year old husband, father and factory worker who is unable to make ends meet, then gives up and shoots his wife, baby and finally himself. The thematic slam back to reality is emphasized by Vega’s vocal performance. Throughout the album, Vega lets barely restrained growls, whispers, and yelps, always sounding on the verge of letting out a tumult of emotion.
Here the dam finally breaks and Vega lets out bloodcurdling, inhuman screams that genuinely jolt and horrify. So much so that it’s not uncommon for listeners either to physically brace themselves upon re-listening or to skip the song altogether. And yet the very real issue of urban deindustrialization in the mid 1970’s makes the song all the more effective and historically significant. It can even be argued that David Lynch’s Eraserhead released the same year makes a comfortable companion piece to this song.
In the history of rock music Suicide is a clear stepping stone towards the 1980’s and beyond; from Joy Division to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” (1982) to Depeche Mode through to “Oh Baby” from LCD Soundsystem’s “American Dream” (2017).
Listening to Suicide’s debut is still an experience, not just for the sonic adventures, but for songs that still speak to the dismal and nightmarish monotony of the urban experience 40 years later.