A Brief Note of Introduction
Because writing previews for shows gets boring after a while, I’ve decided to start myself a little side project. You see, brothers and sisters, there are scads of great artists out there who languish in undeserved obscurity. I aim to change that. In fact, I aim to climb the mountains and shout their names from on high! Until all the world knows them. Or at least the small chunk of the world that reads me.
Now, the bands that I’ll be covering here wound up outside of the mainstream for a variety of reasons. Maybe they were too weird for radio. Maybe they just didn’t get their demo tracks into the right hands. Or maybe they did and cheesed off the wrong producer. But what they all have in common is this: they are awesome, and you need to hear them.
So, without further ado, let’s meet:
Quick, when I say “synth pop”, what comes to mind? I’m betting keytars and mullets. More broadly, I’m also pretty sure the dates 1980 through 1989 turn up in your recall. I mean, what could be more eighties than the pulse of a synth humming beneath some coke-head hollering about his girl or his car? Especially if the lyrics make it difficult to determine which one he’s actually sleeping with.
So, what if I were to tell you that the history of synth pop and other electronic genres actually goes back to the late sixties?
Bear in mind, I’m not talking about music that has electronic elements, that goes back to the thirties. No, I’m talking about music that is generated electronically to the exception of all else. What would you say to that? And hey, what if I told you that in 1971, what was possibly the world’s first synth pop duo first got together? Well, it was and they did. Brothers and sisters, I give you Suicide!
Okay, first synth pop band, good for them, but why do they matter?
Well, there’s much more to the story than just being the first in a genre. We still feel Suicide’s influence today, especially in the darker, more menacing forms of electronic music. Basically, not only did they invent synth pop, but industrial as well. Acts as diverse as Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails and even Bruce Springsteen all owe a debt to Suicide. Even more than that, Suicide also exercised considerable influence over the direction alternative and punk eventually took.
The story of Suicide begins with two New York (yeah, brace yourself, we’re going to refer to NYC a lot in this series) artists.
Alan Bermowitz and Martin Reverby, hereafter known as Alan Vega and Martin Rev, first met when Rev ran into Vega’s downtown workshop to escape a sudden downpour. Given their confrontational personalities, you probably would have expected a battle to the death to ensue. However, they made friends instead. A good thing too, since for the next ten years Rev and Vega were probably the only friends each other had.
Vega was a sculptor and painter associated with a radical collective of New York artists called the Art Worker’s Coalition. How radical? They had a history of harassing, and barricading themselves in, museums. Essentially, everything short of terrorism. No doubt the atmosphere suited Vega, who, while not thriving on conflict, wasn’t exactly opposed to it either.
Rev spent most of his pre-Suicide time playing in various avant-garde jazz outfits around New York. Accordingly, Rev was the more musical of the duo and as a jazzman wasn’t particularly reluctant to experiment or improvise. In fact, that’s what he did for most of the early part of Suicide’s career.
Like a lot of what we now call proto-punk artists, Vega and Rev had no interest in being a typical crowd-pleasing band.
So, taking their name from an issue of Marvel’s Ghost Rider (“Satan Suicide”), they set out to win enemies and alienate people. At first, all they had was either a Wurlitzer keyboard or a Farfisa electronic organ (accounts differ), which Rev would play while Vega tried to get a rise out of the audience. According to Vega, the confrontational aspect of Suicide’s performance owed its inspiration to a 1969 Stooges show he saw. Iggy Pop strikes again, folks. As you can probably imagine, New York audiences being what they are, attendees at Suicide shows reacted poorly to Vega’s provocation. Very poorly.
So poorly, in fact, that riots became a fixture of Suicide’s performances.
Vega actually started bringing a motorcycle drive chain to performances for protection. And when that failed he’d break a beer bottle and start hacking away at his own face, just to show potential attackers he was too crazy to care what they did to him. Or so Vega says anyway. As Suicide’s reputation spread, audiences began booing them as soon as they came on stage. That was the level of hostility they had managed to generate.
One of the venues that Suicide most frequently played was CGBG.
Because where else did edgy New York play in the 70s? There, they became part of the cadre of artists, such as Patti Smith, The Ramones, and Television, that led New York’s emerging punk scene. Even there they were just a little too maladjusted for audiences to except. The grand result was that Suicide didn’t release their first album until 1977. For those of you not keeping track, that’s a full six years between their initial performance and their debut album. While today Suicide’s self-titled debut is considered a classic among critics and fans, it met on release with mixed results and poor sales. Of course, given just how uncommercial it was, this is hardly surprising.
Which brings us to their music.
Now, like I said earlier, when Suicide started out they had an electronic keyboard and Alan Vega’s personality. In their first performances, they didn’t even have lyrics or even music in the strictest sense. They would mostly just make harsh noise. Rev would kick his keyboard, Vega would smash things against they mike, that sort of thing. However, they gradually grew in sophistication, especially in 1975 when they added a drum machine to their kit.
This was in a time when all this electronic instrumentation was unusual to say the least. Probably the only other example extant at the time was Kraftwerk. After all, bands had used Mellotrons and the like since the mid-sixties. However, this was almost always in concert with more traditional instruments. Bands like Suicide and Kraftwerk on the other hand embraced the artificial nature of their music.
Although “artificial” doesn’t seem like the right tag to hang on Suicide’s sound.
Instead, If I were to describe Suicide’s music in one word, I’d say “eerie”. Vega and Rev build their sound around Rev’s minimalist synth work, which mostly throbs and grinds with only a vague sense of melody. Even today, the effects and dynamics the duo favored are pretty harsh. Now, it’s hardly a bad sound, but it builds a dreary atmosphere of dread and unease. Especially when Rev busts out the electronic organ. While already dark, their sound becomes darker still when Rev plays an off-key melody that sounds like it’s wheezing out of an abandoned movie palace somewhere. The cumulative effect is almost hypnotic, like a bad dream that captivates even as you try desperately to escape.
Of course, Suicide would be nothing without Alan Vega’s vocal work.
Vega doesn’t so much sing as murmur, and his breathy, tortured voice provides an excellent counterpoint to Rev’s synths. Oftentimes, Vega yelps, whimpers, or screams as if what he’s describing is too horrible for words. Especially in the track “Frankie Teardrop”, which is about a twenty-year-old factory worker who, pushed to the edge by poverty, murders his entire family.
Oh yeah, as should be obvious from their name, Suicide deals with some sunny themes.
According to Alan Vega, he didn’t like the idea of people going to shows in order to have fun. As he put it, he wanted to throw the very street they’d tried to escape back in their faces. Accordingly, Suicide was cynical, abrasive, and even nihilistic to some extent. They often sang about the lives of street people and other outsiders, deeply unhappy people with little to live for. Murder was another frequent subject. Heck, even their love songs were pretty unnerving. Obviously, this combination of musical and thematic choices endeared them to people not at all. At least, it did for a while.
Gradually, the hostility directed at Suicide died down.
Nothing lasts forever after all, and with the emergence of genres like hardcore punk in the late 70s, Suicide just wasn’t all that radical anymore. When Vega and Rev played a gig where the audience started dancing to their music, they decided to call it quits. But, despite themselves, the duo actually had gained a few fans over the years.
The first bands that really showed Suicide’s influence where groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. These were early electronic music artists, most of whom fell under the umbrella of what we call industrial today. Aside from the abrasive sounds that artists like Suicide helped introduce, they also dealt with similar thematic material. All that cheery violence, violation, and disaffection. Now, did these guys succeed where Suicide failed and break into the mainstream? Hell no. But, these artists contributed to the post-punk boom of the late 70s and early 80s, which contributed to the grunge boom of the 90s. Industrial never went away either. Instead, transgressive artists across genres adopted elements of it so they could transgress even more effectively. Suicide, ironically enough, lived on.
Synth pop, however, was one place that Suicide’s influence didn’t really show up.
While plenty of musicians were happy to adopt synths, often to cover a lack of musical skill, almost none of them adopted the attitude. Although, to be fair, the culture of the 80s made adopting an attitude like Suicide’s difficult.
After all, acts like Van Halen were still the dominant expression of rock in the 80s. Even though underground and alternative music experienced an explosion just a few years earlier, the mainstream wouldn’t take notice until the early 90s. Adding to that, the 80s in a lot of ways shaped itself around a rejection of the culture created by the 60s and 70s. A supposed return to normalcy after nearly 20 years of social upheaval. Songs about street people and familicide were now even less welcome than in previous decades. Didn’t stop people from writing them of course, but it also ensured they didn’t get a lot of airplay if they did.
Oh, and Suicide themselves? They hadn’t actually gone anywhere. While Vega and Rev went on to pursue solo careers, they still collaborated from time to time. In fact, their most recent release as Suicide was 2002’s American Supreme. Which admittedly isn’t that recent, but they did manage to hang around for 30 years.
Sadly, Alan Vega passed away in 2016. Martin Rev still performs, of course, and has covered a wide variety of genres over his long career. Suicide more or less ceased to exist after Vega’s death, but good music never really dies. Especially since half the world uses their ideas.
If there’s anything to take away from Suicide’s history, it’s this: commercial success and artistic influence don’t always go hand in hand. Artists like the Beatles and David Bowie, who straddled the commercial and the artistic, are the exception, not the rule. However, between success and influence, the second lasts much longer.
Until next time, keep listening everybody.