The late musician inspired violence and respect in equal measure – from having an axe thrown at his head to influencing Bruce Springsteen and Soft Cell
Alan Vega In Conversation, Isis Gallery, London May 2010
A Short Film About Alan Vega of Suicide
In 1969, the year before he formed Suicide, a sculptor called Alan Bermowitz went to see the Stooges play live in New York. “Iggy came out and he’s wearing dungarees with holes, with this red bikini underwear with his balls hanging out,” he later remembered. “He went to sing and he just pukes all over, man. He’s running through the audience and shit … He was just wild looking – staring at the crowd and going ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’… It was one of the greatest shows I ever saw in my life. It changed my life because it made me realise everything I was doing was bullshit.”
If the Stooges instilled a desire to provoke audiences in Alan Vega, as he eventually became, then he lived out his desire beyond his wildest dreams. For years – before people started talking about Suicide as one of the most important bands of the 70s, before it became apparent that their influence was the glue that bound together artists as disparate as Bruce Springsteen, Soft Cell, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Spiritualized – the thing Suicide were really famous for was inciting audiences to the point where the gig would degenerate into a riot. They probably would have rioted even without Vega goading them – the world just wasn’t ready for a band that consisted of a drum machine, a distorted, droning Farfisa organ and Vega screaming and whooping, like a particularly feral rockabilly singer who had been teleported to the mean streets of 70s New York and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result – but he certainly wound things up further: lashing out with a motorcycle chain, gouging at his skin with safety pins, slapping people in the front row.
Former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert saw Suicide supporting the Ramones at CBGB’s in 1976: “I had never seen an act take so much abuse from an audience,” he recalled, “and thus thrive on that intensity.” The 1978 live recording 23 Minutes Over Brussels makes for horrifying, compelling listening: during the performance, one audience member snatched the singer’s microphone in an attempt to make the band stop playing; another broke Vega’s nose. The same year, they supported the Clash in the UK. In Glasgow, someone threw an axe at Vega’s head. Watching National Front skinheads invade the stage in Crawley and assault the duo – Vega’s nose was broken again – the keyboard player from the reggae band at the bottom of the bill had something of a revelation. “I thought, we have to get through to these people,” said Jerry Dammers, of the Special AKA, “and that’s when we got our image together and started playing ska.” Thus did Suicide, on top of everything else, inadvertently spawn the Two Tone movement.
The reception afforded Suicide’s live performances is always held up as evidence of the innate conservatism of punk, or at least punk audiences. Far from being a brave new musical dawn in which rules vanished out of the window and anything went, punks couldn’t cope with anything that deviated too far from a well-worn blueprint, even the band who might well have been the first to describe themselves as punk: the flyers for a 1971 Suicide gig proclaimed it a “Punk Music Mass”. But in fairness, Suicide were provoking that kind of reaction long before punk. In the early 70s, they played alongside the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Centre: “There was a party scene in their room and our room was like a death scene,” said Vega.
At that stage, Suicide had at least some attributes of a conventional rock band – their initial lineup featured both a drummer and a guitarist – although their shows were largely improvised. Gradually the ancillary members were jettisoned, leaving just Vega and keyboard player Martin Rev – the latter playing a cheap synthesizer through a battery of guitar effects pedals in an attempt to beef up its desperately weedy sound – and the improvisations were shaped into songs, influenced in equal part by early Elvis Presley, the minimalist composers Vega had encountered on the Manhattan art scene and the Silver Apples, a pioneering electronic duo whose two late 60s albums are arguably the only thing that sounded remotely like Suicide before Suicide did.
Allegedly recorded in four hours, their eponymous 1977 debut album was utterly out of step with everything else happening in music. It had nothing in common musically with punk, beyond a desire to strip things back. Born in 1936 and a generation older than most punks, Vega could remember the 50s rock’n’roll it referenced first hand, while the spirit of the late 60s counterculture occasionally seeped into his lyrics: there’s a definite hint of the anti-Vietnam protest about Ghost Rider’s refrain of “America’s killing its youth”. In addition, it was too raw and dark and harrowing to bear comparison to the other high watermarks of electronic music released that year: beyond a certain relentlessness and repetition, Rocket USA or the terrifying 10-minute saga of alienation and infanticide, Frankie Teardrop really didn’t have anything in common with Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express or Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
To counter the stories of violence and bloodshed at their gigs, Vega liked to reminisce about an occasion when the duo were rehearsing in an East Village loft with the windows open. They looked down on the street to find a crowd listening appreciatively: proof, he said, that “people were out there”. He was right: they were, and a lot of them seemed to be other musicians. The Cars’ Ric Ocasek loved Suicide so much he produced their second album, 1980’s Alan Vega/Martin Rev, pulling off the not-inconsiderable feat of making their sound more palatable without diffusing its power: the same sessions produced the beautiful Dream Baby Dream, evidence of Suicide’s oft and perhaps understandably overlooked softer side. Bruce Springsteen called Frankie Teardrop “one of the greatest records ever made”: State Trooper, from 1982’s Nebraska, is audibly in thrall to the duo; 20 years later he covered Dream Baby Dream. And by the time Alan Vega/Martin Rev was released, the British charts were awash with synth duos, at least some of whom explicitly acknowledged their debt to Suicide, among them Soft Cell, who covered Ghost Rider.
The duo never split up, but went on to record solo albums. Vega’s were initially more straightforwardly rockabilly-influenced than Suicide – he scored an improbable hit single in France with Jukebox Baby – although they occasionally ventured into more unpredictable areas: 1983’s Saturn Strip featured a deconstructed cover of, wait for it, Every 1’s a Winner by Hot Chocolate, not a state of affairs anyone who encountered Suicide in the late 70s could easily have imagined. The duo reconvened for 1988’s A Way of Life, by which time their legend was of mythic proportions. The debut regularly made 100 Best Albums of All Time lists, and you could hear its echoes everywhere, from industrial music to goth – Vega collaborated with the Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch on The Sisterhood album Gift – to indie: A Way of Life came out the same year Spacemen 3 released a two-note tribute called Suicide.
They continued performing live and sporadically releasing challenging albums – 2002’s American Supreme, an intriguing attempt to stir a hip-hop influence into the band’s sound is particularly worth investigating – while Vega’s career as a visual artist blossomed: in interviews he gave earlier this year, to support the re-release of Cubist Blues, an album he recorded with the late Alex Chilton in the 90s, he claimed that the stroke he suffered in 2012 somehow made him a better draughtsman than he had been before.
Younger bands never stopped queueing up to pay homage but Vega always seemed weirdly ambivalent about the band’s influence – “I put their CDs on and I listen to it and I go ‘how did this happen? What were you listening to when you were listening to my music that made you such a fan and then you send me this piece of shit? That’s how I influenced you? What did I do wrong?’” – or the new-found reverence in which their music was held, complaining that his “career was over” when audiences started enjoying Suicide’s performances. “I said to Marty, ‘I’m finished, where’s the confrontations? What are we gonna do now? People are dancing to this shit.”
It was hard to work out whether he was joking, or whether he genuinely hankered after the “beautiful” days when every gig came with the prospect of broken bones or a riot attached. “I always hated the idea of people going to a concert to be entertained,” he said. “With us, I always said, ‘if you think you’re getting entertained by us, forget about it!’ People were coming in off the streets, coming into a performance arena where they were hoping they’d be escaping, and all we were doing was shoving the streets back in their faces.”