Thursday, March 06, 2014

Suicide (debut album)

This minimalist duo consisting of vocalist Alan Vega and Martin Rev on keys (initially an old Farfisa and later
a synthesizer) and primitive drum machine appeared in NYC back in 1970 emerging from the glam scene, though their sound and look had little to do with glitter and glamour. Credited as one of the first - if not the first - to use the term "punk" to describe their music, they thrived on confrontation. Live shows were legendary, with Iggy-influenced Vega brandishing a length of motorcycle chain and threatening the audience - I've heard tales of people attempting to leave the shows and being cowed back into their seat by Alan.

Musically, they were minimal to the extreme - simple keyboard lines and a pulsing electronic drum beat - sounding like one that came in early keyboards, though I'm not sure if that's what it was. Regardless, the hollowness and quietness of the sound belied the often vicious lyrics.

This debut opens with "Ghost Rider", an ode to the comic book character (supposedly they got the band name from one of these comics, titled Satan Suicide), with insistent, repeating, fuzzed-out keyboard lines and a quickly throbbing beat underneath Vega's echoed vocals. "Rocket USA" follows in a similar vein, with some variations in the keyboard sound - there were definitely plenty of 50's and 60's influences for these cats, as evidenced by garage band the Fleshtones covering this without coming off as contrived. Proving that they were capable of tenderness as well as aggression is "Cheree", a love ballad that sounds like it could have been taken from a doo-wop song, though there are undercurrents of lust as well as love in Alan's delivery. "Johnny" is also based on 50's r'n'r, though the ultra-fast pace of the drum machine is almost disturbing - as if it were an amphetamine-fueled heart beat.

The more mid-tempo, almost samba-beat to "Girl" feels practically romantic underneath Vega's grunts and groans as he informs his object of desire how much she "turns me on". This blatant burst of lust makes previous r'n'r leches like Reg Presley seem downright tame! The epic "Frankie Teardrop" was based on a newspaper story of a factory worker who lost his job, murdered his wife and kids and then committed suicide. This tale was often improvised and stretched out and, while Rev kept a quiet beat beneath, Vega would shriek at the top of his lungs, like the madman he was describing. Truly unnerving. Somewhat less intense, though still menacing is the closer, "Che", with its descending keyboard riff and waves of white noise.

This is another case of a couple of oddballs who were far ahead of their time, as this record was rarely heard at the time but has become a highly influential album in sound and style. Not for the weak of heart or for the close-minded rocker, but this is a real adventure in frightening music, and its minimalism obviously led the way for the later 70's punk rock scene.