Suicide – Rocket U.S.A.

25th September 2022 · 1970s, 1976, Music, Punk

I love Suicide. They were punks before punk and their debut album is the template for nearly all the electronica to emerge since its release in 1977. This is their first release – the version of Rocket U.S.A. that appeared on the Live At Max’s compilation the year before. And this is the article I wrote for The Quietus when Alan Vega died in 2016:

BY THE SUMMER of 1978, punk rock had lost the power to shock. The revolution that had shot an amphetamine rush into a moribund music scene had been subsumed into the mainstream. Or so it seemed until the Clash invited one of the lesser-known names from the New York punk scene to support them.

Part electronic rock band, part performance-art project, Suicide comprised visual artist Alan Vega on vocals and musician Martin Rev on electronic keyboards and drum machine. Formed eight years earlier amid Manhattan’s downtown art scene, alongside the New York Dolls, they were inspired equally by Iggy Pop and Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk and Stockhausen – and sounded like none of them. With their grimy black leather street clothes, wraparound shades and a confrontational attitude to performing, they found a natural home in the Manhattan clubs, where punk was kicked into life by the Ramones, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television and Blondie.

Not many people enjoyed the experience of watching Suicide’s ground-breaking experiments in tech-noir. In an era of rock & roll hedonism they made an intense electronic noise in which primitive rockabilly rhythms and fragments of melody fought to escape from a maelstrom of feedback and distortion played at maximum volume. Vega’s aggressive stage persona blurred the boundary between performer and audience in the manner prescribed by the Surrealist visionary Antonin Artaud in his manifesto Theatre Of Cruelty (1935), using confrontation to break down barriers. He swung a huge motorcycle chain menacingly around onstage. Sometimes he would cut his own face with a switchblade, “just to freak people out”. Once he leapt offstage and blocked the door, bike chain in hand, to stop dissatisfied audience members leaving.

When Suicide came to Europe they proved too extreme even for audiences accustomed to the de rigueur anti-social behaviour of punk. The booing began moments after they took the stage in front of an audience impatient for the hyped-up garage rock of the Clash. Beer bottles began to be thrown – full beer bottles. Rev, impassive behind his bug shades, responded by cranking up the volume and attacking his keyboard with renewed aggression, stabbing jagged shards of discordant noise into the pulsing rhythms that rumbled through your gut. Beside him Vega, blood seeping from a head wound, openly baited the angry crowd and carried on singing – if singing was the word for a voice that ranged from psychotic crooning to a satanic Elvis impression, punctuated by strangulated yelps and howls. And that was not just one isolated show; it happened every night. In England an enormous skinhead clambered on to the stage and thumped Vega in the face, breaking his nose. In Scotland the many missiles hurled at the singer included an axe. In France there was a full-scale riot. Suicide’s crime? To have no guitars or bass or drums.

“It was like being in Hell,” recalled Vega in David Nobakht’s biography, Suicide: No Compromise (2005). Reminiscing further before a London concert this January, Vega added: “In the ’70s I was afraid for my life every night but that didn’t matter, it energised me. Growing up in Brooklyn you learned never to give up. You could get your ass kicked but you fought to the death. Stupid macho crap. But that’s why we were never forced offstage.” Suicide, as their name suggested, were not for the meek or faint-hearted. They might not have had guitars but they had more punk attitude than the countless copycats who followed in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In fact, Suicide had coined the term punk for their music as far back as 1971, advertising their shows as “a punk music mass”. Their signature track was ‘Frankie Teardrop’, a terrifying twelve-minute psychodrama about a factory worker who loses his job and murders his wife and kid before committing suicide. By the end of it (if you got that far) you knew just how he felt.

“We were waiting on line when punk arrived,” said Vega, who had the stocky build and strangled vowels of an ageing Brooklyn streetfighter. “Here was finally a movement that took us with it. Before that there was not anything that could place us. We thought of our music as being religious and it probably is in a way. Whoever woulda thunk it that the word punk would become a movement that we inadvertently probably started? I dunno, I’m not into taking credit as the first one to do it and shit like that, but it was the first time anyone used the word punk since Lester Bangs used it in a Creem magazine article on the Stooges in 1969.”

Suicide never had a hit record, although Vega enjoyed a 1981 solo hit in France with ‘Juke Box Babe’, but they recorded and performed together right till the end. Demand for back catalogue reissues showed that younger generations were perhaps more in tune with their music. They have finally become recognised as one of the most important influences on twenty first-century music.

Before Suicide there were no electronic duos on a gig circuit dominated by rock bands. The release of their debut album in 1977, with its arresting melange of industrial noise and heart-melting melody, and its 1980 successor (adding the pop sheen of producer Ric Ocasek of the Cars), directly inspired many of the first wave of synth-pop bands. Without Suicide there would have been no Soft Cell or Human League, Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys. They inspired Joy Division, Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., Nick Cave and even Bruce Springsteen, who befriended them and acknowledged their influence on his stark Nebraska album. They could be heard more clearly in the post-rave generation of dance musicians like Underworld and the Aphex Twin.

Yet for many years Suicide received little credit for their work, languishing in the ghetto of artists whose critical acclaim fails to translate into record sales. “We only made enough money to live but if you gave me a choice to make all the money some of those people made and sound like Soft Cell, I still wouldn’t do it,” insisted Rev. “I wouldn’t want to be part of it. It’s a betrayal. I’d rather make no money and do what I do. We have a different path and a different destiny.”

Similarly, credit eluded Vega the artist, originally a painter who found a niche with sculptures of cruciforms using light bulbs, neon and found objects, which was equally ahead of its time. Jeffrey Deitch, the New York gallery owner who championed Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, recalls his 1972 show at the OK Harris gallery as “the toughest and most radical art I had ever seen”. He described Vega’s installation made of “lights, TV sets, coils of wire and other discarded electrical equipment dumped in piles on the floor. Some of the power cords were spliced together and plugged in”. And this, remember, was nearly 30 years before Tomoko Takahashi’s installation of electrical detritus filled the Saatchi Gallery, earning her a Turner Prize nomination. “Apparently my work started a school called Scatter Art, so Jeffrey Deitch told me,” said Vega, who started exhibiting again ten years ago after a break of two decades. “So it happened again – a coupla guys got famous for it. I’d done it already, but they sold theirs for megabucks and had it shown in museums and stuff like that. Just like that Soft Cell thing all over again.”

For Vega, there was never a distinction between his music and his art. “Art and music – it’s all the same thing to me,” he insisted, “I’m still the same guy doing it.” Julian Schnabel, writing in 100,000 Watts of Fat City (1997), a book of photographs of Vega’s sculptures, saw parallels in Vega’s favoured themes: “Alan Vega has been meditating on the crucifix, death and ecstasy with every sensory pore in his body,” he wrote, “whether singing, making music or building crosses, since I can remember and even before that”.

Vega’s art and music began life at the Project Of Living Artists, a publicly-funded art space in New York which he had helped to found in the late 1960s. Open 24 hours a day, it was similar to Warhol’s Factory, with artists and musicians, feminists and political agitators sharing space with junkies and alcoholics. It was there, in 1970, that Vega met Rev, who had an avant-garde jazz group called Reverend B, and they discovered a shared interest in radical politics and electronic music as a means of artistic expression.

Suicide stayed together ’til the end. It is only a year since their last UK gig – The Punk Mass – held at the Barbican in London. Their last album American Supreme may have come out in 2002 but it addressed the state of post-9/11 America and showed them to be moving on, incorporating elements of hip hop and funk into their stark minimalist palette. More recent shows found that they had gained a new audience, many in their teens and early 20s: people who were not even born when Suicide began but have tuned into their sound through the groups they influenced and the acknowledgements paid by people like Bobby Gillespie and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, another fan. (“I really like Suicide,” said Stipe. “They were so ahead of the curve and therefore really unpopular, as well they should be.”)

Toward the end the shows usually ended without bloodshed but, far from mellowing with age, Suicide remained as experimental as ever and no two performances were ever the same. “In the beginning Suicide stood out because there was nobody like us. There still isn’t,” said Vega. “I have known bands who try to sound like us and some of them do a fairly decent job but they’re not like us. They don’t have the intensity. Back in the day people used to say to us: ‘Oh you guys are ahead of our time’ but I don’t believe in that stuff. I thought we were right on our time – everyone else was behind the time.”