Suicide - Suicide - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Suicide - Suicide

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1977-12-01
Suicide - Suicide
Suicide - Suicide

Brian Eno once quipped something to the effect that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground started a band. Much of the same could be said of Suicide. Like the Velvets and Stooges, Suicide are now venerated but during their heyday, they were met with indifference and derision. But revenge is sweet.

Their bare-bones approach was both artsy and primitive. Innovative, yet still deeply rooted in the classic Rock & Roll of the 50’s and 60’s. Crude synths and drum machines and Alan Vega’s emotive whispers, chants and blood curdling yelps make for mesmerizing, if unsettling listening. Suicide were never a band you could cuddle up to, they were deliberately confrontational. Hard to believe now, but their early performances were met with hostility and out and out violence.

It’s amazing this record was ever recorded and released. And if it weren’t for Marty Thau and his indy label Red Star Records, it would never have seen the light of day. The former manager of the New York Dolls, Thau had his hand in the burgeoning New York Punk and New Wave scene. And even on that scene, Suicide were outsiders. The duo had been kicking around since 1970 so by the time they recorded their debut in 1977, they seemed fully formed. While never popular, Suicide were undeniably pioneering. The word, “seminal” is often over-used by critics, but it isn’t in Suicide’s case. Their influence is staggering. One can hear their impact on Joy Division, Public Image Limited, Jesus & Mary Chain, Birthday Party, Swans, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, OMD, Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Soft Cell, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Radiohead ---just to name a few! And it doesn’t just stop there. Bowie was no doubt well steeped in them. U2 have certainly taken their cue from them in their own self-conscious way during their Zooropa period. Bruce Springsteen’s also a fan and cited one of their most notorious numbers as the catalyst for his album, Nebraska. And where would Dance, Techno and Ambient be without them? That’s not to suggest Suicide appeared out of a vacuum and were without their influences. Vega’s gone on record citing Iggy & The Stooges as a major inspiration for his antagonistic performance style. And no doubt, he was well aware of then cult figures like Lou Reed (Of course, one could say the same of Reed in terms of Suicide). Another major influence on Vega was Gene Vincent and other 50’s rockers.

Unlike the Velvets’ Banana album, Suicide’s 1977 debut was actually greeted with critical acclaim, but that never stopped a seminal masterpiece from bombing. The eerie opener, ‘Ghost Rider’ sounds just like its title. Pulsing and ghostly. And ridiculously catchy. Like the Ramones, Suicide weren’t immune to the allures of Pop. But this is not just some ode to the Marvel Comics character, the line, “America, America is killing its youth” provides some real food for thought. ‘Rocket U.S.A.’ follows with “it's doomsday, it's doomsday”. Martin Rev providing spare yet ominous accompaniment to Alan Vega’s amplified murmurs and whelps. And while Vega’s vocals might sound unique and left of center, what he’s doing is really no different than what Rockers like Gene Vincent and Elvis did in their glory days. Only with Vega, it's more in your face and up close.

‘Cherie’ is an out and out love song. Perhaps from a psychotic stalker, but it’s a love song. Musically, one can hear echoes of both stately church organ and doo-wop. But there’s almost something too sickly sweet going on, which brings it into the realm of the disturbing. All with little more than a synth and drum machine for backing. It’s a great lesson in economy and atmosphere. Less is truly more.

Martin Rev has remarked most of the songs on their debut were about “street people” and ‘Johnny’ certainly fits the bill. Here you can really hear the Rockabilly influence even if it’s hummed out on Rev’s crude synthesizer. “He’s looking so mean, he’s looking so tough,” Vega whispers sarcastically in your ear.  

Speaking of stalkers, ‘Girl’ steps even further into the realm of creepy voyeurism than ‘Cherie’. The sonic equivalent of Onanistic abandon. Rev’s keyboards touching on spooky carnival territory while Vega moans and groans on over the object of his attention. In terms of Vega’s vocal performance, it taps into something painfully lonesome and frighteningly solitary. The girl might be in the next room and even if he’s in her closet, sniffing a pair of her panties, she’s still a million miles away. In any event, what’s going on is definitely more horror movie than teenage lust. And as with anything grotesque, you can’t quite tear yourself away. You have to listen to the end and see what happens.  In this way, Suicide’s debut plays like a great thriller.  

Nick Hornsby once remarked you only need to hear ‘Frankie Teardrop’ once. Despite such a twit comment, the song is an out and out masterpiece. Terrifying and disturbing, yes. But still a masterpiece. You can almost smell the blood on the walls. Bone-chilling as it is, there’s a twisted sort of compassion for both victims and perpetrator. Despite its minimalism, it’s far more complex than meets the eye. For all the Noir this song presents, we’re not getting a black and white picture so much as shades of grey. In terms of scope, despite the hyperventilating, claustrophobic atmosphere, the view here is a cinematic panorama of a world gone very wrong. Lyrically, ‘Frankie’ takes Dylan’s bleak ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and pushes it into urban, nightmarish proportions. Like all nightmares, things are stretched like taffy into frightening, absurdist extremes as we follow Frankie down into hell. And just as you’re lulled and hypnotized by Rev’s masterful use of electric drone, you suddenly jump out of your seat with Vega’s stabbing, unpredictable blood curdling screams. Some forty-two years after its release, this song has not lost its power shock and disturb. Just like, ‘White Christmas, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is a classic.

The original release concludes with, the experimental and funereal ‘Che’. A somber, spooky sayonara. CD reissues have tacked on ‘I Remember’ and ‘Keep Your Dreams’ which are both haunting and welcome additions to the original album. But ‘Che’ was intended to be their parting shot and is a far more interesting and inexplicable closer than any of the bonus tracks. There’s something to be said for keeping the integrity of the original album.  

I’ll be the first to admit, Suicide isn’t for everyone. I’m willing to bet most Springsteen fans would be totally freaked out by it. Same with Radiohead fans. While some Bauhaus and Depeche Mode fans might appreciate its influence, I’m sure Black Celebration and In The Flatfield get more spins. Like their moniker, Suicide are not for the faint of heart or the fashionably superficial. But I’d argue they’re far more accessible than their dark, uncompromising reputation suggests. For my money, I’ve gone well beyond appreciating this record, to downright loving it.  And that’s not always the case with groundbreaking albums. Have to say, I play this a helluva lot more than Trout Mask Replica. Or OK Computer.

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Really great review!

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