Suicide. There was never another band quite like them, before or after. A band so strange, unorthodox, and anti-establishment, it’s hard not think of them when trying to compile a list of most interesting live acts in rock n roll. But that’s just it, is Suicide rock n roll? On their 1977 self-titled debut album, there are plenty of references to early rock n roll during the rockabilly years but features absolutely zero of the ingredients of what constitutes as actual rock n roll.
Vocalist Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev formed Suicide in 1970 by making avant garde racket with a ten dollar keyboard and microphone. Spitting incoherent lyrics that sounded like Lou Reed mating with Elvis Presley, combined with dissonant rockabilly chord changes played on the worst synth in history of music, would drive audiences insane throughout the seven years before recording their debut album. People throwing bottles, rocks, chairs and knives at the band were a nightly occurrence yet they still continued to play. Suicide’s live performances would become some what of a battle of band vs. audience and even during a time when punk rock was becoming more dominant in the underground club scene, the ratio of violence and performance were staggering! How could a band so bad be so influential?
Starting the album is “Ghost Rider” a grinding, almost hypnotic riff played over and over on what sounds like a broken computer while Vega sputters lines like “America America is killing it’s youth!” sounding like a prophetic serial killer. And it sounds just as weird as that description. Not one guitar, bass guitar, live drum kit, or organic instrument make an appearance on any of the seven songs but still somehow manages to pay homage to acts like Elvis, Link Wray and maybe even a hint at Dean Martin. Although sounding mentally unstable, tormented and sometimes evil, Vegas begs for your attention with his 1950s frontman swagger and gothic Elvis vocal performance, laced with reverb and an overwhelming sense of dread.
You can’t talk about Suicide without bringing up one of the most unsettling, malevolent, and equally depressing songs in pop culture history, the eleven minute gothic epic: “Frankie Teardrop”. A sinister, mechanic drum machine beat, minimal keyboard notes act as a soundtrack to a story of an over-worked factory worker unable to support his family on his paycheck sees the only solution is slaughtering his them before committing suicide. The lyrics don’t rhyme, and are more or less phrases spit into a narrative that slowly loses it’s grip half way through, complete with blood curdling screams of paranoia and fear. I was 15 years old when I heard this song the first time and I’ll admit, it scared my pants off! Even after all of these years, I still find it difficult to listen to!
Describing this band would probably turn someone off before getting the chance to listen to them, and I would full on understand that but how an album with such minimal instrumentation and vocals could evoke such heavy feelings of dread on a track like “Frankie Teardrop” and make a song so simple and beautiful as “Cheree” or “Keep Your Dreams” is a testament to the legitimate artistry Vega and Rev are hiding behind the gritty, ugly synthetic soundscapes that are found on the album. Their live shows mostly ended with violence and late night listens to their debut album could end up in horrific nightmares but there is no denying what an interesting affair it is.
Suicide may not be a band you can listen to on a day to day basis, and this debut album is probably the hardest to listen to of the handful of records spanning their 40 year career, but there is something about the album that screams a unique creativity that few bands have ever been brave enough to convey. It’s not music for everyone and it’s debatable to even call it good music, but it’s interesting. If you are feeling brave, I urge you to check out Suicide. I promise that you will be hard pressed to find anything else like them.