“Go and see Suicide, everybody go and see Suicide NOW!” So screamed Nick Cave on stage at the end of Grinderman’s set at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, 2011. It was delivered with the tone and conviction of a mandatory order rather than the pleasantry of suggestion. Had this been back in the grotty confines of New York's legendary CBGB’s, a club they played regularly during its 1970s boom period, vocalist Alan Vega would have no doubt been brandishing the entire length of a drive chain from a motorcycle, instilling a wild fear and mania into the small space. But I wasn’t sure if this would be the same ferocious group that had made some of the most progressive music of the 1970s - from the terrifying electronic death throb of "Frankie Teardrop" to the sexy swagger of "Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne" - or just another play-your-classic-album-in-its-entirety outfit, reeking of apathy and financial desperation.
I did go and see them - I was going to anyway, Nick Cave - and what I encountered was two quite elderly men, shrunken by the huge stage and billowing black smoke, making the most glorious and everlasting boom of a bloody racket, that seemed to shake the concrete floor we stood on and fill the muggy Spanish evening air with a menacing sense of terrifying synth dread.
"Ghostrider" sounded as scrappy, charged and pulsating as it might have done at its first ever outing in a practice room forty years ago, like it was still being assembled on stage, constructed through improvisation, until it became a magnificent scrap heap of a song. There was not a shred of nostalgia felt around performance or even a hint of crowd-pleasing reworkings of ‘classics’ but instead a group still quite happy to fuck with both their music and their audience.
2015 marks 45 years since the band formed. After a trip to London this summer for a successful show under the premise of a ‘Punk Mass’ (the term stems from a title they would use on flyers in the early 70’s when they would play shows under that label), I seized the opportunity to catch up with both members, Alan Vega and Martin Rev, to wind their minds back through the group’s legacy and explore why pushing forward and doing new things, despite escaping near-death, is just as much as a motivation for them now as it was in 1970.
The pair first met at a 24 hour multimedia gallery in Manhattan - Museum: a Project of Living Artists - and formed Suicide via a fused love of art, freestyle jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and the confrontational menace of Iggy Pop that had blown Vega’s mind when seeing him in 1969. “It was a wall of sound with electronics, very provocative,” says Rev, recalling the early sounds the pair made when getting together. “It was the total free sound of electronic components, that’s where we were going. Without reference to what was going on in the world - there was nothing quite like it, we had no connection to anything else.”
The combined presence of Alan Vega’s twisted demon Elvis vocals, howled and bawled over Martin Rev’s synthesiser - which itself sounded like some malfunctioning church organ that had been possessed by Satan - meant that they often found as many enemies as they did fans at their shows. “When we got to clubs people would react against it quite aggressively. Once I moved into pure electronics that made it truly unbearable for some people. They became very aggressive” says Rev. But Vega got a massive kick out of the confrontation, “I used to scream at them at the back ‘I can’t hear you!’ – I used to get off on the booing aspect of it all.” Sometimes Vega would smash a bottle and start cutting his face to one up any violence, other times he would lock all the exits so nobody could leave until Suicide were ready to let them leave.
The shock of onlookers was understandable: most gig goers had grown up on the elongated masturbatory guitar solos of shirtless rock gods. Now they were faced with two people who seemed hell bent on dismantling everything they had thought the world of guitar music was supposed to mean. But this singular vision made Suicide themselves feel indestructible in the face of hatred. “That’s the illusion that the stage gives you,” says Rev. “I always felt in control, even if I was in front of 2,000 people screaming for my blood, I felt I had them, that I could take them all on with one hand – because I had the sound and sound is an incredible power.” Their name alone was enough to stop them even being advertised. Vega recalls, “they wouldn’t put us in the Village Voice. They would list every band that was playing in town but never us. I said to Marty, ‘Are we a ghost?’”
Every performance became a complete step into the unknown. “You’re standing up saying: this is me I’m doing this and I don’t give a shit who you are or what you think about it. That’s what you have to do when you’re doing something new," explains Rev, "and then when they say, ‘We don’t fucking like that, get off the stage,’ you stay on stage and do what you’re going to do. You take that energy and you bounce it back.” Sometimes the confrontation and hatred would really overspill and at one show, whilst supporting The Clash and Elvis Costello in Belgium, they created such hostility in the audience that their microphone was stolen from them and the evening ended in a riot and broken nose for Vega. It was captured in the recording 23 Minutes Over Brussels, an amazingly brutal performance that still sounds resolutely terrifying, abrasive and beautiful even today, with a sea of boos, almost as loud as the pummelling music, and Vega screaming back “I HATE YOUR FUCKING GUTS!” It certainly puts you in the mood of the room, to almost palpable levels. At another gig supporting The Clash in Glasgow, someone threw an axe at Vega. But, as he told the Guardian in 2008, "that was nothing unusual."
Suicide cut their self-titled debut album in one go. The whole record, according to Rev, was pretty much done live in one take - “I can’t think of any overdubs at all,” he confirms. Released in 1977 it would take a while for the rest of the world to catch up. Vega attests: “It took us twenty years before we got accepted in New York.” Still, conviction in their own sonic creations were fundamental factors to their continuing momentum, as Rev reasons, “I always thought it was the greatest shit in the world and I thought come on, you gotta hear this. What has value will eventually be seen to have so…in time.”
Working together for 45 years, Rev attributes their individualistic pursuits as being one of the reasons they have stayed together for so long. “The secret to us working together is that we did go in different directions. We’ve never had a formal conflict of us saying, ‘We’re not working together anymore.’ We have our separate lives and we’re both very creative people, so we’re always exploring things on our own.” Both have made multiple solo recordings and both have knocked out masterpieces alone. Rev’s came early on his self-titled LP in 1980, whereas Vega would wait until 2007 before he created his, with the exemplary Station.
The group are still tweaking their old material and taking it to new places when they do play live. New material isn’t entirely off the cards either according to Rev, “If the circumstances were right." Of the relentless playing, rearranging and reimagining of their own stuff he says, “Whenever I reach a stage of feeling too familiar with something or it feels like a formula it has to go. So much of that material is good stuff and you can mess with it and change it. You don’t have to do the same thing over and over again night after night, but you don’t have to throw it away, either… I try not to do things like encores and bring on guests too often because that for me that is Suicide lying horizontally and we’re very much about verticality. We’re not about winding down and relaxing and having a good time – that’s not anything that really appeals to me.”
The two aren’t making any solid predictions for their future - in 2012 Vega suffered a heart attack and stroke and was nearly written off for good. Despite the scare, he has no plans to finish up yet, “I’ll never retire, it’s not in my blood. I’ll die dancing. I’ll die right on stage” he beams. However, before he does go anywhere he has some typically Suicide plans for one of their biggest songs. "Dream Baby Dream" has been covered by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Savages and from Neneh Cherry to Arcade Fire (with David Byrne on vocals) but Vega has even bigger plans for it. “Eventually it will be the national anthem,” he says with a sardonic confidence. Rev too isn’t making concrete plans for the group, taking each opportunity one by one, “I never know from one gig to another. For all I know that [Punk Mass in London] could have been our last gig. Then again I’ve thought that before and there’s always been another one.” The future for Suicide is perhaps a little bit like their past: every performance another step into the total unknown.
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