Get To Know... Alan Vega & Suicide

It can be tricky to navigate the influential back catalogue of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, a duo that confronted every convention they ever faced. To help, here's an intro to Suicide and Alan Vega's solo career in 10 tracks:
Posted: 19 April 2021 Words: Jim Howells

Suicide singer and visionary Alan Vega died in 2016. Now, Sacred Bones Records are releasing Mutator on 23rd April, an album he made in the mid-90s. To coincide, we chart the avant-garde trailblazers’ essential work as Suicide and solo artists in their own right.

Mutator is the first in a planned series of archival releases, drawn from what the singer called “the Vega vault,” a vast catacomb of Vega’s writings, paintings, drawings, and music.

Suicide were a door opener, or better yet, a battering ram, for the guitar-less synthesiser bands of the 1980s, the electronic dance music of the 1990s, and even made their way onto that Marc Jacobs advert you might have seen. A too-punk-for-you, too-smart-for-you and fundamentally, too-cool-for-you duo that, whether deliberately or not, confronted every convention they ever faced. Suicide didn’t need the verse-chorus-verse format, nor did they care. Even Suicide didn’t know what Suicide was going to do next. By not providing the conventions on which their audience so desperately depended, Suicide caused anger, panic, and revulsion. 

It can be tricky to navigate said anger, panic and revulsion, so we’re here to help you find your way through the hurtling ashtrays and rubble of 1970s NYC, and explore the back catalogue of one of the most influential acts of the last 50 years. Either you will become a lifelong devotee of the church of Suicide, or, like so many others, just try and pretend it never happened:

Suicide - 'Dream Baby Dream' (1979)

This is one the more accessible end of the Suicide-spectrum, produced by The Cars’ vocalist, Ric Ocasek, (who, for those who need some context, later went on to produce Weezer’s Blue Album), is a buoyant, carefree pop song wrapped up in a sense of false security. It sounds like something Lou Reed should have done, and a lot like something James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem did do. Bruce Springsteen covered it too. The live version on 1992’s Why Be Blue? Is also worth a listen.

Suicide - 'Ghost Rider' (1977)

'Ghost Rider' is the opening track of the debut self-titled Suicide album, it says a lot about who they are and what they’re about. Proving what trendsetters they were, Suicide based the song on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, who was forever immortalised on the silver screen by Nicolas Cage, who like Suicide, is great at inaudible fits of expression. 

Suicide - 'Frankie Teardrop' (1977)

This song tells a story of a young father and poverty-stricken factory worker whose destitution drives him to insanity. One day, Frankie comes home from work, murders his wife and child, and then commits suicide. The narrative then continues to follow him into hell. The musical backing on the song is sparse, featuring just a simple keyboard-riff, drum machine, and the vocal line, creating a chilling atmosphere. Vega's dark, inhuman screams add to the claustrophobic nature of the piece.

Suicide - 'Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne' (1980)

Suicide's second album, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev was a very important lean in the direction of disco, with hopes that Giorgio Moroder would even produce it! However, Martin Rev stated that the lyrics of 'Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne' were about the "decadent side of the nightlife scene" and didn’t really feel like the record reflected what the group was about. Despite this, it is an incredibly important and influential slice of Suicide's career, bridging the gap between punk and dance music. 

Alan Vega - 'Bye Bye Bayou' (1980)

A little but Primus-y, a bit Captain Beefheart-y, and accented with those signature Vega shrieks, it’s a pulsating, anxiety-inducing ripple down the Bayou, transforming a drug-riddled Lower East side into a Creedence Clearwater Revival-soundtracked swamp. The song is testament to Vega’s creativity and versatility, so much so that it's LCD Soundsystem’s only-released cover of Suicide et al, despite James Murphy's obvious fascination.

Suicide - 23 Minutes Over Brussels (1978)

Even though it's a live set, it’s one recording so it kind of counts as a separate track? It's certainly an interesting one to talk about, at least. Okay: 23 Minutes Over Brussels is a live Suicide bootleg that ended in a riot. They were supporting Elvis Costello, who, because of Suicide's treatment by the audience, played a very short and very bad tempered set, causing the now infamous riot. Being a bootleg recording it's incredibly rare, so expect odd and fleeting YouTube uploads to be the only means of accessing the iconic show.

Alan Vega - 'Every 1's A Winner' (1983)

Yes, as in, the Hot Chocolate song. No, it’s not ironic. It’s really good. How dare you judge? The song comes from Saturn Strip, Vega’s first and only major label release, where he was reunited with Ric Ocasek, who hired the little-known synth player Alain Jourgensen, who later found success with Ministry. It’s high production value and pop-esque 4-minute long songs may seem like Suicide selling-out, but it’s an absolute success.

Suicide - 'Surrender' (1988)

Another one of those glossy, beautiful songs that Suicide could just bust out every now and then. It’s a haunting prom theme, with diner-music backing vocals and milkshake-and-fries-chord-progressions. It captures the hollow vastness of the American dream in a way that other contemporaries haven’t quite been able to. This song is absolutely David Lynch’s inspiration for Twin Peaks.

Suicide - ' Jukebox Babe 96' (1988)

I probably should have told you this earlier, but a lot of Suicide is rockabilly. Not like 8-ball-gearstick, white t-shirt rockabilly though. It’s actually really good. Although there is a version of this song, called ‘Jukebox Babe’ that Vega recorded in 1981, which is far less Suicide-sounding than this version. Once you make the link between Alan Vegas' love of Elvis and those horrible, warped, shrieks he makes, the dystopian portrait of Americana that Suicide paint is even more poignant. 

Alan Vega - 'Filthy' (2021)

A filthy chugger of a track, complete with those trademark Vega-isms. It’s always impressive to hear how ahead of the curve Suicide were, sonically. Vega’s lyrics and delivery matched with the impressive one-man-band Martin Rev, always managed to create an rich, and powerful atmosphere, In the words of Vega’s widow Liz Lamere, who also mixed and produced the posthumous album, Mutator, said: 'Filthy's anthemic zombie atmosphere challenges the listener to find the underlying message of hope that is always within Vega’s words and sound.”

Mutator is out this Friday (23rd April) via Sacred Bones Records.

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