Nothing prepares you for the first time you listen to Suicide. There’s little in the history of music that sounds remotely like anything Alan Vega and Martin Rev concocted from their limited gear. Primitive electronics buzz menacingly, a drum machine gives a basic pulse, and Vega’s voice jumps from soothing croons to horrific shrieks.
Yet the most dangerous aspect of their music wasn’t in the loud dissonant corner. Listening to something like “Ghost Rider,” the opening number from their 1977 self-titled debut, the starkness the track presents is undeniable not only musically, but lyrically as well, with topical lines like “America, America’s killing its youth.” What’s really unsettling is that if you strip away all these elements, this song could have been sung by Elvis. Suicide was a direct line that connected what made rock so vital and exciting, and rearranged it so these elements sounded new and more extreme.
Although The Ramones get the most credit for being the CBGB’s band who best defined punk, Suicide were actually pioneers of a revolution equally as vital and more radical than traditional punk. Vega and Rev applied a minimalist approach and unrefined instrumentation to express extreme emotion – a recipe that cooked up the murder/suicide pièce de résistance “Frankie Teardrop” but also the timeless sweet ballad “Dream Baby Dream,” inspiring generations to try their hand at different corners of their sound, trying to approximate their menace with guitars or electronics or both. They showed subsequent generations how to make unabashedly emotional music, adopting or abandoning tradition as they saw fit.
On July 16, Alan Vega passed away. We asked three musicians to tell us what Alan and Suicide meant to them.
Tomás Nochteff (Mueran Humanos)
I’m still trying to process and understand the impact that they left on me. How many people can say they invented something in rock music? You need something beyond talent to do that. Suicide were the first to embody the purest idea of punk; they were the first to marry the rebellious spirit of rock with music that was truly revolutionary. The genius of Suicide was knowing that they were already living in the future surrounded and merged with machines, electricity, and electronics, which didn’t make us any more peaceful or more functional. Life was still full of confusion, fear, romance, and rage.
Alan Vega was a performer, lyricist, and singer of astonishing intensity, a street poet completely dedicated to awakening consciousness, a master of connecting emotionally with the other using a scream or a whisper, melody, and dissonance to transmit the whole emotional spectrum, from compassion to murder.
Recently we spent a night at the park drinking around a bonfire. At some point, someone played Suicide’s first album and we played [it] on repeat through the night and during sunrise until well into the morning. We even played it on the ride home when we drove into the city. Somehow, it mutated into something else every time we listened to it. Forty years after it was recorded and several years after I first listened to it, it still sounds like it comes from tomorrow. So intimate, hypnotic, and enigmatic. New York City Blues.
Hugo Quezada (Exploded View/Robota)
“Nothing compares to the drive of the ‘Ghost Rider’ riff; it’s unbeatable.” That was my first thought when I heard Suicide for the first time. Their first eponymous record came into my life through a friend at the Tianguis Cultural del Chopo in the late 90s. Their primeval electronics and Alan Vega’s raging performance were exactly what I was looking for and needed at the moment. Anti-musician, anti-frontman, anti-singer. Alan Vega had it all.
Rodrigo Caamaño (Triángulo de Amor Bizarro)
Ever since I can remember, Alan Vega has been my favorite singer. His records – both his solo stuff and with Suicide – have made a huge impression on me. Their first album is probably my favorite album of all time.
He is one of the few artists we try to be as influenced by as we can. It’s without a doubt one of the most personal approximations to rock ‘n’ roll that exists since the genre’s beginning. His attitude, songs, and sounds are guiding lights to distinguish what qualifies as true rock ‘n’ roll.
I listened to Suicide for the first time when I was 15 on a tape that someone lent me without knowing what it was. It had live recordings and it stayed with me forever. I saw them live once at Primavera Sound a few years ago and they were amazing. It was the best show of the festival, in my opinion. It was full of punk attitude, threatening, brutally loud. Martin Rev playing his keyboard with his fists and Alan Vega singing like a demon. One of the best concerts of my life.