Music: Suicide - not dead yet

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Alan Vega, lead singer with the legendary New York techno-primitive duo Suicide, is talking drugs. "We were the only ones not doing drugs, believe it or not," he claims. "We did a little marijuana, but none of that heavy shit. Ironic, really - we were the ones called Suicide ..."

As it happens, Vega and Rev were the first to use the term "punk" in a musical context, when they put on something called "A Punk Music Mass" at a downtown art gallery space in 1971. "Everybody else in the world has claimed it - Richard Hell, Legs McNeil - but I don't give a shit," says Vega good-naturedly. "We were the first. Up until then it was just a negative word - like if someone was too scared to fight, they `punked out', y'know? But I liked the juxtaposition of the words `punk' and `mass'

Their restrained drug use wasn't the only thing that separated Suicide from the general run of New York punks. While most NY bands, from Television to the Ramones, favoured guitars as the totems of the new punk-rock religion, Martin Rev used primitive electronic equipment. With Vega cooing and screaming like some demented mutant offspring of Elvis and Yma Sumac, the result - as captured on their newly reissued debut album (see review on page 16) - was unmistakably rock'n'roll, Jim, but not as we knew it. In retrospect, Suicide can be perceived as one of the basic building-blocks of the flourishing techno scene we know today.

Vega and Rev first got together around the beginning of the Seventies, when Rev dropped in to the Project for Living Artists, a gallery/ art space which Vega and a few others kept open with a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts.

Rev's background had been in rock'n'roll, doowop music and subsequently avant-garde jazz, but he had become convinced that, after Cecil Taylor, there really wasn't that much fresh territory left in jazz. He began investigating electronic music after playing with his jazz group. "Initially, I was using electric keyboards because the spaces I was playing, museums and galleries, wouldn't have pianos or anything, and I needed something light enough to carry around," he explains. "I was practising on a piano in the loft, but borrowed an electric organ to do the gig, and when I played the stuff we had rehearsed, I found, wow, there was a whole sound there that I had never heard before."

Vega had been dabbling in electronics too, "fooling around with drone sounds and stuff", so he had a natural empathy with Rev's jazz-inspired electronic music. "We just merged into this thing, this chaos, like the universe comes out of gas," says Vega. "We just started out doing gigs, without any songs or anything, just sound; I'd be standing there screaming to this crazy sound. Then over time they became songs, and I started singing, making titles up, even writing lyrics eventually."

Together, they attempted to drag rock'n'roll kicking and screaming into the future. Rev explains: "The rock of the past, the Sixties, was before our time ... you either get back into that when it's already fading out, or you create something of your own."

It was a struggle, though. Performing to hard-core punk audiences, Suicide gigs were traumatic affairs, with bottles, cans, coins, a knife or two, and the occasional piece of flying furniture. Vega's performance-art background led him to adopt a confrontational stage act, with harrowing tales of poverty, suicide (of course) and urban dystopias.

"In the early Seventies," Vega explains, "you'd go in off the mean streets to see a group and get entertained. My idea was to turn it right back - you come in off the nasty mean streets, and you meet the nasty mean streets; in other words, you're not getting entertained tonight, buddy, you're getting where you came from."

"I used to cut myself in those days, and walk out into the audience bleeding, with the blade in my hand. One place, people started to leave, so I ran from the stage to the door and barricaded it. They were petrified, they just froze."

Eventually, the strain of trying to drag rock into the future grew too much for the duo, who went their separate ways after the demoralising commercial failure of their superb second album. In 1989, they reunited to record a third album, A Way of Life, and though they may occasionally get together to play gigs like this weekend's shows, there are no plans to record again.

In retrospect, a large part of Suicide's problems came from their name. "It was the worst name we could have ever chosen," reckons Vega. "I used to walk down the street with a black leather jacket with studs on the back that said `Suicide', and people would throw things at me. It could have been Homicide, or Genocide, Patricide, Matricide, Infanticide - it was just the wrong `ide'."

Suicide play the Garage, Highbury Corner, London, tonight, Saturday and Sunday. Their debut album `Suicide' is reissued this week by Blast First Records.

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