Pop: Suicide make one last bid for attention

Suicide Highbury Garage, London

Leaving the house shrieking with manic glee at the sound of a band being booed off stage 20 years ago for 23 minutes straight, walking into a venue an hour later to watch them live could only disappoint. It doesn't help that Suicide's debut album, also two decades old, remains so inexplicable, so ominous. The primitive synth pulses of Martin Rev remain untouched in their strangeness, after so many years of that instrument's familiarity; the proto-rock'n'roll lyrics and shrieks of Alan Vega still sound unhinged.

Brought together to celebrate that album's re-release, playing in London for the first time in a decade, Suicide have somehow contrived to become popular. The small venue is packed, the crowd, most in their thirties, are here to praise the band, not bury them (as an axe-hurler at a Seventies gig once tried to). It doesn't seem healthy, somehow. Until the first note they strike literally raises the hair on my head, and they're back.

The first change to confront is Suicide's age. Where once their New York hip was effortless, now Alan Vega looks like a beatnik Fagin, in fingerless gloves, shades and beret, a little portly. Rev looks like Joey Ramone crossed with Herman Munster, a deliberate cartoon. It's cruelly relevant to rock whether its musicians fulfil their music's fantasies, and Suicide's alterations make the illusion waver.

More seriously, the passage of time has stripped them of the shock they rode in on. Some fans howl at the stage, as if auditioning for parts in the infamous, riot-ended Brussels show I'd been listening to. One seemed to think he was on the Bill Grundy show, circa 1976, hissing, "You're just a slut anyway, you're so fucking boring tonight" as he inched forward. Vega, the performance artist, threw mock-punches. But the smiles on stage couldn't be controlled. Suicide knew they were loved, and what could be more fatal than that?

It's to their credit that their reaction was to try to confront their audience with the present day, to get to them once more. One of their signature tunes, "Rocket USA", begins as some kind of classic-rock lodestone, its lyrics updated as Vega's hero Iggy Pop does to "Louie, Louie". But before long, Rev is trying to redetonate the old explosion, molesting a tribal beat, breaking it up, till the sense of comfort shakes apart, for just a moment.

The more they go on, the more the system they invented begins to reassert its grip. Sounds which, at a dance club, would be normal, in this context can still be made strange. By the time they take their last, brief encore, the song they think of as their greatest, "Frankie Teardrop", they've won a partial victory. "Frankie" cements it. A 10-minute epic of carnage on record, Vega compresses it to a single punch. "We're all Frankies!" he bellows, and leaves. In a way, it's all been pointless. Suicide know they can't repeat the impact of their past. It was good to see them, because they tried anyway.

Suicide continue at the Garage on Saturday and Sunday. Their album, `Suicide', is reissued by Blast First on Monday.

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