A mainstay of the New York rock underground since the early 1970s (thereby prefiguring Soft Cell and all the other synth-based duos as well as an entire subsequent generation of droney noisemongers), Suicide mixed Alan Vega’s blues-styled vocals and Marty Rev’s synthesizer (originally a broken-down Farfisa organ they couldn’t afford to repair). Escaping the dingy clubs of Manhattan, Suicide went on to cause riots in Europe while on tour supporting Elvis Costello and later provided the soundtrack for Werner Fassbinder’s film In a Year with 13 Moons. Often confrontational in nature, they always provoked extreme reactions by producing a unique, obsessively American electronic music of enormous and enduring influence.
Suicide (1977) is a nearly perfect relic of mid-’70s Manhattan attitudes, a portrait of society grinding down to self-destruction. Rev’s powerful minimalist repetition catapults Vega’s pained and constantly cracking voice through indictments of Vietnam mentality (“Ghost Rider”), broken romance (“Cheree,” “Girl”) and holocausts both public and personal (“Rocket USA,” “Frankie Teardrop”). Stolid and restrained, the record simmers with repressed emotion and excellent, unusual performances. Nearly three years later, the LP was reissued with “I Remember,” “Keep Your Dreams” and “96 Tears” added, as well as a flexi-disc of Suicide live in Brussels, taken from a 1978 authorized live bootleg. Recommended, though clearly not for everyone.
Suicide (1980), the confusingly titled Vega/Rev LP, was produced by Ric Ocasek, who smoothed the sound out to an almost socially acceptable level. (These same sessions produced the duo’s zenith, 1980’s anthemic “Dream Baby Dream,” issued as a 12-inch single.) Rev’s use of electronics had grown more subtle and complex, while Vega’s vocals seem tethered and uneasy. “Harlem,” a stunning mélange of urban despair and tortured musicianship, is the album’s most affecting number.
The tape-only Half-Alive pairs one side of live material and one side of studio outtakes. Released soon after Suicide’s dissolution, it offers no breakthroughs, but stands simply as a tribute to a fine, underrated band. The live side demonstrates how much fun Suicide was in concert, despite sloppiness and Vega’s antagonism towards audiences. Ghost Riders, another live cassette, chronicles the pair’s 1981 tenth anniversary gig in Minneapolis with clear sound and a convincing performance.
Rev, the keyboard half of Suicide, proves only slightly more melodic on his eccentric eponymous solo outing — all keyboards and rhythm machines, with only the occasional grunting vocal. The rich layering of synthesizer effects — at least compared to the brute minimalism of Suicide — is close to the articulate electronic orchestration of the Ric Ocasek-produced Suicide album (also released in 1980). The simple floating melody and disco rhythm-box ping of “Mari” also suggest the mantric pop quality of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” More typical of Martin Rev, though, is the hellish pumping of “Nineteen 86” and “Jomo”‘s industrial racket; the only thing missing is Vega’s mad bark.
Half a decade later, Rev returned with the likeminded Clouds of Glory, pressed on red vinyl. Musical styles may have finally caught up with this minimalist electro-rhythm pioneer, but he sticks resolutely true to course here, dispensing with vocals and layering weird sound effects over sturdy sequencer lines. The gently attractive “Whisper” would have made a very pretty song were Rev to give it lyrics.
As Suicide’s vocal half, Vega was an infuriating electronic shaman. On his own, he creates seductive, ’50s-inspired music that succeeds with or without rockabilly revivals. Alan Vega‘s impact is the result of its spare instrumentation — just the singer plus Phil Hawk on guitar and drums — and deceptively simple songs. “Jukebox Babe” transcends a stuttering lyric and solitary riff to engulf its idiom and then the universe. “Lonely” should be the last word (or moan) on that subject. The rest of the album is similarly zen-like, and no less enjoyable for it.
The self-produced Collision Drive has a three-piece band and broader musical range. Besides the droning rock’n’roll of “Magdalena 82” and “Magdalena 83,” “Outlaw” flirts with heavy metal rhythms and textures; “Viet Vet” is an extended narrative reminiscent of the Doors. Vega’s moody lyricism has the poet’s touch — sometimes heavy-handed but always his own. This recycling is creative.
Continuing Ric Ocasek’s association with Suicide, the tall Car produced Vega’s third solo album, which mostly abandons the simplicity of his early work in favor of propulsive keyboard-dominated drone-rock played by Ocasek and a variety of sidemen, including Ministry and the Cars’ Greg Hawkes. Vega mumbles like an inarticulate offspring of Lou Reed and Jim Morrison, but Saturn Strip covers a lot of ground. “Video Babe” reasserts his atmospheric rockabilly sensibility (recall “Jukebox Babe”) but with very modern accessories, while an offhand cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” closes the LP on an enigmatic, inconclusive note.
Just a Million Dreams finds Vega acquiescing in an almost routine rock milieu, produced in the main by Chris Lord-Alge. Alan’s not exactly Mr. Mister, but the backing tracks are so filled with typical synth sounds, electronic rhythms and sizzling lead guitar that they provide little or no musical excitement to stimulate vocal hysteria. In fact, it’s difficult at times to believe that this bland singer is actually Vega.
Despite a new collaborator, the self-produced Deuce Avenue reveals Vega deeply out of touch with musical reality — his own or anyone else’s. Over Liz Lamere’s “drums and machines” — impotent and dull backing electronic keyboard tracks rooted in hip-hop style — Vega offhandedly runs down shambling and pale imitations of his potent art-rock raps, expending no effort and making no impression. (Instead of doing anything that might have inspired Vega to better performances, Ric Ocasek helped with the crappy cover art.) Vega is a compilation.
Long after bands they inspired had achieved commercial rewards Suicide never enjoyed, Rev and Vega reunited to reclaim their dominion with A Way of Life. Putting Ocasek back in the producer’s chair, Rev and Vega barely acknowledge their disciples’ innovations, and do what they’ve always done together: spin atmospheric tales with throbbing sequencers and dramatic Morrisonesque vocals. No catchy hooks, no high-energy disco rhythms, no old soul covers — just Suicide, polished but uncompromised. “Jukebox Baby 96” neatly bridges the pair’s past adventures, while “Wild in Blue” offers a pounding reminder of industrial dance music’s pre-Ministry beginnings.