Alan Vega 1938-2016
The most interesting rock music is often made when people from different backgrounds or disciplines are thrown together, united in a desire to create something previously unheard. That was what made the Beatles, the Who, the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music so special, and it lay behind the brilliance of Suicide, too.
The singer Alan Vega, who died on Saturday at the age of 78, and the keyboardist Martin Rev formed their duo in New York in the mid-1970s: they were part of the downtown scene that revolved around the Mercer Arts Centre and CBGB. Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut album, released on the Red Star label, belongs with the Ramones’ first album, Television’s Marquee Moon, Talking Heads’ 77 and — from outside the New York scene — Père Ubu’s The Modern Dance and Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo.
Vega was a visual artist who listened to La Monte Young and the Stooges. Rev had studied with the pianist Lennie Tristano (a unique figure who had a whole school of jazz named after him in the late 1940s) and admired Cecil Taylor. If they had a jukebox, it was probably packed with ? and the Mysterians and obscure early rockabilly 45s. Together they made outsider art that, although too scary for most tastes, influenced a generation of adventurous young musicians.
In January 1977 I reviewed their debut album for the Melody Maker; it seems to have been the first piece written about them in the British press. I loved their stripped-down aesthetic and Rev’s camouflaged musicianship. Naturally I focused on “Frankie Teardrop”, the album’s longest (at 10 minutes) and most extreme track: the story of a 20-year-old factory worker who, in a state of existential despair, kills himself and his young family. Against Rev’s minimalist backing of industrial electronic noise and racing-heartbeat drum machine, Vega’s breathless recitative is punctuated by screams, howls and whimpers.
A few months later they supported the Clash on a UK tour. Shortly afterwards I saw them at the Marquee, where they added an entire dimension to their recorded work, largely thanks to Vega’s compelling presence. My friend Howard Thompson, who had alerted me to their existence, got the album released in the UK in his capacity as head of A&R at Bronze Records.
That first album was recorded at Brooks Arthur’s 914 Studios in Blauvelt, Rockland County, where Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ had been created four years earlier. Its influence is all over Springsteen’s Nebraska, recorded in 1982, and in 2005 Bruce used Vega and Rev’s lovely “Dream Baby Dream” as a concert-closing anthem during his Devils & Dust tour. (In this interview with the Guardian‘s Martin Longley, Vega described Springsteen’s version as “America’s national anthem”.)
Every track on Suicide had something interesting to offer, whether it was a hymn to a revolutionary icon (“Che”), a hymn to a girl (“Cheree”), or hymns to a lost future (“Rocket USA”) and a lost American innocence (“Ghost Rider”). What Kraftwerk were to Europe in the mid-’70s, Suicide were to the US: a snapshot of the Zeitgeist, an artful simplicity and some great grooves concealing profound and often troubling complexities.
* The photograph of Alan Vega (left) and Martin Rev is by Michael Robinson. It is taken from the back jacket of Suicide’s first album.