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.
By the time Brian Eno and I pitched up in New York to make a set of demos with Television in mid-December 1974, Richard Hell was on his way out of the band. I didn’t know that at the time, although it was apparent from his demeanour that he was already somewhat semi-detached from the other three. And perhaps I should have recognised the significance of the fact that none of the five songs we recorded during a three-day stay was written by Richard. They were all the work of Tom Verlaine, which meant no room for “Blank Generation” or “Love Comes in Spurts”, two of the Hell-composed songs that had been performed when I saw the band a couple of months earlier and would become, after Richard had moved on to the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids, anthems of the New Wave.
I suppose that if anyone is entitled to boast of having invented the punk movement of the late 1970s, it’s him. And he does make that claim, quietly but firmly, at various points throughout his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Published in the US by Ecco, it tells the story of his life from his birth in 1949 up to the point at which he abandoned his career in music, in 1984. Since then Richard has become a novelist (Go Now, Hot and Cold, Godlike, etc), so he knows how to write and his book is an entertaining, informative and mostly unvarnished — although inevitably subjective — story of sex and drugs, garnished with a little rock and roll. Set mostly in the streets of the Lower East Side, its cast of characters includes Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Dee Dee Ramone, the poet-turned-agent Andrew Wylie, Malcolm McLaren, Seymour Stein, a number of drug dealers and many girlfriends, including the wife of the artist Claes Oldenburg, immortalised in a picture caption that sums up the book’s tone: “At the beginning, she was just a funny rich chick who liked my company and took good care of me and loved having sex.” And, of course, Tom Verlaine, with whom Richard ran away from school in Delaware (they were called Tom Miller and Richard Meyer then) and with whom he was reunited as they created their new identities in New York City in the late Sixties.
No band can exist for long with two leaders, which is how Television started. Especially not when their ambitions are so divergent, as Hell’s and Verlaine’s became. Both were poets, and they collaborated happily on a small poetry magazine during their early years in New York, but only one of them was really interested in music per se. When I talked to Verlaine, our conversations ranged from Booker T and the MGs (later he sent me a copy of their rare Christmas album that he’d found, still shrink-wrapped, in a Chicago thrift shop) to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, and the way he played and wanted the band to sound reflected his obsessions. Hell was far more interested in what music could achieve on a social plane: not just as a way of getting girls into bed, although that was clearly the priority, but as a vehicle for what became the DIY philosophy of punk. His dandyish deployment of ripped and safety-pinned clothes and his spiky hair certainly made him a pioneer, and there is a certain disdain in his attitude to the way the English new wave appropriated his notions (although he admired McLaren and approved of the Sex Pistols). Not that Verlaine was unaware of the aesthetic dimension: no one ever brought the fugitive-poet look to rock and roll more effectively.
It was in 1972 that Verlaine found a second-hand Danelectro bass guitar for $50 and told Hell that he could teach him enough technique for the kind of music they were going to make together with a drummer, Billy Ficca, in a trio calling itself the Neon Boys. Verlaine himself was on his way to become an expert and highly original guitarist, and a couple of years later he found a fourth member, Richard Lloyd, to help him create the intricate two-guitar filigree that was in his head. Now they were called Television, a name chosen by Hell and approved by Verlaine (“Much later I noticed that ‘TV’ was his initials,” Hell notes drily).
That was the line-up when I was taken by my friends Richard and Lisa Robinson to see them at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre on East 4th Street (now the home of the New York Theatre Workshop) in October 1974. The newly formed Blondie opened the show, replacing the Ramones at short notice and performing a set that, beyond Debbie’s looks, betrayed little of their potential. Television’s set was tense, sometimes rickety, but spellbinding even when a song like the never-recorded ballad “Bluebirds” threatened to fall apart. The one that really made an impact had an unforgettable chorus: “I fell… (Did you feel low?) Not at all.. (Huh?) I fell… right into the arms… of Venus de Milo.” And Verlaine’s stage presence, with its sense of suppressed anguish, was as compelling as his laconic, sidelong delivery. Hell sang “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”, but I’m afraid he and his songs didn’t make much of an impression. I took away a poster for the band’s forthcoming appearances at Club 82, Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, with approving quotes from from David Bowie, Nick Ray, Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, plus a list of the 30-odd songs in their repertoire scribbled by Hell in ballpoint pen on the reverse side.
I was running the A&R department at Island Records in London then, and looking for something new, preferably something that wasn’t wearing denim, and when I got home I made arrangements to return as soon as possible and make demos with Television. They were keen, and no other company was interested at the time. I contacted Eno, who readily agreed to help out at the sessions; his presence, I felt, might help to influence my bosses at Island, and he might even get his management company, EG, interested in taking them on.
The studio we used, Good Vibrations at 1440 Broadway, a 25-story office building a block down from Times Square, was not an obvious choice. I booked it because I’d been doing some work with Fania Records, the salsa label, whose records Island released in the UK, and that was where they recorded Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of their stable, so I’d get a good rate and the use of an experienced engineer, Jon Fausty. And it was only going to be a demo session, so we didn’t really need Electric Lady or the Record Plant.
The five tracks we recorded over the course of two days, and mixed down on the third, have been endlessly bootlegged, often with inaccurate information attached. The tracks were “Prove It”, “Venus de Milo”, “Marquee Moon”, “Friction” and “Double Exposure” — the last of those being the only one that didn’t make it on to their debut album when they finally signed with Elektra two years later. The piano on “Marquee Moon” was played by Tom. Eno played no keyboards and did not sing on the tracks. And the location was not “Fairland Studios, Hollywood”.
Tom didn’t like the way things turned out, and later he blamed Eno. “The whole thing sounded like the Ventures,” he told Viv Goldman in a Sounds interview. “It sounded so bad. I kept on saying, why does it sound so bad? And he’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? It sounds pretty good to me.'” Tom might equally have blamed me or Fausty, but he and Eno didn’t get on, although there was no overt falling out. That still seems a shame. I didn’t realise at the time what a perfectionist Tom was, and that he wanted perfection even on his demos. But did we make those songs sound like the Ventures? I don’t think so. If you know the bootlegs, you judge.
Anyway, I took the tapes home with me and played them to my bosses, crossing my fingers that they’d get the point. Sadly, no one else was greatly impressed, and at the time Island’s success as a small independent label was based on the whole company getting enthusiastic about an artist or a band. In retrospect it would have been good to try and bring them to London, so that people could see them, but it might have been a year or two too early even for that. Tom was disappointed, I was disappointed, and gradually we lost touch. Before long he had squeezed Hell out of the band — they were also divided by their attitude to heroin — and brought in Fred Smith to play bass on their debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel”, released on a label set up by their manager/chief fan Terry Ork, and eventually on Marquee Moon, which deservedly became a classic.
Hell and Verlaine didn’t speak for a long time. “Tom was highly protected, well defended,” Richard writes in a shrewd but hardly impartial assessment of his erstwhile partner’s temperament. “There are good things and bad things about that. It gave him a certain kind of integrity — he wasn’t going to be blown around by fashion, he was discreet and reliable, but it made him really difficult to work with or be friends with. He was afraid of infection and robbery, so he lived in this high, remote, walled-in place, which enabled him to look down on everybody else… I respected his abilities and valued his friendship, but his coldness and egotism came more and more to the fore as he began to get more public attention. He was a lot easier to get along with before strangers started admiring him.”
Maybe Hell saw me as one of those strangers. I didn’t keep up with him because his side of the new wave didn’t interest me greatly, but I listen to everything Verlaine does in order to see if he’s still trying to get closer to the ideal version of what Hell calls his “crystal-clear crisp sweet-guitar suites”. In my view he came nearest to such perfection in Television’s 1992 reunion album, in great songs such as “Shane, She Wrote This”, “1880 or So”, “No Glamour for Willi” and “Call Mr Lee”. So here’s the promo video for “Call Mr Lee”, with wonderful lead work from Richard Lloyd:
and a TV performance of “1880 Or So”:
and, on the basis of equal time, here’s Hell with the Voidoids (including Robert Quine on guitar) in 1979 doing one of his contributions to the early Television repertoire, “Love Comes in Spurts”:
Finally, here’s “Blank Generation”, also filmed at CBGBs the same year, making me think that it’s a pretty good song, after all:
The title of this blog is taken from my book The Blue Moment, published by Faber & Faber in 2009, in which I tried to look at how Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue had influenced half a century of modern music, from La Monte Young and Terry Riley through James Brown, John Cale and Brian Eno to Arve Henriksen and the Necks.