Text by Adam Lehrer
This is probably the longest playlist that I’ve ever fashioned for this column, and sometimes, size matters. The influence of Alan Vega in his capacity as the frontman for Suicide and as a solo artist cannot be understated. It has been a very sad year for music, with the deaths of Prince, Bowie, and now, Alan Vega. The influences of Bowie and Prince loom titanic as well, but in a much different way than Vega. Bowie, for instance, holds an influence over the culture of self-presentation. He taught countless artists from countless mediums to be ruthlessly committed to their own actualized selfs. A similar statement could be made about Prince, though pop music would also radically alter in his wake. But Vega stands amongst a very few artists that created a sound so singular that one can audibly hear elements of it in the slew of genres and sub-genres that would follow. From the top of the charts to the scourges of the underground, Suicide’s sonic approach has been obsessed over and employed by musicians for decades. Who else can claim to monumentally influence pop music in such a direct way? The Velvet Underground, to be sure. The Stooges, without question. Hendrix, maybe. But I don’t think any of those artists can claim to be the progenitors of as many sub-cultures as Vega, Martin Rev, and Suicide have proved: Post-Punk, Industrial, Techno, Synth-pop, IDM, Trip-hop, and even contemporary Hip-hop to an extent. Damn. Full disclosure: Suicide and Alan Vega were responsible for much of the music that I hold dear, and there are few artists throughout the history of music that had as profound an effect on my own personal taste.
At the risk of sounding like a hack, I’ve often thought of Alan Vega as the musical equivalent of William S. Burroughs in one fairly important way. Burroughs, the junkie god of Avant-Garde 20th century literature, was actually the corporate heir to a massive fortune, a Missouri blue blood gone wrong. As experimental as his work grew, it never lost a palatable sense of Americana-rooted sentimentality. There’s a real “American tale” around his mythos. Vega, the junkie god of downtown NYC street-punk, was raised in a similarly American archetypical home: the son of Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn. His parents weren’t artists, and his early musical exposure was mostly the country western favored by his parents and a little later, the early rock stars.
But, Vega was also a visual artist first. His infamous light sculptures inspire the same sense of dread-laden awe as artists like Hermann Nitsch. But he grew disillusioned with the art world and started making music after meeting best friend Martin Rev. Together they formed Suicide. Vega wrote poems about and created music for the working class. That sense of real struggle was what interested him. But at the same time, he never really was able to shake off his artistic background. Alan Vega as a frontman for Suicide was almost like a character born of conceptual art. It was like Vega created this rock star persona for himself to deliver his message in a way that could be relatable to his target audience (in both Suicide and later on as a solo artist), but was never able to fully detach from his own artistic self-awareness. Suicide really was one of the first bands that drew a line between the world of avant-garde and pop music and delicate walked that line with the swaggering vocals of Vega and the minimally harsh but thoroughly catchy synth melodies and baselines of Vega. That might be Suicide’s most fascinating trait as a band. They inspired experimental artists to flirt with the mainstream and inspired the mainstream to flirt with experimental art. That is why their influence grew so titanic. They drew attention to the fact that drawing a line between mainstream and underground was pretentious, short-sighted, and stupid. All that really matters is authenticity: are you creating the art that best communicates your ideas and delivering it in the medium best suited to the audience that will best understand your ideas. And nothing was more authentic than Suicide and Alan Vega.
As stated above, Vega’s musical influences started with the building blocks of Rock n’ Roll: Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee. He also declared having been massively in love with the voice of Roy Orbison. When you actually examine those first two Suicide records, it might be surprising to some how much those early rock stars impacted the actual Suicide sound. Vega to be certain looked towards stars like Elvis for his own self-mythologizing as a self-actualized rock star: charisma, mystery, swagger. But also, the Suicide songs often sound like early rock ditties degraded by updates in technology. But the minimal structures and near-singalong quality made the experimental approach all the more thrilling. Vega also is something of a crooner.
But to ignore the experimental music that influenced Vega and Suicide would be grossly negligent. Krautrock, or the experimental rock music that came out of Germany in the ‘70s, is the most obvious precursor to Suicide. The minimal structures of Faust, the delirious funkiness of Can, and the digital mania of Kraftwerk are all massively important to the Suicide sound. Though from New York and not Germany, the band Silver Apples were one of the first experimental rock groups to use synthesizers, and are hard not to think of when thinking about Suicide. Vega was also a noted classical musical enthusiast, having developed an interest in sonics by scratching classical records to make them sound weirder. The German 20th Century avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen had a profound impact on Vega by teaching that within the simple blip of an electronic sound comes a world of possibilities.
And finally: The Stooges. Vega was blown away when he saw The Stooges in 1969, going home to play ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ on repeat. The Stooges were intimately aware of the fact that a direct and academic-less approach to music might be the most profound artistic experience: “once you’re making music for artists, you’re fucked,” Iggy seemed to suggest while shouting until his lungs gave out and rolling around in broken glass on the stage. Suicide took this to heart and sought to provoke audiences through direct violent gesture. Not for art, but for the sake of provocation. And pure provocation is at its essence, the purest form of art.
Deathrock, despite its silly name, brought a new heir of theatricality and art to the Punk Rock attack. Those theatrics and sinister nature were directly inspired by the musings of Alan Vega and the tribal nature of some of Suicide’s heavier music. The sense of atmospherics and theatrics inspired by Suicide are best felt by the Northampton Post-punks Bauhaus. Bauhaus knew the power of menacing stage presence combined with repetitive rhythms working themselves up to primordial states. Nick Cave as a young Heroin shooting poet in Australia also took note of Suicide’s approach. Though his first band The Birthday Party weren’t really “Deathrock,” per se (they were equally important in the development of Noise Rock for instance), Cave certainly shared a taste for theatrics and stripped down rhythms.
The early Industrial bands took the music of Suicide but applied a heaping dose of abstract theory and avant-garde art to it, taking aggressive electronic-based music down to the bottom of the rabbit hole. The legendary artist Genesis P. Orridge formed his/her first band Throbbing Gristle to explore the most rank aspects of the human condition: obsession, hatred, compulsion. They used confrontational imagery such as pornography and Third Reich propaganda, gaining them a notorious reputation. The desire to provoke outrage to provoke discussion shares characteristics with Vega and Suicide. But Throbbing Gristle’s electronics were unpolished, using samples and synths to provide a degraded backdrop to spoken word poetry or lyrics. They are what Suicide would have sounded like had Suicide freed themselves from the desire to make pop songs. Genesis would continue this crusade with group Psychic T.V., using video art as a backdrop to its industrial soundscapes. Industrial was in many ways the most interesting form of experimental music in the early ‘80s, and it’s hard to imagine it coming into fruition with the influence of Suicide.
Just thought I’d throw this in here. But Suicide’s impact was felt even by mainstream artists during their time. It’s been stated that Ric Ocasek loved Suicide so much, that he recorded The Cars’ album Candy-O as an audition to produce Suicide’s second album. Which he eventually did. Perhaps even more famously, Bruce Springsteen LOVED Suicide, and the duo inspired him to strip his sound back to its bare essentials: rhythmic acoustic guitar patterns and his one-of-a-kind rock n’ roll voice. Low and behold, he recorded Nebraska, the best album of his career. Track State Trooper sounds like the acoustic guitar version of Suicide’s first record, and features Bruce doing his best Alan Vega howl.
1980s goth music, with its tendency to incorporate elements of dance music into its darkly bombastic take on rock, was influenced by Suicide’s approach. While Suicide generally worked in minimalist structures, Goth acts often took the underlying tribalistic patterns of Suicide and then cleaned it up with big stadium sounds. The Sisters of Mercy, for instance, incorporated loud and vivacious elements of Psych Rock and Metal over dance beats indebted to Suicide’s second LP. Though often ignored by the Rock history hierarchies, one need not do more than take one listen to The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland collection to find a startlingly unique unit deftly capable of incorporating its influences (like Suicide) into a new and exciting Pop Music sound.
Suicide was so diverse in its approach that it could realistically appease the more adventurous of disco fans while also holding similarities in common with the No Wave bands that played New York directly after punk exploded: Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and the Contortions, DNA and Mars, amongst others, differed from Punk in that Punk brought Rock back to its three-chord roots, while No Wave bands were referencing genres as diverse as Jazz and Psych and stripping Rock of melody and tone all together. Suicide certainly had beats and structures, but the duo’s raw primal energy doesn’t feel out of place in the conversation surrounding No Wave. Perhaps that raw dissonance is what attracted a young Steve Albini to Suicide’s music when he decided to eschew a drummer in his first band, Big Black, in favor of a Roland drum machine. Albini learned from Suicide that when there is no human error involved in creating the back beat of a sound, then that sound can become as ferocious and ugly as humanly possible. Big Black seemed to apply the violence of Suicide’s music, amplify it, and strip it dry of any sort of sexuality or funkiness that was unquestionably an aspect of Suicide’s music.
The earliest Techno music that was blaring out of Detroit club speakers in the 1980s often felt like Suicide beats amped up and made danceable. These producers, including Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Underground Resistance, and Derrick May, certainly were indebted to Disco and House Music before them, but perhaps due to the outsider spirit of Detroit itself, these guys were experimentalists. Perhaps tired of playing Donna Summers tracks to get their crowds moving, they forged a sound of their own. Due to lack of money and technology, Suicide’s minimal synths and barebones rhythms proved a fitting jumping off point for Detroit Techno artists who instantly recognized that MDMA and amphetamines in combination with simple and repetitive electronic beats make for one hell of a good time. 10 or so years later, Daft Punk would realize that that same formula could be applied to a stadium full of people.
By the late ‘80s, Brits had had exposure to countless exciting sub-cultures of music: Punk Rock, Hippie Psychedelia, Hardcore, Acid House, Brit-Pop, Goth, and on and on and on. At a point, it was way too difficult to pick one type of music. So some Brits didn’t. Bobby Gillespie was among them when he decided to leave The Jesus And Mary Chain and form his own band Primal Scream. Primal Scream drew upon all of Gillespie’s musical loves: The Rolling Stones, Acid House, Post-punk, and without question, Suicide. Suicide, being one of the first bands to marry Electronic instrumentation with Pop song formats, cannot be excluded from the conversation surrounding Neo-Psychedelia and Primal Scream. Spacemen 3 (one of my top 10 all-time bands, by the way) didn’t use electronics much, but both its members, Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce, were self-avowed Suicide fanatics and used Suicide’s minimal rhythms in their drawn-out, druggy, and pained songs. Spacemen 3 understood that sometimes, the most far out music is the most barebones.
Suicide, perhaps more than any other band, holds equal influence within underground music scenes AND mainstream Pop music. This was particularly true with the advent of Synth-pop in the ‘80s. Depeche Mode, Soft Cell (Tainted Love is one of the best songs all time, am I right) essentially drew from Dance music but applied vocals. Sound familiar? Though Suicide of course used this approach for darker purposes, the ground was laid for what pop would become and still pretty much is. Dance music that you can singalong to. Rihanna, Gaga, Miley and whoever else, weirdly enough, can thank Suicide.
Merrill Beth Disker, better known to the world as Peaches, achieved her sound by picking up a Roland MC-505 drum machine in her compositions (later, M.I.A. would pick up the same machine, inspired by Peaches). Her biggest hit, Fuck the Pain Away, she played on a whim live. Its funky but aggro sound is ripped right from the Suicide playbook. In fact, Suicide’s output was highly fetishized by the group of young musicians playing dance-y Post-punk music around downtown Manhattan in the ‘00s. Some of the music (dubbed “Electroclash” by the NME set) wasn’t all that good. But it had its true talents of course, including the then-Brooklyn-based Liars, who would go from dance-punk to one of Indie’s truly experimental bands.
Perhaps this is a reach, but when I first heard Kanye West’s Yeezus back in 2013, well, at first I was blown the fuck away. To this day, I think it’s the most extraordinary work of art that Pop music has offered this millennium. But also, I couldn’t help but think of Suicide. Yeezus was heavily indebted to experimental electronic music. Though it’s maximal all the way through, it often feels like a swirl of various minimal electronic sounds. I can’t not think of Suicide when hearing it. Also, the self-aggrandizing and actualization that ‘Ye employs on the record feels like the self-conscious “rock star as art statement” that Alan Vega was the king of. In fact, a lot of contemporary Hip-hop, or “trap,” and its tendency to bring aggressive electronic textures to Hip-hop beats, reminds me of those first few stunning Suicide records. No longer is Hip-hop solely sample-based, instead, producers are actively engaging with synths, drum machines, and all manner of processed sonic goodies.