HOLY CHRISTMAS: THE MAKING OF SUICIDE (AN ORAL HISTORY)

 

A couple of years ago, I spoke with Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide, along with their former label-owner/producer Marty Thau, and co-producer Craig Leon, to discuss the making of the band’s extraordinary self-titled debut album, which was released December 1977. The original feature ran in Uncut magazine. Mr Vega and Mr Thau are no longer with us. But to celebrate the record’s 40th birthday, I’m running a longer, previously unpublished version of the piece here.

Formed in New York City in 1969 from a background of avant-garde jazz (Martin Rev) and visual art (Alan Vega), Suicide were against the grain from the first. Their early shows were as much confrontational performance art as music performance, Vega attacking the walls of venues with a bike chain, when he wasn’t himself being attacked by the audience. Released in December 1977, their eponymous debut album just sounded – still sounds – like nothing else on Earth: Vega delivering lyrics like cut-ups from a Pop Art catalogue in a rockabilly hiccup, while Rev sculpts huge, droning washes of future-noise and bubblegum echoes from cheap keyboards and rudimentary rhythm machines that sounded like they were about to overload and catch fire. To say it was one of the most extraordinary records to come out of New York’s punk moment is an understatement.

In retrospect, their two-guys-and-some-machines set-up drafted the analogue blueprint for music’s digital future. But at the time, people reacted as though Suicide were assaulting the very spirit of rock’n’roll. “We were breaking a lot of sacred rules,” says Rev. “The amount of people in a group; the instrumentation; the theatre of it. And, of course, the fact we were called Suicide.”

Dominating most of the LP’s second side, the track “Frankie Teardrop” is the album’s dark, pulsating heart: the most extreme statement on an album many listeners already found too extreme, the song that sent listeners over the edge. A hissing, two-note, proto-industrial nightmare of hypnotic monotony, punctuated by Vega screaming like a man with thorns in his soul, it’s the ten-minute-plus tale of a 20-year-old factory worker who can’t afford to feed his family, cracks up, and kills them and himself: Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown,” as reimagined by Travis Bickle.

SUICIDE

To best hear the effect it had on audiences, track down the live 23 Minutes Over Brussels EP, recorded when Suicide toured Europe in 1978: “Frankie” sends the already restive crowd to riot. “Yeah,” says Vega. “It got the reaction it was supposed to get.”


VOICES
Alan Vega: Vocals
Martin Rev: Keyboards, drum machine
Marty Thau: Label owner, co-producer
Craig Leon: Producer

MARTIN REV: Before Suicide, I was doing a band called Reverend B, a selection of anywhere up to nine or ten improvising musicians. We played around New York for about a year, and did two shows at The Museum Of Living Artists, a workshop/ performance space, near Broadway. That’s where I met Alan, in 1969. I would return there as a haven, to get off the streets at night, and Alan was living in there. We were in the same place: when I first met him, he had his ear inside this little two-track tape recorder, trying to hear the feedback. He was already working with a guitarist. They were both visual artists, experimenting with sound. Alan was definitely on a very serious edge, both in the way he looked and in what he was doing. He was looking for something. I had drumsticks, and started to drum on the floor, rhythmic patterns to what they were doing. That’s how Suicide started. Originally, it was a wall of sound. The words were essentially shouts or screams. Alan blew trumpet. I played drums with one hand and keyboard with the other. The guitar player left after about a year. By then I was thinking strongly about a drum machine. I started hearing a new way to do sound. I was familiar with drum machines not from rock, because they really weren’t being used at that time, but from very kitschy kinds of performers: guys you’d see at weddings and in hotel lounges, y’know. It was a different space, a different dynamic. And when I plugged in the drum machine, I heard it immediately.

MARTY THAU: In 1972, I was managing The New York Dolls, and established a residency for them at The Mercer Arts Center, this complex in Greenwich village. As part of that, I started booking other groups, and that’s how I first encountered Suicide. They were particularly outrageous, even more outrageous than what they eventually modified to. Alan would wear a black leather jacket with this big heavy chain around his arms and neck. He’d jump into the audience and get right up close to the most conventional-looking person he could spot, then sing “Frankie Teardrop” right into their face to Rev’s loud, droning keyboard. To the uninitiated, it was a frightening show. But quite spectacular.

CRAIG LEON: Suicide were actually the first New York band I saw when I first moved to the city, around 1972. It was amazing: Alan was doing this whole James Brown thing and whipping people with chains. They really were completely uncommercial, but something special and new. At the same time, they went back to what rock’n’roll was about. They had an attitude similar to The Ramones, this attitude which was not what was prevalent at the time. Y’know, there was all that slick musicianship and Steely Dan-type stuff – they were the opposite of all that. The general premise of their sound was always the same thing. Marty Rev had it pretty much down from the very beginning: wiring everything through a radio amp and using the little rhythm box and distorting it.

MARTIN REV: I wasn’t hearing keyboards the way, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer did. I wasn’t into filling in between other instruments. I was hearing an incredible amount of potential – new territory in feedback.

MARTY THAU: A lot of people hated Suicide. They didn’t like that this was a band that didn’t have guitars, didn’t have drums, and had the effrontery to call themselves Suicide. I always thought people revealed themselves, what level of sophistication they had, in their reaction to Suicide. If they put Suicide down for those kind of reasons, I just wiped them out of my mind.

MARTIN REV: It took six, seven years before we got the chance to do the first record. What we were doing was too radical to immediately be embraced. It was breaking a lot of sacred rules about what was considered rock’n’roll: the amount of people, the instrumentation, the theatre of it. And the fact we were called Suicide, of course. It’s often been suggested we didn’t have guitars due to some kind of conceptual agenda – but there wasn’t any of that. A guitar just didn’t make much sense with us. There was a clarity in what was coming out that didn’t need to go backwards.

MARTY THAU: I hadn’t seen them for a while, and one day in 1976, I ran into Rev in The Village, and he told me that they were getting ready to play at Max’s. I went, and they were like Little Richard meets Iggy Pop meets Mick Jagger in a dark alleyway somewhere. I thought, gee, I better sign these guys. Because, at that moment, I was getting ready to open my Red Star Records.

ALAN VEGA: I found it a little difficult to adjust to the studio, because going in to do the record seemed to almost happen over night. I don’t know what we had been doing just beforehand. Because I wasn’t really paying much attention to it. But, Jesus Christ, what a change it was to do it in the studio, after all those years of playing live. I found it a little difficult to adjust. It became such a stark thing – do it this way. And I was kind of taken over by it. I knew where it was coming from…but I didn’t know where it was coming from. But that studio was a nice place. Bruce Springsteen’s amps were lying around in the background.

MARTIN REV: That studio was a great experience, I loved it. Ultima, it was called. It was about an hour’s drive out of New York, very suburban. It was where Springsteen cut his first album, maybe only a 16-track place, an older board. We drove up every day, Marty Thau would pick us up in a rented car, and we drove up to the studio, and it was…visionary. Especially after the tracks were done: to sit in the control room, and we probably got more and more bombed out of our minds, between the music and what have you, and then we’d drive back into the city at night, and come back and do it again the next day. It was beautiful.

CRAIG LEON: When Marty asked me to produce Suicide, I thought it would be an adventure at least. But I had been into a lot of the early 1970s German bands, Can and Kraftwerk, and there was a degree of that in Suicide, that kind of pre-techno techno, so I knew it wasn’t impossible. They were pretty intense in the studio. I mean, they weren’t running around hitting people with chains, but they were very serious about their work. They were very humorous guys, as well – but they didn’t kid around.

MARTY THAU: They were pretty intense. Alan was so wound up he had to leave the control room and go to an adjacent room, he couldn’t just sit. He was a very nervous type of guy at that moment. I guess it was the recording process. Although they had been around for a long time, they were inexperienced in that side of it, this was really the first time they had been under a professional heading.

MARTIN REV: In a way, though, the years of waiting had been good. It had formulated our material. We thought we were going to get discovered sometime around 1971-72. Five years later or so, we had been doing that material to a point where it had become really clear, really defined. So the album was a live album, essentially. However long the album is – that’s basically how long it took to cut it.

MARTY THAU: We did all of that record in four nights.

CRAIG LEON: The album is pretty much a live performance. The reverbs, though, that was something I brought to the party a bit. I had just been in Jamaica, working with Lee Perry and Bob Marley on a record, and I was just getting into dub. So between that and the old Jack Clement Sun Records thing, I wanted all these repeat echoes and stuff on everything. One of my favourite albums was Can’s Monster Movie. That was kind of the role model, plus this Jamaican dub, plus rockabilly echo, and pitch feedback, sending in microphonic EQ to the echo on the reverb sounds, and then bringing them all back. That process is what you get on “Frankie Teardrop” – a lot.

ALAN VEGA: Frankie, Frankie…“Frankie Teardrop” always got an extreme reaction. There was nothing in the world like it. Lou Reed said he really wished he’d done it, and I can see where, fitting in with his Metal Machine Music. “Frankie” came about because of Marty Rev’s music. There was such a strong thing about the music: the song just had to go in that direction. It was a deeper darker thing, because the music got really insane and I wanted to do something that went there.

MARTIN REV: “Frankie” definitely had its own flavour immediately. The words weren’t exactly the same to begin with. When we did the album at first, it was called “Frankie Spaceman.” But somewhere in the session, Alan wanted to change the lyrics. He’d read an article in the newspaper, and out of that came “Frankie Teardrop.” It had a different kind of proportion to something like “Cheree” or “Rocket USA.” It was more epic in a sense, in what it was trying, it was more descriptive, it was wider, a different kind of space. But it wasn’t like after it we went, “Wow, ‘Frankie’– ‘Frankie’ is IT.” For us, everything was either great or it wasn’t great. And if it wasn’t great, it was a case of making it great. And the things that weren’t great, it wasn’t usually the music or the sound, because the sound was everything to me and it had become everything to Alan.

ALAN VEGA: I had been doing this thing about Frankie The Detective, and this thing about Frankie and a space alien – but there was always the crazy Frankie in the background somewhere. But the more I worked on the thing, the less enamoured I was with it, because everything else, the music, sounded so good, that my thing sounded just bleh, just secondary. So I decided to swing it to Frankie the killer. I always had that Frankie there, in the background, but to get him out and up front took a little bit more time and energy, and that was helped by Marty Rev’s music.

MARTY THAU: “Frankie” was really a political statement: 20-year-old Frankie can’t get a job, can’t support his wife and feed his kids, and decides to freak out. Society has driven him to it. He kills them. In the end, the statement is, “Rise up, we’re all Frankies.” We’re all under the thumb of those who control us. Rise up and say something about it, do something about it. It’s a political inspiration. It sums up part of what Suicide were about. But then you have the other side of them, a beautiful, melodic love song like “Cheree.” They were able to piece together a lot of forms.

CRAIG LEON: “Frankie” was actually part one of a duo of songs. There was another one called “Dominic Christ,” which didn’t make it onto a record until much later. It was like this mini horror opera thing, this slice of life, urban decay, ringing to the sounds of Alan’s screams.

ALAN VEGA: That fucking scream. Shit, Holy Christmas: where did this come from? That whole track took on a life of its own. It was the last song we recorded for the album, and I wanted it to be something like that: boom. I almost screamed myself out, I almost wound up on the floor. The whole thing was intense, it was crazy. It built into a thing, the way things always did with Suicide. It could never last as just a simple thing, it always got crazy. That scream had a lot effect on people, people have told me for years. It was either a big turn on, or a big turn off.

CRAIG LEON: He did his screams and I would just generate a bunch of feedback, him screaming on himself, and send it to the other tracks on the multi track. So, it’s greatly enhanced. I mean, like one scream sounds humungous on there. But again, he did it live.

MARTY THAU: After we finished recording, Craig had to go out to California to record an album for Sire. And when I listened to his mixes, I thought, as great as they were, they didn’t really push the envelope as far as I thought they had to, because Suicide were as unique and modern as they were. So I remixed “Ghost Rider,” “Rocket USA,” “Cheree” and “Girl,” and I gave those mixes a whole bunch of effects and a futurism that I felt it needed. And when Craig came back, he listened to my mix of “Frankie Teardrop,” and he said, “…No. Let’s try another shot.” Which we did. And it took a whole bunch of hands, Marty Rev, Me, Larry [Alexander, the engineer], and Craig, it took all of our hands on the controls to get to the final mix of “Frankie Teardrop.” But it was Craig who led that process.

CRAIG LEON: I had to go onto another project, and after I left, Marty Thau took all these things that were essentially already mixed, and he put everything back up to zero. He fooled around with it for three or four weeks afterwards, moving things up and down. The engineer there was this guy who did synthesiser stuff – but he had very little to do with the actual sound of this Suicide record at all. Larry Alexander, he’d had a synthesiser record of his own out, this version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, played on a synth…He and Marty Thau sat for a long time and tried doing all these other mixes, and then I met up with Marty again after I’d finished the other project, and he played me all these mixes, and, well, they just sounded really kind of…sloppy. They took everything too much to the extreme. So, in the end, the mixes you hear on the record were the original mixes I did that first weekend when we were in the studio actually recording the record. Which is basically how it went down live.

ALAN VEGA: It’s hard to explain, but doing “Frankie” live after that record became really tough. I didn’t want to do it in one way, and I knew I had to. It was always tough, “Frankie,” and meaningful. It was hard to do that song, gut wrenching, but I knew it had to be like that, it had to have that thing about it.

MARTIN REV: When we did that tour of Europe, “Frankie” did provoke a particular reaction in the audience. Just the intensity of it, the length and the intensity. I mean, all the songs were intense. But something like “Ghost Rider” or “Johnny” has a closer, more immediate connection with rock. I guess what happened is the whole thing built up. We always did “Frankie” later in the set – and by that time the audience was crazy anyway.

ALAN VEGA: We always left it to last – I never thought we could follow it up with anything, it was always like the last song we could do. And yeah, it got the reaction it was supposed to get. Frankie, Frankie.

MARTIN REV: You can hear it on that 23 Minutes In Brussels recording. The pure chaos starting on “Frankie” was just…the point of no return. And the lyrics of it, too, if anybody could hear them at the time. That song was implying a strong statement that stretched the audience beyond what they could recognise as rock. “Frankie” definitely broke the last straw. It just built up until the audience rioted, and we had to get off the stage.

MARTY THAU: When we released the album in the States, most people thought we were crazy. American radio didn’t want to touch it. We were getting great volumes of press and great reviews internationally. But as far as America was concerned – not a peep. Even in our hometown of New York City. Even in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau, who was known as “The Dean Of American Rock Critics,” called Suicide “The Two Stooges.” Y’know. That was where it was at. It would take years for people in the States to catch up with it. At the time, you had Rolling Stone calling it “puerile” and knocking the hell out of it. Only for them, years later, to list it among their 500 Most Important Albums Of All Time. Do I feel vindicated about that today? Yes, I do.

CRAIG LEON: I think there was no reaction to the album at all in the States! Marty Thau had a relationship with a disco label, Prelude, and they were distributing it, and, you know – the guy behind the label was the guy who signed The Shirelles and all of that, he’d been in the business since the 1950s. So he had no idea what this was. But Marty Thau would always be out touting Suicide as the greatest band that was going to come out of anywhere. He thought Suicide could be commercially huge, and he was trying to tell these guys at this disco label that, which was pretty hysterical. Having said that, Suicide probably ended up selling more records than a lot of the acts that were on that label.

MARTIN REV: I kind of expected it. The reaction in the States, or lack of it. I think I was more kind of surprised and pleased at the positive feedback we got, because I wasn’t really expecting anything. Anything favourable and insightful was a pleasant surprise. We got that from the UK – the NME and Melody Maker were very positive, insightful reviews, and that surprised me greatly. But America was really the place where Alan and I were the Che and the Castro of the American revolution. From the ground up, we were fighting the American machine. That was our energy. Mind you, the American Machine didn’t really know anything about us.

ALAN VEGA: Things have changed. There isn’t a Frankie around today, I don’t think. There isn’t a factory worker like Frankie around so much today. So I don’t do that song as often. I try not to do it, because I don’t think it really takes in the same thing that it used to take in. But then again – well, “Frankie” takes on a life of its own. Every now and then, y’know, I’ll hear people out there chanting, “…Frankie, Frankie…” and they really want to hear it again. And when I pull it out, it gets overwhelming again: the life it had back then, it has again now.

CRAIG LEON: That album still sounds pretty good, it still holds up. It’s certainly a record that is more looked at in retrospect than when it first came out. I mean, I’d be surprised if there were more than 100 copies of it sold originally. I mean, Suicide used to go and play gigs and people would throw rocks at them. They weren’t well-liked back then. I mean, they were much more extreme than the punk stuff. Believe me, Suicide is not one I did for the money, I’ll tell you that! I don’t think I ever made a dime off of it.

MARTIN REV: I hear a lot of music, of course, that gives me memories. But funnily enough, Suicide, that first album, doesn’t do that for me. It’s not like it takes me back to that time in New York. Suicide, in a way, is too directly direct: too upfront in terms of its expression. There’s an urgency there that goes forward. It doesn’t leave much time for nostalgia. When I hear the album it seems right up front, it seems right now. I don’t hear a New York that was – it’s more like a music, or a world that is.

ALAN VEGA: I think about that a lot: times have changed, “Frankie” has changed, you won’t find a Frankie, a guy like that anymore. But, then again, when I do it… Frankie lurks. I hear rumbles every now and then. Atrocities come and atrocities go and atrocities will always be there. “Frankie Teardrop” is a beautiful thing. It’s like a piece of metal stuck into the middle of the ground. People can step over it or ride over it or crash over it. But it’s still there.