Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Suicide - Early Innovators

Originally released on Bronze Records in 1978
re-released in 2000 on mute records w/ eponymous L.P.

I originally published this on Julian Cope's Head Heritage site

A record of proof of an innovative band’s struggle with an unreceptive audience.

“23 Minutes over Brussels” was recorded in Brussels, Belgium on June 16th, 1978. Friend of the band, Howard Thompson recorded it on cassette tape and it was later released on as a flexi-disc insert for a music magazine. Fortunately the good people at Mute records re-released Suicides catalog in 2000. They have been digitally re-mastered so you wont have to scrounge the record bins to try to find these rare treasures. Both the album and the extra disc sound great (even 23 minutes sounds pretty good considering how it was recorded). It stands as a legendary performance, fortunate enough to be recorded. This is not your happy go lucky good time Rock n’ Roll concert, this is the dangerous riot inciting kind.

Perhaps if they weren't so far ahead of their time, the Suicide bootleg "23 minutes over Brussels" could have been the "Royal Albert Hall" bootleg for a new generation. Alan Vega and Martin Rev's second show in Europe ended in a primal scream of "Fuck you! It's about Frankie!" stands comparison to Bob Dylan's angry start of "Like a Rolling Stone" where he can be heard saying "Play fucking loud!" to the Hawks - as possible one of the greatest spontaneous Rock n' Roll moments of all time. In “23 minutes” Alan Vega is heard shouting, “Shut the fuck up, this is about Frankie!” Whistles cheers and boo's swell, the audience renders the sonic assault of Rev and Vega silent by stealing the microphone.

“23 minutes” goes a step further than the myth and lore of the infamous Dylan recording. Dylan’s heresy stood with his decision to “plug in.” This at the time was considered a step toward all that was marketable, because rock n’ roll was electric and was sold to the masses by evil corporations. Folk purists seemed to think of Dylan as a sellout for making what appeared as mainstream credibility. Suicide on the other hand, had no credibility. Rather than “plugging in” or “unplugging” they pared down to bare bones rock aggression.

Alan Vega, a New York City trash artist, formed Suicide with avant-garde jazz keyboardist Martin Rev in 1971. Vega’s idea was to strike Rock n’ Roll down to the bare minimum. Through the use of thrift store electric keyboards and a drum machine, Suicide set out to recreate rock n’ roll from the ground up. Dylan like Rev and Vega had a desire to find his own sound, only Suicide didn’t have a fan base that would come along for the ride.

The mid 70's New York scene was dictated by a common knee jerk reaction to the over indulgence and excess that music had become. Suicide stood on a different plane of aural deconstruction. Vega and Rev's interpretation of "basic" rock n' roll was to minimalize it to the nth degree. Although they started as a somewhat large free jazz ensemble, they soon were reduced to just a guitar, keyboard, and drum machine. A short time after that, they lost the guitar all together. Suicide in its Keyboard, Drum Machine, Vocal line up stands as the epitome of the defiance that Rock n' Roll was built on. Unfortunately, for most artists, the audience usually comes around to their way of thinking, a little too late.

Suicide stands as one of the most aptly named bands ever in rock n' roll. The bands name is described as a "great rock n' roll action word" by Rev in the liner notes of Mute records 2000 release of the self-titled debut album. “23 minutes” inevitably became their scarlet letter as far as performance was concerned. They rarely played live, and usually did to disastrous results. The short set of music showcased in "23 minutes" clearly demonstrates two individuals flying in the face of convention, screaming their guts out to be heard, and failing to make a poignant imprint on the listening audience.

Perhaps it was the back to basics mentality of the "Punk" world that was wrong. Suicide as a group, predate the earliest of the CBGB's scene by at least 3 years. With so much retro revisionism in contemporary music, one is hard pressed to find anything from that period that sounds as though it would be made in today's musical climate. Suicide does though. Most likely you would find them on a package tour with the likes of Stereo Lab or Mouse on Mars, and some how wouldn't sound quite as profound.

Legends and Myths can abound in Rock n' Roll. Many a writer is swept up in the nostalgia aspect of these mythologies and rumors. As we have become inundated with Rock n’ Roll tragedies we are left to ponder why Suicide didn’t become superstars? Possibly it's the fact that their music fell on many deaf ears, their performances and reputations preceded them. What in the 20+ years since the group's demise has sounded (or looked) as raw and heartfelt as that "Suicide Sound."

Suicide was the marriage of performance art with the attitude and pomp of rock n' roll. Only now, with hindsight, can one look at the postmodern implications of the performing side of Suicide. The records stand are the Rock n’ roll side of the band – a good reproduction of what Suicide sounded like live, with a few studio embellishments. The performance was the art. Like most performance art, their shows were temporal, intense and of the moment.

When Suicide unplugged from the popular conventions of Rock they were looked at as hooligans. No one wanted to book them, and audiences usually stayed about 10 feet from the stage, where a chain wielding Vega would swing wildly. One can look at the failure of the New York scene, or any scene for that matter, to accept Suicide as a legitimate act. We have only photographs to offer us a fraction of the story. Find a copy of this recording, sit back, open your ears, and grab a hold of the mental picture.

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