Suicide were not a people’s band. They were not personable or warm or comforting on any level. If you listened to a Suicide album – or saw a Suicide show – you were signing up for an experience, but not a feel-good one. What awaited you had the potential to wake you up: the sonic equivalent of a cold bucket of water thrown at an unexpected, yet eerily precise, moment in time. But getting to that place wasn’t easy, and the manic pairing of Alan Vega and Martin Rev wasn’t exactly soothing shepherds either.
Instead, the New York duo thrived on confrontation, both musical and personal. Always combustible, Vega and Rev played what they wanted, when they wanted, without thought to sustainable career choices or mainstream recognition. Even if they wanted to sell out, they didn’t have anything that the public was buying.
Not that anyone showed up to CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City in 1980 to hear easy listening types play piano ballads. I wouldn’t be surprised if acoustic guitars were banned from both premises. These were the venues of transgressive punk rockers, many of whom owed their attitude, their outlook, and, yes, their genre name, to Suicide. It was at the latter establishment that Suicide unleashed what might be their most primordial and stirring cover, a take on Gene Vincent’s early rock and roll classic ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’.
Famously, most of Alan Vega’s heroes were ’50s rock and roll types. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and the leader of the Blue Caps himself. The stop-start hiccup in his voice was unmistakably indebted to those rockabilly forefathers, even as it rubbed up against Rev’s robotic synths and drum machines in the most incongruous way imaginable. His distorted screams and baritone growl weren’t punk inventions, but something deeply rooted in his DNA. Vega was also famously older than he initially led on, by the tune of about a decade. In fact, he was just three years older than both Presley and Vincent, giving him a strange contemporaneous connection to these seemingly ancient figures.
You can tell what kind of song ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ is by the references it gets in pop culture. It lovingly adorns the side of George Harrison’s famous ‘Rocky’ Fender Stratocaster. Mark Knopfler invokes its golden era resonance in his own pastiche: Dire Straits track ‘Walk of Life’. It’s been covered by The Stray Cats. In short, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ is synonymous with simpler, breezier times, the kind of rock and roll nostalgia that comes prepackaged with rose-coloured glasses. Leave it to a pair of punks to completely shatter that image.
Rev and Vega leer and lurch all over the original’s playful energy, zapping it of its slow-burn dancehall appeal and putting it in a suffocating vacuum. Vincent’s original “aw shucks” vocal cadence is turned demonic by Vega, who would sound like he’s mocking the song if he wasn’t so committed to his own falsetto yelps. The interpolation of another ’50s sock hop anthem, The Royal Teen’s ‘Short Shorts’, only serves to kill any last traces of romanticism or reverence for the old guard of popular music. Vega might have been of an older generation, but he wasn’t harbouring any lingering fuzzy feelings for the good old days.
The legacy of Suicide now lies in taking all the elements that could make something bright and shiny, instead of turning it into cold, mechanical, aggressively ugly and even sometimes antagonistic art. Synth-pop cropped up around the same time as Suicide’s first two, and ultimately most influential albums, 1977s Suicide and 1980s Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev. Even though they were using the same equipment, no one would ever confuse Suicide with synth-pop. There was nothing slick or bouncy or poppy about what Alan Vega and Martin Rev did with synthesizers and drum machines and crooning vocals. Instead, Suicide took the foundations of comfort and warped them through some kind of insidious funhouse mirror, not afraid of the fact that what came out the other side could be discordant, shocking, or maybe even, inexplicably, righteous and oddly beautiful.
Suicide is not a band for the people; instead, they are a reflection of the people. For better, but often, for worse.