Alan Vega and Martin Rev talk through the earliest days of Suicide and offer hints of what we can expect from the pioneering synthpunk duo’s “Punk Mass” show at the Barbican in London
When Alan Vega and Martin Rev take to the stage at the Barbican Centre in London on 9 July, it’s under a banner they haven’t acknowledged for over 40 years. The title “A Punk Mass” was originally used in ads and flyers for a couple of Suicide’s New York gigs in the early 1970s. Taken literally, revisiting these earliest shows would involve Vega blasting through a trumpet and Rev flailing around a drum kit. Or maybe even the singer screaming his lungs raw while the latter unleashes a wall of ear-bleeding noise from a battered second-hand organ. There was no drum machine yet, just the extreme performance art onslaught that characterised Suicide’s earliest incarnation.
Whatever they do at the Barbican will be just the latest part of the ride for this pair of sonic activists whose mission and manifesto was born out of anger at the Vietnam War, and a burning need to forge a new kind of sonic attack from their worlds of street art and energy jazz. Remarkably, Suicide pre-dated all the bands that came out of New York City’s downtown underground in the 1970s and have outlived them all, from the New York Dolls to Talking Heads and beyond. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s current Blondie line-up is the only other name from that period who are still active, albeit with different musicians.
Rev and Vega always employed a different strategy than hit-and-run, get-rich-quick stardom craving, spending long stretches pursuing their individual solo careers and other projects before the Suicide name was inexorably called back to action. This time round, it’s for a night in the Station To Station programme being organised at the Barbican, initially to mark 50 years of the Moog synthesiser but now apparently celebrating the “Punk Mass”, as Suicide were hardly known to use such advanced technology in their first 10 years. Needless to say, the irrepressible pair will rise to the occasion, subjecting any Moog presence to their own unique twist.
Nobody, least of all Alan Vega or Martin Rev, can give the exact day, week or even month that the art protest happening they decided to call Suicide sprang into life after its organic gestation.
In 1969, Vega had become a janitor/overseer at New York’s Project of Living Artists, a voluminous second-floor loft on the corner of Broadway and Waverly Place, funded by the city to provide an open-all-hours space where artists, musicians, poets and radical political groups could express themselves. He was already becoming known for the fizzing, flashing light sculptures he constructed out of electrical detritus he found abandoned on the cracked, neglected downtown streets, also using the name “Punk Mass” for his exhibition at Ivan Karp’s prestigious OK Harris art gallery nearby.
Inevitably, the Project became a haven for alcoholics, junkies, bums and crazies, recalls Vega, who was still reeling from his epiphany the previous year after witnessing Iggy Pop and The Stooges at the old World’s Fair Pavilion in Queens, which convinced him to become a performer (“I had to try and go where Iggy was,” says Vega). By 1970, he was ensconced at the Project cajoling some kind of infernal noise by manipulating quarter-inch tapes while attacking electric guitars and trumpets with unschooled passion. He had been joined by a visual artist called Paul Liebgott, who had picked up a guitar for the first time and piled in with likewise untutored abandon.
Martin Rev had no idea he would end up in a new band when he was invited to supply music for a political slide show at the Project with his free jazz arkestra, Reverend B. This was the anarchic culmination of Rev’s 60s jazz voyage, which had seen him taking piano lessons from renowned bebop pioneer Lennie Tristano, befriending and playing with Miles Davis’ drummer Tony Williams, meeting his muse in his wife Mari, witnessing seminal performances by the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Miles, and all while playing in the thriving downtown loft scene. Reverend B’s floating line-up could run to over 10 musicians, including multiple drummers and saxophonists, with Rev predating everyone except Sun Ra by playing electric keyboards onstage.
“It was very avant-garde,” notes Rev. “It was the kind of band where you’d call up people a week before the show and try and assemble them. Sometimes it had about eight, nine or 10 musicians, depending on who was available. I was just looking for a name and took the Reverend from Rev and just added the B. It was funny when I thought about it several years later, how it was kind of like a hip hop name from a time that hadn’t happened yet. It was a very avant-garde sounding group, totally free.”
The offer to play at the Project came from a friend of Mari’s, who thought Rev would relish being introduced to this underground enclave and make a few bucks in the process. Among many other things, he credits his late wife with introducing him to Alan Vega, thus opening up the life defining new direction that would result in Suicide. Vega still speaks in awed tones about that first Reverend B gig at the Project, which was in full swing when he arrived back from doing a light show for some electronic composers at Columbia University.
“I walked in that night and I’ll never forget how I saw people entranced; sitting, smoking, laying on the floor or just dancing,” he says. “They played on and on and on for hours and hours. I had a tambourine with me so I said, ‘Fuck it’, and started playing along. What a night! They had this incredible sound, man, something like I’d never heard before. Two drummers, three saxes, clarinets, trumpets and Marty was playing this amazing electronic keyboard.”
Crucially, Vega realised that the sheets of sound emanating from Martin Rev’s electronic keyboard rendered the other instruments “unnecessary”. Excited and inspired, Vega asked Rev, “Why don’t we do something together?”. According to Vega, he simply said, “We will be making music together”.
“Through that, I met Alan and discovered that space, which was essential for me as a place to duck into when I was on the streets, especially during the winter,” remembers Rev. “One day when I was passing by, I took the elevator up and it was open. When I walked in, the guitarist was there and Alan had his amp or something, trying to work with feedback. Right away, I heard what they were doing. I searched for something and I found these industrial springs, because it was like a large industrial kind of space which had been renovated, but there was still stuff lying around. I sat on the floor and started doing a whole percussive thing. So from there, I began coming down with a set of sticks. After that we started talking and then I did another gig there with my own group.”
“It didn’t happen straight away,” says Vega. “Marty was very quiet and I only got to know him after a while. He’d walk in as I was playing around with stuff on the floor and then he’d walk out. He had a big afro and wore this blue sweater, all torn and stuff. He looked bohemian, like he might be writing poetry or something. He’d disappear, then he’d come back again, but he wouldn’t talk at first. It was all in body language.”
“We were always the last ones to leave that place and we’d walk the streets,” says Rev. “Alan was living in Brooklyn and I was living in uptown Manhattan, and we’d walk around until four or five in the morning, talking about stuff after we left there. We just kind of hit it off, like two ships that cross paths. It made sense to start a group together, because we were the only ones still up there that late doing so much and doing it so seriously. We were both so intense about what we were doing.”
Feeling that he had learned all he could from his jazz odyssey, Martin Rev knocked Reverend B on the head. He was ready to take the next giant steps, his musical background syncing with Alan Vega’s application of his abstract street art ethos to experimental music. The pair never had a game plan to revolutionise music or ignite the various movements that Suicide have been credited with inspiring, from punk to synthpop and industrial. Their mission was born out of a volatile time in American history and a mutual craving to make its loudest, most confrontational statement.
Although keyboards were his instrument, Rev’s first Project sessions saw him laying into a set of drums, which extended into the first Suicide shows.
“At the time, he was probably the fastest drummer alive!” declares Vega. “We’d play for hours, and then it went from there with the singing. We just merged into this one thing. We didn’t so much write songs, we just kept playing, improvising, let it go where it goes. It all came out like a free jazz thing. We didn’t know where it was leading.”
By November 1970, the trio of Vega, Rev and Paul Liebgott were ready to play in front of an audience. They would need a name. Most sources have credited Vega’s love of the Ghost Rider series of comic books, but the first issue didn’t appear until 1972, nor did the Johnny Blaze tale called ‘Satan’s Suicide’. While the comic would inspire Suicide’s most famous song, their group tag came from sitting around the Project surrounded by artists and jazz musicians shooting up heroin, seemingly bent on death. Vega felt the name Suicide “reflected the time we were living in and what we felt”.
“I don’t see the name in a bad light,” he continues. “To me, Suicide is a rebirth, a life thing. I said, ‘Fuck this shit, what about the Vietnam War? You forgot about it already?’. The Vietnam War was the apex of the whole thing as far as I was concerned. It was just the time we were living in, what we were feeling, because in those days with the Vietnam War, New York was collapsing. I was feeling suicidal a lot, in many ways. But it was probably the worst strategy ever, the worst name we could have chosen. It was cursed. In retrospect, we should have called ourselves Life.”
The night before their first Project gig, the trio also gave themselves punk-style aliases. For that gig only, Suicide lined up as Nasty Cut on trumpet and guitar, Marty Maniac on drums, while guitarist Paul was Cool P. The first gigs were billed as “Punk Music by Suicide” on stark, hand-drawn flyers distributed in downtown bars, art galleries and lofts. In just those four words, Vega and Rev announced themselves to the world, sealed their fates, and unwittingly foretold the coming decade, but thought little of it against the much bigger picture that unfolded as their mutual creative electrodes sparked into terrible life, along with the lifelong friendship, which still endures over 45 years later.
The “punk” came from Lester Bangs’ epic review in Creem magazine of The Stooges’ recently released ‘Fun House’ album. Bangs wrenched the word from its long-standing derogatory street or prison put-down status to describe the “phenomenon” of Iggy rather than the bludgeoning catharsis of his band’s greatest record. Suicide made the P-word their own on flyers for their early gigs. Another “Punk Music by Suicide” show, their first appearance outside the Project, came a short while later at the OK Harris gallery on West Broadway, and the group greeted 1971 looking to play as many gigs they could, at any club that would have them, whether rock or jazz. Without a manager or an agent, they did it themselves.
“In those days, getting a show was hit or miss,” explains Rev. “We’d see an advertisement or something in the paper, like, ‘Here’s a place doing some shows’. You’d just go down, nobody knew you and you didn’t know them, and you’d say, ‘We’re a band called Suicide, can we play here?’. We did the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard on a Sunday afternoon. We used to play Unganos, one of the major clubs in the 60s. We’d go over to places like that. I’d be dressed for Suicide the way that I’d dress in the street – a jacket with the name on the back, a hat and shades. Somehow we’d just get enough to keep ourselves going.”
The Suicide sound continued evolving, Rev using a Wurlitzer electric piano hooked up to electro-harmonics effects boxes, before they acquired and hot-wired a cheap Japanese organ. Mari had been playing drums at Project practices, but stopped to concentrate on raising her and Rev’s growing family. Ultimately, this led to one of the Suicide story’s most romantic gestures when Rev declared, “There was no way I was gonna replace the woman in my life with a drummer!”.
In the event, they actually waited four years before acquiring the drum machine that redefined their music and underpinned 1977’s epoch-making debut album.
“We just kept playing and improvising,” says Vega of those early shows. “You know like the galaxy, the big bang? There’s all this gas and the gas starts to coalesce with the galaxies and the stars. That’s kind of what happened with Suicide. There was a big bang, then Marty and I just merged into this one thing, this chaos like the universe coming out of gas.”
“Those days were just crazy,” agrees Rev. “My shit was crazy. I was crazier. It was like free electronics – and electronics was such a great new world. You could do a whole freeform thing, try to work in free jazz, rock or anything that happened really. It was such a new, raw sound. We didn’t have songs, we just had one long, electronic thing. Then we eventually came around to having pieces like ‘Methedrine Mary’, ‘Speed Queen’ and ‘Junkie Jesus’. Alan had lyric ideas and he’d go from one to another, but they got a little more refined by the time we got them on tape. We would do about four or five of those different sections, but they all went from one right into the other, so to anyone else it was a wall of noise. We were doing almost pure feedback.”
“We started buying all these treble boosters and bass boosters and locked them together just to get something out,” laughs Vega. “Shitty is the wrong word. It was beyond shitty. It was magnificent, man. It was a whole sound created out of needing to make a sound because we couldn’t get a sound – and out it came. Boom! The big bang, man!”
“Suicide had no formula,” says Rev. “We just went from that total mass of sound. We were kind of starting with a big block of stone like a sculptor and, all the time, it got sculpted out. We didn’t start with a sound, a beat or any instrumentation, but we were going to find it through sculpting this big block. It took a few years, but eventually it got carved more and more, especially once I’d bought the rhythm machine and we could actually make those delineations and things could sound like different songs. Our sound had its own kind of journey.”
In their first three years, Suicide called their show “Punk Music” or “Punk Music Mass”, twice changed to “A Punk Mass” and once to “Punk Junk Sewer Music”, before dropping it in favour of “Dream Music” in 1973. The word “punk” then lolled about in limbo before being picked up again three years later to be used, abused and irrevocably diluted as the decade rolled on, leaving its originators battling to be heard and fighting to survive.
Now acknowledged as unwitting architects of modern music, Suicide’s unique odyssey will come full circle when this inimitable pair revisit their original monster at London’s Barbican Centre. You have been warned.