Cherry Pop #4: 'Suicide' by Suicide
In the strange ebb and flow of fashion, sometimes albums which seemed - for a time - to be ubiquitous, fade into the background, like an aged aunt that the family no longer knows what to do with.
For the latest installment in our Cherry Pop series of articles about debut albums, Robert W. Getz tackles Suicide from 1977, a dark electronic howl that would seem to chime with much of today's music, but doesn't seem to get referenced too much any more. Seems like a good time to bring it back from the dead - again.
Robert's latest book of poetry is called Colosseum - which is nothing compared to what his wife calls him.
MORE SONGS ABOUT GIRLS AND ARMAGEDDON or: How I Learned To Love Suicide.
I am now an old man. Well, it took long enough. And you, too, will know when you’ve arrived at that august and distinguished point because if the gray hairs or creaking joints don’t give the game away, you will know it when they start to file away and catalog your culture. The end comes to us all but before it does, one is made to witness the parade of poseurs and pundits who will quite calmly and expertly explain to you just what it was you lived through and what it meant and why you didn’t appreciate it at the time - even though most of them weren’t there and, in fact, wouldn’t be arriving for quite some time.
These are the ‘hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn’ sort of ruminations that skitter nervously through my noggin whenever I attend one of these ‘punk retrospectives’ that seem to litter the landscape now with alarming and increasing regularity. Every two or three years it seems, someone empties out their basement, digs out their old 45s and posters and decides they’ve got an exhibition on their hands. It’s easy to find a sympathetic museum or art school to mount the show and before you can say ‘We mean it, maaan!’ there’s a queue out the door, eager to experience the vicarious thrill of what it felt like to tape a badly composed flyer to a telephone pole (ask your parents) or to gaze in wonderment at two or three clips of Ian Curtis or Mark E. Smith pulled off of You Tube.
My most recent experience came at a show entitled Pretty Vacant: The Graphic Language of Punk and it came supplied with all the accoutrements one now expects at these sorts of gatherings: bearded youngsters roaming the premises with video cameras, plexiglass cases filled with old badges and fanzines, and carefully worded descriptions of what one was looking at that consisted of the now fashionably redundant sort of culturewank about Dada and The Situationists that will seem fresh and insightful to anyone who hasn’t got the pocket change necessary for a copy of Greil Marcus’ now 25-year old Lipstick Traces. These are placed reverently next to carefully framed copies of 'Spiral Scratch', Metal Box and the like so that you know they’re important.
That one of Punk’s biggest legacies may end up being Nostalgia is, of course, quite ironic and urges one to take back all those things one might have said about those nasty baby boomers and how they wouldn’t keep quiet about the eternal perfection of the 1960s. The punks may end up being far worse, doomed to be wheeled out every ten years to celebrate the anniversary of some LP or other, cackling through crow’s feet about the time Soo Catwoman ran a red light or Fred Heroin pulled the legs off a fly. It’s going to be (or perhaps already is) a depressing spectacle, especially considering what all this was trying to accomplish in its own inchoate and incoherent way.
But here’s where I must make a horrible confession. It was as special as they say. If you didn’t live through it, you missed something wonderful. Also, it will never quite happen in that way, in this world, in our time ever, ever again.
Now, this is not to say that what happened in the late 70s and early 80s was the be-all and end-all of artistic expression or that it invalidates everything that came before or followed after. Far from it. Part of its magic was that it happened when the paradigm for music and the music industry was almost unrecognizable from what it is today. Before the supposed democratization of the internet and the ubiquity of multi-channel television, we lived in a world that is impossible for anyone under the age of 20 to fully comprehend. The gates were closed and the lines were clearly drawn: there were rules and steps and ways of doing, people to be spoken with, and access to be granted in certain ways. This is why if you did not ever live in that world, you may not completely grasp just how important punk rock was and what it did.
It changed the rules. It changed them so completely that anything was possible, or one felt that anything was possible and often the two are a meaningless distinction.
Punk Rock happened while I was away from home, home being Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had moved away in late Autumn of 1977 to New England, during which Groucho Marx, Marc Bolan and Elvis Presley all died within the space of a month. I was in a government training program which was trying - and rarely succeeding - to teach me the basics of offset printing, the hope being that I would come away with a reasonable trade. As far as music was concerned my interest was at a very low ebb, the reasons for which can be easily surmised by picking up anything released in the mid-1970s. It was a bad, monochromatic time for music and for me. I moved into an apartment with two roommates who had no interests other than drinking and, as they so quaintly put it, ‘hosing’. This left us at a conversational impasse and I spent most evenings drinking myself into a stupor in my room until it was time to go back to my horrible job.
Think Punk Rock would speak to me?
I bought records, sure, but they were old ones. I was trying to fill in the gaps in my musical education, mostly. It was around this time that I started to notice the strange headlines in this paper called the NME and then one day I walked into the town’s only record store and was struck by the record (ask your parents) they were playing on the record player (ask your parents).
I asked what it was and was told it was 'Holidays in the Sun' by the Sex Pistols. I loved it to death. And I immediately knew something else: the long drought was over and I wanted more. Much more.
I bought the Sex Pistols album almost immediately and took it home. One roommate, whose record collection consisted largely of Dan Fogelberg albums, took a look at it and said “So that’s the Sex Pistols, huh?” I didn’t care what he thought and neither did the Sex Pistols. They even said so on the record.
Whether I unconsciously decided I needed to be closer to a real city again or perhaps because it just ran its course, I moved back to Philadelphia not long after that and started to look for the places this music lived. The record store that specialized in Jazz now sported an Import Rock section and a singles box on the counter (soon to become a large, constantly changing wall display) filled with the strangest and most alien vinyl I had ever seen. You wanted to buy them simply because of their names alone. That was another thing about Punk Rock: you just blind bought like crazy. You’d think the odds would be against you, but 9 times out of 10 you discovered treasure. Sometimes you could tell from a review that you wanted it (the key words for me were ‘angular and dissonant guitars’). As for the radio, there was a college station that set aside four hours in the middle of the night on the weekend to play these records. You had to stay up all night to hear them and each week you were virtually guaranteed to hear The Normal’s 'T.V.O.D.', Tuxedomoon’s 'No Tears', something from the No New York album, something by Iggy, and then there was the strangest one of all, the very, very scariest one of them all.
They would play something from this group called Suicide. They had an album, too. It was called Suicide.
How can I begin to describe what it was like, hearing 'Ghost Rider' or 'Rocket USA' while lying in bed half awake, hearing these ghostly golem voices in the dark as the sun was beginning to come up? There was nothing to compare it to. Where did it come from? The music may as well have been drifting in from a factory in the distance while the vocalist seemed to be channeling Elvis on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown. Sure, Lux Interior had the whole ‘Elvis-as-Frankenstein’s-Monster’ thing down before anyone else but Alan Vega was the real thing, taking the Presley hiccup/vibrato to a place where it sounded like he was almost too frightened to tell you what he had to say. And all of this prodded along by the hypnotic/psychotic/electronic vamps of Martin Rev, sounding like the music was on its way to the same asylum Vega was. The pretty twinkling sounds almost sounded like stars until you realized they were probably missiles set to land on your roof. That was the thing – the songs that weren’t about murder and the end of the world were about girls ('Girl', 'Cheree') and sometimes you couldn’t tell if this music was supposed to be ecstatic or funereal. Was that the point? And all of it washed thoroughly in a reverb that evoked dub reggae. King Tubby meeting The Rockers in Therapy.
Did I mention it was two guys? It was just two guys! And they were a group!
Well, I had bought the Sex Pistols album, but this … this …
The album’s heart of darkness, so to speak, was a 10-minute track called 'Frankie Teardrop' and you kept your fingers crossed each week that the station would play it. It was their summation, their 'Day In The Life' if you will, and it scared the living hell out of you, not just once but every time. The name sums up any of the everyman 50s hipsters who walk through these songs, as if Gene Vincent were having a very bad day. On an album whose first track 'Ghost Rider' tells us that "America, America is killin’ its youth", 'Frankie Teardrop' shows us someone who has lost all hope and methodically goes through his house killing his entire family and, ultimately, himself. The music is imperturbable and unforgiving as Vega screams, shrieks, and murmurs his way through ten minutes of hell. So it was all a sick joke, right, the name, the songs, all the apocalypse-synching?
No, it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t.
It was protest music. Punk Rock was protest music. Most of the gatekeepers didn’t want you to know that because then there was a chance you might start thinking there was something to protest. They were called Suicide the way a tall guy is called ‘Shorty'. Because they were about living. Name a more beautiful, more hopeful song than follow-up 12" 'Dream Baby Dream'. Well, there are some, but it’s right up there. I love their second album almost as much, but in a different way. Like Chuck Berry’s Chess records, The Beatles’ first albums, or the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s Atlantic releases, Suicide will continue to stay fresh and engage listeners long after many of its contemporaries fade away.
I was a young man. This was exceedingly beautiful, new, frightening, and radical music. I was where I wanted to be.