Keep Your Dreams: The Tortured Majesty Of Suicide's Debut Album

Keep Your Dreams: The Tortured Majesty Of Suicide's Debut Album

Martin Rev and producer Craig Leon reflect on a truly seminal release...

“We recorded our first album live in the studio in forty minutes,” says Martin Rev, one half of Suicide, as if it’s no big deal.

As debuts go, the duo’s 1977 self-titled first album – newly remastered for vinyl – is a justifiably important, and an unquestionably pivotal record, realised in an era containing many pivotal records. But to think that the bulk of its recording was completed in such a brief period of time seems strangely inconceivable; for such a bold, idiosyncratic statement to have been executed so quickly seems almost careless, like Rev and his bandmate Alan Vega really didn’t give a shit and just wanted the session to be over.

The reality was that the duo had being honing their craft rigorously and with extreme discipline since forming Suicide right at the start of the 1970s, and the songs on ‘Suicide’ had been staples of their live sets at venues that became synonymous with New York’s eclectic punk scene.

Whether you look at the album as a discrete forty minutes of bold, unrivalled musical vision or view it through the legacy of the forty years since it was first released, you ultimately reach the same conclusion:

‘Suicide’ remains perfectly, uncomfortably unique, still representing a directly-administered, brutally visceral, uncompromising challenge to our preconceived ideas of what music should sound like, how it should be made, what its songs should sound like and how a band should be packaged, presented and delivered.

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“Oh man, if this was the only time I had to answer the question about how Suicide formed, that would be great,” says Martin Rev. As opening gambits in an interview go, it really doesn’t bode well. The Suicide story has been documented so well and so frequently over the years that Rev’s seeming reluctance to reopen the band’s history books yet again feels entirely understandable. We have arrived at a moment of awkward dead air and just before it feels like I should abandon the conversation completely, Rev offers a little laugh, more of a chuckle, and I realise he’s just playing with me.

Talking to the man christened Martin Reverby is like going back in time to the rough, threatening streets of post-War New York City, like meeting a character from Hubert Shelby Jr.’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’. Born in that very borough in 1948 and raised in Jamaica Queens and the Bronx, Rev talks with a quiet gruffness, his delivery bordering at times on the conspiratorial.

Like a lot of acts that became associated with New York’s punk scene, Rev and Alan Bermowitz – later Alan Vega – came up through the arts. In Vega’s case, it was specifically through sculpture and the visual arts, an entirely separate path that he maintained during the formative years of Suicide. He would meet Martin Rev in 1968 at MUSEUM: A Project Of Living Artists, an artist-operated performance and exhibition space on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “MUSEUM was a kind of a rotating art gallery, in a large space, a loft basically,” recalls Rev. “I’d already played there a couple of times with the band I had at that time, Reverend B, when I was about 21 years old, and Alan had been in the audience at one of our shows.”

An interest in forming a group was furthest from Alan Vega’s mind, though, until he saw The Stooges play the following year, and the echoes of the young Iggy Pop’s naturalistic, non-sung vocal delivery are clearly discernible in Vega’s intonation. It was just after that Stooges gig that he started connecting with Rev, though the early Suicide proposition would bear little resemblance to the duo that recorded ‘Suicide’ in 1977.

“I was playing drums then,” says Rev. “I was bringing down a scaled-down set of drums that I had at the time, and Alan was mostly trying to get feedback out of a tape recorder but then he started playing fast, free, avant garde trumpet. We also had a guitar player, another visual artist, who was playing noise guitar, and that’s how we started, just jamming together. I didn’t bring down a keyboard until several months later.” The nascent group was named Suicide after the Ghost Rider comic ‘Satan Suicide’ that Vega was especially fond of, even going so far as to call himself Alan Suicide for a while.

The trio spent a year or so performing sporadic gigs in galleries like the Mercer Arts Center, largely because there was no epicentre of alternative music at that point, and after a while their guitarist decided to quit the nascent group to pursue filmmaking instead. “I was very definite in thinking that we’d keep Suicide as just the two of us,” says Rev firmly. “I figured it’d be pretty hard to bring people into the group and keep the same line-up because we had no real steady work. I’d already heard the possibilities of electronics and the whole new world that was opening up for me, sound-wise – a full array of percussion, beats and all kinds of things right the way through to feedback. So for me I wanted to keep going in that direction.”

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Vega was initially a little circumspect. “He thought a group was the only direction for his future as an artist, and so at some point it was getting radical even for him,” says Rev. “He wanted to get another drummer and several times he’d mentioned about expanding into a guitar-oriented group. My wife Mari played drums with us for a short while, but I was very clear in my mind that I wasn’t really interested in replacing her with another drummer. She was the woman in my life, and that wouldn’t have felt right. But more than that, I was just hearing these new possibilities that didn’t involve weighing down the concept of a group in such a familiar way.”

It would take Rev buying a primitive drum machine for Vega to see the light. “That was my vision of how to continue without an acoustic drummer,” he says. “I kind of envisioned a whole new kind of a panorama of sound and whole new spaces that could be created. I finally found a used machine, and I think it was thirty dollars, which was the most I could afford.”

“I took a trip out to a house to buy one from a family, came back to Manhattan and set it up that same day in MUSEUM where we were rehearsing. It was made by a company that made bowling alley pin sitters, apparently, but it had a great sound. As soon as I heard the bass drum sound, I knew right there that it was for me. Alan heard the potential right away, and after that there was no real question or desire to get another drummer.” 

No other group at that time were set up like Suicide, and even now, after almost forty years of synth duo familiarity, nothing has ever come close to what Martin Rev and Alan offered in the 1970s. Theirs was a raw, primal, alien sound – minimal by default but forceful with intent.

Onstage, the pair would dress in black leather, looking like members of a violent biker gang, Vega whipping a chain on stage while yelping and howling somewhere on the continuum between a manic Elvis and a kind of expressionistic street poet. It was the very essence of punk – except that ‘punk’, as a description of a music aesthetic, didn’t exist until Suicide started using it.

“I knew the word really well from when I was a teenager,” recalls Rev. “It was a word that was used, but in a different context, by guys in loosely-formed gangs or street fighters, but it didn’t refer to music. You’d hear it in movies too, in forties film noir movies, or New York gangsters movies. Someone would always tend to call another gangster a ‘punk’. It was also used to describe gay prisoners maybe as early as the 1920s.”

Lester Bangs was the first to use the word in a musical context, describing Vega’s beloved Stooges in Creem magazine around 1971. “Alan read that article and came up to me and said we should call our next gig ‘Punk music by Suicide’,” says Rev. “Every time we would do a show, we’d make our own black and white posters, and put ‘em up on trees or wherever you could.”

“That’s what bands did when they started out, and so we were always looking for a new kind of moniker, something to call the gig – you know ‘Such-and-such by Suicide’, ‘This music by Suicide’, ‘That music by Suicide’. Lester Bangs coined it, but it seems that we used it before any other band.”

For most of the early 1970s there was no real place for bands like Suicide, operating on the periphery, to play, and no discernible scene around them. “Most of the bands at that time didn’t know of each other, just because there wasn’t any central place to play,” says Rev. “Most of the clubs of the sixties had closed and nothing had yet opened to take its place, so there was a limbo period, a sort of empty period.

“There was Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue, but that was really part of the pop art, Warhol, Velvets period. The original Max’s didn’t embrace this new scene at all, until they closed it and Tommy Dean Mills opened it up again around 1975.”

“Hilly Kristal opened CBGB down on the Bowery a couple years before that,” he continues. “It was only around 75 that the scene started to appear, when groups started playing in both Max’s and CBGBs. Tommy brought in Peter Crowley to book bands at Max’s, and he was very astute and very in touch with new movements and bands that were happening in New York in that so-called underground way. Then the underground journalists like Legs McNeil and Punk magazine got in on it, and then the regular newspapers started reporting on it. Alan and I weren’t using it on posters after about 1971.”

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Suicide became staples of the Max’s / CBGB scene. “Peter Crowley was booking us steadily around 75 and 76,” says Rev. “He started us during the week, and eventually brought us in on weekends, and soon we were playing Max’s steady each week. Peter started a record label for Max’s, and they put out the ‘Live At Max’s Kansas City’ compilation record, which he asked us to be on.”

The inclusion of a demo of the band’s classic ‘Rocket USA’ on Crowley’s 1976 album alongside other punks like Pete Ubu and Wayne County, with its sinewy, unswerving organ lines, a pulsing rhythm and Vega’s hyperactive vocal, marked the first time that Suicide had moved away from being anything other than a live proposition. It didn’t, however herald an offer to record a full album. “It would have been a lot easier if we could have decided to record an album ourselves,” laughs Rev. “We wanted to do that a lot earlier.”

Max’s Kansas City would prove to be instrumental in getting them into the studio, however. “We were at the jukebox one night listening to a single by Television. It was their own single. They’d done it themselves because no one had record contracts then. I went over to Tommy Dean Mills and said, ‘Hey could we get one of our singles onto your jukebox?’ I thought it was a great idea to have something on a jukebox. Tommy said, ‘Sure – just give it to Peter.’”

Rev took the band’s 5-inch demo tape reels of ‘Keep Your Dreams’ and ‘Rocket USA’ up to Midtown. “The music district still had a couple of these places that were probably from the thirties or forties where you could just walk in and cut a record. They were used by all kinds of musicians and you just needed a record or demo. I took the tape in one day and said, ‘Please cut two 45s,’ and I paid whatever it was for them – it wasn’t much – and I came out with those records. At night, when I was at Max’s, I gave one to Peter and he put it right on the jukebox.”

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Max’s had a restaurant area downstairs. The story goes that record company veteran Marty Thau, responsible for records like Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ and more recently the manager of freshly-split proto-punks The New York Dolls, was having dinner at Max’s a couple of nights after ‘Rocket USA’ was loaded into the jukebox and heard the track while he was chowing down in one of the dining room’s trademark red booths.

“Apparently he asked somebody, ‘Who was that?’ and whoever he asked said it was us,” recounts Rev. “He really liked it but he was also really surprised that it was us, because he didn’t think we could ever make a record. He’d heard us years before and thought we were great, but he thought he’d never be able to make a record with us because we were so far-out, so he never bothered to think about signing us or working with us. When he heard that he called me up the next day and requested a meeting with us.”

Despite working all of his connections, Thau couldn’t land Rev and Vega a deal. He wasn’t the only one trying. A producer friend of Thau’s, Craig Leon, had moved from Florida to Manhattan and was ensconced as a producer at Sire Records, responsible for the sound of the first Ramones and Blondie LPs. “Suicide were one of the first of the underground bands that I saw when I arrived in New York,” he reminisces. “I was quite taken with them but I just couldn’t get any interest generated for them from Sire or anyone else.” 

After several abortive attempts at getting the duo signed, Thau decided to set up his own label, Red Star, so he could release a Suicide album, and Leon was asked to be its producer. “Marty landed a distribution deal with Prelude Records, a disco label that was run by a veteran record man named Marv Schlachte,” recalls Leon. “When Marty had the project in place he called me up and told me that we were going to make the record starting in a couple of days! I was in Vermont at that time so Marty rented a car, drove up to Vermont with Alan and Martin, picked me up and installed me in the studio with the band and him on the spot.”

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The studio they were ensconced in was Ultima, in upstate New York. Despite being a long way from their natural Manhattan arts scene, Rev and Vega approached their first time in a studio like naturals, ripping through the album’s seven tracks in the aforementioned forty minutes. “They were completely professional and true artists,” says Leon. “They knew what they wanted, and I respected what they liked and didn’t like. In reality they had to do things quickly because there was such a minuscule budget for the recording, and so they didn’t have time to get indulgent, nor did they need to. Luckily they’d been playing the material for quite a while so I don’t think that the budgetary restrictions hurt them. In fact they probably helped create the feel of the record.”

Little about the set-up in Ultima was different from their live sets. “I was using the same drum machine that I was playing live,” Rev remembers. “Just one or two beats that I really liked. Around that time, I was using a Farfisa organ that had been loaned to me by a friend called Elodie Lauten.”

Lauten had relocated to New York from Paris’s own, relatively under-documented punk scene, and had become friends with Alan Vega. She would go on to become a denizen of New York’s Downtown firmament known for her own minimalist electronic compositions. “

I’d been using non-branded keyboards that I would find here and there, very cheaply, and one time Elodie said to me, ‘I have this Farfisa that I’m not using – you can borrow it.’ And that’s what I started using several months before we recorded the record, and at some point I scraped together a little bit of money to buy it from her.

“We also had a big second-hand Fender bass amp that I’d been using live,” Rev continues. “It was one of those big cabinets that we’d haul around. You could detach part of it and I’d put that bit on top of the keyboard. It had all these dials like a synth, and you could get all kinds of stuff out of it – interference, police, short wave stuff, phonecalls, radio stations, off-the-meter radio stations and things like that. It was great – things would just come out of nowhere, and you couldn’t predict or control it. That gave me the idea to have a little transistor radio on top of my keyboard too, and I I used on stage to add random voices and feedback mostly. On the album you can hear that on ‘Frankie Teardrop’.”

‘Frankie Teardrop’ is perhaps ‘Suicide’s signature moment. The prowling pre-motorik pulse of ‘Ghost Rider’ or the electro-rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Johnny’ or the heartfelt ‘Cheree’ might have been the album’s instant and accessible moments, but it’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’ that grabs you, shakes you and leaves a harrowing mark on you.

Inspired by an article about a hard-up, struggling father in New York who, in a moment of economic desperation, shot his wife, child and then himself, Vega’s detached vocal, punctuated by sudden screams as the doomed Frankie’s story violently progresses, floats above a sparse, haunting, almost funereal sound palette from Rev. ‘Frankie’ epitomised Vega’s unerring ability, like Hubert Shelby Jr or Lou Reed, to create discrete and unsettling character snapshots.

“Alan always had that kind of focus on character painting,” agrees Rev. “It was quite visual, and he deliberately didn’t finish off all the details. It was like a narrative. He was just presenting certain key elements of the character, and the whole way that we structured everything left a lot of room for him to keep developing those ideas between phrases. It had that linear, more vertical aspect to it, so a few ideas for a song would sometimes be enough.”

True to form, though he had the basic idea for ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and had been performing it for a while, most of the lyrics you hear on the record were crafted spontaneously. “Alan always had a basic lyric, but it wasn’t fixed. We purposefully didn’t formularise it. The main thing at that time was that the industry demanded a particular song structure from groups – verse, chorus structures. We didn’t hear that as anything fresh or exciting. I wanted to leave out that whole idea of a verse, chorus structure.”

“And so, with Alan, it wasn’t a fixed vocal presentation. Once Alan had certain lyrics, he laid them onto what I was playing, and a lot of it would be very spur-of-the moment. He didn’t know exactly where every word was going to be placed and that’s a lot of what we were about. He performed the lyrics to ‘Frankie Teardrop’ spontaneously, as if it was a live gig. A lot of groups, they’ll try to play the records on stage the way they recorded them, and we never did that. Maybe that was part of what was so unsettling for our audiences.”

“I realised that what I normally did on a recording, in terms of the work on the arrangement and the structure, just didn’t apply to Suicide,” adds Craig Leon. “I thought that any outside input into what was already fundamentally brilliant about their music would have tampered with their unique sound. Bearing that in mind, what I set out to do was define elements in the roots of what they were doing and enhance what they already did sonically to take them further.”

“To do that, I recorded their live performance, with only a few vocal overdubs, and then I sent what they played and sung to various effects for manipulation. It meant we could create something that sounded different without tampering with the original spirit of what they had written and performed. The set-up made it a little challenging, but I like to think that we got there.” Leon could only commit a couple of days to the Ultima sessions, leaving Marty Thau to complete the recordings.

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The approach that Thau, Leon and the band took to recording ‘Suicide’ meant that the album contained the quintessential essence of a band that had been staples on New York’s underground for the best part of a decade. Not for them a polished, cleaned-up version of their live presentation at the behest of a major record label, but a raw, ugly suite of songs with all the rough edges left largely untouched.

Live stalwarts though they were, and even though New York’s punk scene was much a broader and more eclectic affair compared to London’s, Suicide weren’t exactly loved by audiences. “We got a lot of negativity in New York, but not violently negative.”

As documented on the legendary and unflinching ‘23 Minutes In Brussels’ recording, it was only when they reached Europe to support Elvis Costello that things turned really nasty. “We experienced riots and people throwing things – really an incredible amount of things – and it became very, very dangerous, every night,” laughs Rev bemusedly. “I think it’s because we played larger venues, and we opened up for acts that people came out to see. When you open up a show you do set yourself up for that, and especially in that climate of almost a climactic, golden age of punk audiences seemed show their appreciation by throwing things and spitting – that was the punk ethic at the time.

“But I think we also were presenting something that they didn’t like about their future on some level,” he reflects. ”Some people just didn’t want to consider what we were doing as being part of their future. The format of the group and everything about it just cut all the familiarities out of the rock ‘n’ roll band structure, so there was nothing to hold onto. They didn’t see the instrumentation, they didn’t like the way we acted, the way we looked and the name of the group especially, but even so, that reaction was a first for me.”

“It was my first time in Europe and I thought, ‘Finally, wow, we’ll get some appreciation.’ Our first show was the Festival International de la Science-Fiction in Metz, France, which was a festival for all kinds of intellectual pursuits, and we basically had a fight on stage while we were playing.”

“From there it just got worse. We joined up with Elvis Costello in Paris, and our first gig was the Olympia. We had to play in the afternoon because of a soccer match in the evening, and man the Olympia was a total riot! With Elvis we had a riot every night. A literal riot. They even had tear gas at a few of them.”

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Alan Vega passed away in July 2016, in many ways leaving as much of a gaping musical hole as Bowie’s passing a few months before. By then, Suicide’s legacy had become firmly established, the riots and violent reactions of the early days mostly forgotten. Despite their gradually recognised importance no one ever came close to offering what Suicide did.

Whereas other branches of punk were cloned vigorously, Suicide remained a unique proposition, and probably always will. The closest anyone got was Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft when they transitioned to a duo format, and even that sounded polite and innocent in comparison.

Even today, listening to ‘Suicide’ feels strangely threatening, it songs shining an abrasive light on everything from deprivation to misplaced hero worship. It’s a vision of a future – or a today – that many people still don’t want to accept, created during a time of brilliant musical upheaval that we know can never be repeated; a timeless, nasty, nausea-inflicting, confrontational endeavour that sounds as immediate and necessary as it did way back in 1977.

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The re-mastered version of 'Suicide' is out now on Mute.

Words: Mat Smith // @mjasmith

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