The Godfathers of No Wave / Pichfork Review by Marc Masters
The godfathers of no wave use bits of punk, post-punk, and disco, connecting them all through attitude. In their first two albums, you can even hear the roots of new wave, industrial, and techno.
Amid the ongoing musical revolution of 1970s New York, Suicide were the ultimate “you had to be there” band. Live, the duo’s music was a cacophonous wall of pulsing noise that could feel physically intimidating. As Martin Rev spewed distorted melodies and hammering beats from a keyboard/drum-machine hybrid he called “The Instrument,” Alan Vega rapped, gasped, and howled like Elvis reborn as a hit man. Vega even ventured into the crowd, crashing through tables to threaten inattentive onlookers. Suicide’s rep was built on the unique danger of this stage act, seemingly impossible to reproduce on something as two-dimensional as a slab of vinyl.
It was possible. But you couldn't have predicted their method. Suicide’s first two studio albums, Suicide (1977) and Alan Vega Martin Rev (1980), don’t try to capture the sonic chaos of their concerts. As Thurston Moore puts it in his notes to Superior Viaduct’s reissue of the former, “the record sounded contained, not blasting and melting your skin off, but it was still amazing because the songs were amazing.” In other words, even when turned down, Suicide’s music shakes with tension. Maybe it doesn’t shove you or knock over your beer, but the animalistic repetition and sinister attitude is still brashly in your face.
In fact, as the primal throbs of these albums infect your nervous system, their minimalism seems less a compromise to studio constraints than a feat of strength. Suicide’s attempt to bottle their energy without sacrificing potency is a daring gambit, but it pays off—so much so that the duo’s most stripped-down track, “Frankie Teardrop” (from Suicide), is its most devastating. Over Rev’s unwavering, tell-tale-heart beat, Vega exhales the tale of a murderer venturing into hell. His harrowing screams at the end are certainly not minimal, but it’s all the chilling restraint that precedes them that makes “Frankie Teardrop” ripple your skin.
That restraint lets Suicide inject danger into some surprisingly sweet, even cheesy melodies. On Suicide, the noir-movie vibes of engine-revving tunes “Ghost Rider” (named after Vega’s favorite comic book) and “Rocket U.S.A.” feel scary. But they’re no more menacing than swaying ballads “Cheree” and “Girl,” which sound like ’50s love songs darkened by disturbing undercurrents. Though Vega was trained as an artist and Rev studied piano with jazz greats, the two initially bonded over childhood love of doo-wop. That influence bubbles inside Rev’s three-chord riffs and Vega’s chanted rock-myth narratives.
Traces of classic pop become more prominent on Alan Vega Martin Rev, due in part to the involvement of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who was already a devoted Suicide fan before producing the album. The duo makes their intentions clear in the title of the first song, “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne”: this is a shinier, more glamorous version of Suicide. Just listen to “Sweetheart,” whose lilting tropical-lounge swing is so glittery it makes “Cheree” sound like industrial noise.
But Alan Vega Martin Rev still boasts tons of gut-level grit, and the way the duo apply that to catchier tunes is fascinating. On heavier tracks “Fast Money Music” and “Harlem,” Rev’s knack for rhythmic loops that build without changing is stunning, as is Vega’s ability to shift cadences through those cycles. But even more thrilling are openly melodic pieces “Shadazz” and “Be Bop Kid.” The latter in particular sounds like doo-wop boiled down to its ideal, much the way the Ramones divined diamonds from the coal of classic rock.
There’s also something thrilling about how Suicide found their own space between scenes and styles. They overlapped with punk, post-punk, and disco, and are often cited as the godfathers of no wave. Yet no other band in any of those genres sounded like them. Their connection to their peers was about attitude, which often seems to be the only thing their songs are made of. You can hear roots of new wave, industrial, and techno in Rev’s keyboard lines, even embryonic hip-hop in Vega’s rhythmic delivery. But if these albums initially sound familiar, give them time. Eventually, what sound like simple loops become fishhooks that puncture your skin, leaving marks as indelible as this band’s singular five-decade career.
All Songs by Alan Vega & Martin Rev
Published by Revega Music
MUSICIANSElectronics by Martin Rev
Vocals by Alan Vega
Recorded January 1980 at Power Station Studios, New York City.
Engineer • Larry Alexander
Assistant Engineers • Gary Rindfuss & James Farber
Produced by Ric Ocasek
Orginal Sound Recording made by ZE Records ℗ & © 1980
DESIGNOriginal Art Cover by Tony Wright
With The Help of Richard Cramer & Wayne Maser
Inside Sleve Cover Photos by Marcia resnick