Groundbreaking New York synth-voice duo Suicide revisit the dawn of the band at the Barbican, as part of the London venue’s Station To Station and Moog Concordance festivals. It’s billed as A Punk Mass, a resumption of a title assumed for some of the earliest shows/confrontations staged by Suicide co-conspirators Alan Vega and Martin Rev on New York’s early ’70s art and rock scene.
“In the first year of Suicide playing out, we were always looking for interesting ways to describe ourselves,” says keyboard iconoclast Martin Rev. “We started calling ourselves 'punk'. I think Lester Bangs was the first to use the term, describing Iggy Pop in Creem magazine, 'bout 1971. Later, we started announcing “Suicide: A Punk Mass”. We were playing lofts, galleries, a couple of clubs like The Village Vanguard. We called it that about half a dozen times.”
“When we performed, it was a sacrificial event.”
So why a Mass? Were Suicide interested in religious music, or the religious experience? There was an aspect of martyrdom, surely, in singer Vega’s intrepid onstage presentation?
“When I first met Alan he was wearing a giant white plastic crucifix around his neck,” Vega recalls. “In his visual art he’d used the crucifix a lot – a crucifix of lights, for instance. He was going through a special time in his life, a crisis, making a transition from visual art to performance art, which he felt he had to do.
“My life was very similar,” Rev continues. “It was intense, ecstatic, obsessive. We knew we were going to pursue this crazy obsession. And there was a sense of martyrdom, as you say, when we performed. In many ways it was a sacrificial event. It was in the air too, in a lot of performance art. There was El Topo by Jodorowsky. There were performance artists talking about killing themselves on stage – the ultimate performance!
“Alan was heavily moved by Iggy and his approach to audience participation. The idea of theatre was in the air. There was Alice Cooper… We talked about Total Theatre, Artaud. All that seemed very fresh and relevant. The stage was an opportunity to do more than just play music. And of course, performance originally was all about ritual. It wasn’t about entertainment, or a presentation that was merely consumed. It was a ritual, toward the Gods or towards nature.
“At the same time, we were sending out messages that might offend. We weren’t going to not do that. We were going to stand there and do what we did come what may. Alan was confronting. Sometimes that invited attack. Often it invited retreat! He frightened a lot of people. Also, he intentionally hurt himself on stage. He felt the music was giving him the cues to do that. I contrasted my particular theatre with his.”
Suicide’s revolutionary format – mentally deranged Elvis impersonator Vega and minimalist feedback freak Rev – upended the sclerotic norms of ’70s rock, resulting in two extraordinary albums: Suicide (1977) and Suicide: Alan Vega And Martin Rev (1980). They’re still a startling, unpredictable and sonically intense experience.
“When we started doing the first album shows for ATP [during 2009-2010 Suicide toured with performances of their first album in its entirety] I was amazed by the reaction we got,” says Rev. “People were saying exactly the same things people said to us when we started playing those songs. People would have feelings of panic. Some guy came up to me and said he felt he was suffocating. He couldn’t leave. He couldn’t stay. The bass! He wasn’t complaining, though.”
The Station To Station programme hints at possible live collaborations with the band, but Rev insists that nothing is yet set in stone.
“We’ll see. I’m open to hearing an idea,” says Rev. “But Suicide – there was always something vertical about it. It had a different intensity because it had a different form. I realised at the time we started that if we had a drummer and a bass player and a guitarist we could be doing something new, but not radically new. There’s a power in Suicide being two, and when you add instruments you just get more… horizontal.
“A Punk Mass is what Suicide was, and for now it is what Suicide is again.”
“There haven’t been a lot of people wanting to jam with us,” he chuckles. “Musicians understand that this is not a jamming situation. We’ve had our moments. When [New York Dolls singer] David Johansen first heard us at [legendary New York proto-punk venue] the Mercer Arts Centre, he jumped on the stage and took out his mouth harp and started playing. The Dolls crowd always had to pass through our room – the Blue Room – on their way out. They were a very different bunch, very fun, glamorous and beautiful, and coming across us... I always say it was like two World Wars going on at the same time!”
If Rev can't quite predict the form any add-ons to their Barbican show might take, is there anything else he can promise fans, apart that is from panic, suffocation, ritual and ecstasy?
“We’re never quite sure what it will be,” Rev concludes. “But A Punk Mass is what Suicide was, and for now it is what Suicide is again. It’s where we are now, doing what we do.”
PHOTO: Suicide (B/w, top) by Pat Pope