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Get Off The Stage

A New Six-Disc Set Documents Two Years of Live Suicide Havoc

Alex Fine
Suicide frontman Alan Vega developed a reputation for dealing with aggressive hecklers that's borne out on the new Live 1977-78 set

By Marc Masters | Posted 8/6/2008

"It seems you either love Suicide or you hate them," Lester Bangs wrote in 1980. "But even if you think their music is worthless, you must admit [they] have paid their dues in terms of sheer volume and ferocity of audience abuse." For years this has been a standard line regarding the New York duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev: Sure their records are great, but did you hear about the time the crowd spit on them when they opened for the Clash? Or how Vega barely dodged a flying ax? Or how he got punched by a skinhead and bled through the rest of a set?

Until now, the only aural evidence of these legendary tales was the rare live LP 23 Minutes Over Brussels, which documented the first date on Suicide's June 1978 European tour with Elvis Costello--a jaunt their U.S. label head Marty Thau would later call the "Blood '78" tour. As heard on this wild recording, fans impatient to see Costello were enraged by Suicide's odd combination of throbbing drum machine and primitive synths from Rev and detached moans and random screams from Vega. As the pair churn out their repetitive songs, mixing proto-techno, rockabilly, and performance art, the crowd drowns them out with angry, deafening chants. (You can even hear Vega ask, "What are they saying?") Eventually a spectator swipes Vega's mic, forcing the duo to beat it, shrieking "Shut the fuck up!" as they exit. Based on this recording alone, the stories about Suicide's live gigs were true--this band knew how to drive audiences insane.

That record exists because of Howard Thompson, who worked for the British label, Bronze, that released Suicide's albums in Europe. He captured the gig with his tiny tape recorder and would go on to record many more, as would soundman Charles Ball. Live 1977-78 presents these documents in all their condenser-mic-muffled glory. (Ball actually used a pretty advanced Binaural system, but Suicide's pummeling noise taxed even that equipment.) Filling six discs with 13 complete sets from New York and Europe, this box is perhaps, as the back cover text admits, "Not for the fainthearted or casual fan." (Is there even such a thing as a casual Suicide fan?) But for anyone who thinks Suicide's studio albums lack the wildness of their legend, Live 1977-78 is vital.

Listening to all six discs in a row, it becomes easier to sympathize with Suicide's unruly audiences. The duo's MO was blunt, brutal repetition--sort of a musical Chinese water torture--and because its repertoire wasn't huge at the time, the box offers many versions of just a few songs. There are 10 takes on the swaying "Cheree," 11 versions of the metronomic "Ghost Rider," 11 more of the droning "Rocket USA." These minimalist mantras, made completely on electronic equipment at a time when most rock audiences accepted only guitar, bass, and drums, still sound unique today. Imagine what they might have sounded like to an audience who had never heard anything like it--an audience for whom Elvis Costello and the Clash represented an extreme. You probably would have screamed at Vega and Rev, too.

The thing is, people didn't always scream. On many of these recordings, there's a clear appreciation for Suicide's music--you can even hear cheers and applause in spots. (According to Thompson, after the Clash tour, a set of headlining shows brought out won-over Clash fans.) As the box unfolds, all the repetition reveals nuances in Suicide's approach, a hypnotic beauty that only grew stronger the longer each piece droned on. Take the mesmerizing "Cheree," whose various iterations alternately sound like a dreamy pre-shoegaze ballad, a surreal noise samba, or a mechanical rain dance.

Part of Suicide's appeal comes from Vega's bold responses to his hecklers. He regularly spit venom back at the crowd, but with a detachment that kept him above the fray. On a July 1978 London recording, he snarls at an audience member with typical deadpan: "Take it easy, man. It don't fucking matter." (Bangs reported that at a gig opening for the Ramones in January of the same year, Vega shouted, "What are you all booin' for? You're all gonna fucking die.") Listening to him bait and defeat crowd after crowd, it's obvious why nihilistic no-wave bands such as the Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks found his futility rap so enticing.

Vega turns 60 this year, and to commemorate, the Blast First Petite label has initiated a series of EPs featuring Suicide covers by Liars, Grinderman, Spiritualized, and even Bruce Springsteen. Those are bound to amuse, but Vega's true legacy is embodied by the pulsing tones, screeching noise, and human spectacle of Live 1977-78. It's a sound that can still drive listeners to distraction--even those who've heard it borrowed and copied repeatedly, in the three decades since Suicide first blasted its earth-scorching music into unsuspecting ears.

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