Celebrating the unique life and career of Alan Vega (1938-2016)

On July 16th , Suicide frontman Alan Vega sadly passed away. He leaves behind one of the most influential musical legacies of any 20th century artist. Formed in 1970 with instrumentalist Martin Rev, Suicide quickly began creating their claustrophobic vignettes of American life with four tight walls of cheap drum machines, tinny synths, short loops repeated ad nauseam and Vega’s trademark erratic vocal delivery. Known for a minimalist approach and confrontational live performances, the band began branding themselves as ‘punk’, a term coined in a Lester Bangs article which quickly reached widespread use. With a punk aesthetic and a minimalist approach, the duo were soon signed to Red Star with views to put their revolutionary new sound to record.

The eventual release of their self-titled record in 1977 meant the decade had its own Velvet Underground & Nico, an avant-garde account of existential crises in modern America. On its release, it was an album so starkly different to everything else before it, that the best way to quantify its influence is to think of music pre-Suicide and post-Suicide.  By employing this method,  an influence is still directly observable today.  The eventual boom of electronic music in the ‘80s and beyond owes a lot to the first Suicide album, with the metronomic repetitiveness of tracks like ‘I Remember’ evoking images of early industrial Throbbing Gristle, modern techno having strong structural similarities to the relentless synth of Ghost Rider, and the scattered, turbulent screams of Frankie Teardrop being perhaps the first piece of  music in the latter half of the 20th century which attempted to evoke negative, uncomfortable feelings of genuine horror within the listener with their trademark abrasive sound.

After releasing an album so conceptual that more time has been spent writing about it than actually listening to it, Vega and Rev released their second album, also eponymously named. The record approached things with more of a pop sensibility, exchanging the crude claustrophobic sound for a higher, more refined production quality. The opening track ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’ uses this newly polished sound to illustrate their disdain for the decadence of 20th century American society, creating what sounds like a sadistic take on ‘80s synth-pop before it had really even begun. With the lo-fi minimalist innovation of the first album becoming one of the most pivotal moments of 20th century music, it is easy to overlook the influence of the band’s subsequent album. Going from disenfranchised Manhattan arty-types using their music as a vehicle for their morbid observations, to an album which pioneered the fledgling synthpop genre with extremely tight production – essentially for the purpose of parodying it – solidified the duo’s legacy as two of the most accomplished musicians of the last 50 years.

Alan Vega will be missed. The work he produced with Rev as Suicide is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for contemporary music being a legitimate art form. Their first album is almost a musical equivalent of Jackson Pollock: a primitive, angry approach made to elicit feelings in the observer far stronger than the sum of their parts would suggest. Whilst they may never get the praise they deserve, or even be remotely palatable to a mainstream audience, their influence is nearly unmatched and even those nonplussed about music so superficially basic and naive as Vega and Rev’s will no doubt be enjoying the shade of the tree Suicide planted for decades to come.

Max Smith

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