The Return of the Ghost Riders of the Apocalypse
For the last quarter century, Suicide have had an on-again, off-again existence, more off than on in fact. American Supreme is their first studio album in a decade and it comes during a year that's seen numerous aging punk outfits return to the studio. However, this release is one of 2002's more successful ventures from the old guard.
Like Wire and ShelleyDevoto, Suicide have obviously lent an ear to what's been going on over the past few years and have allowed it to impact their own distinctive sound, rather than settling for simple nostalgia. But then, when you think back, Suicide don't really have a great deal to be nostalgic about.
In summer 1978, they traveled to Britain to play as an opening act on the Clash's "On Parole" tour. I saw them at the Locarno in Bristol. Like many unsophisticated teenage punk rockers from the provinces, I didn't have a clue who Suicide were and, in keeping with punk's ethos, I didn't care either. Besides, we were all "so bored with the USA" back then and the American version of punk was as convincing as their attempts at soccer.
We'd heard about the alleged American progenitors like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls, as well as recent contenders from the New York scene, but they had little to do with our understanding of punk. The Ramones came close. They played fast and loud but they were a bunch of cartoonish longhairs. No, punk was an English invention as far as we were concerned. We did it first and we did it best. Still, according to the warped logic of the day, the prospect of suffering an unknown American band was actually quite attractive.
Suicide. It was a promising name but they were sure to be some clueless band trying too hard to be shocking or arty, or both: in other words, perfect targets for abuse.
Suicide gave the audience plenty of ammunition. They turned out to be a duo, a very odd couple. One played synths and wore absurd sci-fi shades. The other (the vocalist) sported another pair of dubious sunglasses, a beret, and a scarf. The music was deconstructed rockabilly and twisted bubblegum pop, processed into droning, repetitive metallic noise-patterns and littered with neurotic sung-spoken histrionics. This was death disco avant la lettre.
Their set didn't last long. A steady stream of glasses, gob, shoes, and invective saw to that. The same scene was replayed regularly throughout the tour. Under duress, the singer got stroppy and started cutting himself up. Suicide confirmed what we knew about American punk: that it was shit.
But while Alan Vega and Martin Rev's version of punk seemed like a joke that night, the punch line, of course, was that we were totally wrong. For one thing, we didn't understand how much of Suicide was a performance. With a heavy measure of irony, Vega and Rev were seeking confrontation; our reaction was scripted, although we didn't know it.
More importantly, if we'd had a frame of reference for what they were doing, we might have had an inkling that Suicide were electronic pioneers who would prove as influential as the Clash. Listening to their self-titled 1977 debut from the vantage point of late 2002, it's all so obvious: the synth pop, techno, and industrial dance sounds of the '80s and '90s, and now the new New Wave of electroclash, all gesture back to that foundational album.
Above all, Suicide were innovative and artistically challenging in ways that most UK punk acts weren't. And while social commentary for the likes of the Clash meant simplistic bluster and white, middle-class hand-wringing, Suicide's music was politicized, yet in a less obvious manner. They had no need for anthemic populist sloganeering in the Joe Strummer vein. Alan Vega's disturbed urban poetry and Rev's harsh pulsing electronica created an often harrowing soundtrack that spoke volumes about a certain time and place: it was dystopian metal machine music for the post-Vietnam/pre-Reagan era, oozing violence, decay, ambivalent patriotism, and paranoia.
American Supreme provides more of the same as the New York duo tap back into the dark side of the national psyche in the wake of 9/11. While Vega's vocals are unchanged, Rev's machines are more 2002-compliant and their sounds draw from the range of electronic/dance genres to have burgeoned since the late '70s, as well as dipping further back into musical history.
The rockabilly revenant presence that has often lurked in Suicide's music is largely absent here. Vega makes a punning lyrical reference to earlier rock 'n' roll on the bleak "Misery Train," but the track's understated, smoky beats have nothing of the kitschy, '50s feel of classics like "Johnny" and "Ghost Rider."
In places, American Supreme gets decidedly funky. Looping samples from the Mohawks' sampled-to-death Hammond workout "The Champ" and squelchy basslines give "Televised Executions" a cop-show/blaxplo feeling. "Beggin' for Miracles" is a heavyweight slab of electro-funk that recalls late-'80s Tackhead and Adrian Sherwood material.
Other forays onto the dance floor like "Wrong Decisions," with its hip-hop groove, and the house-flavored "American Mean" provide an oddly effective setting for Vega's fraught, haunted vocals. However, the most compelling numbers are those on which his manic expressionism finds more immediate resonance in Rev's electronics: for example, on the stomping techno of the apocalyptic "Swearin' to the Flag" and the menacingly hypnotic "Death Machine."
Recalling some of Mark Stewart's jarring sonic nightmares (think "Bastards" from As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade) and comprising just Vega's simple, disembodied repetition of the three-word title over a harsh, fragmented industrial soundscape, "Dachau, Disney, Disco" is a standout. It's a virtual Cliffs Notes to Suicide. Dachau, Disney, Disco: 20th-century trauma and violence, pop-culture Americana, and dance music. These are the essential components of Suicide's world.
On this album Vega and Rev don't come up with anything as instantly memorable as "Cheree" (their malignant, mutated "Je t'aime") or as disturbing as "Frankie Teardrop" (possibly rock's scariest song) but it's still an accomplished release that attests to their enduringly unique sound and vision. American Supreme is a soundtrack to a world on the brink (again). Let's hope we're still around in ten years for Suicide's follow-up.
By Wilson Neate