Review Summary: Immeasurably influential record that has lost little of its bite over the years. While sometimes I get why Martin Rev used one hand to play during concerts and the other to block objects hurled at him, this really is rather good stuff.
I’ve been listening to this a great deal lately, and have been wondering how I discovered this absolute beast of a record in the first place. It actually happened after I came across the Raveonettes' video for ‘Attack of the Ghost Riders’ (Whip it On, 2002), which explicitly referenced ‘Ghost Rider’, the opening track of First Album. Thoroughly entertained by its self-consciously low-tech video, I scoured Amazon.com reviews trying to find all possible snippets of information on the Danish group. Given that it was 2002, and the band was new on the scene, it was hard to find anything at all in English. One review did mention the Suicide connection, so I simply followed more links to eventually find this blood-stained cover artwork staring me in the face.
Vocalist Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev formed one of the oddest ensembles in rock counterculture. They had no guitarist and no drummer; the music consisted entirely of dark, dissonant and often outright ugly keyboard rhythms, and a monotonous, dual-beat drum machine.
The aforementioned ‘Ghost Rider’ is first out of the gates, and sets in stone the foundations for post-punk, industrial, new wave and techno, all within its brief 2:30 duration. Throbbing bass drums and a staccato, buzzing keyboard refrain fuel the song, as Alan Vega’s bizarre rockabilly drawl and surreal lyrics fill the song with a post-apocalyptic rush of indie noir:
Ghost Rider, motorcycle hero
Baby, baby baby he’s a-screaming the truth
Slippin’ round round round in a blue jumpsuit
America, America’s killing its youth
‘Rocket USA’ has Vega toning down his vocal theatrics in order to match the quietly menacing pulse of Martin Rev’s keyboards and the ghostly kick of the drum machine. Suicide’s minimalism can be compared to Closer-era Joy Division. While the groups were poles apart both physically (Manchester and New York) and musically, both put similarly styled touches of brooding tension on their music. Suicide however, always maintained an eclectic taste for the outlandish, and managed to work it into their sleazy, back-alley concoctions with ridiculous ease. It’s best seen on cuts like ‘Johnny’, the former of which features a completely out-of-the-blue barbershop melody-inspired flanged keyboard drone, with Vega indulging in pure Elvis posturing.
‘Girl’ illuminates the hedonistic side of the macabre leather-clad image of apathetic cool that Suicide cultivated in the New York underground. Vega balances the blatant sleaziness of the lyrics and the equally filthy keyboard jams by interjecting his vocals with a series of ever-so-effeminate yelps of orgasmic pleasure. Unlike his more overtly ‘punk’ contemporaries, his voice isn’t limited to tuneless hollering or manic screaming; he’s taken enough cues from Lou Reed and Bowie to know that his slightly trembling, breathy vocal style works well with a slight glam tinge, creating an interesting contrast with the group’s subdued style of deconstructed nihilism.
And nihilistic they were, make no mistake. Suicide’s live performances are legendary for regularly ending in riots. Audience members already annoyed with the minimalist arrangements (no live drummers, definitely no guitars) would be further antagonized by Alan Vega, who would often end up being attacked by the crowd after whipping them into a frenzy by swinging chains at them mid-performance.
Though anarchy and violence were only merely implied in their music, Rev and Vega made their definitive (if ultimately rather oblique) political statement with the ten-minute behemoth ‘Frankie Teardrop’. Rev’s distorted keyboard washes were not the focus here; rather, it was the story of an overworked assembly line laborer (the protagonist ‘Frankie’) steeped in poverty and unable to support his family, who finds no alternative other than murdering them and taking his own life immediately after. It is thought of as decrying the lives many US soldiers returned to lead after Vietnam.
There are no clever bits of dialogue and tongue-in-cheek attitude, as there were on the Velvet Underground’s equally grisly (but intentionally humorous) ‘The Gift’. ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is a harsh, uncompromising sonic palette of total despair and a hopeless future. The ultra-spare sonic arrangements, which never go beyond a monotonous industrial drone are punctuated by Vega’s horrific, borderline inhuman screams. The entire song has about 6 lines of lyrics, all of which are spaced apart by what seems to be an average of three minutes. Although it’s a powerful, if grating listen the first time around, its once-unnerving minimalism becomes monotonous and dull rather quickly.
‘Che’ is similar mood-wise, but comes off as little more than a depressing, monotonous sonic dirge that meanders aimlessly for five minutes. ‘Cheree’ on the other hand, is shimmering, saccharine synth-pop, most unexpected of a group this openly confrontational. Then again, considering the litany of inconspicuous concessions to pop sensibilities scattered throughout the album, it would make sense for them to have at least one out-of-left-field all-out pop song.
The impact First Album has had on modern music cannot be exaggerated, especially considering its relatively short length. Later pressings have arguably diluted that power by adding extraneous material, though the bonus 㤟 minutes over Brussels’, while containing very little in coherent music, provides a rough indication of the timeline of a Suicide concert: introduction, one or two songs, increasingly unsatisfied audience, fight, riot, end of concert. While only groups like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire pushed Suicide’s approach to the upper echelons of avant-garde, the general concept would eventually transmute into electronic-tinged efforts by the usual suspects like Soft Cell, Wire and Depeche Mode, while the attitude would rub off on rock groups like The Cramps and The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream.