57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

The One That Went AWOL

When Suicide’s long overdue third album finally appeared, one could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed since 1980. Elsewhere, time had seemed to catapult itself forward relentlessly from 1977 to the end of the 1980s, a decade which oversaw a restlessly transient musical landscape, whose fluctuating cultural shifts were not incomparable to the seismic ones experienced during the swinging 1960s and the schizophrenic 1970s. In music, it had begun with a superabundance of post-punk inventiveness, but had given way to the shallow superficial sheen of the new romantics – their vacuous synth pop all artifice, little substance. As the decade neared its close, the thriving independent music scenes in the UK and the US, had gloried in the ebullient resurrection of guitar-based music. The decade that had begun with Closer and Remain In Light had survived its asinine brush with meaninglessness, and was ending its journey on a high with a similarly inspirational torrent of creativity, bringing us the likes of Daydream Nation, Spirit Of Eden and Isn’t Anything. By the time ‘A Way Of Life’ appeared in late 1988, somehow, despite the absence of guitars (they rarely used them) and having remained virtually silent during this period, Suicide’s cachet had remained pretty high, perhaps in part because they were one of the few acts who successfully managed to transcend this shift in styles, their two chord punk primitivism and pioneering electro sound appeasing both the indie/alternative fraternity and those brought up on a diet of Depeche Mode, The Human League and Soft Cell.

‘A Way Of Life’ arrived eight years after ‘Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide’ and while it featured the original line-up – there were only ever two members – it somehow felt like a ‘reunion’ album or even a brand new incarnation. An eight year musical hiatus was comparatively rare then. However, Suicide had never really ‘split up’, despite Vega and Rev pursuing their own impressive solo ventures (check out ‘Saturn Strip’ and ‘Clouds Of Glory’) in the meantime. Alongside the new noisemeisters of guitar, a new generation of artists had built upon Suicide’s groundbreaking originality to create a sub-genre of music, sometimes called ’electronic body music’/ ‘industrial’ / ‘New Beat’, for the most part a hideous amalgam of goth fashion and automated electronic noise. For me, those bands, in addition to omitting to embellish their music with the occasional melody, also missed the point attitudinally. Suicide stood apart from them, having more in common with proto-punk icons The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (two, three chords tops), and with Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! (minimalist electronic pulse), than with those later groups such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, who utilised their machinery like a soulless bulldozer. By contrast to their pulverising racket, Suicide were impossible romantics, with a penchant for 1950s doo-wop and rockabilly. Often, the songs they wrote were love songs. Or at least, love songs buried under an aesthetic of art trash brutalism.

The band had developed a cult following from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Inspired by the street trash image of their NYC ancestors Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, the band trawled through junk stores to acquire some electronic flotsam and jetsam (including a battered old farfisa organ), donned some leather jackets and cultivated an impossibly cool NYC street image, alongside a completely uncompromising musical style. Their debut album ‘Suicide’ – the one with the blood smeared sleeve and subtle Communist iconography – seemed out of step with the ’77 zeitgeist, and yet reputedly it had been Suicide who had first coined the term ‘punk’. Certainly their concert posters from the early 1970s were often emblazoned with an invitation to a ‘Punk Mass’. Having said that, the punk masses almost to a man, abhorred them. People attacked them in the street and threw bottles at them on stage. Once, while supporting The Clash, Vega famously even had to dodge a tomahawk! I often wonder if this incident took place during a rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ a deranged ten minute purgatorial endurance test, telling the story of an impoverished factory worker who resorts to suicide, which is punctuated with Vega’s hysterical screams. Perhaps that audience was more afraid of him, than he them?

Their second album, confusingly also entitled ‘Suicide’, had a slightly more polished sound but was equally brilliant, a fluid and dazzling display of glam electro-minimalism. We know and acknowledge these albums as classics, but their third album is often ignored, and unfairly so. Musically it bears a closer resemblance to the second album, than the second does the first. But then Suicide were not a band to surprise their audience by dropping a reggae number into their set (like Patti Smith) or to indulge in a bit of genre-hopping by going acoustic or adding some orchestral accompaniment. Rather the surprises lay in their capacity to continually distil their sound to its very essence. As the ultimate purists, they bore all the hallmarks of musical sclerosis, adhering to a template from which they stubbornly refused to deviate. Indeed, Suicide songs generally follow one of four archetypes: the gorgeously ethereal atmospheric drone (eg. ‘Cheree’), the uptempo robotically pulsing drone (see ‘Ghost Rider’) the menacing hypnotic amorphous drone (try ‘Harlem’) and the jaunty electrobilly beat (eg. ‘Johnny’). In other words, a lot of drone. Vega’s nervy croon, deliriously erotic at times, sounds like Elvis had he been abandoned, petrified, in a haunted house. Rev’s drum machine punches out patterns which perform a function similar to Tommy Hall’s jug in the Elevators, while as one man band he creates a range of extraordinarily dissonant keyboard sounds.

‘A Way Of Life’ was recorded in one session on one day in December 1987. Apparently, billed producer Ric Ocasek arrived immediately after the recording session finished, stunned to find the album had already been completed. Nevertheless, he retains production credits on an album which features some of Sucide’s most memorable songs, not least the opener ‘Wild In Blue’ where Vega’s echo-laden gnarling vocals over an eerily locked robotic funk groove, inculcate an air of menace. On ‘Rain Of Ruin’ one of their most danceable rhythms is buried underneath a buzz of mechanistic beats, which sounds like a relentlessly rushing great electronic river – like Metal Machine Music played by Ralf and Florian. The Lou Reed fixation is taken to the outer limits on ‘Love So Lovely’, the last half of which has a rhythmic intensity of phrasing that recalls the maniacal finale to The Velvets’ ‘Murder Mystery’. Then there is the gorgeous ballad ‘Surrender’, where Elvis meets Angelo Badalamenti at the High School Prom, 1958. ‘Jukebox Baby 96’ is archetype #4 (see above), the obligatory flirtation with rockabilly, while ‘Dominic Christ’ funky and frightening at the same time, presents the band at their despairing best, bristling with dark energy.

These songs – the ones that went AWOL – are worthy successors to those on Suicide’s first two universally hailed masterpieces and deserve greater recognition. There is a temptation to write the band off as a creative force after 1980, but they have continued to make new music since ‘A Way Of Life’, and even if subsequently they have not recaptured that original vitality, their legacy is secure with an impressive list of disciples including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream, not to mention many notable creators of electronic music from 1978 onwards. While our sense of time and place can indeed conspire to deceive us, listening to the music of Suicide means we can stand outside of that; it is original, unique, groundbreaking, and ultimately, ageless. (JJ)

56. FELA KUTI – ZOMBIE (1977)

Whether portrayed as a fearless champion of the oppressed or as an unrepentant misogynistic control freak, Africa’s most maverick musician, Fela Kuti was, at 5’7″, perhaps a few inches too tall to be ascribed a Napoleonic complex, but possessed an ego of comparable stature to ‘Le Petit Caporal’. A true cultural revolutionary, the people’s ‘Black President’ spoke out against corruption in his native Nigeria, berated the system of apartheid in South Africa, enthusiastically espoused the use of marijuana (his classic ‘Expensive Shit’ album documents one of his frequent drug busts) and consulted his trusted spiritual guide (or ‘magician’) Professor Hindu, before making important decisions about his career. His turbulent life story, and in particular, the explosive chapter surrounding the release of his 1977 album ‘Zombie’, is unlike any other in the history of popular music. It is one which may sound fallacious, fantastical even, and which renders other celebrated tales of rock’n’roll rebellion and self-destruction virtually anaemic.

Kuti enrolled at Trinity College of Music in London in 1958, having initially come to England to study medicine. He was then musically active in Ghana from the mid-1960s onwards, but smitten with Black Panther politics, returned from a visit to LA in 1970, renamed his band Africa ’70 and built his own self-contained commune in a compound in Lagos, Nigeria, his native homeland. In Fela’s eyes it was an independent sovereign entity, which he christened the Kalakuta Republic (after the Black Hole Kolkata dungeon). The commune contained it’s own free health care clinic and vitally, his own home made recording studio. It was from there he launched a series of sonic attacks upon the iniquitous Nigerian regime, of which the most scathing was undoubtedly ‘Zombie’. In it, he mercilessly ridiculed the way the army’s soldiers blindly followed the orders of their superiors, upholding a crooked military junta, one over-dependent on massive oil revenues, which somehow never managed to filter their way through to ordinary Nigerians. [‘Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think’] Typically written in trademark pidgin English (he was fluent himself), Kuti was determined to ensure ordinary people could more easily grasp the political message of his records. On this occasion, he would face the severest of consequences. He had been on the hit list for some time, had been imprisoned, beaten and tortured before, but for the authorities, fearful of his growing popularity and influence, this was a step too far. Following the album’s release, over one thousand soldiers were sent to destroy Kalakuta, virtually razing it to the ground, and in the process, Kuti’s mother was thrown from a first floor window. She was to die later from injuries sustained during the military operation. With characteristic defiance, Kuti delivered her coffin to the door of the army barracks following her funeral. It was an action at once bizarre, yet somehow, given his capacity for brazenly outlandish gestures, not untypical of him. Indeed, Peter Culshaw has noted Fela’s ‘unerring ability to piss on his own parade’. For example, in the 1970s, he turned down the opportunity to record with Paul McCartney, fearing the ex-Beatle intended to ‘steal’ his music. In the early 1980s Motown courted him, offering a million dollar advance to a lucrative record contract, but after consulting with Professor Hindu, he turned them down. His reputation suffered too with his high profile polygamous wedding of 1978, when he wed twenty seven brides in a private ceremony. It alienated more Westernised sensibilities and won him few friends in his homeland far less internationally, but he always defended his decision with dogged conviction, and he had nothing but disdain for Western mores in any case.

By then he had invented an entirely new musical genre, Afrobeat, a dynamic fusion of jazz, funk and indigenous African music. His output was prolific. In 1977 alone he released eight LPs. If these generally amounted to two extended grooves, lasting around 25 minutes in total, then nevertheless that is still over three hours of recorded music, or two double albums worth in a year, and that’s an impressive return even by Sun Ra’s standards. Kuti released around 60 albums in total. On ‘Zombie’, the combination of acerbic political protest with an irresistibly contagious funk groove is scintillating. The James Brown influence is unmistakable; Fela gave JB and his band a royal welcome when they visited Nigeria in 1970, but later claimed that it was Brown who stole his music. In truth, the influence worked both ways. Here a series of directives from Fela (‘Attention! Quick March! Slow march! Left turn!…’) is each punctuated with the backing singers repeatedly atonal response: ‘Zombie!‘ The twin sax from Fela and Lekan Anomashaun unleashes a brass line which installs it’s ebullient patterns into one’s consciousness even as the nervy guitar itches it’s restless relentless rhythm. The flip ‘Mister Follow Follow’, while thematically the mirror of the title track [‘Some dey follow follow, dem close dem eye/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem mouth/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem ear…’] musically at least finds Fela & company in more reflective mood. The breezy sax playing and restrained tempo are still funky but the heightened state of agitation is missing. Nevertheless, it remains a splendid earful.

Despite the tragic aftermath of ‘Zombie’, Fela was at the height of his popularity. His next aim was to run for Nigerian President but his candidature was rejected, despite the collapse of the first military junta in 1979. His presidential ambitions resulted in the formation of a political party, named Movement of The People, a conscious nod to the influence of Bob Marley. Their political outlooks were somewhat synonymous, a vague Pan-African Socialism, and in many ways Fela is to African music as Bob Marley is to Jamaican music. Their lives paralleled one another in many ways, their influence incalculable, their deaths tragically premature. When time called for Fela, he remained true to the additional name he had taken, Anikulapo (‘one who carries death in his pocket’), refusing medical intervention as if he were holding the crucial card in a game of poker. The game was up, but his musical legacy is safe and secure, And ‘Zombie’ is the surest place to begin exploring. (JJ)

55. DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)

DO THE COLLAPSE – GUIDED BY VOICES (1999)
As a comparatively unloved record in the discography of a comparatively unregarded band, Do The Collapse is in something of a double bind. For a band who had earned renown for unvarnished, elliptical, sawn-off songs, being produced by RicOcasekoftheCars, pedlar of incorrigibly MTV fodder, seemed imponderable and impardonable to some, like Lester Bangs agreeing to do a column for the Saturday Evening Post, particularly following the departure of deputy chief songwriter Tobin Sprout.
The sheer prolificacy of GBV and their penchant for brevity  meant they were not immediately packageable but their irresistible way with a melody offered a chink of light to the mainstream – but it doesn’t take much for sellout to be entered on the charge sheet. Furthermore, selling out can be highly relative – Can were accused of it after they joined Virgin, even though they were still capable of breaches of the peace like Unfinished and Animal Waves. Some considered The Fall to have become a pop band in the years when Brix was chief song officer but a world in which Lay Of The Land and US ’80s/90s are pop songs is one which does qualify as wonderful and frightening. And hadn’t Ocasek, two decades earlier, applied a gloss to Suicide’s second album which made it superficially more accessible than their peerless debut but, on closer inspection, retained most of its panic, tension and threat intact?
It’s apt to mention the Fall when discussing GBV, as the simplistic equation I’ve been known to offer for them is “music by Paul Westerberg, lyrics by Mark E Smith.” Robert Pollard’s lyrics and titles devour and defile language in a similar manner to Mark E Smith’s, although it’s his rueful delivery that nudges him in the direction of Westerberg – in fact, the trajectory to Do The Collapse’s measured disarray from, say, the tunefully ragged 1994 EP Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer, runs parallel to the path the Replacements staggered along from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to All Shook Down.
I purchased Do The Collapse on a whim a few weeks after its 1999 release, reasoning that, while I’d always been impressed and intrigued by GBV, apart from Clown Prince I owned nothing by them and a new album would be a sensible place to start. The years seem to have hardened the cognoscenti consensus that Bee Thousand (which enjoys the accolade of being the subject of a volume in the Thirty Three and A Third book series) or Alien Lanes are the GBV albums against which all others are measured. I’m open to persuasion on this but they were – and remain – less familiar than I’d prefer them to be and I was able to approach Do The Collapse on its own terms.

About two and a half (more of this in a moment) of the songs could have been ripe for MTV mutilation and were within the grasp of Virgin (now Absolute) Radio’s scaly fingers and shrivelled, shrunken playlist but, mercifully, they escaped and I knew this was a far richer, more lasting and more rewarding proposition than flavourless, dehydrated contemporaries (not peers) like Fountains of Wayne or Semisonic.
The two whole songs, though, did reach, perhaps unwitting, wide audiences by other means. Opener Teenage FBI, robotically limbed and with rare lyrical directness, found its way on to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer album (though not, as I understand, the programme itself). The thrust and melody resonate with the driven-in line “Someone tell me why,” though behind the youthful doubt of the phrase, part of me also hears the teacher that Pollard remained for years after forming GBV demanding an explanation for undelivered homework – a brilliantly baffling duality.
The other most radio-ready song, Hold On Hope, would be easy to characterise as a just-add-water Everybody Hurts, a calculatedly poignant work designed to overlay emotionally manipulative montages in reality shows and dramas alike. Except that, firstly, even after two decades of grievous misuse, Everybody Hurts survives as a genuinely moving, throat-swelling song; secondly, the same description applies to Hold On Hope, and thirdly, the hospital series it soundtracked was not the blustering Gray’s Anatomy but a rare moment of pathos in the endearingly silly Scrubs.


The 50:50 split comes in Liquid Indian, where the verses don’t seem too bothered what you think of them, with glowering riffs hoisting lines like “Soft clay orifice quivering like new structures and formations” before the invasion of a chorus which could have stadiums from Shea to Shawfield levitating through nothing more than repetition of a title which seems to celebrate an ink used as a drink – surely the most radical transformation since Lucozade morphed from a pick-me-up for sickly children into an elixir for the modern superathlete. The David verse battles back but the Goliath chorus rises again – it all ends in a draw but there’s no time to go to penalties as there’s too much happening elsewhere…
For instance: Zoo Pie helps itself to the coda of the Clash’s Garageland and has Pollard hollering through a bullhorn in a particularly belligerent moment; Mushroom Art sees him confessing vulnerably “Living without you is difficult” before the odd old instincts kick in and he elaborates: “Cloud faced oldman winking/You see, he tests me.” Its already measured riff is slowed further still on In Stitches, where he promises “Human amusement at hourly rates,” in tandem with a menacing backing vocal which has its flock of wrath turned away by a delicate tremolo. Dragons Awake!, with acoustic guitar, strings and Lennonesque vocal reverb, is less psychedelic than its title promises but is still as close to that status as GBV get, while Things I Will Keep lists, veers and swerves like Prime Husker Du.
And it all came out on Creation, in its very last days. The label may not actually have been brought to the brink of financial bankruptcy by the procrastination of Kevin Shields but creative bankruptcy was definitely wrought by general post-Morning Glory hubris – the recruitment of veterans GBV and Ivor Cutler were just about its only inspired moves at this time.
GBV themselves collapsed afterwards and did so again after a recent reactivation but the songs have never stopped pouring out of Robert Pollard and this prolificacy is almost a recommendation in itself. It’s well- known that actor Paddy Considine is an enthusiastic champion of theirs, perhaps less so that, when Daniel Radcliffe was once  invited to disclose the contents of his MP3, a couple of stray GBV tunes were revealed to lurk within. Since then, he’s gone on to play Allan Ginsberg, one of the great American poets of the 20th century – a category I’d contest Robert Pollard has a powerful case for belonging in (PG).