57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

Electronic, Post-Punk

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)



Indie / Alternative, Noise Rock

When a bands career exceeds 20 years and sixteen plus albums it is difficult to know where to start. To any newcomer to the world of Sonic Youth I would point them in the direction of their fifth album Sister. This is an album often unfairly overlooked in favour of its big brother (Ha!) Daydream Nation or their more heavily promoted major label records released throughout the nineties. 

Sister was released in 1987, arriving in the middle of a perfect three album run (between EVOL and Daydream Nation) that rivals Bob Dylan’s similar run of albums in 1965-66 for inspiration to a rock underground. Recorded at Sears Sound in the middle of Times Square, it fits in perfectly to a line of New York rock that stretches from The Velvet Underground through Patti Smith and the Voidoids. But theres more to it than that. As a band they capture something of the American Night better than any band since the Doors. There is also a real classic psych/garage rock feel to a lot this record – imagine the frantic Feathered Fish through a New York/No Wave Filter, or a post punk take on Voices Green and Purple. 

Sister finds The Sonic Youth (as they are called on the sleeve) moving away from their earlier sound into more arranged songs and sounding all the better for it. The twin guitars of Ranaldo and Moore still coil and snake around each other like Verlaine and Lloyd or Quine and Julian. A lot of Sister reminds me of those early Eno/Island Television demos when Richard Hell was still in the band, when the songs were not quite formed, the guitars still feeling their way into the songs and stripped of the raunch and polish that Andy Johns brought to Marquee Moon. The songs still ebb and flow often breaking down halfway through. That they hold together so well I think is down to Steve Shelley, now fully integrated into the band. 

Opener Schizophrenia comes on like the Cramps covering I Worship The Sun, or is it Felt covering Can’t Find My Mind. Either way, two minutes in the song collapses in on itself the way only Sonic Youth seem to be able to do as Kim takes over vocals from Thurston and the song shifts somewhere else- “The future is static, it’s all in your mind”. It is really quite beautiful.

(I Got A) Catholic Block has such a killer riff. In the summer of 1988 I used to wake up every morning to the live version of this song on the Rhythm and Noise compilation cassette given away with Underground magazine. It was like waking up to someone throwing a firework in your bed. 

Beauty lies in the eye distills Patti Smiths first three albums into two minutes twelve seconds, and yet sounds nothing like her. Take the atmosphere and mood of We Three, add the turbulent guitars of Birdland and transmit it from the furthest reaches of Radio Ethiopia and you might get close to the beauty of this song.

Stereo Sanctity opens with Thurston and engineer Bill Titus trading “Seven”’s (and Seven and Seven is?) before taking us on a white knuckle ride through Phillip K. Dicks psyche. Side one closes with Pipeline/Kill Time – “Stretch me to the point where I stop” such a classic opening line to a rock and roll song.

Side two opens with Tuff Gnarl like folk rock gone wrong, Thurston cutting up fanzine reviews to form the lyrics. Kims Pacific Coast Highway is up next, sounding like the worst hitch hiking experience ever. Again after one minute the song shifts mood to somewhere prettier before grinding back.  A cover of Crimes “Hot Wire My Heart” makes perfect sense here. It took me about another fifteen years before I managed to hear the original and its influence on the Sonic Youth sound was not hard to spot.

Cotton Crown starts like the band trying to ape the Steve Miller Bands “Song For Our Ancestors”, relocating it from the San Francisco Bay to the the Hudson river, before becoming one of Sonic Youths more sensuous songs. Of course it doesn’t stay that way for long. I can never figure out if this is a love song to a person (“Angels are dreaming of you”) or a city (“New York City is forever kitty”) or something else entirely. The album closes with punker White Cross, another catholic guilt song. 

Flashback to Sunday 7 June 1987.  Sonic Youth are onstage at Rooftops in Glasgow, setting up their own gear. they look impossibly cool. Lee Ranado seems to have about half a dozen electric twelve string guitars behind him in cardboard boxes. This is my first time seeing them (I’d missed the Splash One gig the previous year). They kick off with Schizophrenia and end with Expressway To Your Skull. In between they blew my mind. When I picture them in my head this is what I see and Sister is what I hear. Remember them this way. (TT)