Dream Baby Dream: Suicide - A New York Story

Kris Needs

In response to the politics, culture and sheer madness of early '70s New York, artist Alan Vega and musician Martin Rev created the counter-cultural performance art statement that was Suicide.

Audacious and Sacrilegious

Get a machine to do the drums.

Now that seems such a natural choice but, in 1975, the very concept of replacing a flesh and blood drummer with a box of circuits was alien, audacious and even sacrilegious. Previously, the United States Of America had sprinkled primitive electronic beats on their epoch-making 1968 debut album, but it had hardly been central to the action. The hissing rhythm box underpinning the murky stratas of Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On in 1971 fitted perfectly (if often dismissed as a product of his coked-out derangement). That year, I witnessed Kingdom Come, the group formed by madcap singer Arthur Brown after the demise of his Crazy World, play a show bolstered by the mechanised percussion of the Bentley Rhythm Ace, manufactured by Ace Tone, the Japanese predecessor to the Roland Corporation. The band’s 1972 album, Journey, was the first whole album to feature entirely electronic drums. Kraftwerk’s mechanical beats, which were introduced as a robotic component on 1973’s Ralf and Florian, after ‘Kling Klang’ on the previous year’s Kraftwerk 2, came from a preset organ’s rhythm box until they started constructing their own.

Marty knew about the rhythm boxes being used by organists at weddings. “I’d always seen these drum machines. Every once in a while you’d get invited to someone’s wedding, or confirmation. Those guys would be playing a keyboard piano or accordion, using a rhythm machine, and they’d entertain the whole house. They couldn’t afford a band so they got one or two people and used rhythm machines.”

These humble, money-saving devices gave Marty a radical new plan to change Suicide’s music from the bottom level up. “I could really see it, like it was visual. It was a whole new depth of space, and concept of arranging, where you could just play with the parts. Bands were pretty much in a format at that point, which was starting to dictate the content. If you really wanna change radically, you’ve got to change the whole thing, the sound of the music itself from its basics, and really get away from it. I didn’t really have that all worked out at first in my head but, all at once, I just had this vision of how cool it would be to try.”

The first stab at inventing a machine to produce rhythms dates back to Leon Theremin’s rhythmicon of 1932 which, after proving too hard to use, lay forgotten until 25 years later when California’s Harry Chamberlin created a machine called the Chamberlin Rhythmate, which was stacked with tape-loop snippets of drumkits playing assorted beats. In 1959, Wurlitzer released the mahogany-housed Sideman, the first commercially produced drum machine, intended to provide electro-mechanical rhythmic accompaniment for its organ range by offering 12 different electronically generated rhythm patterns with speed control, which could combine popular grooves of the day such as the waltz and foxtrot. In 1960, New York-based electronic pioneer Raymond Scott unveiled his Rhythm Synthesizer, followed three years later by a drum machine he called Bandito the Bongo Artist, which he used on 1964’s ground-breaking Soothing Sounds For Baby.

Through the sixties, rhythm machines became more compact than the original floor-standing models, and fully transistorised after home organ manufacturer Gulbransen collaborated with automatic musical equipment company and renowned jukebox makers Seeburg to produce the Rhythm Prince, which was the size of a guitar amp head and used electro-mechanical pattern generators (preceding the Select-A-Rhythm device installed into electronic organs later that decade). The Rhythm Prince became Marty’s first drum machine, after he spotted a second-hand model for sale in the paper, making the journey to Queens to buy it for $30 from a couple whose 19-year-old daughter bought it to accompany her poetry. They told him she had recently committed suicide.

Up until then, Suicide ‘songs’ had been built on Marty’s riffs or chord progressions, which meshed into their own internal pulses, over which Alan sent phrases which coalesced into songs. Now everything changed. “To me, the rhythm was implied in the riff,” explains Marty. “At some of those gigs, when we were still doing pure electronics with the amp, the riff and feedback synched up as a rhythm, without steering it in a more recognisably percussive way like it would have with drums. Once I brought the drum machine in, the propulsion was however I interpreted the rhythm, and whatever it meant to me. What made rock’n’roll always work for me, without even realising it, was that rhythmic energy when I heard a great record.”

While Kraftwerk despised the preset rhythms found in drum machines, so much so that they ended up building their own, Marty embraced them, working flickering Latin-based grooves into new Suicide songs such as ‘Sneakin’Around’, which sees him doctoring Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ riff, and ‘Space Blue Bamboo’; the first of many quivering garage and R&B riff mutations. In the middle of a scorching hot summer, which was also New York’s wettest in recent history, Suicide embarked on a rigorous writing and rehearsal regime in their leaking basement under Greene Street.

“That’s where we were spending most of our time,” says Marty. “We were always there. Alan was living there at the time. That was like our home away from home. Our hangout off the streets.” The new drum machine motivated the pair into recording these first experiments on Alan’s two-track recorder, with Marty’s Rhythm Prince and organ going through a guitar amp into one input and Alan’s vocals into the other. After nearly five years in existence, Suicide finally got down to recording their first proper demos, which Marty likes to describe as “ecstatic adventures, part hallucinogenic; a very powerful new sound suggesting all kinds of visions.”

While the yearning ‘Space Blue’ and eerily weightless ‘Speed Queen’ appeared on 1981’s ROIR cassette release Half Alive, along with a spikey missive called ‘Long Talk’, many more emerged as a great lost record when they accompanied Blast First’s 1998 reissue of the second Suicide album. Marinated by time and years in storage embalming this miraculous document like a faded sixteenth century map, the corroded lo-ambience actually adds to the haunting intimacy and ghostly atmosphere of songs such as fifties rock-riff-heisting ‘Spaceship’, techno beat-presaging ‘Creature Feature’, mysterioso organ-draped ‘A-Man’ and masturbating stick insect click of ‘Do It Nice’, where the impact and implications of Marty’s new Rhythm Prince becomes most evident. While the malevolent drone-bed and sparking magnesium riffage of ‘See You Around’ gives an idea how Suicide might have sounded at those early, pre-drum machine shows, ‘Into My Eyes’ (confusingly mis-titled ‘Space Blue’ on Half Alive) is a shimmering prototype for the first album’s ‘Che’, Alan imploring “sweetheart” over Rev’s almost religiously sepulchral organ. ‘C’mon Babe’ blueprints ‘Cheree’ and has to be the source of the “I love you” cooings picked up on at the Mercer by both the Village Voice and Melody Maker.

Throughout these smoky apparitions, Alan’s voice billows like stage-whispered black clouds, a hissing demon on Marty’s shoulder as the keyboards emit sudden bursts of crackling static and dismembered proto-riffs on truly startling outings such as ‘Too Fine For You’ and time-suspending ‘New City’. One of the most striking factors about tracks such as the luminescent ‘Be My Dream’ is that, far from being the shattering assault of legend, here was doo-wop soul and cinematic sensibility, awakening in the telepathy between Alan’s more considered home recording persona and Marty’s melodic tapestries. Although bare wired, shivering and waiting for the train to take it to the next stage, the recordings show that Suicide’s sound was now in place, and also suggested that they could make great records.

Suicide also recorded the prototype ‘Dream Baby Dream’ at New York’s Sun Dragon studio around that time. At that point called ‘Dreams’, it shimmers with a pure glistening soul, sensual rhythm and the kind of innocently simple melody which characterises their best work. Returning to his ongoing sculpture analogy, Marty says “We were really starting now. The carving out process was getting to where there were actual tracks that we could take to record companies as demos to try and get deals. We tried some, but not with any success.”

That same year, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music. Its four sides of cacophonous feedback mortified his record company and nonplussed the public, although Alan says it’s his favourite Reed album. Whether Lou had meant the album as confrontational artistic statement, or an act of revenge after the disappointingly harsh critical reaction to Berlin, it was the most controversial album of his career. Marty isn’t sure if Lou had seen Suicide at that point, but MMM’s speaker-bleeding barrage was possibly the nearest approximation of what the duo had been invoking at shows for the last five years. Metal Machine Music might even have served as a subliminal aperitif for Suicide’s eventual appearance in the outside world, just by title alone.

At this point, the cogs in the universe would seem to be shifting at full throttle for Suicide (for the moment anyway). Next, they would find themselves back in a familiar spot, but this time the new weapons at their disposal, along with timing, would start to assure them of their place in the metropolis which had previously snubbed them.

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