Wednesday, April 9, 2008

No. 446: Suicide

Band: Suicide
Album: Suicide
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the more influential albums of its period, "Suicide" is the precursor to any punk rock that uses synths. It's often haunting, often destructive and always brilliant.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It could probably be higher, but not enough people have heard of the album.
Best song: "Frankie Teardrop" is 10 minutes of awesome.
Worst song: "Che" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's a hard listen, but it's worth it.

"Suicide" is a tough listen. It is, at times, grating, frustrating and sparse. Alan Vega's voice is caustic and often screeching. He works between crooning and screaming while Martin Rev's almost-Kraftwerk

While mostly progressive and German rock bands used synthesizers (see the Kraftwerk reference above), Suicide was the first real anti-band to use the synths in a DIY fashion. "Frankie Teardrop," based on a bass synth groove and a political tome about a Vietnam vet, is amazing and absolutely punk rock. "Ghost Rider" is short and quick, featuring a buzzsaw lead line.

As such, one of the great No Wave records was released.


Not to get into this again, but Suicide's record is lower on the list than "Tragic Kingdom." "Tragic Kingdom" is sugary nonsense and the Suicide album is challenging, smart and fun.

Certainly, the Suicide record is great, but not a lot of people have heard it. It influenced a ton of musicians. The Cars cited it as an influence (Ric Ocasek himself produced the album). Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spiritualized, Radiohead, Nick Cave and the Sisters of Mercy have cited the album as a favorite or influence. Like the Velvet Underground, not everyone has heard the Suicide album, but almost everyone who did eventually started a band.

"Tragic Kingdom," however, influenced more regular folks. Tons of women almost certainly started rock bands and joined rock bands because of Gwen Stefani's preening face. Our culture took tons of cues from the band and certainly the Avril LaVignes/Ashlee Simpsons of the world are largely born from Stefani's womb.

Here's the question, though: Do we really want to pump up the Avril LaVignes, Ashlee Simpsons and, ultimately, Gwen Stefanis of the world? Isn't the mass commoditization of third-wave feminism enough?

It harkens back to my views on college radio (a concept that has no real traction today, as college radio goes down the drain). I've always felt that college radio was the place for unheard music to find a home. In a time wherein the PR machine that is the music industry still holds a lot of sway, it was important to showcase the unheard music to someone.

A lot of the new DJs at our college station wanted to play whatever the hell they wanted. They looked at it with a "whatever taste I have" mind set, which is perfectly within the bounds of our format, but I didn't encourage them. A KCOU listener didn't come to the station to hear *NSync (we had one DJ who played them). The listener came to be challenged a little bit.

One of the biggest fallacies in my criticisms is based on that notion. Rolling Stone, in and of itself, is not a voice of the underground. It's current cover features Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (and Jack White), the picture of mainstream Boomer love. It was the voice of mainstream subculture even when it started up; It wasn't Creem. Hell, it isn't even Spin.

In fact, the magazine's place as the voice of the culture is the problem. When RS puts out a list like this, there are people -- stupid people, but people nonetheless -- who see it and fancy it law. Like the music industry machine, most consumers don't know any better. They need someone to tell them what's good/important/whatever, hence this list. The albums are "great," according to the all-important magazine.

The unfortunate fact is that RS -- by putting "Tragic Kingdom" ahead of "Suicide" -- is simply reinforcing the industry position. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is akin to a political news reporter not vetting what a politician says. The journalist is there to question and relay information and when RS simply repeats the party line ("Gwen Stefani is pretty and No Doubt is full of substance") despite facts to the contrary -- critics have collectively panned "Tragic Kingdom" -- is a dereliction of duties.


padraig said...

it's worth mentioning this record's relationship to/influence upon not only contemporary electronic pioneers like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire,Clock DVA (predecessors of The Human League)etc. but also on several related strands in the 80s; synth-pop, the EBM like Front 242, early techno and of course industrial like Einsturzende Neubauten or Skinny Puppy. I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill or anything but this record holds a firm place in the "canon" of electronic music. and, as you mentioned, they also influenced a slew of great nihilistic guitar bands.

frankly I'm amazed that this album made it onto a Rolling Stone compiled list but I guess Suicide has the benefit, as far as boomer critics go, of having come from the same mid-70s NY scene as the Talking Heads and Ramones, which has received an overwhelming amount of critical attention.

one last thing - i'm gonna have to disagree with you about the best song. "Frankie Teardrop" is indeed amazing, especially for 1978, but that honor goes to "Cheree" hands down.

bob_vinyl said...

This is such a tough listen ("Frankie Teardrop," in particular), but it belongs on the list for influence alone. REM did a cover of "Ghostrider" and it's so much better to listen to because it isn't quite so stark. it is a tough listen, but I agree that it's worth spending some time with.