With the untimely demise of the legendary Alan Vega at the weekend, I dug out this review of the Suicide performance at 2005’s All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands in the UK. Over time this performance has taken on an almost mythical significance to me, a memory almost as blurred and fuzzy as the photo I took below; but as you can see, at least at the time I was less than impressed with the music. You’ll notice that I did, however, make a point of mentioning just how mesmerising both Vega and Rev were.
Suicide were one of the acts that I’d really been looking forward to at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Camber Sands, East Sussex. And sadly, at least for me, this was not to be the ephiphanic experience I always hoped seeing such a historically important act in the genesis of modern electronic music would be. I’m not sure what the reason was – perhaps the feeling that Martin Rev and Alan Vega were kind of ‘going through the motions’, or perhaps it was the fact that prior to them I’d seen PJ Harvey and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante in very laidback, stripped-down solo performances with only guitars – in contrast, Suicide’s electronic compositions were a little bit too complex; and this from me, ordinarily an electronic music stalwart and a fan of the intricate and unusual.
I’d seen Rev and Vega wandering around the weird jaded / faded seaside glamour of ATP’s Pontins home the day before whilst queueing to check in. Now that was epiphanic – to be just a few feet away from two of my musical heroes while they shuffled past was quite mind-blowing – but the feeling that I got when I saw them perform was of being somewhat less than thrilled. For a start they were at least half an hour late, and then the music appeared to be played on a CD player, with the volume varying considerably from track to track, and often within the same track. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that Rev appeared to be doing nothing more than triggering some noises over the top of the recording, appearing to be the same set of sounds on each and every song. Cymbals, crashes, swooshes and abrasive noises appeared with frightening predictability / regularity, and often out of time.
Another problem was that I really didn’t recognise many of the songs, especially since they were rendered with an eighties pop sheen – none of the grit of their original incarnations at all, and one track even sounded very like ‘Theme From S’Express’ – hardly a counter-cultural statement. The version of ‘Cheree’ was rendered with a rockabilly edge, with Rev taking a stab at some live Phil Spector-esque Wall Of Sound percussion on one bar, then missing the beat on the second bar, finally giving up on the third.
A note on Marty Rev: if Suicide were the unlikely progenitors to the eighties synth duos (Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Blancmange etc), then Dave Ball, Chris Lowe, Vince Clarke and Stephen Luscombe and all the other synth-playing halves take note – this man has a vivid stage personality and an energy that none of these guys have ever shown. He was frantic, like the ubiquitous mad professor, all shock hair and whirling arms with the largest wrap-around shades this side of an athletics track. He really looked like Einstein composing for a Futurist symphony, and when he stood, centre stage, with his back to the audience he was quite a captivating performer. And on Alan Vega, who made showroom dummy shapes with his hands and smoked between (and sometimes during) songs – his voice has become more gravel-filled over the years, becoming the New York post-Beat poet that he always promised to be. I thought he’d totally lost the plot when he started imploring to the audience that you shouldn’t be selfish, that you should look out for your relatives. ‘You should think first before doin’ somethin’ stupid, man,’ he emphatically muttered. And, just when I thought that the fire and rebel spirit had exited the man completely like the smoke exhaled from his lungs, someone thew a bottle at him. ‘Like that,’ he responded; and with that, the punk in him returned. He stepped back from the mic and calmly flipped the bird to the audience member. However, I couldn’t work out whether he was wearing a Davey Crockett hat or a very bad wig. I hope not the latter; it really didn’t match his cyberpunk clobber and similarly-cool shades.
I really thought they’d hit their stride with a totally live version of the classic ‘Ghost Rider’, my favourite electro-punk standard. Sadly, my joyous feeling was to be deflated rapidly as the synth groove failed to run at the same speed as the beat, creating a sickeningly queasy rhythm that was painful after a short while. They followed that disappointment with a track that I didn’t recognise that reminded me chiefly of Depeche Mode‘s ‘A Question Of Time’ with its clanging industrial synth hook and beat. There was nothing especially wrong with their more polished songs, it just always surprises me when a band so at the very centre of their movement become influenced by the bands that they themselves inspired – with results arguably poorer than the newer breed. I left after just five songs, pleased that I’d gotten to see them, but wishing that I was a New Yorker alive in the seventies and able to see them at their CBGBs Bowery prime.
Originally posted 2005; re-edited 2016.
(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence