Contrary to their name, Suicide was not an act of negation, but of resurrection. Amid the post-glam, pre-punk void of the mid-1970s, Alan Vega and Martin Rev took the rotting corpse of rock‘n’roll, threaded it with electrical circuitry and zapped it back to life. Their creation bore faint hints of past lives, from the hoots and hollers of ’50s rock‘n’roll to the fuzzy organ sounds of a thousand novelty ’60s garage-rock singles. But in true Frankenstein fashion, it was emotionally devoid, prone to sudden outbursts of violence, and left a trail of destruction in its wake—one that successive generations of sonic anarchists have eagerly followed down for the past four decades.
Even in a nascent New York punk scene that welcomed outsiders, Rev and Vega occupied the fringe of the fringe. Already in their thirties, they were often the oldest guys at CBGB who weren’t Hilly Kristal. Coming on more like performance-artist provocateurs than entertainers, they shunned rock’s traditional tools of guitar, bass and drums. Suicide countered punk’s prevailing “no future” philosophy by blowing open a portal to into the unknown, promoting the synthesizer from a luxury embellishment for prog-rockers to a foundational instrument that could create entire alternate realities with the flip of a switch.
You could say Suicide were the American Kraftwerk—the android Elvis to their bionic Beach Boys. But where Kraftwerk’s synth-sculpted music evoked a techtopian ideal of floating space stations, dutiful droids, and efficient public transit, the pawn-shop science of Suicide’s self-titled debut more closely resembles the future we seem to be heading towards now. It’s the sound of urban centers overrun with rotting infrastructure, unbearable humidity, scrap heaps of obsolete technology, and tense, paranoid people liable to snap into a murderous rage without warning. The record stands as the only class-of-’77 punk product that actually sounds stranger and more terrifying today, with its twitchy beatbox rhythms and panicked prophecies (“America is killing its youth!”; “ it’s doomsday, it’s doomsday!”) embodying the perpetually unsettled feeling of being alive in 2016.
Rev’s basic Farfisa and drum machine set-up on that record makes Suicide’s signature sound easy to replicate—it’s Vega’s singing that makes it so singular. You don’t so much hear his voice as feel it reverberate through your skull, an infinite echo into the deepest recesses of your psyche. Vega’s responsible for some of the greatest screams ever committed to tape—not your typical expulsions of manly bravado, but genuine expressions of bone-chilling terror. Even when he’s singing love songs, he sounds like he’s abiding by a restraining order. And as Vega filled in Suicide’s sporadic release schedule—just five albums between ’77 and 2002—with more congenial solo records, their new-waved rockabilly revisionism only served to accentuate his innate strangeness and mystique (which even his apparent love of “Everybody Loves Raymond” couldn’t dispel).
Sadly, this past Saturday, Vega entered the other dimension that he so often sounded like he was singing from, having passed away at age 78. He joins the lamentably long list of inimitable voices we’ve lost this year, and while he may not be a household name on par with Prince or David Bowie, Vega’s recorded legacy arguably casts as long and wide a shadow on the modern musical landscape. The roll call of artists his music has influenced would result in an endlessly scrollable list. Here’s a look at 15 notable names in thrall to Vega’s art of darkness.
The Human League, “Being Boiled” (1978)
Years before they infiltrated wedding dance floors with “Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League were a spartan synth-punk trio that shared Suicide’s fondness for violent lyricism and harsh electronics. Released just six months after Suicide’s debut dropped, “Being Boiled” is a synth-pop prototype that injects a touch of funk into the mix, serving as a gateway from Suicide to ’80s industrial.
Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (1979)
Suicide weren’t goths per se, but through their mastery of ominous atmospherics and dead-of-night shocks, they helped shovel the grave into which vampiric offspring like Bauhaus would eagerly descend.
The Cars, “Shoo Be Doo” (1979)
Though Suicide were the rank outsiders of ’70s punk, they found some unlikely allies at the top of the pops. This (ahem) Rev-erential Candy-O deep cut essentially served as Ric Ocasek’s pitch to produce the second Suicide album, which would be the first of many collaborations between the Cars frontman and Vega. However, as it turned out, Ocasek was actually only the second-most famous Suicide fan in America…
Bruce Springsteen, “State Trooper” (1982)
The Boss’ post-River retreat into Nebraska saw him strip down to just an acoustic guitar, but the album’s tape-hissed claustrophobia practically renders it Suicide: Unplugged. The connection is no more apparent than on this chilling centerpiece track, where Bruce attempts to out-yelp Vega at his “Frankie Teardrop” freakiest. He would repay the debt more explicitly when he started covering Suicide’s second-album standard “Dream Baby Dream” in 2005, before officially inducting it into his canon on 2014’s High Hopes. (Read Springsteen's recent eulogy to Vega.)
Cybotron, “Cosmic Cars” (1982)
A lot of early techno was essentially Suicide you could dance to. This Juan Atkins/Richard “3070” Davis effort doesn’t just harness Suicide’s rhythmic jitter into a steely 4/4 pulse and top it with some Vega-style vocal vamping, it also updates their auto-erotic fixation for a future where lone-wolf renegades can shoot down the highway by engaging the autopilot.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, “The Living End” (1985)
Beyond sharing Rev and Vega’s affinity for black leather, wearing sunglasses indoors, and 20-minute gigs that end in riots, the Mary Chain effectively made the violence implicit in Suicide’s music overt, outfitting their punkabilly rave-ups in skull-splitting blasts of feedback.
Spacemen 3, “Suicide” (1986)
Though they Suicide disavowed guitars, the devious drones of songs like “Rocket USA” implied the presence of a six-string army. Spacemen 3 brought that notion to life with this undulating 11-minute tribute track, which blew up Suicide’s minimalist electro-punk into maximal stoner rock, a strain of which lives on today through the likes of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Wooden Shjips, and Thee Oh Sees.
Six Finger Satellite, “Parlor Games” (1995)
Suicide’s mechanistic music made them the pariahs of the ’70s CBGB scene, and no doubt these ahead-of-their-time devolutionaries (featuring the future Juan McLean) could relate. They were pretty much the only ’90s Sub Pop act to put the synth player front and center, as multi-tasking frontman Jeremiah Ryan introduced Rev’s ray-gun buzz and Vega’s shock-treatment shrieks to a post-hardcore world.
Peaches, “Fuck the Pain Away” (2000)
Just as hardcore will always provide an outlet for each generation of disaffected adolescents, Suicide will forever prove inspirational to the industrious independent artist taking matters—and technology—into their own hands. And there is no better poster child for this edict than Merrill Nisker, the former folk singer who transformed into 505-freakin’ diva Peaches and, in the process, showed how Suicide’s cold-blooded electro could benefit from some hot ‘n’ bothered horniness.
LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” (2002)
James Murphy’s debut 12-inch was a veritable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for important but unsung artists who have no chance of ever making it to Cleveland, so of course, his insecure aging-hipster narrator had to make a pit stop “at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City.” But beyond the loving namedrop, the track introduced LCD’s signature, Suicide-schooled trick of tweaking threadbare analog electronics into cacophonous chaos.
TV On the Radio, “Satellite” (2003)
At a time when electroclash chancers like A.R.E. Weapons were indulging in Suicide cosplay for a gentrifying Williamsburg, these Brooklyn art-rockers startled the underground by using Suicide’s ice-picked synth scapes as a foundation for Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s buoyant barbershop harmonies.
Wolf Eyes, “Black Vomit” (2004)
For all their literal and figurative button-pushing, Suicide were pop songwriters at heart. A great degree of their music’s allure lies in how they set familiar-sounding, golden-oldies tunes within alien environments. But noise acts like Wolf Eyes obliterate that sort of structural integrity altogether, and focus instead on pushing Suicide’s primitive electronics to punishing extremes, delivering all the blood-curdling screams and apocalyptic terror without the melodic salve.
M.I.A., “Born Free” (2010)
Ever the contrarian, M.I.A. followed her “Paper Planes”-guided ascent into the mainstream with her most aggressive, politically charged single to date—and nothing announced that antagonist intent more soundly than a marauding, steroid-pumped sample of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider.” The accompanying, Romain Gavras-directed video—a comment on cultural genocide that shrewdly depicts white gingers being subjected to police-state oppression—provides a glimpse into the sort of grim dystopia Suicide’s music conjures.
Dirty Beaches, “Speedway King” (2011)
If listening to Suicide feels like discovering a short-circuiting 1950s jukebox a hundred years into the future, the lo-fi outlaw punk of Alex Zhang Hungtai’s breakthrough album Badlands added another century of decay. But his Vega-spawned howl still cuts through the layers of grime loud and clear.
Algiers, “And When You Fall” (2015)
This righteously indignant London-via-Atlanta gospel-punk outfit doesn’t just build upon Suicide’s bedtracks for economy’s sake—the metronomic beats serve as a vivid analogue to singer Franklin James Fisher’s ticking-time-bomb treatises on a modern America that’s about to explode.