Suicide: No Compromise – David Nobakht
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Just finished the top notch hardback edition of David Nobakht’s biography of synth-rock pioneers Suicide. I would have loved to have written this book. Very much a band biography rather than a personal history of Suicide’s two members, Alan Vega and Martin Rev, Nobakht assembles a wealth of material that traces Suicide’s genesis. From the first tinkerings with primitive electronics in the early 1970s, endless confrontational, blood-smeared gigs, through to the release of their seminal self-titled debut album – "up there with the first Stooges or Velvet Underground album" – the extreme reaction they provoked touring with The Clash at the height of punk in the UK (one night someone threw an axe at the stage. A fucking axe!), the involvement of Ric Osacek from The Cars who spent a good chunk of his own popstar earnings on them, through to their gradual acceptance during the 1990s and their triumphant string of gigs that they’ve been playing since 1997 to an increasingly enamoured audience – Nobakht covers it all, and it’s one of the strangest and most fascinating pop history stories I’ve read.
Over 30 years, Suicide have not simply survived, they’ve thrived, and now they are getting as much acclaim as they used to get abuse. It’s just as well, given that both Rev and Vega must be getting on towards 60 now – and having seen them live twice at London’s Garage, it’s evident that age won’t stop them from generating some of the most beautiful and vicious noise you can ever hope to hear. For all their supposed influence on industrial music, Suicide have an intense warmth and humanity to their music – even when they’re sonically scaring the crap out of you – which is wholly absent from the more po-faced knobtwiddlers that came after them. Suicide are still as vital as ever within an increasingly moribund music scene, still outside it even as they become accepted and assimilated into it.
What’s interesting from Nobakht’s book is how aware of their own position in pop history Vega and Rev are – much of the book is written in their own words, and they are reluctant rock stars. Clearly they’re quite thrilled at finally getting some recognition and earning some money to support themselves – because despite being hugely influential, no one actually bought their records – but equally, after 30 years of scraping together enough money to get on to the next album, their new success only comes from doggedly sticking to what they wanted to do. At one point, Vega talks quite poignantly about his 1980s solo career, where he became huge in France of all places, had a major label deal with Elektra – and then suddenly got dropped. He admits it felt really painful to be kicked off the label after struggling so long to get paid anything for making music – but also reckons it was for the best. It’s not often you hear a musician openly admit he misses the money that a major label brings.
Nobakht does a sterling job of chronicling Suicide’s rise over 30 years with a cast of thousands describing what a huge impact listening to or seeing the band had on them – Marc Almond, Henry Rollins, Moby, Michael Stipe, Bono (eh?) – among many others. You’re left in no doubt about the huge impact they had. There’s the received wisdom that the first Velvets album sold very badly, but that everyone who bought a copy started a band – and Jim Reid from The Jesus And Mary Chain says as much about the first Suicide album. People like Marc Almond say it was the second, more heavily produced and disco-tinged Suicide album that actually laid the blueprint for many of the one keyboardist, one singer synth bands that were to follow – either way, neither album had much success at the time of their release. Either way, while Suicide’s records are great, they simply don’t capture the sheer euphoria of what they do live.
Beyond Suicide themselves, No Compromise provides an evocative description of decaying Seventies New York and the emerging punk scene around Max’s and CBGB’s, mixed up with the artist lofts where Vega and Rev first hung out and played their first tentative gigs alongside the likes of the New York Dolls. If Vega and Rev seem like New York cliches at times – summoning up death, darkness, lust and disgust, all the usual motifs of that city’s music – it’s because they were the ones helping create that now-overused vocabulary to begin with. And, as several people point out in the course of the book, others may throw the same shapes or try to adopt the same postures, but very few get near the intelligence that radiates from Suicide’s own sardonic, sonic howl.
Nobakht himself stays pretty much out of the text – he doesn’t really talk about Suicide’s own impact on his own life or the process of writing the book – it would have been interesting to see a more personal slant at times and some "behind the scenes" comments on talking to so many pop stars about Suicide’s influence on themselves. Likewise, the personal lives of Alan Vega and Martin Rev remain firmly out of the spotlight, which is both good and bad – reading the book, you do develop a certain affection for them both and it naturally leads you to want to know more of their traditional biographical details. On the other hand, maybe it’s just better to preserve the mystique. On a pedantic note, I bristled at the one word mention of The Sisterhood, a side project from The Sisters Of Mercy on which Vega guested, as I would have loved to have heard more about how that was recorded. The Sisters were huge fans of Suicide, regularly covering "Ghost Rider" as a set closer when they played live.
Nobakht’s book is definitely an essential for Suicide fans – it’s perhaps a little too reverential, but then, Suicide deserve a bit of reverence after all the shit they’ve been through. (Although there is a hilarious moment when one person describes seeing Suicide as "One guy playing a crappy Farfisa badly and another guy hitting himself with a microphone and falling down a lot"). Vega and Rev prove to be fascinating interviewees, unafraid to try and grasp for the big ideas when talking about their sound but not taking themselves too seriously either. Their self-awareness of their place in musical history, and their depictions of what came before them and after them, makes for a unique perspective on how music has changed from doo-wop to rock’n’roll to punk.
More importantly, though, No Compromise is not an eulogy for a band that was great once but is now just playing the circuit cashing in on their reputation – what’s life affirming about Suicide is that they are a band who are still going strong, still experimenting, still playing. (See a Suicide gig and the only time you might actually recognise a song is during the encore). While the audience has changed and become a lot less hostile, Suicide themselves continue doing just what they want. True, they still don’t sell many albums, but royalties for covers of their songs appearing on soundtracks for The Crow and The Sopranos have apparently earned them more cash than their entire 30 year career of record sales. That such unexpected luck should befall Suicide is a skewed vindication of both their influence and their sound – 30 years old, rooted in the past, playing in the present, still sounding like the future.