Suicide: A Punk Mass

Suicide: A Punk Mass, 9th July 2015, The Barbican Centre London, Station to Station.
Rolo McGinty of The Woodentops reviews.

Suicide - pic Kitmonsters

Suicide: A Punk Mass

Finally, after enough years to earn you a walking stick, Suicide get what they deserve. A whole night at The Barbican with a budget to do what they want. I have seen them many times in dives and clubs and large stages worldwide supporting others. Why? Suicide are my favourite band. They have been since I first heard Cheree on a jukebox as a teenager in the 70’s. Here I have a feeling I just saw them for the last time.

It was one of those nights you had to work it to even get there. An all day Tube strike and a sport event that had runners going right by The Barbican Centre and London was broken. Martin Rev was already on when I got in badly stressed out but, surprise! my buddies had front row tickets for me. At first it felt so quiet, I could hear Rev’s hands hitting the plastic keys. There appeared to be backing vocalists and a man [Finlay Shakespeare] operating a giant Moog studio at the back of the stage, a lot of juicy modular stuff there with all the colourful patch chords. All unusual for this band that has two and only two people or one alone.

Martin Rev, the worlds greatest keyboard player to watch, performed a solo set, singing from time to time in his funny half assed style that only a guy who has spent his life listening to Alan Vega , can get away with. Add the backing vocals and you have a new texture there.

Martin Rev - pic Kyoko Sato

Glistening and atmospheric noise

I began to no longer notice the quiet volume and got sucked into the mood of this set, completely different to last time I saw him at Corsica Studios. Then it was an ear grinding wall of sound, here much more controlled and the arm sweeping style Martin Rev has been working on for some time now is continued throughout. I could see that the audio of that keyboard stroking and smashing he does, was being sent off to the man with the Moog collection in the back. He was squashing and filtering the sound so rather than the brutal sound you would normally get beaten up by, you had a more glistening and atmospheric noise coming through the hi fi PA.

For a place like the Barbican it worked, the backing vocals (can’t believe I’m saying this about a Martin Rev set) were smooth, sublime and gospel harmony style giving a clever head to the crazy beast of anti music going on underneath in the body.

Some cut up classical styles in disjointed loops popped out from time to time, Latin, electro then just as you were beginning to get comfortable with it all, this genius from shiny tight plastic clad Martin Rev, Alan Vega my one time friend, hero and perhaps main inspiration, slowly, very slowly, comes on stage.

Alan Vega - pic Kyoko Sato

Suicide doesn’t go backwards

Alan Vega is 77, has a walking stick that he leans on heavily, he is an old guy now. He does some kind of a show, his wife and son help out with backing track work and vocals much of which are on tape already. Vega jams along with it all, giving it the Vega urban horror voice. No jukebox babe or earlier stuff, more newness. Because this is Suicide and Suicide doesn’t go backwards.

I haven’t seen Alan for such a long long time. Not personally. I wasn’t prepared for how doddery he is now. This man who I remember walking in Tokyo with, noticing how he had a springy, sassy gait, a kind of strut which is now absolutely gone, who had me laughing hard at his speedy banter, such a funster and rascal. He came to the front of the stage and our eyes locked in. I could see he was thinking, that face I know that face… from where? I did a secretive wave which he saw too, me knowing he has such a lifetime’s head full of people met, its best to give up.

Some people just have ‘that voice’. Alan Vega is one, all the age stuff doesn’t matter. He sounds great, and quickly you are used to the fact he’s a bit debilitated and there’s nothing wrong with it. Again, I have seen Alan Vega solo before a few times, each time brilliant and this one is special.

He sits on a chair at the back sometime and it’s like a throne. A voice called out ‘ so who is the king of rock and roll now?’ Ha funny but actually true. Alan Vega is the most in your face, absurd, performance art , street reality punk singer ever. He has seen tomahawks whizz past his head and he has been spat all over, attacked, you name it. His horror rockabilly persona is confrontational, it drives people mad.

Suicide - pic Kitmonsters

A new level of weirdness

The songs that never change chords, or continuous beat make a kind of intense comedy. He would be laughed off the stage at X Factor, that’s for sure. Here he is happy, tired and in that New York style of “what of it” he just enjoys the moment. He is a great whatever he does. Simple as that. In fact, more comical a figure than before. He’s seeing the funny side of still being up there, a half a working body and a forgetful mind.

It’s a new level of weirdness for him, in this big smart hall. The event is saying. ‘Yes you are a genius and we appreciate’. It’s sold out. It’s the meaning of success. That long windy road that he and Martin have travelled to get to here was the fun bit, this is the actual moment of explosion. He slowly hobbles off and we go to the bar for the ‘interval’ because that’s what you have with this success. Intervals! It’s theatre now.

My gang of crazies were loving the show so far. Everybody laughed at Alan with his stick and age and memory loss. Nobody said he’s past it. No sadness at all. We didn’t want it to end. Too good. It was the most exciting interval I’ve known. We were high as kites and really into it.

Moog synths configured by Future Sound Systems - pic Kyoko Sato

New York electronic anger energy

The second half began with a bang. Just a messy and ragtag group of vocalists and conductor some of whom were Bo Ningen. They began a build up of staccato vocal rhythms made of yelps and shouts that brought out the whole experimental ethic of the whole New York movement in art of performance and sound. It built up to almost battery farm hysteria while keeping absolutely choreographed and tight. Absurdity again but this time just human voice, no effects, none needed! The whole thing was a natural effect. It’s a reminder in a way of where Suicide come from creatively, a long way pre punk. As they walk off, Suicide casually lope on stage. The crowd go nuts, screaming and shouting like the vocal piece we just watched on a massive scale. We have Suicide.

There is no other band like Suicide. We are reminded. Martin Rev goes back into his hammer and snake style. They are using a backing track so he’s not doing the drums by hand on this occasion. No drum machines gaffered to the keyboard top. Alan Vega is coming out the speakers from the tape and from the mic. Songs I’ve not heard, very few old favourites, just the odd moments from say ‘Harlem’ and ‘I Surrender’. Bits and pieces you recognise again, not a band to sit on past work. It’s all de-arranged and collaged.

Often you feel pulses in the beats that are common place in the music of now, but you heard it first at Suicide years before. The volume is now good and loud, it had been creeping up, in fact the whole evening has been and now is peaking with New York electronic anger energy and tripping its own light fantastic. Only in this room now is this happening in the whole world. Not a hundred other discos. We are sharing the moment with Suicide. They are enjoying it too you can see. A couple of funny moments between the two guys, possibly Martin reminding Alan of the words and Alan not being able to hear him so they just laugh and carry on.

Martin Rev, Alan Vega, Henry Rollins - pic Kyoko Sato

My friends are screaming

The Moog guy is back treating the sound, which he has done well all night so far. He has Alan’s vocals to play with as well. Every now and again you hear a touch of synthesis to that. Behind him, occasionally viewable is Paul Smith from Blast First who has pushed Suicide for decades. He too is having a golden moment with this super high profile show. How endlessly hard they have all worked to get to this. We are all saluting that.

My friends are screaming by now and grooving and dancing, around them more people are joining their naked infectious enthusiasm and the Barbican is beginning to go wild. Suicide are used to decades of bottle throwing, now this. It sounds fantastic and modern, Alan Vega even half his former self still instinctively connects with the crowd, making his way to either side of the front of stage giving it some, he connects with the people and delivers the hell.

This is one of the best Suicide gigs I’ve seen, it works so well in this context of Barbican Centre high end theatrical experience. Henry Rollins comes on for ‘Ghost Rider’. He sounds awesome as ever, last time I saw him, he did all the vocals for The Ruts, he was incredible. Here he is doing the song, doing it like Alan used to do many years ago while Alan is looking at him smiling like perhaps he’d sing too if he could remember the words. Henry Rollins is intense, giving Alan snapshots of past performance memories. That was pretty funny.

Henry Rollins - pic Kyoko Sato

That ‘fuck you’ attitude is alive

We are full volume, Suicide have shown us in a good humoured light handed way why they are important in the scheme of things. Why so many people like myself have been inspired by their hardcore electro with unforgettable vocal and sass. Unrivalled. Soft Cell tried, many have but you can’t touch this. Even in a theatre with hi fi sound and projections, seats, intervals all very clean and tidy, far from the filthy enclosure of a deafening rock and roll club, the filthy filth of New York City living they still conjure up, is an atmosphere you can almost touch. Michael Stipe once said he wanted to move to New York as a teenager because of the smell of the city Suicide’s music suggested, we are hearing that smell too.

So it became the point where we are feeling it might end soon in the Barbican. Suicide have hit the spot and one would wish to stay there as long as possible. Perhaps a song later it’s over. They just hobo off the stage as they have always done. That ‘fuck you’ attitude is alive and amusing as ever. Of course, we all go crazy for more and they do come back out. This time with Bobby Gillespie - I have Douglas Hart from the original Jesus and Mary Chain behind me and we laugh a bit. Also there is Jehnny Beth from Savages. I like them and her a lot, so it was a buzz to be so close to that stare she has. She’s on you like a bird of prey with that look.

Finlay Shakespeare, Alan Vega, Bobby Gillespie, Jehnny Beth - pic Kyoko Sato

Always fresh

They do ‘Dream Baby Dream’. I admit I felt they didn’t need any Suicide centric stars to come out and endorse, but neat all the same. I’m also pleased that they don’t conform to that ‘give them want they want’ music business ethic. It was far from a greatest hits event. It was a completely different sound to that sound I heard at 17, with the distorted organs and basic beat machines. So much more work and development has shaped their route and it’s not a band you want to see to clap yourself for knowing the songs, or reliving some glory moment in your earlier life. It is what it is now and that’s the beauty of it. Always fresh. A work in progress.

That I may not see Suicide again is not the feeling I have today. It is that they have got what they deserve. Recognition. They have sung many times ‘Dream Baby Dream, keep those dreams burning’ and they just showed us why. Doesn’t matter if it takes all your working life. Do it. Don’t give up. They are old as new. People seeing them first time will come away with a future sound in their heads. They will never have seen or heard anything like it before. Myself, a Suicide old timer, I was just inspired to fight on.

Both Martin and Alan are, off the stage, brilliant, charming charismatic people, the nicest I’ve met on the road or when our paths have crossed. I couldn’t have felt more thrilled for them as I did last night. I saw them at last, receive recognition.

  • Rolo McGinty is singer and guitarist in The Woodentops, whose latest album is ‘Granular Tales’. The Woodentops tour their debut album ‘Giant’ around the UK in October. Read our Rolo McGinty interview here.