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'70s Rock Band Brings Back the Noise

October 26, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the stellar crop of bands that emerged from New York in the late '70s, the noise-rock duo Suicide never experienced that golden moment of critical mass when greatness is rewarded with financial recompense.

But just in case anyone thinks singer Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev's current tour, which brings them to the Knitting Factory Hollywood for their first L.A. shows in 21 years, is another cynical class of '77 reunion, Suicide wants to make one thing perfectly clear: It never disbanded to begin with.

"We never really split up," says Vega, 52. "This band has got a life of its own. We might not speak to each other for several years and then just pick it up again like it's no big thing."

An off-again, on-again project since 1970, Suicide has seen the zeitgeist catch up with it. An early practitioner of dense, machine-made rock and one of the first bands to rely heavily on drum machines, Suicide has been playing to a new crop of fans weaned on techno-rock bands such as the Prodigy and the nihilist Goth of Nine Inch Nails. Mute Records recently reissued the band's first two albums, and its current tour is playing to packed houses.

"There's a whole new audience for the band who weren't even born when we started," says Vega. "I mean, these kids know more about the band than me! It just blows me away."

Suicide was nurtured in New York's late-'70s punk scene, but it had actually been together for close to seven years before it released its self-titled debut in 1977--a mad mix of strident synthesizers and Stooges-like thrash that is now regarded as a touchstone of '70s underground rock.

"We were like the rotten apple," says Vega. "The labels had signed everyone else until finally there was no one left to sign."

Vega and Rev were both high-art snobs with a taste for fringe musicians such as electronic music pioneers Terry Riley and La Monte Young. "I was fooling around with tape loops and children's toys, and Marty was into doo-wop and jazz," says Vega.

The duo's early gigs at New York's Mercer Arts Center were exercises in barely controlled anarchy, with Vega flagellating himself with his microphone cord and verbally abusing audience members. Needless to say, it didn't always go over with traditional rock crowds. "The last time we played in L.A., we opened for the Cars at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1979," says Vega. "People immediately started throwing their sneakers at us. A lot of people went home without their Adidas that night."

As an opening act on Elvis Costello and Clash tours in 1978, Suicide sparked near-riots in England. "We were the band everybody loved to hate," recalls Vega. But not everyone was repulsed: Cars leader Ric Ocasek produced an album for the band, and critics hailed them as techno prophets without honor. Still, no big payday ever materialized, and the team started pursuing solo projects in 1981.

Now that they've found new life as elder statesmen of extreme rock, Vega is determined to keep the band from devolving into an oldies act. The group is currently recording a new album for Mute, but no release date has been set.

"I wouldn't be doing this if it was just a nostalgia thing," he says. "We're doing new material onstage, because the sound is morphing into something else, and the rhythms are getting more complex. That's just the nature of the trip."

BE THERE

Suicide plays today and Friday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., 9 p.m. (323) 463-0204. Tickets are $16 in advance, $18 at door.

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