New York City is a pit-hole. Since the United States government, having decided that New York City is no longer part of the United States of America, is dumping all the laws the rich people want such as anti-rent control and all the people they don’t want (artists, poor minorities, and the media in general) on the city and refusing the city Federal funds; the American bourgeoisie has left. Only the poor: artists, Puerto Ricans who can’t afford to move and rich Europeans who fleeing the terrorists don’t give a shit about New York inhabit this city.
Meanwhile the temperature is getting hotter and hotter so no one can think clearly. No one perceives. No one cares. Insane madness come out like life is a terrific party.
One of most culturally fertile times and places for pop music of all time was New York City between approximately 1975 and 1982. During this period of time, the city itself was in a state of self-destruction: the greatest example of America’s Melting Pot had become rotten and corrupt, with crime spiralling out of control and the city drained of money – the nadir of this being the 1977 blackout, wherein parts of the city lost power leading to widespread looting and arson.
However, despite (or due to) the dire situation, art flourished, music in particular- some of the greatest, most influential genre-defining artists came up through these grimy streets- the flourishing of punk and new wave icons in the likes of Blondie, Talking Heads and Television, the rise of disco with Studio 54 giving Chic and Grace Jones outlets, the outright rejection of the traditional through Sonic Youth and no-wave, and the creation and development of hip-hop through Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa (author side-note: for those interested, it may be worth your while checking out Ed Piskor’s comic book series Hip Hop Family Tree. A very cool, stylised account of the roots and early years of hip-hop, mostly within New York City from the late 1970s through to the mid-80s). In the middle of this creative spark lay Suicide.
Armed with a simple beatbox, a keyboard and confrontational attitudes, the duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev caused chaos with intentionally antagonistic, repetitive, bare-bones electronic rockabilly- the soundtrack to a decaying, dying metropolis, a world inhabited by Travis Bickle, by The Baseball Furies and The Gramercy Riffs- single-handedly creating the synthpunk genre with their 1977 self-titled debut album, creating waves throughout punk, post-punk, electronica and more (for example, Bruce Springsteen’s critically-adored Nebraska album in indebted to Suicide’s sparse, harsh sound) but at the heart their music had all of the hallmarks of classic pre-Beatles pop, with swooning doo-wop and 12-bar blues often acting as the bridgework for Alan Vega to howl over. The question is – what were Suicide, exactly? Were they a punk band who preferred electronics to guitars? Performance artists acting purely to coax reactions from their audience? Deranged nihilistic lunatics who relished in goading crowds into riots? All three? (Infamous live album 23 Minutes Over Brussels suggests all three). Lydia Lunch- frequent collaborator of the duo, has created a live show where she pays tribute to her friends- Alan Vega sadly passed away in 2016, and Martin Rev is enjoying a life of semi-retirement- and to continue the mythos of the band with all three of these possibilities in mind.
Breaking Colts, a Manchester two-woman bass and drum collective, blast the White Hotel with an all-out sonic attack, underlined with an almost danceable backbeat- Merzbow goes disco, with Joanne Maylott’s bass guitar distorted to the point of white noise, congealing with Lianne Steinberg’s non-stop drum assault to create a sludgy, Riot Grrrl-esque vortex of sound. “We’re gonna play a slow one now- really romantic!” – side 2 of My War comes to mind, as Breaking Colts unleash huge, crushing riffs with drum hits to match (including a gong!) – this is the soundtrack for an imagined Kaiju movie, it’s easy to imagine something like Rodan or Ghidorah destroying buildings and rampaging to this sound, an mental image made stronger through the venue’s use of heavy smoke, strobes and deep red lights feel like a underground bunker under attack. Breaking Colts’ ‘songs’ are loose, freeform jams- starting, stopping, speeding and slowing almost of their own accord- “hold on to your hats!” as a Masters Of Reality-style stomp interjects with borderline-thrash metal breakdowns at an almost schizophrenic occurrence, the feedback generated by Joanne’s bass acting as an instrument in its own right, throwing random harmonics and extra dimensions into the powerful, downtuned riffs. Creating a booming, dynamic sound with relatively little – a distorted bass guitar and- gong aside – a relatively basic drum kit, along with the very occasional vocal, Joanne and Lianne are true masters of their craft.
Ferrous-encrusted tape loops similar to those used by William Basinski bleed out into the ether as Blyth – the solo project of Ian White, drummer for post-punk outfit Gallon Drunk, takes stage and begins to underscore the eeriness with hyper-precise, electronically augmented drumming, pushing the soundscape well into avant-garde jazz territory. Ian’s intensity and instrumental ferocity does not stop or even diminish, propelling everything along with a one-handed jazz snare roll while the tape loops are replaced with electronic samples triggered from drum hits- a cyclical death march of noise… no. I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I loathe to do this, but this was not for me at all and I can’t go on. I’m sure that a lot of jazz heads and fans of avant-garde/experimental music would love Blyth (and judging from the audience response, there are plenty), but I personally found this to be borderline-unlistenable, an exercise in tedium. Ian is an incredible talent- that goes without saying- but in this environment, this felt simply like a masturbatory exercise. There may have been all manner of subtleties in Blyth’s sonic palette but they were lost on me- there was no sense of structure, no tension and release, no emotional resonance. Just jazz drumming for 30 minutes or so with the addition of sampled sounds. That’s all.
Flanked by primitive, throbbing synth riffs and rhythm machines brought to life by Marc Hurtado, Lydia growls, snarls and leers her way through Suicide’s back catalogue and Alan Vega’s solo records with as much venom and urgency as the material’s originators. Robotic Bo Diddley beats are dragged into being not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, having been updated somewhat from the original electric organ-and-beatbox combination. Vega’s words and style of delivery suit Lydia perfectly, as she adds her own stream-of-consciousness beat lyrical style to embellish and build on the stark, droning originals, gaps between lines filled with anguished screams and yelps by both Lunch and Hurtado, adding an extra claustrophobic layer to the chilling, minimalist sound. Lydia roams the stage, staring holes in and through the crowd, getting in faces, piefacing cameras and cellphones- the confrontational outsider’s edge of punk as alive as it has ever been.
“Alan was a lot softer than I am”, Lydia sneers following a rendition of ‘Dream Baby Dream’, arguably Suicide’s most commercially-minded song – the cold-hearted mechanical nature of the duo turned warm. However, Lydia turns this inside out: screeching the refrain, making off-the-cuff references to waking nightmares, and even battering the refrain of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” into submission. This bleeds straight into ‘Harlem’, skittish yet pummelling- even moreso with the addition of some extra percussion in the form of Lydia banging against the White Hotel’s metal shutters. This is all build to the climax- a shuddering, metallic, somehow harsher than the 1977 original rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’, Suicide’s opus about a factory worker laid off who decides to kill his wife and child before turning his gun on himself. Lydia goes all-in in terms of sheer power, screaming through the murderous story, chilling in her frantic delivery, while Marc replicates the studio recording’s haunting sparseness but adding an extra drive, a further sense of dread, the feeling of life hurtling out of one’s control as Lydia mimes taking aim, first at the audience, then to herself.
A final scream.
And then it’s over. No encores.
Johnny says, “You want to be as desperate as possible but you don’t have to be desperate. You’re going to be a success. Everybody knows you’re going to be a success. Wouldn’t you like to give up this artistic life which you know isn’t rewarding cause artists now have to turn their work/selves into marketable objects/fluctuating images/fashion have to competitively knife each other in the back because we’re not people, can’t treat each other like people, no feelings, loneliness comes from the world of rationality, robots, every thing ones as objects defined separate from each other? The whole impetus for art in the first place gone bye-bye? You know you want to get away from this media world.”
*Extracts taken from New York City In 1979 by Kathy Acker, copyright 1981 Penguin Books.
Words and photos by Liam Moody.