Suicide: Be Careful With That Axe, Alan

“No one believed the story about the axe,” chortles Alan Vega.

With his New York accent and rapid-fire delivery, Vega is a natural raconteur, although given his audience-baiting legacy with electro-punks Suicide, perhaps provocateur terrible is a better title.

“I was on a solo tour, maybe 1985,” he continues. “I’d been telling the band this story, but no one believed me. At the end of this show, the Jesus And Mary Chain guys came in and say, ‘Oh yeah, we were at the show in Edinburgh when the axe came flying by your head.’ All the guys in my band’s jaws dropped.”

Vega laughs again. At a safe distance of three decades, he can afford to, although during Suicide’s ascent, being onstage was no laughing matter; the sheer hostility emanating from the crowd and the projectiles launched at Vega and bandmate Martin Rev ensured that.

Suicide—Rev on minimalist keyboards and drum machine; Vega on Elvis-from-hell vocals; everything draped in thick, claustrophobic sheets of reverb and echo—arguably birthed the modern-day synth-pop movement. The duo formed in 1970, prowling the same grimy-artsy Manhattan scene that spawned the New York Dolls. With its 1977 self-titled debut, Suicide was ready to take on the world.

Literally, as Live 1977-1978 (Blast First Petite) attests. Thirteen Suicide shows spread across six CDs are featured in this limited-to-3,000-copies box, and though the recordings are crude, the negative energy that cycled between band and audience is startling, particularly during the gigs in the summer of ’78 that found Suicide opening for Elvis Costello and the Clash. Punks, it seems, didn’t take kindly to a guitar-less duo whose singer taunted them and beat the stage with chains.

“I would get so wired and adrenalized,” says Vega. “You hear about those crazy dances Indians would do, how they’d go into these trancelike states? I used to cut myself, too; a little blood would get into your sweat, then it would look like a lot of blood. In a way, it quelled the riot that was about to happen: ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s fucking nuts!’”

At the moment, Suicide is in a period of dormancy; Vega is currently working on a solo record he describes as “insane gospel.” But in July, Blast First launched an elaborate Suicide tribute project: Each month for two years, a limited-edition 10-inch EP will be released featuring artists (such as Bruce Springsteen, Peaches, Spiritualized and Grinderman) covering Suicide, plus a previously unreleased Suicide/Vega rarity. The 60-year-old singer is pleased but circumspect. “I get called an icon a lot,” says Vega. “I want to go, ‘Wait a minute, don’t they do that with guys who are dead? Did I fucking die and everybody forgot to tell me?’”

—Fred Mills