Alan Vega died peacefully this weekend in his sleep.
It was a sad end to a man who fronted the pioneering proto-punk combo Suicide. Alan Vega, along with the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, revolutionized what a lead singer could get away with, far beyond, say the affectation adopted by Bob Dylan. Vega was one of the most innovative vocalists of the era. Without Suicide there would have been no industrial music or harder edge post-punk, no Throbbing Gristle, no Nine Inch Nails, no Sonic Youth, no Jesus & Mary Chain, no Sisters of Mercy, or the Rapture, and without his look and style no Depeche Mode, no Yaz, or Soft Cell.
Vega designed a lifestyle and a sound no one had ever seen before. He made the depths of violent desperation on albums like Lou Reed's Berlin seem like child's play. In the early days, he was just as likely to smash your face in with a mic stand as he was to take the request for a song you were shouting. It was Alan Vega that made Suicide so damned dangerous and influential to art-rock vocalists across the globe.
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Vega was one half of the Suicide combo with Martin Rev, and when they emerged in New York City at the start of the 1970s, no one knew what the hell to make of them. They dressed like punks long before there really was such a thing. They didn't sound like anyone. Vega in particular was one of the most confrontational singers of that or any era. Their early shows came off like avant-garde performance art celebrating noise and sadomasochism. They never had a chance of being commercially successful, but like many bands that pressed the boundaries of what music was in those days, they became vastly influential.
Suicide featured Vega's histrionic vocals fronting the band, backed by Martin Rev's musical design of drum machines and minimalist keyboard arrangements. The band released its shocking self-titled debut album in 1977. While Rev held down the musical aspects of the show, Vega was free to let loose, whether it was on record or on stage. When it was on stage, it could literally involve whips and chains, baiting the audience with the best of them, and charging at them as confrontational a manner as possible. He took a page out of Iggy Pop's book for the latter aspect, but made a full-time thing out of it. While their second album, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, was more danceable than their debut, it was just as anti-commercial as the first and every bit as influential.
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While Rev's music on the debut album was unlike anything going on outside of Berlin in the early 1970s, it was arguably Alan Vega who made this music downright dangerous, coming off like an amphetamine-driven madman, delivering vocals that were at times like hypnotic beat poetry and other times, caterwauls and screams of anguish. It was Vega, seductive and threatening, that left the most striking psychic impression on the listener. Yes, the music was revolutionary, but it was Vega's vocals that made Suicide more than an avant-garde art experiment in synthetic sound. His yelps and guttural sounds on tracks like "Ghost Rider" and "Rocket USA" made them far more neurotic and unsettling. Meanwhile, "Cheree" is downright enchanting and nearly perfect pop, and if you listen to "Big City" by Spacemen 3 from 1991, there is no doubt where that song is rooted. Listening to Suicide's first album, you see the roots of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Revolting Cocks, and you hear the blueprint for industrial music, for punk, for post-punk, for synth-pop, for electronic rock, and innumerable others.
His voice was more versatile than you'd expect. Vega could clearly deliver soft, lyrical vocals anytime he wanted (and clearly he didn't want to all that often), and on numbers like "Cheree" and "Girl" that's what he did. It was almost as if he was baiting the listener to flip the record over. He could approach a street tough Lou Reed vocal delivery with the likes of "Johnny" or "Che." He could do almost anything vocally, but he only did it his way, and the results were often pretty violent. There is a finesse to his madness and psychopathy, as though he just barely was in control of it all.
Suicide was scheduled to play this year's Desert Daze festival in Joshua Tree, California with the likes of Television, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Primus, and others. It is unclear whether or not Martin Rev will still attend or if any type of tribute will be in order or not. Some attendees are already selling their tickets, because it was to be the first time in 16 years that Suicide had played the West Coast. Either way, Vega's death leaves a large hole in the music world, one that no one will ever be able to fill.