It takes a certain audacity to name your band Suicide, but Alan Vega and Martin Rev were audacious from the start. They met when Vega ran an artists center at Broadway and Waverly in the Village, a shelter from the decaying streets where anyone could come make things. Rev — a tall, diffident drummer with a whiteboy Afro — came. Word was he’d been kicked out of the music program at NYU for refusing to play Beethoven properly. Both men were looking for a new creative direction, so they started a band, even though Vega considered himself the unlikeliest of frontmen. It was 1970; Nixon was bombing Cambodia. Rev hated Nixon so much that Vega had to restrain him from going to Washington to assassinate the president. The country was killing itself, they thought. So they called their band Suicide.
Though Rev was a gifted jazz drummer, he and Vega jettisoned guitars and drums. Instead, Rev procured the most primitive of drum machines, a small box that issued chintzy beats intended for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Vega wanted to bring the hostility of the streets into the club, to turn the violence he saw everywhere in postindustrial New York back on his audience. Instead of singing over Rev’s noise box, he screeched and howled, muttered and pleaded, even abandoning the stage for long stretches while Rev pounded knobs. They described their sets as “punk music,” making them the first band ever to do so. What came afterward — with the downtown music scene as the Seventies edged into the Eighties — has since become legend.
Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong captured that legend on video — not just downtown punk, but the new wave and avant-garde music that intertwined with it. The footage they shot from 1977 to 1980, which is showing this week at the Anthology Film Archives, is as gritty as the music it documents: grainy images, often in black-and-white; the camera jostling; the sound quality sometimes so abysmal it seems like a joke. Yet much of what’s here — live performance clips and interviews like the one in which Vega recounts the above details — is so arresting that you can’t look away no matter how jarring things get.
It’s a revelation to see the Go-Go’s play “We Got the Beat” while whirling through a club in 1980 Los Angeles, the rawness of their sound unsmoothed by a studio, the five women casting a shadow in which a thousand glorious guitar-pop bands, including Sleater-Kinney, still reside. Did punk get any cooler than Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators snarling at a crowd in Lolita sunglasses and peroxide curls while a scantily clad Divine gyrated around him? Did it get more inscrutable than John Cale seated onstage in doctor’s scrubs while farting noise out of a Fender bass? Do later listeners fully grasp that raging current of sex powering the Cramps’ campy psychobilly? It’s hard to miss when we see singer Lux Interior rip off his shirt.
By including clips of more obscure artists with the more famous names of the era, the Anthology series keeps from simply ratifying the downtown punk legend as it’s already been told. Some performances here earn their minutes more for anthropological than aesthetic reasons, and some don’t earn them at all, but what the footage reveals is something that’s too often forgotten: how diverse the scene really was. A combination like Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ big-band jazz, disco, and salsa couldn’t have existed at any previous time or place. It’s too bad that the psychobilly boom didn’t help a more pensive crew like Buzz & the Flyers, whose filter on the 1950s feels prophetically Lynchian. And perhaps we still lack due appreciation of the no wave bands (there’s a 45-minute film on them here), who melded frenetic rock with avant-garde jazz and let their saxophones evoke the ambient screams and sirens of the city in the Seventies.
Suicide had no real chance at wider fame, either, as Vega explains in a 53-minute film that includes two performances and a 2006 interview. They couldn’t get on the radio or TV with that name (“It’s killed a lot of great opportunities for us…though who needs that shit?” Vega muses) and couldn’t tour with the Clash or Elvis Costello without the punk fans pitching a riot. To strip everything in the pop format away, to turn music into a confrontation that had almost no familiar sounds — such fierce minimalism made Suicide undeniably challenging, as extended footage of a 1980 set shows. But it also made Suicide one of the only bands of any time and place that has never become an anachronism. Vega died last year, but artists are still drawing from his and Rev’s well of ideas: See M.I.A., whose “Born Free” borrowed heavily from Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”; LCD Soundsystem, who’ve turned synth-y linearity into a backdrop for boho introspection; and even rappers like Future and Migos, who are melting depraved electro-minimalism into Southern rap.
The years filmed by Ivers and Armstrong were “the bad old days,” the nadir of New York City as a livable place, and the theme of their footage reveals itself when nearly every artist confronts this reality. “You got stabbed, it’s tough shit, you ain’t white, it’s tough shit…’cause you ain’t rich,” spits the singer of a band called Ballistic Kisses. Another group named itself 3 Teens Kill 4, borrowing the cold brevity of a Post headline. These artists did not exist apart from the ills of the city, as romantic recollections sometimes seem to have it, but rather eyed the murder, rape, and addiction all around them and concluded that audacious creativity was the only option left.
As we lament the exodus of artists from Manhattan, and wrestle with a country that again seems bent on killing itself, it’s tempting to glamorize the conditions of the past along with the creativity they inspired. The films of Ivers and Armstrong show how decay, cynicism, and violence fueled brilliant, multivalent music. They also illustrate how miserable that experience really was.
‘Go Nightclubbing! Downtown New York 1977–1980’
Anthology Film Archives