“To hear 15,000 people booing at one time, it’s an incredible sound and it’s an incredible energy to play into.”
Martin Rev — of the proto-punk, 1970s duo Suicide – is talking about opening for the Cars, whose fans didn’t exactly care for his stripped down, repetitive synth riffs and his bandmate Alan Vega’s haunting, spoken vocals.
It’s unlikely Rev (born Martin Reverby) will get trash hurled at him when he performs solo at Bowery Electric tonight — his first New York show in five years. Suicide has influenced untold scores of synth pop, new wave, industrial dance and techno sounds, not to mention The Boss himself.
As it turns out, the duo’s cutting-edge sound wasn’t born out of a desire to antagonize. “A lot of the reason I was doing what I did was because it was necessity,” Rev told Bedford + Bowery. “I couldn’t have a band. A band needed a rehearsal space and instruments and money and me buying certain instruments, so it was a necessity the same way that hip hop and rap was a necessity.”
Rev spoke more about the origins of the group, punk’s early days, and being an outsider.
You know, other people hear it first. I was surprised when I would see lists of people we influenced – in the 90s and even 80s – and I didn’t hear it. Later on I started to hear it more, but I’m not an expert in telling you where my influences are.
Everything I’ve ever heard and liked has influenced me, and it echoes as time goes on. A lot of rock and roll is my native soil. That is what I was born into. As a child, you soak up whatever your environment is and that was my environment, and it was totally influential. And then later I grew up when jazz was tremendously cutting edge. That influenced me in many ways. Modern orchestral music, too, like Stravinsky, which took more of an orientation. If I couldn’t get it right away, I’d keep listening.
I was given a keyboard at six and soon after I didn’t want to continue. You know, it was like Friday and I wanted to play baseball. I was ready to quit by nine or ten, and then I was told I couldn’t quit until I was fifteen. When you’re ten, that feels like eternity. So I started improvising. Picking up rhythm and blues and boogie woogie.
For a short time I studied it formally in school — college level to an extent and then I just left it. I was too much of a rebel-radical in my orientation. This was a time when jazz was totally taboo in schools and not talked about. I wasn’t really at home in that kind of environment, so I couldn’t apply myself with dedication or love.
I had my own group with various musicians and called myself Reverend B. In late ‘69, I did one solo show at a place called Museum, a Project of Living Artists. Alan was using the space at night to experiment with things and was showing his artwork locally at the time. Once he just started playing the tambourine and I remember saying to him after that, “You and I are going to play together.”
We were looking for a gig one weekend and landed on Suicide after thousands of names. We had an incredibly great time the night before with a friend of ours, searching for names and nothing stuck, and then the next day Suicide came out of a comic book called Satan Suicide. Alan got drawing ideas from that comic. It just hit us, it’s a great energy word, and I thought it was totally rock and roll. It was [also] a total non-commercial word. Suicide was another way of really being radical — which is what we were not trying to be, but we just went with what we like.
Can you talk about the experience of performing to crowds who would burst into riots and throw garbage at your stage – especially in England where they felt very proprietary about the punk movement? Was that antagonism intentional?
We were playing for 15,000 people, opening for The Cars. Cars people hadn’t heard of us and wouldn’t take us seriously. And to hear 15,000 people booing at one time, it’s an incredible sound and it’s an incredible energy to play into. You would feel like “Hey, come on, I’m doing what I’m doing.” In a way, it just makes [the performance] even more focused for you.
Any response from the audience is cool but the English were much more focused when they took [punk] on with the Sex Pistols and it became much more of an expression of the working class. We opened for The Clash, and The Clash were not a mainstream group either, but that [sound] was pure punk to them, and even The Clash fans couldn’t get behind us. It’s like they thought, if this is our [musical] future, we’re going to stop it now. When you come out without a band, like with an electronic drum machine and one musician… I don’t know what they saw but they thought they didn’t want this. We had a good aggressiveness to the sound but we focused it in a different way.
I have incredible memories of shows being shut down. One was at the club where Hendrix first played in New York on Bleecker Street. We got on stage there and I remember the first note. It was all so fresh, new, electronic, big and loud and it was beautiful. It was the way I wanted to play and after two or three minutes everything went off. Lights and sound. We didn’t know why.
That was typical at that time for different reasons, but it turned out that the manager or owner heard our first note and pulled one of the big switches, like a railroad break. By ’77 and ’78, mainstream press started picking up on [punk-like music], and it changed. Maybe Blondie’s record had a lot to do with that. She was a translator in a sense who made it more presentable and palatable.
Some bands couldn’t get behind it. But we had a lot of good feedback and friendship with a lot of bands. The New York Dolls took to us right away and (glam rock artist) Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. A lot of times the musicians somehow were really good to us, like The Cars. They had their first record out and confessed such admiration. There was a lot of that. It was a cool time because of that kind of cool, social community.
I would just say it’s that I can continue to be true to what I like and what I want to hear. I don’t know if that’s of value, good or bad, it’s just what is. I need to feel, and music makes me feel incredible when it’s something I like. The fact that I have done something that makes me say, “Hey, that was me, that’s cool.” That to me is fine.