Saturday, March 24, 2007

No Guitars in '77-The Beach Boys Dreamy Love You, The Yin to the Yang of Suicide’s Nightmarish Debut


1977 saw the release of debuts by The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Wire, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Television, Chic, and Cheap Trick. Paul McCartney hid behind the strange guise of Percy Thrillington, David Bowie released both Low and Heroes, The Ramones left home, Jonathan Richman whimsically turned his back on punk, Kraftwerk gave us Trans-Europe Express, and Pink Floyd released Animals.

In a year that was a veritable groundswell for rock and roll’s off-kilter byproducts, nothing could quite match the left field, polar, and incongruent-nature of the year’s two most minimal synth pop entries—The Beach Boys Love You, and Suicide, by Suicide.

The Seventies were an unkind decade to America’s greatest pop group. They opened the decade with Sunflower and Surf’s Up, two—not perfect—but very good albums. But then the bottom fell out—Carl and the Passions-So Tough, Holland, and 15 Big Ones; all, save for the latter, barely utilized the Beach Boys’ resident genius, Brian Wilson whose tenuous grasp on sanity had been slipping.

For the most part, the Beach Boys spent the decade sinking into a warm and comfortable bath-like rehashing of their Sixties glory, marked by steady touring and the commercial success of their repackaged greatest hits effort Endless Summer.

Though 15 Big Ones was marketed as the Beach Boys’ comeback effort replete with a sad appearance on Saturday Night Live that saw Brian Wilson in a sand box, the Beach Boys did not truly re-emerge until the next year with The Beach Boys Love You, a remarkable effort that in one breath looked back to the Beach Boys heady past, and in the other to the minimal synth-pop of the future. Love You was a striking return to form.

Far away from The Beach Boys’ sunny home base in Southern California, on the lower east side of Manhattan, two complicated and confrontational artists spent the first part of the decade honing a minimal and spare punk sound that was almost dystopic in its sparseness and cavalier in its disuse of punk’s tools of trade: the guitar, the bass, and the drum kit. The nascent genre had barely been established and Suicide were already blazing new and adroit inroads.

In a way though, it seems slightly disingenuous to label Suicide a punk band. They evolved slightly on the outside of that milieu, even though there are many touchstones in their history that would suggest otherwise. It seemed as though the sounds they made came from a different place, partly rooted somewhere in the distant fifties, but also in a bizarre electronic future that had yet to be fully explored. This is perhaps not the best place to make that argument, so suffice it to say, Suicide did come of musical age along with many of New York’s finest arbiters of punk.

Suicide was formed in 1970 by a sculptor named Alan Vega (nee Bermowitz), and an electric jazz pianist called Martin Rev (nee—the particularly apt—Reverby). There were others who wielded more germane rock and roll instruments, but they drifted away from the project. The core remained intact, but it was not until Rev found a used drum machine that Suicide really began to take familiar shape.

Suicide recorded their debut album in 4 hours for former New York Dolls manager Marty Thau’s Red Star Label, effectively giving us two things to thank him for. Craig Leon and Thau helmed the short session lending an amazingly dense and reverb-heavy quality to the instrumentally Spartan album. It is not clear if the actors realized the gravity of their accomplishment.

Meanwhile on the shores of the vast Pacific Ocean, the Beach Boys were also most likely unaware of the triumph that they achieved with the overwhelmingly minimalist Love You. It remains a strange echo of Beach Boydom, for it eschewed the usual vocal/musical sophistication that had marked their records since the transcendent Pet Sounds. Even the middling Seventies entries, though muddily recorded, relied on sophistication and virtuosity. Love You though, was almost crude in its use of, oftentimes ragged sounding voices and deceptively simple synth-driven melodies.

It seems as if the critics too were a bit confused on how to approach the strange album. The famous Village Voice critic Robert Christgau had these backhanded and yet weirdly hyperbolic words to say about their (though his critique is explicitly of Brian Wilson) effort:

“Painfully crackpot and painfully sung, but also inspired, not least because it calls forth forbidden emotions. For a surrogate teenager to bare his growing pains so guilelessly was exciting, or at least charming; for an avowed adult to expose an almost childish naiveté is embarrassing, but also cathartic; and for a rock and roll hero to compose a verbally and musically irresistible paean to Johnny Carson is an act of shamanism pure and simple.”

Christgau’s review though, seems to adequately and articulately sum up the ambiguity that this album continues to elicit.

Critics in general seemed to have gravitated toward the bizarre “Johnny Carson,” a song about the famous comedian and talk show host that, during the mid seventies was at the height of his powers. It is far from being the stand out track on the record though. "Johnny Carson" does however, neatly encapsulate the album’s strengths and weaknesses in one fell swoop—it is a microcosm of their ability to reconfigure, in a timely way, the Beach Boys, but at the same time be a bit of a generational joke.

Thirty years later the album is still odd, and I don’t think that it has found its rightful place in the canon of American music. The Beach Boys Love You is, for the most part, a departure from what the Beach Boys had done, but at the same time it is still wholly reminiscent of what they had always done.

The choice—the departure—was in instrumentation, not the naïve lyrics, which is what critics have doggedly focused on. The real hook of this album is that in their weird way, while trying to reclaim some lost pop terrain, they stumbled upon a new world and it reaffirmed their genius, no matter how kooky or straight sounding they were.

Christgau, the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” who was almost deferential to the Beach Boys legend, even at their most manic, became ultra-serious and downright cranky in the face of Suicide’s threatening and “lurid” debut:

“A friend who loves this record offers the attractive theoretical defense that it unites the two strains of "new wave" rock minimalism--neoclassy synthesizer and three-chord barrage. So maybe it will prove popular among theoreticians. For the rest of us, though, there are little problems like lyrics that reduce serious politics to rhetoric, singing that makes rhetoric sound lurid...”

The comment about the seriousness of Suicide’s lyrics in a rhetorical/political sense may revolve around the album’s centerpiece—the disturbing tale of “Frankie Teardrop.” Or possibly, Christgau was irritated with Suicide’s treatment of Che Guevara in the song “Che”: “He’s wearin’ a red star, he’s smokin’ a cigar, when he died, the whole world lied, said he was a saint, but I know he ain’t.” That somehow, does not seem right either.

For the most part though, the album has been considered a minimalist classic that staked out a peculiar middle ground that lay somewhere between sneering fifties rock and roll and synth-heavy punk nihilism. Their songs were built around Martin Rev’s pulsing, reverb-heavy and rigidly structured farfisa and drum machine figures that depended heavily on repetition and echo, almost to a point of monotony. Rev’s synthesizer arrangements were augmented by singer and lyricist, Alan Vega’s vocal blasts and sprays of impressionistic and malevolent yowls. Their strengths were perfectly matched.

Whereas the critics clung to the Beach Boys’ “Johnny Carson,” in the case of Suicide they gravitated toward the bleak, depressing, and overlong “Frankie Teardrop.” There is no other song on the record that is as boring as their ten and a half minute opus to infanticide, among other things.

Their gift though was in matching Vega’s sometimes Gene Vincent styled, hiccupping vocals with likeminded themes and their futuristic musical analogues like the bubbly “Johnny” and the comic book inspired synth-punk classic “Ghost Rider.”

Suicide was a triumph and an inspiration to generations of synth-heavy pop and punk. Their threads lead to such bands as Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, and Metal Urbain among countless others.

Most famously the album was an influence on Bruce Springsteen’s mindset while recording Nebraska; perhaps as influential as the misadventures of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The album’s impact is still being felt in the many and sometimes-redundant electro-clash bands that keep surfacing.

These two albums—The Beach Boys Love You and Suicide—are a funny match, but their similarities are undeniable. That they came from two such unlikely sources only proves the strange and serendipitous nature of music. The Beach Boys were at a strange commercial apex—based largely on their past legend—but they produced a document that, at times, sounded like the past electronically regurgitated. In reality though, it was perfectly placed and wonderfully nuanced; prefiguring bands like Stereolab and The High Llamas.

Neither Suicide nor The Beach Boys invented synth-pop, but in their own differing ways, they did much to advance the agenda in the age of punk, disco, and guitar-based rock. These records are two curiosities that depict the shift and evolutionary quality of music, particularly rock and roll in it’s new age.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have both of these albums, but probably never would have made the connection if I hadn't read this article. Nice job! Going in my bookmarks.

8:03 PM  

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