Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Rock'n'roll Suicide - Eldritch and Vega

Of all of his heroes to pass away over the past few years (we covered the untimely deaths of Lemmy and Bowie in a recent post), the departure which will have affected Andrew Eldritch the most will be that of his former collaborator and long-time friend, Alan Vega.

(Eldritch, A&R man Howard Thompson, Vega) - photo by Kevin Patrick, Room 825, Gramercy Park Hotel, June 1985

Vega was of course one half of the innovative New York synth-punk band Suicide, whose eponymous debut LP had been a huge influence in the late 1970s. Melding cutting edge electronica with rockabilly cool, Suicide’s sound was intriguingly different to anything else around at the time, and their arty avant-garde noodlings made them the natural successors of the Velvet Underground’s crown as New York’s coolest alternative band.

Whilst Suicide were an influence on many post-punk bands, the Sisters probably owe more than most to Vega and Martin Rev, and the drastic change in the Sisters’ sound between the first two singles is testament to this. Whereas the jagged low-fi punk of Damage Done is pure Gang of Four mixed with Pere Ubu, Adrenochrome is the bastard son of Suicide, with the drum machine adding a novel mechanisation to the punk aesthetic and Eldritch’s now heavily reverb-ed vocals a breathy staccato replica of Vega’s 50’s rock’n’roll pastiche, down to the last yelp and scream. Eldritch readily confesses to Vega and Rev’s influence on this change in the band’s sound, saying on the band’s official website “We bought [a drum machine] because we all loved Suicide. Everybody loved Suicide.”

Having already foisted demo tapes on other heroes such as The Psychedelic Furs and Iggy Pop, Eldritch also worked his charm on Alan Vega who in 1983 was in Europe promoting his comeback album Saturn Strip, his first for Elektra Records, which featured a young Al Jourgensen and was enjoying some success both in the UK and in particular on the Continent, where the song Wipeout Beat was an unlikely minor hit. By now, The Sisters had of course added Suicide’s Ghost Rider to their live set, usually in a medley with Louie Louie (although in this superlative version here with Sister Ray) and played as a free-form encore.

Vega’s tour brought him to London for a date at the Venue on October 20th 1983, just when Temple of Love was out in the UK and before The Sisters' final trio of gigs that year (Stockholm, L.A. and San Francisco) played as a three piece after Ben Gunn’s departure. Surprisingly, Vega appeared on stage at the London Venue that night wearing a TSOM head and star t-shirt, and legend has it that during the gig the singer briefly gave the mic to Eldritch, who was on the front row of the crowd, and who continued the song note-perfect in Vega’s much imitated style.

Photos of Vega wearing the shirt were taken during the gig by gothic music journalist Mick Mercer, editor of ZigZag magazine, and his publication in its December issue (recently shared by Tony J Pooley on the ZigZag Magazine Appreciation Facebook Group) featured an interview with Vega by journalist Paul O’Reilly which was recorded just after the Venue show.

Responding to O’Reilly (who would nominate Vega’s show at the Venue and TSOM’s gig at the same club some six months earlier as his highlights of the year)’s question about the t-shirt, Vega told him : “Well the guys from the Sisters came to see me with a tape they’d got of the Stooges at the Whiskey in LA in 73. I would have killed to get that tape but all I had to do was wear their t-shirt onstage that night, which was no problem at all. The Sisters really excite me as a band as well, more than any band since The Stooges or The Dolls and wearing their t-shirt was no hardship. I like the guys a lot and I know Iggy does as well.”

The exact timing of the band’s first meeting with Vega remains a bit of a mystery, bit it could possibly have been on the occasion of the band’s (Eldritch’s?) brief promo visit to America in the Spring of 1983. This was mentioned on the press release for the Brain Eater Records US release of the Alice 12” EP (originally apparently planned as a US only release), which states that the promo visit is to take place in the near future, and there is a further clue in one of the radio interviews Eldritch did during the September 1983 East Coast tour, where he mentions a “record that I brought back from America last time I went home,” implying that he was spending an increasing amount of time in the States.

Vega had certainly visited The Sisters in their dressing room at one of the Danceteria shows in New York on that inaugural East Coast US tour, as Gary Marx recalled in an interview with Mark Andrews for his incredible article on TSOM’s “golden year” of 1983 for The Quietus earlier thisyear. “[Vega] was wildly funny and could quickly take over a room,” the guitarist recalled.

Seeking more information about the promo trip and Eldritch's first meeting with Vega, and having drawn a blank amongst fellow Sisters archivists and collectors, I decided to ask for the help of the man who was the catalyst for most of Eldritch’s high-profile contemporary musical friendships, Howard Thompson of Columbia Records, a high-flying Englishman in New York at that time, and the man responsible for the photos of Eldritch and Vega which have done the rounds of the internet in recent years (and which are reproduced here). Thompson was understandably vague about the details of events some thirty-five years ago, but told me “I wish I could be more helpful, but it’s all a massive blur, these days. I was originally turned on to The Sisters by Duncan Kilburn and John Ashton [of The Psychedelic Furs] who told me about the band when I was at CBS Records in Soho Square. I was an A&R man there and had brought The Furs to the label. I must have gone to see The Sisters shortly afterwards [a check of his diaries later confirmed that this was probably at Leeds University on 13th June 1981] but I didn’t pursue anything with them because it looked like I was going to be moving to the USA. I ended up at Columbia Records in Feb 1982 and caught The Sisters whenever they came to New York. Their promoter, [the late] Ruth Polsky was a close, dear friend and she took the pic of me and Eldritch backstage at the Music Machine [Camden Place] with me wearing his shades."

(Eldritch with Howard Thompson wearing the former's Aviators - pic Ruth Polsky)

Thompson continued : "I may – or The Furs may – have introduced her to Andrew. Anyway, one of the cheap, “rock & roll” hotels that UK bands used to star in – the others were the Mayflower and the Iroquois – when they came to the States was the Gramercy Park Hotel and The Sisters were duly booked there when they first came to America. Alan Vega used to live at the Gramercy too, so it might have been there that I introduced them, although I can’t honestly say. Suffice to say, Vega was another close friend of mine (I’d licensed the first Suicide album when I was at Bronze Records) and I always tried to introduce fascinating people to each other just to see what might happen. One of my best friends – Max Hole – was running A&R for WEA and I told him about the Sisters (Columbia were so old-fashioned that they would never have been interested) and Max ended up signing the band. In 1984, I joined Elektra as Head of A%R and it so happened that all WEA acts were available to the Warner, Elektra and Atlantic labels in the States for no cost, so I jumped in quickly and picked up The Sisters, which is how Elektra got ‘em.”

(Eldritch, Vega, Hussey, Adams - photo Howard Thompson)

A fascinating account, and a clear explanation for those photos of Eldritch, Hussey, Adams and Vega taken outside the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York at the start of the June 1985 US tour. By that time, Eldritch had already sounded Vega out about joining him and Patricia Morrison (another friendship which involved the singer making frequent visits Stateside) in a “supergroup” to replace the seemingly doomed Hussey-era Sisters, as mentioned in Italian fanzine interviews at the end of 1984 and covered in a previous post on this blog.

Eldritch himself returned to the subject of how Vega became involved with the Sisterhood’s Gift LP (he and Morrison allegedly contribute vocals to the Chorus of Vengeance on Rain From Heaven, and some even claim to have heard a demo of This Corrosion with Vega on vocals) in a revealing interview with The Quietus in November 2011 : “Andrew [Eldritch speaking in the third person!] went back to Vega’s apartment with a DAT recorder, played him the tracks and explained the scenario. Andrew has a permanent visa to Planet Vega, because the two of them get on very well. Nobody else talks to Vega like Eldritch talks to Vega.” This was confirmed by Marx in his more recent interview for The Quietus, saying that Vega “was drawn to Andrew rather than to the band.” Eldritch was clearly equally struck by Vega, with the run-out groove on the band's next release, 1984's Body and Soul bearing the dedication "For Spiggy and Alan Vega", and with some future Sisters/Sisterhood releases benefitting from the insistent, almost krautrock drone pulse which underpinned both Vega's solo work and Suicide's later studio albums.

Eldritch summed up their rapport in this wonderful exchange from a great interview conducted by Kiran Dass for New Zealand’s “Under The Radar” in February 2012:

Dass: Suicide, they’re the perfect group really, aren’t they?

Eldritch: Yes they are, yes they are. I have very strong feelings for Alan Vega in a man-love way [under his breath] if only he hadn’t hooked up with Ric Ocasek

Dass: What?? No way! Saturn Strip is an amazing record. I love it!

Eldritch: Do you really ? […] Well, we’re just going to have to disagree on that one, Kiran!

Whilst agreeing with Dass that Eldritch should reappraise his view of the excellent Saturn Strip (which has arguably aged better than that seminal debut Suicide album), one cannot help but agree also with Eldritch about the depth of his friendship with Vega, a man over twenty years his senior: for a man who seems to have been able to sustain very few professional relationships in his four decades in the music business, Eldritch’s admiration of Vega continued right through until the latter’s untimely death last year.

Eldritch himself summed it up when asked about Alan Vega's passing by Portuguese journalist Rui MIguel Abreu in an interview for Blitz last year (in my own approximate retranslation) : "I was very proud of Vega. I would have been surprised if he'd lived to be thirty, but he managed to live on to the age of 78, which is incredible. He always lied about his real age. I first met him many, many years ago and I thought to myself, "This fella's not destined to live a long life." But he did, and after all this time, despite the growth of industrial rock and the growth of dubstep, there's still nothing out there that sounds remotely like Suicide. Nobody has even tried to imitate them, because it would just be impossible. He really was a uniquely talented man."

Although Eldritch himself no longer seems able to mimic the full range of Vega vocal theatricals on stage, it’s pleasing to note that the new (cold)wave of proto-goth bands have rediscovered Suicide’s low-fi aggressive charm, none more so than Turkish band She Past Away, whose alternative dancefloor hit Asimilasyon will serve here as a wonderful if unwitting tribute to a man whose influence will continue to be felt for decades to come. Vega continued to make music until his last days, and his final album IT was released posthumously earlier this year.

My grateful thanks are due to all who have helped with this post, including Phil Verne of The Sisters of Mercy 19801985 Facebook fan group, Tony J Pooley, Luca, Artemis, Mark Andrews and of course the hugely influential Mr Howard Thompson.


  1. Excellent article, with just a VERY small error in the translation from the Portuguese. Instead of "He would have been surprised if he'd lived to be thirty", it should be:
    *I* would have been surprised if he'd lived to be thirty

  2. Absolutely fascinating, as always. Many thanks for making info available

  3. If you have an Instagram account, Howard posts there regularly, amazing pics of Eldritch and others from the music world.