10 Essential Alan Vega Recordings
The phrase "ahead of their time" gets tossed around, but it was never more apropos than when talking about Alan Vega. In memory of the true rock and roll pioneer and legend, who passed away on July 16, 2016, we've our favorite records Vega made, both with Suicide and in his solo career, in this list of 10 Essential Alan Vega Recordings.
With partner in crime Martin Rev on keyboards and Vega on vocals, the New York duo formed the groundbreaking group Suicide way back in 1970. Their minimalist approach -- a juxtaposition of electronic music and traditional '50s-styled rock and roll -- couldn't have been more out of step with the music of the day. Only Silver Apples, back in 1968, attempted anything this revolutionary.
Suicide are considered to be the first act to use the term "punk" in ads for their shows, but it was much more than a term. Their confrontational approach predated all the usual suspects by a half-decade.
Though the duo would deliver several albums over a 40-year period, and Vega would release some incredible solo material, it is the 1977 Red Star Records self-titled debut that stands as a genuine masterpiece of the era. Their influence can be found in everyone from garage rock mavericks the Fleshtones to R.E.M. to Australia's Scientists. Check it all out below.
The first song on the first side of the first Suicide album says it all in three minutes. It is hypnotic, relentless and rocking, with Elvis Presley crashing into a synthesizer as the future is inhabited by the ghost of the original rock and roll spirit. Among the most unique models ever presented as rock and roll, and is just as mesmerizing today. Everyone from R.E.M. to Rollins Band has covered this one.
"Rocket U.S.A." is a blast of pure rock and roll, albeit without guitars or drums. Don't let that confuse you, the spirit is in full force. It's the Stooges in different clothing, without the obvious gestures, but with all the power in tact.
Vega's rockabilly roots shine through on "Raver," from 1981's Collision Drive, his second solo album. Its manic-yet-steady rocking that merges his past into something new. Like much of his best solo material, he avoided copying the sound of Suicide by adding wider instrumentation, but he managed to keep a link to that past.
The first Suicide album was so perfectly formed. It had a great balance of style, sounds and emotions. This beautiful ballad is as haunting as they come. For those familiar with the band Spacemen 3, this song is, more or less, the blueprint for half their sound. Gentle, swirling, hypnotic and soaked in beauty.
Collision Drive, Vega's second solo album, was a stand-alone masterpiece, with or without the legacy of Suicide to tag onto it. Though frantic rockers like "Magdalena," "Raver" and "Outlaw" (not to mention a great cover of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula") are front and center, the album ends with this 13-minute dirge. The harrowing song builds on its own tension, this time with traditional guitar, bass and drums as the frame, as Vega tells the tale of yet another troubled soul.
11 minutes of intensity, insanity and horror. It is as much a portrait of an unstable America as it is of an unstable human being. Armed with nothing but the vocal and a rhythmic drone, its tension builds into chaos until it explodes -- the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" distilled down to the frayed breaking point. Vega's screams are among the most chilling sounds you will ever hear. Words alone cannot do justice, you need the aural experience.
On the second Suicide album, Rev and Vega added to their sonic palette, creating a sound that was more polished, perhaps, but no less commanding. Produced by Ric Ocasek from the Cars, "Dream Baby Dream" remains a hauntingly beautiful highlight of the album. Thanks to a cover by another longtime fan, Bruce Springsteen, it was also probably Vega's biggest payday.
A rumbling attack from the second Suicide album, "Harlem" is a stark portrait of the inner city both sonically and lyrically. Vega uses his howls and accents to punch the dense air of the city in an almost percussive manner. On keyboards, Rev runs from hyper-rhythmic to gloriously melodic within the chaos.
Another out-and-out rocker from Collision Drive, The album actually features two versions of the song, but the "83" version is the one. Rocking and pure, it's one of many killers on that album.
In 1996, Vega made an album with roots conscious-rocker Ben Vaughn and Big Star/Box Tops legend Alex Chilton. The result was one of Vega's most captivating releases as it was able to weave the musical personalities of all three gentlemen into one bowl of sonic goodness. There are plenty of highlights, but "Candyman" always jumps out of the speakers.