I don’t recall much of what I was doing when Suicide’s American Supreme came out in late 2002, but it definitely wasn’t listening to that particular album. Don’t get me wrong, being a big Suicide fanboy, I duly bought it, but it only made it into the CD player one time until a few weeks ago. I was not initially impressed and I just filed it away… for sixteen years. The opening number “Televised Executions” begins with scratching, a repetitive slap bass-style riff that sounded like a discarded Red Hot Chili Peppers jam and a fairly commonplace hip-hop sample (“The Champ” by the Mohawks). The hoary turntablisms and primitive drum machine beats would not have been out of place on a Schoolly D rap from 1986. What was this? I guess you could say that I didn’t understand it.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Critics were decidedly mixed about American Supreme. Q magazine wrote: “They’ve unfortunately discovered dance music several years too late.” Pop Matters said: “American Supreme accomplishes little more than tarnishing their chrome-plated punk and sending it on a winding downward spiral.”
At AllMusic.com, Andy Keller wrote:
Is American Supreme—the first Suicide album in a decade—an update, a return to form? Yes and no. Those who hang on Alan Vega’s every streetwise grunt and growl will doubtlessly be pleased as punch with the results, as will anyone who hasn’t heard any music that has been recorded since 1990. Perhaps the strangest twist about this record is how much of it sounds more crude and antiquated than the duo’s first two albums, which were released over 20 years prior to this one. Those two albums did what few groups had done prior, and this one recycles hip-hop and dance beats that were recycled many times over by the mid-‘90s. The opening “Television Executions” is the worst culprit, using turntable scratches and a bounding late-‘80s funk groove that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would scoff at. It would be expecting far too much for Vega and Martin Rev to deliver something as revolutionary as those first two albums. A more realistic hope would be for this album to not be an embarrassment. Thankfully, due to Vega’s sharp-as-ever observations (he still sounds ornery and underfed), they narrowly escape that pitfall.
I can see why he felt that way. It’s a not unreasonable first reaction to American Supreme and is it similar to my own. But neither one of us got it.
For whatever reason (loyalty?) I never traded in American Supreme at the record store, even as I neglected to play it even one time during the intervening years. A few weeks ago, wanting something “new” to listen to in the car, I grabbed the CD and took it with me. Listening to “Televised Executions” again, I immediately recalled why I didn’t like it the first time. It was annoying, but I let it play. By the end of the song, I had started warming up to it. It was not only annoying on purpose, it was annoying with a purpose, something I’d failed to grasp.
As the next few songs played, what Martin Rev and Alan Vega were trying to do began to dawn on me. Lyrically the album is a reaction to 9/11 and the World Trade Center going down in Alan Vega’s own backyard (he was a longtime resident of lower Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood). His words reference sulphurous skies burning forever and being obliterated by a flash of blinding white light. It’s still the patented stream of consciousness ranting we expect from Alan Vega, but in the aftermath of the Al Qaeda attack his imagery became understandably even more violent and apocalyptic.
But then I got to track six, “Wrong Decisions” and at that point finally realized that it was my own powers of critical assessment that had fallen short of the music and not the other way around. Yes, my first reaction to hearing this album back in 2002 had been one of “they’re over the hill” after being confronted with the hackneyed hip-hop samples instead of the expected power drones (Martin Rev was about my current age when it was recorded I should probably inform the reader). How wrong I was. Listening to American Supreme in 2018, my ears had at last caught up to what they doing.
“Wrong Decisions” is, perhaps, now my #1 favorite Suicide number. What? Is it even better than “Ghost Rider” you ask? Than “Frankie Teardrop”? Than “Rocket USA”? “Mr. Ray”? I’d have to think about that, for a very long time, but it’s certainly up there with those classics. However it’s “Wrong Decisions” that I would DJ with. I mean, I can’t imagine DJ’ing, ever again, without being armed with this track. This is the heavy artillery.
But before you play the embedded sound clip of “Wrong Decisions” below, please play a couple songs that inspired it first.
“Different Strokes” by Syl Johnson.
Syl Johnson’s 1968 raver “Different Strokes” has been sampled by a lot of people. J Dilla, Mantronix, KRS-One, Michael Jackson, Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, NWA, EPMD, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, Kanye West, Jay-Z and countless others. It’s been, if anything, oversampled and should probably be given a rest, if not a proper burial. But here, in the hands of Martin Rev, “Different Strokes” becomes something else entirely, a flabby, pulsating, gurgling—but still funkier than neckbone—backing track for one of Vega’s wildest lyrics. The ULTRA LOW frequency sampled bass line turned my car into a bouncing lowrider and the speakers strained to keep up with it. Who the hell released a song with this much bottom end in 2002? Who had the subwoofer big enough to accommodate such a sound back then?
“Theme from S’Express” by S’Express
Another sliver of a familiar song that was incorporated into Rev’s tubercular hip-hop—and a song that was itself inspired by “Different Strokes”—is the upbeat, funky insanely catchy “Theme from S’Express” by S’Express. But this is Suicide we’re talkin’ about here. Rev takes this perky pop-charting earworm from 1988 throws it into a cauldron with the soul banger from 1968 and the result is blubbery and diseased. Indeed, from a sonic viewpoint the entire blueprint of American Supreme seems to be to subsume the previous three decades of dance music and then vomit it back at you.
So then listen to what Alan Vega lays down on top of this monster of a track. Not only do I find this to be Vega’s best lyric since “Frankie Teardrop,” I think it’s the perhaps the single best vocal performance of the man’s entire career. Dig his singular microphone technique! WHO the fuck could DO THIS besides him? No one, obviously, as if there needed to be any more proof that Alan Vega was a natural shaman?
The album gets just gets more and more intense from there. “Wrong Decisions” is, for me, clearly the highlight, but in terms of just sheer speaker-shredding brutality, the ante gets amped up considerably for the relentless pounding of “Death Machine” and “Power au Go-Go” before what almost sounds like their Throbbing Gristle tribute in the ferocious form of “Dachau, Disney, Disco.” This is beyond uneasy listening, it’s music that wants to harm you. The penultimate “Child, It’s a New World” features Vega’s lament to his young son about the world he would inherit and was so good that I sat in my car, parked in the garage, until it was over, not realizing, or caring that I was inhaling carbon monoxide… and listening to a band called Suicide. The album ends with the utterly mind-scrambling “I Don’t Know” which is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to walking around NYC during a PCP trip. (For the record, not something I’d recommend.) The song is a minor masterpiece of sonic confusion and a strong way to end an album so intent on brutalizing the listener, punishing them, hurting them, until they fucking GET IT.
Alan Vega onstage in 2005
As abrasive or as (deliberately) annoying as American Supreme can be, trust me on this, it stands up to repeated plays. I didn’t take it out of the car’s CD player for several weeks, and with each play I could hear “deeper” into what they were doing. And don’t get me wrong, in many respects, this album feels tossed off, not pondered over. Vega’s lyrics, for the most part, were improvised to a greater or lesser extent. We expect this, and want this, in a Suicide number, but here he is as inspired as he’s ever been. It’s not necessarily some great lost masterpiece, no, but is it one of the best musical experiences I had in all of 2018? Emphatically yes on that front. The times have at last caught up to the warped vision of Rev and Vega’s American Supreme. It’s a work of high art without question.
Here’s the entire album on YouTube (you can buy American Supreme on Amazon for about five bucks). I think it’s incredible and I think you, dear reader who has gotten this far, will too, but you have to accept the album on its own terms, not yours. It demands of you total attention, and then it invades your home, eats all your food and takes all your drugs. Do be aware that if your speakers can’t handle DEEP bass, then the low frequency sounds on this album will actually just drop out. You want a powerful subwoofer engaged and to turn this album up LOUD to truly “get it.” And if you don’t get it the first time, turn the volume even louder and play it again and repeat this until you do. You might get hurt, but you’ll live.
Above, an amazing vintage Suicide performance of “Ghost Rider” onstage at the Hurrah nightclub in 1980. Shot by Merrill Aldighieri, the sculpture and paintings mixed in with this live footage was documented at the retrospective of Alan Vega’s paintings and sculptures held in Lyon, France.