If I’m playing this game, then my list includes – without any hesitation whatsoever – “Ghost Rider” by Suicide, the lead-off track from Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s 1977 eponymous debut album.
From the word go, the track is loud, fast and maniacally catchy, Rev’s unchanging staccato instrumentation recalling both a dentist drill going to work once the patient’s anesthetic kicks in (and maybe even a little before) and an 18-wheeler blaring its horn on an empty freeway.
Then, picking up from where the Who left off with “My Generation,” vocalist Vega enters with a sexy stuttering intensity wholly different from the nasal whines of such punk contemporaries as Joey Ramone or Richard Hell.
Already close to 40 when this album came out, Vega was a reactionary force to be reckoned with. Through Suicide, his artistic extension, Vega would be vocally tender one minute and all but homicidal the next. Sounding like Kraftwerk filtered through a shredder with extra sharp blades, Suicide focused its energy on narration and emotion, even if the group’s sounds were literally on repeat the entire time.
I remember my hesitation in buying their first album. I’m not really a fan of the sinister and macabre, but the stark white cover accentuated by black block letters trailing bright red blood proved too visually interesting to ignore. Question: how did this one ever manage to escape the grasp of the P.M.R.C.?
“Ghost Rider” is about the comic book character of the same name, but through his talent, Vega could make the menial sound universal. A lyric like “America, America is killing its youth” has Abbie Hoffman written all over it. “Rocket USA’s” refrain of “It’s doomsday, doomsday” is bleak but upbeat. “Johnny” is cocksure swagger sounding like it was intentionally recorded next to Gene Vincent’s grave.
And then there’s “Frankie Teardrop,” still to this day [arguably] the scariest mainstream song ever recorded (and yes, I did take Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” into consideration). This is punk’s equivalent to Jack Nicholson brandishing an ax in “The Shining,” albeit from a blue collar point-of-view. Bad things take place, and there’s no stopping them over ten minutes as factory worker Frankie kills his child, wife and self with a gun because of financial and life woes.
Only Vega could think up something recalling Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” John Carpenter films, and the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” at the same time, all complemented by his blood-curling screams that seem capable of shattering windows and microphones.
Bruce Springsteen has publicly declared his love of the song. Just listen to its more accessible version – “State Trooper” from the Boss’s stark Nebraska album. It’s the magnum opus on the underrated album, and it’s eerily brilliant.
Despite the band’s name, it’s ironic now to realize how much Suicide has lived on both in terms of infamy and legacy. Given Vega’s recent death, the time is right once again to experience this album’s listening ride and be-be-be-be-be-be blazin’ away.
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