Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15: Suicide, "Frankie Teardrop"

Artist: Suicide
Song: "Frankie Teardrop"
Album: Suicide
Year: 1977

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It is often within the "extremes" of any given genre that one finds not only the most difficult sounds to grasp, but in most cases, where one can find the links and bridges to other styles of music.  This fringe of a genre is a place in which artists can work in the most free form, as they are not constrained by the rules or commercial trappings of the established sound in question.  Yet even in this space of musical freedom, there are still some "rules" that apply, and there are only a small handful of groups that have ever pushed music to a place of true creative anarchy.  It is these few groups that while never receiving nearly the level of credit they deserve, have served as the building blocks for new styles, and this entire idea was never more clear than when one looks at the development of the "no wave" movement.  Finding a completely unique take on the punk rock ethos, one can easily argue that there was never a band "more punk" or more musically courageous than the legendary duo known as Suicide.  Coming out of the l970's performance-art scene of New York City's lower east side, there is simply no way to accurately describe the music of Suicide, as it falls somewhere between punk rock noise and compositional genius.  This completely unique musical approach and sound can be experienced at its high-point throughout their 1977 self-titled debut, and there is nothing that can prepare a listener for Suicide's musical masterpiece from that record, "Frankie Teardrop."

Clocking in at ten-and-a-half minutes, "Frankie Teardrop" is a musical journey that knows no peers, and in every aspect, it stands as one of the most disturbing, yet completely captivating songs ever recorded.  It is within "Frankie Teardrop," as well as much of the album, where one can see how the sound of Suicide was the catalyst for the entire "synth pop" movement, as keyboard player and drum programmer Martin Rev creates the entire blueprint for the style.  The tight, fast, repeated progression that dominates the first half of the song builds a completely uncanny sense of tension, and though it is a cyclical sound, it manages to keep digging deeper and getting darker with each repetition.  It is this unending rhythm that also sets the mood for the song, as the lyrics speak of the downfall of a man from over-work, and one can feel an almost mundane, tedious tone within Rev's simple sonic arrangement.  The level of complexity within the music is beyond simple, and the fact that it is able to carry so much power within the sound is perhaps the greatest proof ever of the idea of attitude being superior to design.  Though many saw the "core" of punk as loud, driving guitars, on "Frankie Teardrop," Rev proves that such instruments are not even necessary, and though it defies almost every musical convention, there is no question that "Frankie Teardrop" is a work of musical genius that knows no equal.

Yet even with the sparse arrangement forming an almost hypnotic sound, there is nothing that can prepare a listener for the absolutely stunning vocal performance given by the great Alan Vega.  Combining the wording and style of the beat-era poets with an attitude and delivery that completely defies description, it is his efforts on "Frankie Teardrop" that make the song truly extraordinary.  Though during the verses he never moves beyond a steady, almost detached spoken sound, it is the shrieks and screams that give the song its unique dramatic feel.  It is in these moments that one can quickly understand just how deep into the song Vega was during the recording, as he has clearly "given in" to the music and is letting it dictate his performance.  Yet while many see this as little more than chaotic noise, when one considers this performance from a deeper level, one can easily argue that the song is far more politically defiant than the long list of bands that attempted to make far more straightforward statements.  The pain and agony of the downfall of the lyrical protagonist can be felt to a level unlike any other recording, and there are many points where the yells from Vega are outright disturbing.  One can completely feel the "nightmare" that Vega has created both lyrically and vocally, and there has never been another recording that has even come close to the drama and tension that one can experience though Alan Vega on "Frankie Teardrop."

However, for those who may somehow not be able to feel the downtrodden nature of Vega's vocals, the lyrics which he delivers cannot be mistaken, and there has rarely been as soul-crushing a lyric as one finds here.  Offering no "gloss" or attempt to make light of the situation in any manner, "Frankie Teardrop" is the most brutal look into the world of a "working class" man whose world falls apart.  Lyrics like, "...well Frankie cant make it, 'cause things are just too hard, Frankie cant make enough money, Frankie cant buy enough food..." may seem scattered or uncreative, but it is the way in which Vega delivers these realities that give the song a haunting tone.  This downward spiral continues throughout the song, ending in Frankie killing his family and himself, and the way in which the latter half of the song comes across, it almost "dares" the listener to play the song again.  It is in this facet of the song that one can understand what a truly disturbing sound sounds like, as Suicide has no need for forced theatrics, proving that brutal honesty and conviction can easily trump overly-orchestrated musical arrangements or vocals.  Yet it is also this dark, almost defiant sound that pushed Suicide far into the fringe of music, preventing them from gaining much of the credit they so clearly deserve.  Whether it is the mesmerizing music or the absolutely mind-blowing vocal and lyrical performance, there has truly never been any other song in music history that even remotely compares to the unique brilliance found on Suicide's haunting, almost traumatic, yet absolutely genius 1977 song, "Frankie Teardrop."

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