Suicide was a band so punk that even the punks hated them. Formed in Manhattan, New York City in 1970, the duo of Alan Vega and Martin ‘Rev’ Reverby made an uncompromising noise that had no precedent, and a DIY aesthetic that was way ahead of its time. Rev created sounds from the detritus around him, incorporating nascent drum machines and eventually a Farfisa organ channeled through makeshift distortion pedals. Live wire Vega, an Iggy/Elvis hybrid with the most confrontational stage act since Antonin Artaud, put everything into his art, and eventually the artwork too (blood included).
As true progenitors, it took time for people to adjust to Suicide’s sonic extremism. It was six years or more before Suicide recorded and released their self-titled first album, which was all done fairly quickly once record producer Marty Thau formed Red Star Records and signed the band he most believed in. And what a debut it is both musically and visually: a masterpiece with striking blood red smeared across stenciled letters, perfectly visually encapsulating the shock and awesomeness of what’s inside. Alan Vega went on to collaborate on future artworks with the likes of The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who produced three of Suicide’s five studio albums.
On April 8 this year, Suicide release Surrender, a double compilation on Mute/BMG that couldn’t be more different from that first album in presentation, but for the revival of the famous Red Star in the inlay which originally sat on the debut’s cover. But as we’ll see, there are motifs incorporated within to evoke moments from right across the band’s 46-year history.
Vega is sadly no longer with us, though Martin Rev talks us through some of the radical design choices, often instigated by his bandmate, and Vega’s wife and longtime collaborator, Elizabeth Lamere, is on hand too with reminiscences of Alan in full artistic flow. Finally, designer Michael Handis and musician and producer Jared Artaud discuss the concepts behind the graphic design for Surrender.
Credited to Timothy Jackson, Suicide’s groundbreaking debut was a collaboration which started with Alan Vega, putting the “graphic” into graphic design. Furthermore, the original version of Frankie Teardrop has recently been released with a video made by erstwhile Jesus & Mary Chain bass player Douglas Hart.
Liz Lamere: “This iconic design was a collaboration. Alan’s background was as a visual artist, primarily a painter and sculptor. He had long worked with collage and came up with this concept and pulled the letters. It’s likely he credited Timothy Jackson as he helped execute the design. I believe the blood was from Alan’s finger, but don’t know for sure. We have the original collage in the archives.”
Martin Rev: “Alan designed it. We were looking for a cover and Alan bought the letters from a stationery store and placed them that way. Remember that all the letters are pretty uniform, right? Timothy was brought in by Marty [Thau] to finish the design and I believe he designed the blood part. And it looks like he definitely worked into the letters to make them more jagged and whatnot. Alan may have suggested certain things before Timothy took over.”
Alan Vega · Martin Rev (1980)
Suicide’s followup, painted by the artist Richard Cramer, features a two-part visual joke of a deeply literal and macabre nature, as blood disappears down a plughole on the cover. On the flipside comes the punchline, with a model shaving one of her legs. Vega and Rev changed the artwork and name when the album was reissued in 1998.
Martin Rev: “Michael Zilkha of Ze Records asked an artist to design the record and asked us what we thought. I wasn’t totally blown away by the cover but it was definitely a very good job, a cool kind of job for what it was. I mean, Michael was very much in the fashion and disco kind of world in his own way, and I found the cover kind of reflected that. It has a Madison Avenue polish, and it was never something I was that crazy about once I saw it, but it worked.”
Liz Lamere: “This design feels more like Ric Ocasek’s aesthetic, but Alan shared his love of vital, beautiful, and dangerous women. Alan likely felt the images captured the essence of the music, which was distinctive from the first album.”
“The cover has a Madison Avenue polish, and it was never something I was that crazy about once I saw it, but it worked.”
Martin Rev: “We changed the cover for the reissue [The Second Album, 1998 (Mute / BMG)], and I was glad to be given the opening to do that. I suggested that photo we used because we had it for several years and I’d never found a place for it, but I always thought it was the epitome of Suicide—so descriptive of us. It’s more in touch with my sensibilities of what the cover would be, but the original one is maybe closer to the music, too, with Ric [Cramer] producing with a more pop sensibility.”
Liz Lamere: “Alan typically didn’t have much interest in revisiting the past. When a new release came out, the choice of new artwork was more likely to give the fans another view of Marty and Alan from that time period.”
A Way of Life (1988)
Credited to Alan Vega this time, though Ric Ocasek had his part to play. At first glance, the reproduction of images is reminiscent of a Warhol screenprint with all of its colors coagulating.
Liz Lamere: “During the time leading up to this release, Alan and Ric spent many hours in Ric’s home studio, experimenting with photography. Ric had all the new graphic design programs on his computer. In the Vega archives we have a series of Polaroid photos Ric took of Alan and then digitized, adding graphic elements. They’re stunning. For this cover, Alan suggested an image of a woman which Ric likely sourced. And the design may be unintentionally evocative of Warhol—especially with the repetition, which is the visual counterpart of the minimal, repetitive continuum of the Suicide sound. This artwork can also be seen as a variation on the theme begun with the artwork of the second album, using Ric and Alan’s love of aesthetic beauty, mixed with the vulnerability of her exposed neck.”
“The design may be unintentionally evocative of Warhol—especially with the repetition, which is the visual counterpart of the minimal, repetitive continuum of the Suicide sound.”
Martin Rev: “That was really Ric, and Alan may have conferred with Ric at his studio. He came into the basement to look at a couple of things on the computer. From what I remember, Ric said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do it this way?’ The whole idea of a model, again, was more of a trendy fashion-oriented approach which was not really my thing. But Ric was enthusiastic and so giving and generous and intelligent with everything that he did where we were concerned.”
American Supreme (2002)
Reminiscent of an etiolated Jasper Johns’ flag, the Scott King design for the cover is no doubt in keeping with the ironic title, released as it was at the advent of the War on Terror.
Liz Lamere: “The use of the American flag drained of color was King’s concept but embraced by Alan, who would’ve liked your Jasper Johns reference. Alan and I lived a few blocks away from Ground Zero. He had been having premonitions of this type of attack for many years prior to 9/11. We were all shellshocked by such a substantial and unprecedented terrorist attack in the US. The title American Supreme was not meant to be sarcastic. Regardless of the political responses that followed over the years to come, the immediate and most compelling impact at our core as a community was the sense of resilience, unity, support and, yes, patriotism it inspired amongst the people of our country.”
Martin Rev: “It was connected to September 11, I guess, because that was around the time when it was approved and conceived. It had that meaning and then of course those wars came in after, just adding to the dismal aspect. I wasn’t convinced at first, I wanted to stay away from the American flag for the reason that it seemed so obvious. It’s called American Supreme with an American flag? So when I first saw it, I said, ‘No man, stay away from the American flag. We can do something else’. It took a while to grow on me, but everyone was so enthusiastic about it. So I took a while with it… okay. Let it go. I like the idea of using outside graphics people, at least initially, see what they come up with. And then they come up with surprises that you wouldn’t necessarily come up with yourself—different, anyway.”
Surrender is none more white, made with classy bas relief lettering, with a reflective gatefold picture featuring a classic monochrome image of Alan Vega and Martin Rev taken in Toronto in 1978 by Peter Noble. New York based designer Michael Handis, and musician and producer Jared Artaud, were given the job of creating something worthy of a career retrospective.
Michael Handis: “The goal was to align the packaging with the sensations felt by the sound—the serenity through pure white, and the sensuality through the covers’ embossing. But in the same spirit that Suicide’s music was deceivingly minimalist, the design is unexpectedly subterranean. The subversiveness is revealed when one literally scratches the surface—the entire undercoat of the printed white exterior is reflective chrome. The process was intended to act as a shroud over something holy. The more the owner engages with their copy of Surrender, the more the actual album will reveal itself. You can find elements of every studio Suicide album, as well as their early ’70s promotional flyers. Discovering the subtle nods to the past is absolutely part of the package experience. Surrender, in a way, is the ultimate design harmony of the studio catalog’s artwork and moves the Suicide aesthetic into its next chapter.”
“The process of putting this together became visually more intense once we started stripping away ideas to the fewest parts possible… a major component of minimalism is restraint and simplicity.”
Martin Rev: “There are Red Stars on the new album and compilation, but I tried to limit it… I didn’t suggest that, and I suggested not going any further with it. Because at first there was one right on the label of the record itself. I said ‘no, you can’t do that with a white label. It’s not Red Star, man, it’s just a comp’.”
Jared Artaud: “Conceptually, it was important to elevate the design to mirror the power and intensity of the music. Suicide were genre-creating masters of minimalism yet their musical DNA is rife with complexity, innovation, and depth. The process of putting this together became visually more intense once we started stripping away ideas to the fewest parts possible. With the album artwork we wanted to create a dialectic between the listener and the music. As is true of Suicide’s work, a major component of minimalism is restraint and simplicity. Surrender’s design is about honoring the band’s history while ensuring the feel of the album artwork would hit with the same emotional intensity as their music. When you open the inner gatefold and see Alan, Marty, and yourself in reflection, it completes the trinity we strove to create with the design. For all the intensity and fear the band evoked, there was also a deeper meaning that continues to inspire future generations and change people’s lives. With Surrender, you’re now part of the music forever.”
Michael Handis: “The gatefold photo taken by Peter Noble pays homage to the inner sleeve design of Suicide: Alan Vega · Martin Rev from 1980 which featured 12-inch portraits on opposite sides. It’s an extremely powerful shot as it shows Martin and Alan in perfect balance, almost merging as one, yet distinctly as their own characters with their own iconography: Martin with his Carrera shield frames and Alan with his signature fist gesture. The fact that you can see your own reflection in Martin’s glasses and Alan’s eyes at the same time from the chrome printing is profound.”