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Alternative Music History: Suicide's 23 Minutes Over Brussels





The Date: July 16, 1978
The Event: Suicide support Elvis Costello in Brussels, Belgium
The Result: A riot breaks out, a bootleg is recorded, a mythical show is born

In 1978, the world wasn't ready for Suicide. The noisy New Yorker synth punks had been kicking around since 1971, but it wasn't until punk broke that anyone paid any attention to their terrifying, singular music.

Suicide weren't punks, even if they were possibly the first to use the word to describe their music (on a flyer for an early show, they billed themselves as playing "punk, funk and sewer music." Suicide weren't exactly proto-punks, either, given their music shared few stylistic similarities with what would come to be punk afterwards.

Instead, they were innovators: Martin Rev taking a droning keyboard and a rickety drum-machine and making spartan, eerie, pounding exercises in repetition. Over the top, Alan Vega ranted like a demented Elvis. Their music, listened to these days, still sounds fresh, and essentially timeless. And, yet, ahed-of-their-time trailblazers that they were, Suicide were hated in their day.

It took them six years to find out anyone who wanted to put out a Suicide record. Audiences reared on rock'n'roll convention rarely reacted well to a band without guitars or drums. And, Vega, ever the provocateur, would often verbally abuse the crowd, stalking the stage with an air of menace.

In 1978, Suicide's reputation had finally spread beyond the Bowery, thanks to their appearance on the 1976 Max's Kansas City compilation and the release of the band's debut 1977 LP, Suicide. This lead to tour dates in Europe opening for The Clash and Elvis Costello.

Supporting the latter, at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, Suicide came up against a particularly hostile crowd. Never one to back down, the duo served up their music in the face of a braying crowd chanting for Costello's arrival. The antagonization didn't ease up; near the end of the set, an audience member stole Vega's microphone.

This leads to the singer berating the audience, unleashing expletives, and performing a half-mocking, a cappella rendition of the otherwise-spooky "Frankie Teardrop." All the while, a cassette recording, taken from the mixing desk, captures the rapidly-declining set, which climaxes with Vega screaming "shut the f**k up!" and the band storming off stage.

Disgusted by the treatment given to the opening act, Costello refuses to play the conquering hero for the adoring crowd, delivering, instead, a short, fast, pissed-off set free from any kind of pleasantries. When Elvis and the Attractions leave the stage early, not to return, the crowd explodes. A brawl breaks out. The kids are tearing up the joint. The riot police are brought in. Tear-gas is unleashed. It's a bad, bad scene.

Eventually, Suicide release the recording as a flexidisc bootleg, entitled 23 Minutes Over Brussels. The set has charms unto itself —it's the sound of a fiercely unique band refusing to bow down to populist pressures, and there's plenty of comedy in the denouement— but, largely, it's reputation grows via the attached mythology. It's the set that started a riot.

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