Continuing the theme from the previous post, this song is essentially a modern death ballad. But whereas The House Carpenter frames love and passion and betrayal within a quasi-mystical tale, Frankie Teardrop’s story is terrifyingly banal, though no less tragic.
Suicide, made up of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, are rightly regarded as one of the most important and influential bands of the seventies. At the time of this song’s release (from their 1977 self-titled debut album), they were regarded as punks, although they sounded nothing like every other punk band out there. Their punkness, if you like, was much more about the attitude, the desire to do different, than it was about the actual music. Their sound was defiantly minimalist, based around Rev’s electronic keyboards, a tinny drum machine and Vega’s twisted Gene Vincent-ish vocals. Overall it was as if they were on a mission to update, and pay homage to, the strangeness, and menacing echo and claustrophobia, of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel. Which is not to say that they didn’t also have moments of lightness: as the lovely Cheree and a few other songs demonstrate.
Frankie Teardrop is almost the extreme expression of what they were trying to achieve. The stabbing rhythm of the drums, the repetitive and threatening keyboard, the odd sounds of horror in the background all serve to carry and reinforce the song’s story: of a young factory worker who, beaten down by poverty and futility, kills his wife and child. But what makes it genuinely terrifying is Vega’s extraordinary vocals: partly-sung, mostly spoken and fairly detached. That is, until, he lets out some horrifying screams that jolt us out of that similar feeling of detachment and make us aware not only of the terrible events but also of Frankie’s pain and insanity. It’s very disturbing, and difficult to listen to – but frighteningly compelling.