Hearing Suicide‘s “Frankie Teardrop” for the first time can leave a permanent impression on someone. That can vary from depraved obsession to potentially being scarred for life, but there’s no middle ground on “Frankie Teardrop.” Nobody listens to this song casually while driving to or from work. You don’t play it for houseguests. It kills parties and obliterates vibes. To say nothing of the nightmares it can cause. Any playlist that includes “Frankie Teardrop” and is distributed to others likely warrants a disclaimer: May cause paranoia, panic and general freak out.
Since their founding in the early ’70s, Suicide’s Alan Vega and Martin Rev embraced the provocative, often at the expense of their own popularity. As punk had begun to take over New York City’s underground, the duo did away with conventional rock instruments altogether, instead slimming down to just vocals, organ and drum machine, with Vega often brandishing a motorcycle drive chain as a prop. Though they had peers and fans in bands like the New York Dolls, Suicide were often met with choruses of boos and general hostility, both because of the band’s live presence and the audacity to call themselves Suicide. Red Star Records founder Marty Thau put it plainly, “People hated Suicide.”
Suicide pushed the limits of what their audience could endure with “Frankie Teardrop.” Comprising most of the second side of their debut album, the 10 and 1/2 minute song built on a recurring, mostly unchanging drum-machine thump and two-chord drone for its duration while Vega narrates the ignominious fate of a factory worker whose struggle in being able to survive and provide for his family eventually sends him over the edge, murdering his family and then turning the gun on himself.
It’s an unbelievably grim song, one inspired by a real story that Vega had read in the newspaper about someone driven to violence because of his desperate situation. But it grows from slow-burn menace to unhinged violence when, four minutes in, Vega punctuates Frankie’s acts of bloodshed with blood-curdling screams, the punk rock equivalent of a jump scare but more legitimately terrifying if only because there’s no escapism here, just a bleak portrait of desperation and violence that leaves you with a feeling of claustrophobia, derangement and perhaps a little nausea.
“‘Frankie Teardrop’ always got an extreme reaction,” Vega said in an interview with Uncut. “There was nothing in the world like it. It came about the way it did because of Marty Rev’s music. The music was such a strong thing, it all just had to go in that direction. It was a deeper darker thing, because the music got really insane and I wanted to do something that went there.”
“Frankie Teardrop” didn’t begin as the blood-curdling horror dirge it became in 1977. Its original title was “Frankie Teardrop vs. the Space Alien,” a similarly paranoid but more surreal sci-fi story of a detective hired by the CIA to kill an extraterrestrial visitor (“They went lookin’ for Frankie/But Frankie was gone/To Alpha Centauri“). But once Vega distanced himself from the alien angle, the song took on an entirely new life, one far more disturbing and, for Vega, much more physically demanding. He said that after recording his vocal takes he nearly ended up vomiting, and he always dreaded the toll it took on his body whenever they performed it live—though he acknowledged that they absolutely had to play it live.
Compared to the David Lynch rockabilly of “Johnny” or the eerie twinkle of “Cheree,” “Frankie Teardrop” is harsher and driven more by its mechanistic factory-floor atmosphere than any particular melody. As its violence escalates, so does the cacophony beneath Vega’s screech, as if the walls of the factory where Frankie worked had begun to collapse. Yet while it’s an important song in terms of its influence on industrial music, it’s even more poignant, if unflinching and abrasive, as a political statement. The game that drives Frankie to murder and suicide is rigged—there’s no hope for him or people like him, and in the best case scenario, his family is still alive but barely surviving. The capitalist system around which the American Dream is built fails millions of people by design, and in the song’s chilling final moments, Vega suggest—as much as few of us would like to acknowledge it—that we’re all much closer to being Frankie than the fat cats profiting from his labor: “We’re all Frankies/We’re all lying in Hell.”
Suicide had a major influence on Bruce Springsteen when he wrote and recorded Nebraska, particularly “Frankie Teardrop.” You can hear it most explicitly in songs like “State Trooper,” in which Springsteen’s own startling yelps mirror those of Alan Vega’s. But in another sense, every figure Springsteen sings about on Nebraska feels like some variation of Frankie Teardrop—desperate, tormented, driven to commit unspeakable acts. Including the title character of “Johnny 99,” a laid-off auto worker who shoots and kills a night clerk.
High Fidelity author Nick Hornby described “Frankie Teardrop” as a song you can only listen to once. And in 2013, Tom Scharpling, host of the Best Show on WFMU, launched a recurring segment on his program called The Frankie Teardrop Challenge. The objective is simple, but difficult to complete: Listen to all 10 minutes and 26 of Suicide’s harrowing proto-industrial story of murder and desperation late at night, with the lights off, as loud as possible on headphones. Listeners would call in with their own experiences, and it might not come as much surprise that few actually manage to make it all the way through the marathon of terror. The challenge itself even inspired a Creepypasta, which only goes to show how many levels there are to the song’s creep factor
I’ll forever remember the first time I listened to “Frankie Teardrop” alone at night. Some of the details are fuzzy—I don’t remember if I was still in college or just graduated, making dinner or doing dishes—I just remember hearing that low pulse of Martin Rev’s drum machine and the ever creeping terror before Vega’s maniacal scream sent me nearly leaping through a nearby window. No other song has had that kind of effect on me, instilling a kind of primal fear where no horror movie has ever managed to do so. And I like scary music. That’s what this whole column is about, right? I just know that every time I listen to “Frankie Teardrop,” I have to mentally and physically prepare myself for the challenge.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.