- January 18th, 2012
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For this Cheat Sheet, I adopted a non-canonical view of No Wave, that wonderfully short-lived music and art movement that coughed up some of the most daring and extreme groups of the post-punk era.
To being with, the majority of the movement’s progenitors are featured. These include James Chance & the Contortions (who also recorded under the name James White & the Blacks), Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, Beirut Slump, DNA, Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy and Glenn Branca’s outfits Theoretical Girls and The Static. Primarily performing in D.I.Y. art spaces and galleries in Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these groups shared a love for ruthlessly atonal textures, razor-sharp anti-rhythms and short bursts of sonic aggression.
No Wave at the time was often framed as pure sonic nihilism: the end of rock, the end of punk, the end of culture, really. The music is definitely harsh and radical, but in hindsight, it’s also startlingly original, a creature of bold synthesis. These bands totally rocked, despite the fact that they discarded just about every accepted notion of what rock music should sound like up to that point. Hell, most of them couldn’t even play “Louie, Louie”!
At the same time, they weren’t truly anti-history. They had their fair share of influences and idols. Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground were key, but so were mid-1970s Miles Davis (On the Corner, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea); minimalist composers such as Rhys Chatham and Tony Conrad; the great James Brown; and of course Suicide, who were probably No Wave’s most direct ancestors.
I also spotlight several releases that help chart the ways in which No Wave fragmented and seeped into the larger culture. Early solo titles from DNA’s Arto Lindsay (Envy) and Teenage Jesus’ Lydia Lunch (Queen of Siam) find the artists filtering key elements of No Wave through synth pop, exotica, jazz and even Tropicália. Another vital musician was the wonderful Lizzy Mercier Descloux. The French singer operated on the movement’s fringes, yet her debut album, Press Color, is an exemplary marriage of No Wave’s agitated zeal and arty discoid funk. Sonic Youth’s early records, especially their debut EP, were wildly important as well. They can be seen as the main bridge from No Wave to post-punk and (later) noise rock.
Finally, I mention several artists who aren’t No Wave, but whose respective orbits weren’t too far off. Operating at the same time as many of the artists mentioned above were fellow New Yorkers ESG and Liquid Liquid. Their respective permutations of stripped-down funk and punkish potency speak to the incredible stew of sounds swirling about the Big Apple in the early 1980s. Then there are England’s The Pop Group and Neue Deutsche Welle pioneers D.A.F. They had little contact with No Wave, but both produced powerfully forceful music that embodied many of the same traits.
Note: The now-iconic No New York compilation, produced by Brian Eno and released in 1978 on the Antilles label, is considered No Wave’s primary document. Unfortunately, it is not available digitally, thus the reason for its absence below.
James Chance & the Contortions
Everything about Buy is outrageous: the half-naked art chick on the front cover, James Chance’s punker-than-thou brashness, The Contortions’ prickly herky-jerky rhythms. But it’s also truly bold and unique. Rather than bringing about the destruction of music (as No Wave promised us), the group’s debut full-length represented a new and potently cacophonous fusion of art rock, hard funk and avant-garde groove exploration à la Beefheart, Miles and Ornette. Check out the last 50 seconds of “Contort Yourself,” which makes for some of the most exhilarating and dramatic listening of the post-punk era. [J.F.]
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks / Beirut Slump
Shut Up and Bleed
Shut Up and Bleed compiles tracks from two of Lydia Lunch’s earliest projects: No Wave icons Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and their lesser-known predecessors Beirut Slump. The former’s brutish simplicity is still astonishing. Guitar, bass and drums cough up nails and glass, while a wailing Lunch rips back the veil on the hideousness lurking inside her. Beirut Slump are equally sinister, if more atmospheric. You’d think such an anti-everything sound would’ve crawled into a sarcophagus encased in obscurity, yet it wound up inspiring waves of young musicians who went on to invent noise rock. [J.F.
This anthology, released in 2002 on the archival imprint Acute Records, was way overdue. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Glenn Branca's Theoretical Girls were not included on the Brian Eno-produced No New York compilation, despite the fact that they were one of No Wave's essential outfits. Their sound veered between pointillist repetition, clanging garage punk, and atonal maximalism overwhelming in its power and density. "Contrary Motion" and tracks like it exerted a big influence on the next generation of N.Y.C. noisemakers: Sonic Youth, Live Skull, Band of Susans and others. [J.F.
N.Y No Wave
N.Y No Wave (why the second period is missing is anybody's guess) is what one No Wave historian calls a "non-canonical" overview. It spotlights many of the movement's central figures, among them James Chance & the Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It also highlights artists who eventually moved beyond the genre's aesthetic (Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay), as well as musicians who were, however talented, only tangentially associated. These include the great Lizzy Mercier Descloux and her art project Rosa Yemen, along with notable No Wave forefathers Suicide. [J.F.]
James Chance & the Contortions
Paris 1980: Live Aux Bains Douches
James Chance was a key figure in No Wave, yet as a musician he harbored aspirations that were anathema to the movement’s insistence on destroying all music. This live document from 1980 might capture the Contortions at their most manic and chaotic, but after a few listens, Chance’s unique vision of merging hard funk, free jazz and avant-rock weirdness begins to emerge. The most striking example of that just might be the opening rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”; despite the song’s disheveled appearance, the groove underneath is wiry and dangerously disciplined. [J.F.]
Songs ’77-’79 compiles selections from Glenn Branca’s two major late ’70s projects: The Static and Theoretical Girls. This archival approach makes a lot of sense, seeing as how both were pivotal in the evolution of the short-lived No Wave movement. The sonic differences between the groups are interesting to note. Theoretical Girls (tracks three through eight) came first and were more rooted in punk and garage rock. The Static, in contrast, find the composer creating a sound that’s far less in debt to accepted notions of rock music. “My Relationship” sounds like late 1980s goth, really. [J.F.]
8 Eyed Spy
8 Eyed Spy
Founded by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ Lydia Lunch and Jim Sclavunos, 8 Eyed Spy were one of post-punk’s first outfits to apply No Wave’s atonal screech and jagged anti-groovery to more traditional rock ‘n’ roll styles: surf, garage, R&B. On such tracks as “Dead Me You B Side” and “Run Through the Jungle” (yes, the Creedence tune), the band sounds like a cross between The Cramps, The Birthday Party and Captain Beefheart. It proved to be a prescient concept that would exert an enormous influence on Jon Spencer and Pussy Galore, as well as the bluesier manifestations of scum rock. [J.F.]
Boom in the Night: Original Studio Recordings 1980-1983
With primitive post-punk angularity forever in favor amid hip rock circles, it’s always the perfect time to reevaluate the dance-punk drive of the Bush Tetras. These recordings date from 1980 to 1983 and showcase the group’s meshing of disco basslines, 4/4 beats and punk-rock paranoia. Try “Cowboys in Africa” or “Too Many Creeps.” [Jon Pruett]
Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Lizzy Mercier Descloux relocated to New York in the late ’70s. The Parisian musician’s distinctive fusion of Yoko Ono-inspired vocal weirdness, punkish moxie, sonic experimentation and a love for killer dance grooves meant she fit right in with the city’s No Wave and cutting-edge disco contingencies. Though her vision would grow only more ambitious throughout the following decade, 1979′s Press Color is one potent studio debut. It reflects the music and art of her new metropolis, but at the same time, a rabid eccentricity courses through her music that feels wonderfully personal and private. [J.F.]
The Ascension is Glenn Branca’s second album after forming/disbanding short-lived projects The Static and Theoretical Girls. Much like its predecessor, the equally visionary Lesson No. 1, it’s a product of the composer fusing No Wave’s monochromatic dissonance/brutalism, sweaty rock ‘n’ roll propulsion, and the densely layered “texturalism” of the minimalism movement. It makes sense that a young Lee Ranaldo played guitar in Branca’s ensemble at the time: such pieces as “Structure” and the anthemic “Lightfield (In Consonance)” totally influenced Confusion Is Sex-era Sonic Youth. [J.F.]
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Pre Teen-Age Jesus
Rosa Yemen, Rosa Yemen
Rhys Chatham, Guitar Trio Is My Life!
Glenn Branca, Lesson No. 1
Arto Lindsay, Envy
Lydia Lunch, Queen of Siam
Raybeats, Guitar Beat
Ut, In Gut’s House
Sonic Youth, Sonic Youth
Various Artists, ZE Sound of N.Y.C.
Various Artists, Downtown 81
ESG, A South Bronx Story
Liquid Liquid, Liquid Liquid
D.A.F., Die Kleinen Und Die Bösen
The Pop Group, Y