Eye WeeklyJANUARY 30, 2008 - by Dave Morris


"Lydia [Lunch] and I agreed that it should be the equivalent of rough sex, a good cold hard hate-fuck."

To hear Teenage Jesus & The Jerks bassist Jim Sclavunos and others tell it in No Wave, Marc Masters' comprehensive book on the late-'70s/early-'80s NYC cultural movement, the no wavers wanted to bust into the music scene with little or no musical training, make the most aggressive, original and sometimes violent statement they could, then get out before the bodies hit the floor.

But although Sclavunos' provocations make it seem as though the target of original no wave band Teenage Jesus & The Jerks' violent lust was the audience at their shows, really he and his fellow no wavers wanted to ride roughshod over everything - the art world most of them came from, the media it fed off of, the then-dying city they lived in, even their own internal contradictions. Which in the late '70s, in the wake of 20th Century youth culture's total failure to make good on its promises to change the world, must have seemed attractive, at least in an obsessively purist art-school kind of way.

Masters, a prolific music writer for Pitchfork, The Wire and others, amasses a wealth of interviews and original press reviews of bands that until recently were just rumours circulating in collector fanzines and at used-record fairs; acts like Mars, Teenage Jesus and lesser-known groups such as Ut and the Gynecologists shattered and disappeared quickly, leaving behind only a handful of scabrous, abrasive recordings. One of the most illuminating observations in the book is that the No New York album apparently is more of an icon of the scene than it was a fair representation of it. When choosing bands for the compilation, producer Brian Eno ultimately passed over arty SoHo-based bands such as the composition oriented, Glenn Branca-led Theoretical Girls in favour of a Lower East Side-bound subset of the scene, represented by the likes of Arto Lindsay's rhythmically intricate DNA and James Chance's funky, discordant Contortions. Though admittedly, determining the degrees of artiness among no wave bands is like assessing the difference between fabric samples in "sea green" versus "office green."

No Wave is the historical record this movement has long deserved: a well-written, assiduously researched and beautifully packaged coffee table book. If that last clause sounds mildly dismissive, it should. No wave succeeded in being more nihilistic and aggressively unlistenable than punk, becoming a pure expression of artistic will. Then like all fascist movements, it promptly collapsed, choked to death by its own inability to refresh itself by absorbing new influences. The movement was at best a temporary reaction, prompted by the punks' frustration at having failed to turn nihilism into a viable philosophy; the book's only flaw is that although Masters acknowledges that no wave was by definition short-lived, his defence of its historical importance - that no wave made the world safer for female musicians and aided the "validation of primitive techniques" as well as rock aggression in the worlds of classical and jazz - comes as a not-very-credible afterthought. No wave-affiliated artists such as Sonic Youth stayed relevant by broadening their palette both musically and philosophically, because as thrillingly jarring as the original no wave recordings are, they're ultimately shallow; once you've absorbed their initial lessons, they don't compel you to spend more time with them. Even after the most satisfying hate-fuck, you don't lie around in bed all day afterwards.