Mojo JANUARY 2004 - by David Fricke


The sound coming out of New York in 1978 was a stripped-down howl of ferocious joy. David Fricke reminisces on the short-lived, aggressive pleasures of No Wave.

In the summer and fall of 1977, nearly everyone who was somebody in New york punk passed through my Philadelphia hometown. I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and The Dead Boys, among others. I moved to New York in January 1978 and it was as if I had crossed the George Washington Bridge into an alternate universe.

On one of my first nights on the town, at a near-empty CBGB's, I saw a skinny, carrot-topped maniac with a hysterical barking voice and a sax through which he blew hurricane gusts of rage over machine-gunned shards of hyper-funk. The Contortions, led by mad fireball James Chance, were a huge shock and a roaring joy: James Brown meets Ascension-era John Coltrane, P-Funk stripped down to psycho-Stooges basics. They were also my introduction to the short-lived, assaultive pleasures of No Wave.

There is no crueler way to describe the birth and peak of a musical scene than saying, You had to be there. I have no other choice. In its brief heyday - the very late '70s - No Wave was unevenly documented on record, and bands rarely played north of 14th Street in Manhattan, typically in artist's spaces and tiny venues like Tier 3. But there was no greater concentration of jubilantly atonal futurists anywhere. As the rest of the US wrestled with Blondie's and The Ramones' atomic pop, my New York nights were alive with the sound of the end of the world; the power-trio warfare of DNA; the tribal nightmare thump of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, fronted by shrieking spitfire Lydia Lunch; the orchestral-guitar violence of Theoretical Girls and The Static, both featuring future guitar-symphony pioneer Glenn Branca; the rainbow-drone ensembles of guitarist Rhys Chatham; the scorched-earth rock of Red Transistor.

These were amazing bands full of people who, in many cases, technically couldn't play a note, says Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, a charter No Wave fan who discovered the music while commuting to New York on weekends from art school upstate. Rock'n'roll has always been this big noisy thing. But this music was stripped down to volume and rhythm. DNA and Teenage Jesus were incredible, they were bands you could easily imagine being in, they were so simple.

That simplicity was deceiving, contends DNA guitarist Arto Lindsay: I deliberately didn't learn how to play the guitar - I still can't play chords - because I wanted to deal with the instrument as a rhythmic and sonic instrument. If I didn't know how to play it, I wouldn't play anything by rote. Lindsay, now a highly-respected solo artist, also disputes the negativity implied by the term No Wave, a fuck-you pun on New Wave that became common coin after the 1978 recording of the seminal studio anthology, No New York, produced by Brian Eno and featuring four tracks each by The Contortions, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the band that, according to local lore, started it all, Mars.

The depiction of No Wave as nihilistic came from the outside, Lindsay claims. From the inside, it was free music, like the '60s jazz of Albert Ayler. People assumed it was made out of agony. It was actually ecstasy.

But there was a lot of rage that needed to be expressed, says Jim Sclavunos, percussionist in Nick Cave's Bad Seeds and a No Wave eye-witness with Red Transistor and a post-No New York line-up of Teenage Jesus. The lip service paid to rebellion in a lot of punk - we found it offensive. That antagonism was a unifying factor.

Like all scenes, No Wave (a name, Lindsay says, invented by editors at the Soho Weekly News) had its hierarchical order, reflected in both the power and limitations of No New York. Eno decided to document the local upheaval after attending an early-'78 series of concerts at Artists Space on Hudson Street. He really liked the music, but I think he had a sense that it wouldn't last long, says Lindsay, who admits to some manoeuvring by the four bands to keep peers like Chatham, Red Transistor and Theoretical Girls off the final LP. We convinced Eno that our bands were the way to go. We were all linked, we all had a shared rehearsal space at one point. And we all wanted more space on the record.

As a result, the multi-wave character of No New York to the cleansing bloodshed of Lydia Lunch's clawing guitar and black-angel howl in Burning Rubber and Red Alert by Teenage Jesus; the homicidal funk of The Contortions; and the thrilling slash'n'burn of Mars and DNA. Hardly a conventional producer, Eno simply ensured that the bands got their live brio on tape. His idea of a production meeting was just people drinking in a bar on Hudson Street, says Sclavunos, who was there. And Lindsay says that on the day DNA cut their four tracks in Manhattan, we were playing out hearts out, and Eno was sitting there, reading a magazine. I remember challenging him: What are you doing? This is our life.

But at a time when there was so little No Wave on record - a premium exception was Teenage Jesus' epochal single, Orphans - No New York became an iconic memorial to an underground that, by 1981, had dissolved into a new generation of contenders, including Lydia Lunch's swamp-blues group 8 Eyed Spy, Bush Tetras with ex-Contortions guitarist Pat Place, post-punk dance band Liquid Liquid and, of course, Sonic Youth. Eno's vision on No New York has a crystalline element about it, says Ranaldo. The album made a diffuse scene seem like a serious movement, right down to the back cover (a crude, photo-booth gallery of band-member portraits). I eventually met all those people, but I remember poring over the shots, trying to figure out what kind of people they were.

Originally issued in the US on Island's Antilles subsidiary, No New York remains unissued on CD in America or Europe; mint vinyl pressings sell on eBay for up to $100, according to Lindsay. Yet the album and the school of ferocity it depicts are now unholy gospel to a new generation of rock'n'roll extremists in and beyond New York, including: The Rapture, Erase Errata, Whirlwind Heat, The Liars and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

However, Sclavunos believes the true essence of No Wave defies imitation and revival: The whole idea was to confront the audience, to make them feel uncomfortable. Making records, creating a legacy - that was beside the point. It was a self-destructive bunch of people making music that was not supposed to appeal to people. Nobody was at our shows, and the ones who were regretted it.

If we have a legacy, Sclavunos says proudly, it's despite ourselves.