Mojo JUNE 2011 - by David Sheppard


The finest late-'70s downtown dissonance.

Indebted as much to free jazz as punk-rock, and closely related to the mid-'70s East Village avant-garde New Cinema scene which revered director Jean-Luc Godard's dictum that "there are no new waves, only the ocean", no wave music emerged from the dripping lofts and performance art spaces of Lower Manhattan in 1971, offering an abrasive, nihilist rejoinder to perky new wave rock. The scene's gate openers were Suicide, purveyors of heroically confrontational downtown art-noise epiphanies since the early '70s. Like Suicide, no wave musicians were largely autodidacts - their predilection for texture over melody and disavowal of blues-based worthiness matched by lyrics of unabashed psychic torment.

No wave's fire burnt intensely, if briefly, wafted by émigré Brian Eno after he'd witnessed the cavalcade of visceral art screamers and jazz-punk tyros who graced New York, New York, a five-day 'noise festival' staged at SoHo's Artists Space gallery in May 1978. Inspired, Eno convinced Island Records to invest in a vinyl showcase for this latest incarnation of Gotham underground desecration and so the seminal No New York album was born, Eno producing the cream of the acts. Although dismayed by the jarring, clamourous results, Island released the album in 1978, enshrining the no wave 'moment' and catapulting the careers of hitherto obscure scenesters like Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay and James Chance.

No wave's mayfly heyday bequeathed a mere smattering of essential waxings - though subsequent anthologising would turn up a wealth of fiercely uncompromising music - but its influence is conspicuous in everything from Sonic Youth to The Birthday Party,The Pop Group and even Riot Grrrl.

10 VARIOUS N.Y. No Wave

Restricting itself only to tracks recorded for the Ze label, and with an erroneous subtitle, The Ultimate East Village '80s Soundtrack (many of its tracks in fact date from the late '70s), this is still a useful, if by no means definitive, introduction to no wave, proffering key tracks by Mars, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, The Contortions, etc, alongside interesting, if arguably post-no wave cuts, from Lydia Lunch's Queen Of Siam solo debut and Arto Lindsay and cinematographer Seth Tillett's spoken-word project, Arto/Neto. lt also finds room for avant-funk tracks by French chanteuse/guitarist Lizzy Mercier Descloux.

9 GLENN BRANCA Songs '77-'79

String-terrorising composer Branca had worked with Rhys Chatham's Guitar Trio project before coming to prominence in two late-'70s bands, Theoretical Girls and The Static, documented here. Omitted from the No New York compilation (DNA's mischievous Arto Lindsay having convinced Eno to overlook his downtown rival), Theoretical Girls were critical no-wave scenesters despite only releasing a solitary single. This anthology exhumes their convulsive, unreleased recordings and live tracks alongside densely strummed essays by The Static, featuring Barbara Ess (of no wavers Y Pants).


Lounge-suited, sax-toting James Siegfried (aka White, Chance, etc) was Lydia Lunch's erstwhile paramour and co-founder of the elemental Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, although actually schooled in free jazz and abetted by atypically adroit instrumentalists, The Blacks, AKA The Contortions, whose debut Buy also appeared in 1979. The marginally less frenetic Off White still lurches merrily from the cathartic (art-funk-disco cri de coeur Contort Yourself) to the bizarre (Stained Sheets, essentially a dirty phone call between White and Lunch).

7 GLENN BRANCA Lesson No.1

Lesson No.1 was evidence of the more structured compositional work Branca had commenced while helming Theoretical Girls. Originally issued as a twelve-inch mini-LP featuring two extended instrumental tracks, the aggressive, self-explanatory Dissonance and the more accessible title track (influenced by Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart and featuring one Harry Spitz on sledgehammer), this reissue boasts a third track, the metallically textured Bad Smells, essayed by a larger guitar ensemble whose numbers include a pre-Sonic Youth Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo.

6 SUICIDE Suicide

In the words of Glenn Branca: "If you have to find out who the godfather of no wave was, it was Alan Vega. He was doing no wave years before any of us." Indeed, Suicide's sometime light sculptor frontman, along with keyboardist partner Martin Rev, had been delivering antagonistic yet transcendent aural assaults on downtown New York audiences for several years before no wave struck. While this, their debut album, would influence a legion of subsequent synth duos, Suicide's eerily distorted, shimmering songs, and Vega's uncompromising attitude made them equally crucial no wave progenitors.


Brazilian-born Arto Lindsay, DNA's gaunt, bespectacled frontman, was, and remains, a downtown prime mover. His first band was arguably no wave's most explosive. Backed by untrained female Japanese drummer lkue Mori and performance-artist-turned-keyboardist Robin Lee Crutchfield (later replaced by Pere Ubu bassist Tim Wright), Lindsay's primal scream vocals - partly delivered in fractured Portuguese - were matched by the white-noise detonations he conjured from a randomly detuned Danelectro twelve-string guitar. DNA On DNA collates the band s modest studio repertoire plus grainy live recordings.

4 MARS Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-78

Mars were the no wavers who came closest (relatively speaking) to rock orthodoxy - their heavily textured sound an augury of early Sonic Youth and effectively a blueprint for post-punk. Formed in 1975 by vocalist Sumner Crane and guitarist/singer China Burg, the quartet (completed by bassist Mark Cunningham and drummer Nancy Arlen) committed only eleven songs to tape during their three-year existence and played fewer than thirty gigs, none outside New York. This set collects the lot, including the compelling, insectoid Helen Forsdale.


Released almost simultaneously with James White And The Blacks' Off White (and featuring ostensibly similar personnel), The Contortions' full debut is an enduring no wave benchmark, its paroxysms of warped funk-rock and yelping free-jazz straddling the chasm between Richard Hell's Voidoids and Albert Ayler. Chance decants his volatile, agitated persona into a dozen squirming, nihilist titles like I Don't Want To Be Happy and Contort Yourself (a veritable no wave standard, also recorded by The Blacks), as the uncredited Contortions squirm on.


Notorious for ten-minute sets, and creators of a mere handful of EPs during their lifespan, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks were propelled into the spotlight by their feral, needle-sharp contributions to the No New York anthology, securing the iconic status of Medusa-like teenage leaderene Lydia Lunch (plus future Bad Seeds/Grinderman drummer Jim Sclavunos). Shut Up And Bleed corrals the band's entire oeuvre (alongside tracks by the subsequent Beirut Slump), including the malevolent narratives of Baby Doll, Orphans, et al.

1 VARIOUS No New York

Fresh from producing new wave's artier outriders, Devo and Talking Heads, curator Eno whittled down a long list of NYC "research bands" to just four for this seminal compilation, applying an uncharacteristic hands-off approach to the production of primal, art-rock deconstruction from Mars and DNA; self-styled 'aural terror' from Teenage Jesus And The Jerks; and squealing, rudimentarily miked punk-jazz from The Contortions. Released by Island's esoteric Antilles imprint, the lyrics printed, with apposite wilfulness, on the inaccessible inside of the outer sleeve, No New York was the genre's definitive document and remains an ideal entry portal for the no wave ingénue.


No wave was so fleeting that anything produced during its succinct heyday is worthy of investigation. The Manhattan-centric tendency did Produce some questionable responses in the remainder of the US underground, however. Not least was a 1979 No New York retort entitled Yes L.A., released by Californian punk imprint Dangerhouse. A limited edition one-sided LP boasting tracks by X, The Germs and other CA new wave stalwarts, its sleeve bore the petulant disclaimer "Not produced by Brian Eno". Caveat emptor: this now expensive collector's item reveals only that the sound of the '79 West Coast underground was rock'n'roll cheese to New York's art-music chalk.