Pitchfork JANUARY 9, 2008 - by Marc Masters


In the first week of May, 1978, a five-day music festival was held in New York City. The venue was Artists' Space, a small gallery located in the downtown neighborhood of Tribeca. Advertisements offered no information about the participating groups or any connections between them. Flyers simply read "BANDS", followed by a list of ten acts, two per night.

Among those attending the festival were Roy Trakin of New York Rocker, John Rockwell of The New York Times, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, and most significantly, Brian Eno. At the time, Eno was best known as the former keyboardist for British glam-rock band Roxy Music, as well as the creator of electro-pop solo albums like Here Come The Warm Jets. But he was also a highly-in-demand record producer, and had arrived in New York just a week earlier to work on the second album by Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings And Food.

Eno quickly saw something in these bands that the current music of his homeland lacked. "The New York bands proceed from a 'what would happen if' orientation; the English Punk thing is a 'feel' situation", he told Rockwell. "I've always been of the former persuasion. But there's a difference between me and the New York bands. What they do is a rarefied kind of research; it generates a vocabulary that people like me can use. These New York bands are like fence posts, the real edges of a territory, and one can maneuver within it." [1]

Eager to document those edges, Eno convinced Island Records to commission a compilation from these groups, which he would supervise. Ten bands were to contribute, including most of the festival participants. But when the sessions began a few weeks later at Big Apple Studio, the roster had mysteriously shrunk to four: Mars, DNA, The Contortions, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks.

Before the album came out, the chosen groups met with Eno at the Eighth Street apartment he was subletting. They decided to call the record No New York, and soon the small community of musicians and filmmakers surrounding it was dubbed "No Wave." Small, and short-lived: within a year, many No Wave groups were gone. As The New York Times' Robert Palmer put it, "Naming the movement just about finished it off." [2] By any measure, No Wave was a blip - a blinding flash of art that barely lasted long enough to qualify as a movement, yet left scars on underground culture still evident today.

The key to how such a brief moment could create a lasting impression lies in a single word: 'No.' It could hardly be smaller, yet, like the No Wave movement itself, it is remarkably potent, a symbol of all the possibilities in rejection and resistance. Any question you can ask about No Wave - any attempt to define or restrict it - gets the same answer. Did the bands sound the same? Did they think the same? Did they all get along? No. There is perhaps only one question to which No Wave offered a Yes: is there anything left when you start by saying 'No'?

So No Wave was a movement predicated on negation - except those involved didn't consider it a movement, and didn't predicate it on anything. No Wave even said 'No' to its own existence. As James Chance of the Contortions put it at the time, when queried by Trakin:

You don't consider yourself part of any movement, then?

JC: AARGHH!!! NO!! I DESPISE movements!! I'd never be part of any movement! [3]

In fact, No Wave is so resistant to definition that it's not even clear how the term itself arose. Many credit an interview between Trakin and Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. "He asked her if her music was New Wave, and she sneeringly responded, 'More like No Wave,'" says Robin Crutchfield of DNA. "But the No Wave crowd hated being defined or pigeon-holed by anyone, and most weren't about to be summed up by aterm cast off in a disdainful interview, even by one of their own." That article seems to have vanished into the ether; neither Trakin nor Lunch remember it specifically. "It sounds like something that would naturally come out of my mouth", admits Lunch, "the word 'No' being one of my favorite words at the time." Others suggest the phrase came from NO, a homemade magazine that chronicled the scene. "They were the first to champion it, but I don't know if they coined the term or not", says Mark Cunningham of Mars. "In any case it was the media, not us." Chance concurs: "No Wave was a label that writers came up with when No New York came out. No one talked about No Wave before that."

Regardless, the phrase aptly encapsulates the movement's philosophy of rejection - specifically its rejection of the New Wave music that ruled at the time. Yet for the filmmakers, No Wave was an affirmation of a different New Wave: the Nouvelle Vague movement in French cinema from the 1950s and '60s. "No Wave might have been taken from [French filmmaker] Jean-Luc Godard's remark, 'There are no new waves, there is only the ocean'", suggested writer Glenn O'Brien. [4] If rejecting one New Wave and embracing another seems incongruous, it should. For No Wavers, No was not just a negative, but a contradiction - a way to say that whatever we are, we're also the opposite. As Trakin wrote: "[No Wave] is so self-critical, so riddled with arrogant doubts, so self-correcting and inherently parodic that it manages to incorporate the seeds of its own backlash." [5] By simply saying 'No', No Wave said it all.

In the late 1970s, New York City was the perfect place to say 'No'. It had become a wasteland, especially the downtown neighborhoods, which were essentially abandoned and where one could live on almost nothing.

LYDIA LUNCH: There was a lack of light that New York had at that time, especially considering the condition of the Lower East Side, which was nothing like it is now. There were just blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings, set on fire nightly from peoplesleeping under tea lights.

CHINA BURG (Mars): It was like a Wild West type of town, and the whole Lower East Side was incredibly empty. There weren't stores. You had to walk over to First Avenue to buy groceries.

SCOTT B (filmmaker): If you went below Houston Street, there were no cars at night. There was just nothing there. You could go to a building and take it over - steal electricity out of the lamp post and live in it for years.

MARK CUNNINGHAM: Cheap rents enabled a whole generation of artists to move there after school and not have to do too much slave labor to pay the bills.

PAT PLACE (Contortions): Poverty is so relative - we didn't mind the way we were living because we were actually doing what we wanted to do.

JODY HARRIS (Contortions): There were periods when I was living on ten bucks a week.

RHYS CHATHAM (Gynecologists): I had a twelve hundred square-foot loft for one hundred and eighty dollars a month.

JAMES CHANCE: My first apartment cost a hundred and twenty-five dollars per month. No one wanted to live there. If they saw a white person coming, they would practically give them the apartment. You didn't have to have a day job. I had a few, but making a living.

LYDIA LUNCH: Work? Are you nuts? Please. Seventy-five dollars per month - that was my rent when I got an apartment on 12th Street. You could eat for two or three dollars a day. You begged, borrowed, stole, sold drugs, worked a couple of days at a titty bar if you had to. I don't know how I got by, but it didn't take much.

SCOTT B: We'd take over buildings to have art shows. We dumped a car in the East River as a part of a film, and published photographs of it in The Soho Weekly News, and nobody ever said anything. You can't imagine the freedom that we had. The middle class had abandoned the place, and we just walked in and took it.

Most of the No Wave musicians and filmmakers were originally artists pursuing painting, sculpture, and performance art. But they decided that New York's music scene was much more vital than its art scene - and much more open to their radical ideas.

PAT PLACE: [The music scene] was way more exciting to me than what was going on in the art world.

GLENN BRANCA (Theoretical Girls): I wanted to make art, and it was so cool that you could make art in rock clubs. You can't imagine how exciting that was to people. There was this whole new scene of young visual artists who had grown up listening to rock music, who had come to New York to do visual arts, to do painting, to do conceptual art. And they heard these bands that were clearly coming from the same kind of sensibility, and all they could do was imagine themselves up on that stage playing this fucking art music.

DON CHRISTENSEN (Contortions): I came to New York basically to be a painter, [but] I got seduced by the CBGB scene and meeting musicians and having a good time.

GLENN BRANCA: It was the music. Art's just this dead thing sitting on a fucking wall. This was exciting. It was clear there was this audience made up of people just like me. Whether they were visual artists or theater artists or performance artists - they were all here. And the first day I got here it was like, 'I'm home.'

JAMES NARES (Contortions/filmmaker): Different disciplines came together. There were filmmakers, artists, musicians, poets. We would be making a racket in a studio one day, and shooting a movie the next day.

LYDIA LUNCH: You painted, you were in a band, you made films, you wrote songs. It was just all so interconnected. We were all friends and freak-by-nature outsider artists. I think it was just the freak nature of our base elements that brought us together.

To be in a band, at least according to the rules of rock in the 1970s, one must know how to play an instrument. But rather than waste time solving that problem, No Wavers ignored it. The point was simply to make music, not to learn how first. As Glenn O'Brien put it, "It was a 'Gong Show' for geniuses." [6]

RHYS CHATHAM: Rock had gotten quite technical. There was a feeling that you had to have played guitar for years before you could play out in clubs. But when we all saw people like Patti Smith and Richard Hell playing, we thought, 'Hey, if they can do it, maybe we can, too.' It was encouraging for a lot of people.

JAMES NARES: You want to make some music? Just pick up a guitar and bang out a few chords and you can do it. You want to make a movie? Pick up a camera, get your friends to get in on it, and make a movie.

LYDIA LUNCH: You just did it, you didn't think about it. People had the gumption to shoot, edit and then show films very quickly. It was no different then saying, 'I'm going to start a band, let's write ten songs, we'll be playing next month at CBGB. I'm going to paint ten paintings and have an exhibit on Avenue A.' You just wanted to create. The more instantaneous something was, the better.

RHYS CHATHAM: I think we all felt free to incorporate whatever we wanted into the music and call it rock. There was an aspect that said, 'No! I'm not gonna learn how to play guitar normally, I'm gonna find my own way to play it - fuck tradition!'

AMOS POE (filmmaker): Not knowing what you are doing is sometimes better. If you know what you are doing you probably won't do it, because you'll think, 'I can't do it that way.' If you don't know, then who says you can't?

SCOTT B: You couldn't sound like these bands if you knew how to play. You couldn't make one of these films if you knew how. That's the thing that was really unique - these things were done by people who were really sophisticated intentionally, but their knowledge of technique was primitive. What made it so exciting was the contradiction and the friction between those two things.

At the time, New York's smaller music venues - primarily CBGB and Max's Kansas City - were homes to the overlapping movements of Punk and New Wave. No Wavers frequently saw the older guard play at those clubs - bands like The Ramones, The Patti Smith Group, Television, and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, along with a slightly younger contingent that included Blondie, Talking Heads, and The Cramps. Many of these musicians had themselves come to music from other disciplines: Patti Smith and Television were poets using rock as their medium, while Talking Heads were visual artists who had formed their band while attending art school.

Punk and New Wave represented an alternative to the bloated, co-opted arena rock of the early 1970s, and that difference attracted No Wavers looking to defy rules. But in order to truly say 'No' to what had come before, the No Wave groups had to stake out new territory. To do so, they targeted two aspects of Punk and New Wave. One was commercial. Most of the New York groups were signing to major labels and embarking on tours outside the city. As they inched closer to the mainstream, they left a void in the underground that No Wave would fill.

CHINA BURG: We were kids in the '60s, and that's when this incredible rock'n'roll was happening. Then in the '70s it became totally co-opted, and became a commercial entity. And personally, I just hated it. So this idea to bring music back to that kind of spirit and not have it be a music industry phenomenon was very appealing.

DON CHRISTENSEN: We'd seen bands from CBGB get signed; we'd seen them make records. The whole Punk and New Wave thing was supposed to be something different, but we watched them just turn into the same sleazy thing.There was definitely a distaste for that - the idea that they joined up with suits or the bad guys or with an establishment. There was kind of a consensus around that we were Artists.

We were happy to stay underground and not get involved in this careerist idea.

GLENN BRANCA: None of us were doing it for the money. There wasn't any, and there was never going to be any.

The other aspect of Punk and New Wave ripe for destruction was the music itself. The bands that preceded No Wave obeyed the blues-based rock model that had prevailed since the 1950s. Granted, it was often a sped-up or strangely-skewed version of that tradition, but it was no radical break. The No Wavers chose not to modify rock convention, but to discard it. Noise, lack of melody, technical naïveté,and anything else not considered "musical" became the keys to tearing rock apart.

JAMES CHANCE: Most of the earlier CBGB type bands, even though I liked a lot of them, I didn't think were musically very interesting. They hadn'because they were still using all the same chords.

ROBIN CRUTCHFIELD: [No Wave was] a reaction against the Punk music of Brits like The Sex Pistols and all that three-chord rock whose attitudes may have been Punk, but whose musical roots came from Chuck Berry riffs of the '50s.

ROY TRAKIN: It was really a generation that was going beyond taking rock'n'roll as its starting point. A lot of what was called "The New Wave" was really just re-hashed genre music. The No Wave stuff was completely in a different direction. It really was a big middle finger [towards] commercial music or melodies or verses and choruses.

To deconstruct rock, the No Wavers looked back to earlier groups who had truly broken musical rules. Exhibit A was The Velvet Underground. By mixing the noisy rock leanings of Lou Reed, the minimalist drones of John Cale (via his work with avant-garde pioneer La Monte Young), and the art world influence of Andy Warhol's Factory, this seminal band provided a comprehensive model for No Wave. So did Metal Machine Music, Reed's 1975 solo album, which consisted solely of atonal guitar feedback. No Wave's deconstructive approach drew on other ancestors from the 1960s and '70s: the radical noise of free jazz musicians Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, the experimental blues-rock of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, the trance-inducing rituals of German groups Can and Faust, the screeching art of Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band, and the confrontational performances of Iggy Pop & The Stooges. But the band who had the biggest influence on No Wave was undoubtedly Suicide.

Formed in New York in 1971, Suicide consisted of Alan Vega, a conceptual artist drawn to rock music after seeing Iggy Pop leap into a crowd, and Martin Rev, a keyboardist who had studied under legendary jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. Throughout the next decade, Suicide performed with many Punk and New Wave groups, but the duo's dark electronic sound was a genre unto itself. Using only Vega's reverb-drenched vocals and Rev's throbbing synthesizers and rhythm box, Suicide's music lay somewhere between robotic techno, stripped-down rockabilly, and arch performance art. "They created a maelstrom that was beyond music - it was like an aural sculpture", says Trakin. For No Wavers, it was also a blueprint for how to make rock into art and vice versa.

Suicide's antagonistic stage act was also a model. Vega baited crowds hostile to his band's unusual setup, turning shouting matches into physical frays. The duo often opened for big New Wave groups like Elvis Costello and the Cars, absorbing the wrath of angry audiences and spitting it right back. At a 1978 show opening for the Ramones at the Palladium, hecklers nearly drowned out Suicide's set, to which Vega yelled "What're you all fuckin' booin' for? You're all gonna fuckin' die!" [7] "We didn't want to entertain people", Vega said years later. "We wanted to throw the meanness and nastiness of the street right back at the audience. If we sent them all running for the exits, that was considered a good show." [8]

ROY TRAKIN: At the time, if you took the stage without a guitar, you were talking your life in your hands. This clatter of industrial noise would come out and nobody could deal with it. I've seen crowds be driven nuts and throw stuff at them.

LYDIA LUNCH: They were one of the most extreme things. I fell to my knees in praise to the gods. It was like nothing else. Just the intensity of Alan Vega, the focus. The terror was such a beautiful thing to me, and strangely seductive, because the repetitiveness of the music was very inspirational to therepetitiveness of Teenage Jesus's music.

JAMES CHANCE: There were one of my ultimate favorite bands. I used to talk to Marty about jazz sometimes. He was one of the few people in the rock scene who was into that. And Alan, he wore these smoking jackets, and he had a sort of elegance I really liked. There was a combination of elegance and violence.

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. His concerts had a tremendous effect on us.

Suicide's nihilistic outlook was just as influential. Taking a cue from the duo's dark music, No Wave groups often wrote angry songs detailing desperate situations and violent scenarios. In this sense, No Wavers also were inspired by Richard Hell & The Voidoids. That group's sound was not as radical as Suicide's, but the scraping guitar of Robert Quine provided a noisy starting point. And Hell's lyrics were pure nihilism, crossing the snottiness of Punk with a profound pessimism. Hell called his cohort the "Blank Generation", wrote lines like "Who says it's good to be alive? / It ain't no good, it's a perpetual jive", and wore a t-shirt whose lettering, "Please Kill Me", could have been a No Wave slogan. But Hell found potential in nihilism, in the void left after everything's rejected. Like the abandoned city the No Wavers flocked to, his "blank" wasn't empty or futile, but rather an open canvas offering a road to rebirth. No Wave would take this concept and run with it.

LYDIA LUNCH: Nihilistic? The whole fucking country was nihilistic. What did we come out of? The lie of the Summer of Love into Charles Manson and the Vietnam War. Where is the positivity? I'm supposed to be fucking positive? Fuck you! You want positive, go elsewhere. Go find a different lie.

CHINA BURG: It was nihilism in the sense of a rejection of the future. There was a sense that it's impossible to imagine a future, with the direction things were going in. Nihilism can be rejecting something worse than the positives of going along with a disaster scenario.

LYDIA LUNCH: I don't think nihilism is a strong enough word. I hated everything. At the same time, I probably laughed more than anyone else. As horrible as it is, you have to fucking laugh, or you are going to kill yourself or somebody else.

ROY TRAKIN: It was nihilistic, but ultimately there was a vulnerability to putting yourself out there that to me was kind of seductive. They had a very idealistic view of the possibilities of music in terms of changing people and changing attitudes towards what pop music is, how it works.

Artists looking to break rules would logically want to avoid creating their own. No Wave thus produced a wide variety of sounds and styles, with few bands sounding alike. Yet commonalities inevitably emerged. "I think the aims and methods of each band were quite unique," says Jim Sclavunos, a member of four different No Wave groups. "However, one common aspect to all the bands was their auditory roughness: harsh, strident instrumentation, dissonance and atonality to some degree. All of the bands had somewhat alienating stage presentations. Audiences were subjected to random outbursts of violence or cool obliviousness or disdainful hostility, sometimes all of the above."

Most No Wave groups used guitar noise, via unusual tunings and primitive techniques, to create texture and mood. Lyrically, their snippets of language told surreal stories, made oblique references to artistic influences, and confused the listener with incomplete or contradictory ideas. Like the songs themselves, their words were often short and sharp, erring on the side of omission rather than indulgence. And singers emitted yelps, gasps, and grunts - whatever it took to say 'No' to conventional singing. All of these elements were deployed with a loose abandon that suggested improvisation, but in fact No Wave bands rarely played off-the-cuff. Most were slavishly devoted to practice and repetition, honing theirnoisy outbursts into machine-like rituals.

These musical similarities were not adopted solely to deconstruct rock. They also reflected the reality of the participants' lives and surroundings in New York. No Wave music, as obscure as it could be, was a kind of downtown diary, a regurgitation of the desperation of the city and the era. "I had to document my insanity, my anger, my history, in a very direct and specific way," explains Lunch. "I had to document what was driving me insane."

Despite these common themes, the differences between the groups ultimately defined No Wave. As Trakin wrote in his No New York review,"They really have little in common musically except their stubborn belief in the uncompromising stands they've taken." [9] "There was a nice competitive energy", concurs Mark Cunningham. "We did feel part of something, but I don't think we influenced each other too much musically - maybe more conceptually, in the sense that anything seemed possible and doable."

No Wave began outside the spotlight, developing underground without the potentially corroding influence of exposure. But despite the anti-commercial attitude, No Wave music and films eventually garnered more recognition than one might expect for such radical art. Just as artists thrived in the abandoned New York of the 1970s, so did other underground entities. Clubs like the Mudd Club and Hurrah's, galleries like Artists' Space and the Kitchen, labels like Lust/Unlust and ZE, and publications like New York Rocker and The East Village Eye all boosted No Wave into the public consciousness. The exposure grew to the point where, according to Branca, "by 1979, every single No Wave band was drawing audiences bigger than Richard Hell, or Blondie, or Patti Smith, or Television drew before they got signed."

This glimpse of fame gave No Wavers a legitimate shot at careers. But fame and careers were not why they came to New York. The music and films these radical artists created were the equivalent of tossing dynamite into a decaying castle, and getting out before the smoke cleared. "What was so spectacular about this moment in time was that it was in a place the world had forgotten about and gone past", says Scott B. "And yet some of the most ambitious artists in the world convened there, and were just reinventing the language of art and music and film all for themselves, without any real expectations of financial reward. It was like a huge lab where we were all reinventing what it meant to be an artist and a musician."


1 Quoted in Rockwell, John, "They Odyssey of Two British Rockers", The New York Times, July 23, 1978.

2 Palmer, Robert, "Lydia Lunch Looks Back in Anarchy", The New York Times, May 31, 1987.

3 Trakin, Roy, "Q: Why Interview James Chance? A: Because He's There", New York Rocker, January, 1979.

4 O'Brien, Glenn, "Style Makes The Band", Artforum, October, 1999.

5 Trakin, Roy, "Nobody Waved Goodbye: Bands at Artists Space", New York Rocker, July/August, 1978.

6 O'Brien, Glenn, "Style Makes the Band".

7 Quoted in Bangs, Lester, "The Joy of Suicide", The Soho Weekly News, 28 May, 1980.

8 Quoted in "Suicide Biography", Mute Records Website, 2007.

9 Trakin, Roy, "Getting to No You", New York Rocker, January, 1979.