“No Beatles, Elvis, or the Rolling Stones in 1977” was the rally cry sung by punk-rockers The Clash on the b-side of their debut single that was released that same year. By 1978, punk itself could’ve been added to that list of rock & roll relics. If the dissolution of the Sex Pistols that year was the end, then the release of No New York was the certificate of death.
No Wave emerged from the seedy artists’ haven of the Lower East Side in the late ’70s in the shadow of the punk rock scene that was exploding in Manhattan. While punk rock was seemingly set on destroying the establishment, they did it in a way that was only hearkening back to an even earlier establishment. In the end, it was just Chuck Berry played even faster. (Ed.: Zing!)
As the name implied, No Wave wanted no part in anything that was happening at all. What did poor artists living in communal squalor want to do with the politics that the punk rockers seemed to superficially care about? Musically, No Wave drew just enough from disparate genres such as punk, free jazz, industrial, and even disco. Hardly was there a unifying sound to the movement aside from being loud, extreme, and sporadic. Most of its musicians had no formal training with their instruments, and this often showed in the music. As the name implied, No Wave was the progeny of nothing.
In 1978, Brian Eno was in New York working on the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food and would later proclaim that he was in the city “during one of the most exciting months of the decade.” While Eno’s music was a far cry from the reckless abandon of No Wave, as an artist he felt a connection with the countless bands that made up for their technical deficiencies with by being leaps and bounds ahead of their leather-clad contemporaries conceptually. As a tribute to this scene he admired, he put together the now legendary No New York compilation that serves as the ultimate document of this art explosion.
While it certainly is an unfortunate setback for No New York to include only four bands to represent the entire scene, over the course of 16 tracks and 40 minutes it does an excellent job of showcasing the diverse sounds that came out of No Wave. James Chance & The Contortions were the closest that the genre came to actual rock & roll, but Chance’s shrieks (both from his voice and his alto saxophone) over the punk-funk set him oceans apart from CBGB’s and Studio 54. Teenage Jesus & The Jerks featured a caterwauling Lydia Lunch over a sea of sludgy guitar fuzz and tribal drumming. Mars were lead by lead vocalist Sumner Crane yelping surrealist/nonsensical beat poetry over a wall of noise jams. Finally the record is rounded out by DNA, then a trio led by Arto Lindsay whose steady industrial grind sounds more reminiscent of a factory in New Jersey than an actual band.
As a testament to its spontaneous nature, No Wave would soon come to an end in 1979 as many of the artists simply lost interest or would pursue other ventures (James Chance would soon fully embrace disco!), merely months after No New York was released at the end of 1978. While short-lived, No Wave’s legacy lives on well beyond its brief lifetime. Michael Gira’s Swans wouldn’t dissolve until almost two decades later. Glenn Branca moved on from The Theoretical Girls to write his famous symphonies for electric guitar. Sonic Youth continues to record to this day. Countless young bands today ranging from Lightning Bolt to The Rapture all owe something to the No Wavers who laid the foundations 30 years ago.
James Chance & The Contortions – “Dish It Out”: mp3
DNA – “Egomaniac’s Kiss”: mp3
(No New York was finally reissued by Lilith Records in 2005 after years of being long out of print. You can purchase it from Amazon. Caveat emptor: Lilith is a Russian subsidiary of Universal, so the liner notes are in Russian!)
The Canon, Examined is a weekly series spotlighting the finest records to ever slip through the cracks. For previous installments, click below.