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Looking at Movements, part 3: No Wave

Lydia Lunch with her friends Nick Cave and James Chance

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

I’m going to do this somewhat backward, and look at No Wave before I look at New Wave. (But this whole series has been moving backward, so why stop now?)

What was No Wave? As we shall see, No Wave music generally was:

  • very noisy;
  • extremely fast-paced, leaning toward extremely short songs;
  • strongly influenced by free jazz (Ornette Coleman), experimental classical music (John Cage, La Monte Young), and the Velvet Underground;
  • unconventional in its playing techniques and styles (performers often invented new ways of playing their instruments);
  • more theatrical than punk, post-punk, or New Wave, belonging as much to the visual and performance art scenes as the club scenes.

While the UK’s post-punk scene was influenced by punk (especially the Sex Pistols), and sought to extend that influence, No Wave was in many ways a reaction against punk (and against New Wave punk in particular). As Lydia Lunch put it:

Who wanted chords, all these progressions that had been used to death in rock? […] I’d use a knife, a beer bottle… Glass gave the best sound. To this day I still don’t know a single chord on the guitar. (141)

And while No Wave, like post-punk, is rather funky, it generally lacks post-punk’s distinctive dub sound; rather, the music is very simply recorded, often in single takes, and without many studio effects. Indeed, many surviving No Wave recordings are from live club shows.

Let’s look at some of the bands, and what’s been recorded…

The four best-known No Wave bands are probably the ones that Brian Eno included on his No New York anthology:

DNA (Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori, Tim Wright) (1978–82):

“Blonde Redhead” (an utterly awesome performance):

(Of course the later band Blonde Redhead took their name from this song.)

“You and You”:

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (James Chance and Lydia Lunch) (1976–9)

Orphans single (May 1978): “Orphans”:

Baby Doll single (April 1979): “Race Mixing” (B-side):

(Click here for the album version.)

James Chance and the Contortions (1978–81?):

No New York (1978): “I Can’t Stand Myself”:

Note the skinny ties—we’ll be seeing more of those later on, when we turn to New Wave.

Buy (1979): track 5, “Contort Yourself”:

Mars (1975–8):

No New York (1978): “Helen Forsdale”:

3-E 7″ (1978): “3-E” and “Scorn” (the first track might sound more like straight-ahead punk, but wait until you get to the second):

& More!

So those four of the best known, but there were plenty of others. For a handy list, we need only consult the line-up at the “Noise Fest” that Thurston Moore curated at the White Columns gallery in June 1981 (where his new band Sonic Youth made their public debut):

Sonic Youth (1981–present, alas*):

Sonic Youth EP (1981): “The Burning Spear” (a 1983 live performance here):

(*I’m one of those who thinks they should have called it quits over a decade ago—although, if they’re having fun, then why not. I tend to skip ahead to the Kim Gordon tracks, though.)

As for the other bands on the lineup:

…I don’t know who a lot of them are, but some are still remembered:

Dark Day (1979–mid-80s?):

This was the band that keyboardist Robin Crutchfield formed after leaving DNA.

“Invisible Man” (B-side, 1979):

Exterminating Angel (1980): “No, Nothing, Never”:

Rhys Chatham:

In 1970s NYC he was probably best known for “Guitar Trio” (1977), which he originally performed with Glenn Branca and Nina Canal (see Ut, below). I don’t know of any 1970s recordings of this piece, but there’s lots of footage online from a tour Chatham recently did where he performed the piece in cities across the US:

(Unfortunately, the sound quality sucks in nearly all of those recordings.)

Later, Chatham got into making large-scale noise pieces with hundreds of electric guitars:

He also formed a kick-ass heavy metal band, Rhys Chatham’s Essentialist:

(The good stuff starts at 2:40—and it is good.)

Glenn Branca:

Glenn Branca was a real force in the downtown No Wave scene. Besides being the prime influence on Sonic Youth, and besides his impressive solo career:

…he belonged to two No Wave bands:

Theoretical Girls (Glenn Branca and Jeffrey Lohn) (1977–81):

“Theoretical Girls”:

The Static:

Alas, there doesn’t seems to be anything of theirs up at YouTube. But there is this!

Branca, like his once friend, now rival Rhys Chatham, has more recently been working on hundred-guitar pieces:

(I think they both claim to have come up with the idea.)

Regarding Thurston Moore’s role in the No Wave scene, this video is relevant:

& More!

There were, all told, more No Wave bands than we could probably ever list. Other still-remembered ones include:

8-Eyed Spy (Lydia Lunch) (1980–1):

Lydia Lunch formed this band after Teenage Jesus called it quits:

8-Eyed Spy (1981): Track 3, “Love Split”:

Track 7, “Motor Oil Shanty”:

Bush Tetras (1979–83):

Lead guitarist Pat Place was a founding member of The Contortions:

Too Many Creeps 7″ (1980): “Too Many Creeps”:

Things That Go Boom in the Night 7″ (1981): “Das Ah Riot”:

Can’t Be Funky 7″ (1981): “Can’t Be Funky”:

The Del-Byzanteens (featuring Jim Jarmusch!) (1981–6):

Girl’s Imagination EP: “Girl’s Imagination”:

And this next one is totally awesome—John Lurie guesting on sax:

Jody Harris:

Harris was lead guitarist for the Contortions. He played with numerous bands and musicians throughout the 80s (including John Zorn), in addition to having a solo career:

He also played (with Robert Quine) on Lester Bangs’s John Cale-produced 1977 album Let It Blurt:

Suicide (1971–present):

Suicide (1977): Track 1, “Ghost Rider” (fan video):

Track 5, “Girl”:

Friction (1978–present):

Two of this Japanese band’s members, Reck, and Chico Hige, while living in New York in the late 1970s, were members of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and founding members of James Chance and the Contortions.

“Automatic Fru” (1979):

Friction (1980): Track 1, “A-Gas”:

Ut (1978–1989):

I couldn’t find any of their earlier tracks online, so here are two later ones. They sound more alternative here, but I think we can back-project somewhat:

In Gut’s House (1988), “I.D.”:

Griller (1989), “Rummy”:

Founding member Nina Canal is still making music (she’s continued performing, for instance, with Rhys Chatham). Here’s a video of her playing last year with Michael Morley from The Dead C (plus one Sara Stephenson, who seems to hail from a New Zealand band Doramaar (1994–6)); it was just too cool not to include:

In the next part of this series, I’ll begin untangling the giant ball of yarn that is New Wave. But until then…happy listening!

Works Cited

  • Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984. New York City: Penguin Books, 2005.
  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

14 thoughts on “Looking at Movements, part 3: No Wave

  1. No Wave really was fantastic. I had more of this material when I was a kid than I was aware. But formats have changed from vinyl to cassette to CD…. DNA, James Chance and Glenn Branca I had in vinyl. I tend to sell things in order to feed my thirst for novelty.

    I mentioned here that I saw James Chance & the Contortions….. I also saw Glenn Branca with a fairly small band in a church. The absolute loudest show I was ever exposed to. At one point I became seriously afraid that I might have a seizure — though I loved the music and knew that I had never really understood Branca before this experience. But I had to go out and walk around until my nervous system settled down. Sue Duffey, the girl I was with, took the bass-player home with her, even he had to catch a plane the next morning at 6. It was OK with me. She had a kind of delirious, smeary look on her face… she was one of the first girls I knew who was an “adventuress” and picked up guys in bars.

    It’s funny how big a star it seems like James Chance was and yet he was never that well known outside NYC. I guess it’s like how Arthur Lee and his band Love ruled L.A. before the Doors… but then never toured and the band personnel changed again and again.

  2. Ooh, No Wave! Oh, but… we’re still referencing the Eno comp, even as its exclusionist bent is revealed to be more and more ridiculous with each new incredible Soul Jazz compilation? Well, I guess it’s a significant part of its time…

    Few notes, and bear in mind these are referring to the other pieces in the series, which I just read (possibly too quickly, and doubtless I’ll finish this later and forget most of what I planned on saying).

    1. On the Eno ‘stealing’ quote; I think, or perhaps made up, that you were intimating that no band could possibly be squeaky clean enough to lob this accusation without indulging in some hypocrisy, which is surely true. Still, I think there’s an important distinction to be made here; namely, stating that a band has obviously been listening to the Velvet Underground is (or should be) an innocent statement detailing influence, whereas stating that a band attempts little/nothing more than repackaging the Velvets is a more serious criticism, as it suggests a refusal to engage with the real problem of where this new product aligns in the individual-exterior-history nexus, instead choosing the ‘pick a style and use it’ option.

    I’ll use an example referred to previously; ‘In Love’ by The Raincoats is my favourite song, actually, so it’ll work nicely. Obviously its sound is very VU; its content was essentially the expression of transcendental love that for centuries was becoming more and more refined, in my view reaching its apogee of simple, economical beauty in ‘God Only Knows,’ a decade or so before The Raincoats made ‘In Love’ to overturn that aesthetic and in doing so, I believe, surpassing it. Though I don’t imagine many share my enthusiasm, at least one can recognize the elements that make it interesting; an oft-saccharine concept given an abrasive spin (the harshness of the violin, that great instrument of beauty, is indicative, as is the faux-grandiose, breaking-apart melody), the stylised imperfection of the lyrics, and, my preferred aspect, the joyous sense of the possibilities of expression which seems to be lacking in so many of the cool kids who play at being in a band. I seem to turn to female bands of that era; maybe it’s because they knew what it was like to have nobody listen to them, and as such they could truly value music as the wonderful means of communication it is.

    2. It’s a shame to see no mention of No Wave cinema, but hardly surprising, since I was hoping for help in tracking these ultra rarities down! ‘Downtown 81’ doesn’t really count, but it is a treasure chest of footage; Arto Lindsay’s guitar playing and incomprehensible yelps are stunning, the James Chance footage proves just how super-cool the guy was, Tuxedomoon playing ‘Desire’… oh! It’s all too much to bear! Then there’s The Plastics, who I discovered through their hilarious turn, and whose ‘Welcome Back, The Plastics’ subsequently became one of my favourite records, probably the most sophisticated New Wave I’ve heard.

    3. A little bit of filling in the gaps; one of the bands listed on the Noise Fest flyer (what a week!) is the inestimable Y Pants, another of the female bands that sprouted from the movement, famous for bric-a-brac songs played on toy instruments. Their defining moment is ‘That’s the Way Boys Are,’ a song which starts with a resigned a capella detailing the seemingly petty transgressions afforded to males by society (“when I’m with my guy and he watches all the pretty girls go by; that’s the way boys are”), then suddenly veers into the macabre as the backing track hosts the steadily expanding noise of a woman screaming in terror, before finally collapsing into a melody played on more of those damned toys. It’s alternately tender, horrifying, and incomprehensible. Or maybe straightforward. It’s one for the ages, anyway.

    Happy listening,


    1. Paul, thanks so much for this comment, and filling in so many gaps! I’m sorry I’m not replying until now. Please email me if you want to chat further about any of this—you know more about it, I think, than I do!

      You can find my personal contact info here, if you’re so inclined: http://adjameson.com/

  3. Oh! See, I knew I’d forget to mention something -I was wondering if you caught the Teenage Jesus and the Jerks performances last year? (Or was it this one?) Anyway, I saw them play at The Empty Bottle, and I’ll readily accept that Lydia Lunch never learned to play a single guitar chord, but add that evidently she never learned to make older material she was clearly incapable of utilising like she previously could into something new and interesting, because it was a horrible, scratchy, passionless show. Shame, really, but this was clearly a movement for its time!

  4. For whatever it’s worth, having been at several nights at that festival, I can drag up a couple of further references perhaps not so easily found on the web:

    Avant Squares contained Barbara Barg (who did a lot of poetry stuff) and Mike Sappol, later of Bump and Krackhouse.

    Radio Firefight (which was so loud that they gave my date a nosebleed) was an analog electronics duo of W. Lefferts Brown (who passed away a few years ago) and Dana McCurdy (who now teaches at Bennington, I believe).

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