A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 7 – No New York – Compilation 1978
In the previous article I mentioned the No New York compilation which features 4 bands from New York in the late 1970s, The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Mars and D.N.A. Now I am in general not one to promote various artists compilations but this one is very different in that it not only compiled four songs each by bands that in some cases barely had a record deal and only one that released an actual album in their time [The Contortions]. It also holds value in that it documents a very local and short lived music scene that exploded out of the same frustration that spawned the British punk scene but with a New York approach. And as much as I am sure that bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, D.O.A and Misfits would argue their case but to no avail. This compilation of obscure bands with in some cases an absolutely ginormous cult status that is No New York is the birth of American punk.
As I mentioned in my previous review (Lydia Lunch – Queen of Siam) I am not entirely sure of when I got this album but as I also said in that same review it is most likely that it was shortly after having heard the Sonic Youth single Death Valley 69 which would mean late 1988 or possibly early 1989. I vaguely remember protesting a bit when I flipped it over and saw that it was a compilation of various artists but my record dealer – I am fairly certain it was my local record dealer who sold me this an Queen of Siam – assured me that this was not only Not an ordinary v/a compilation but more importantly it was a very important v/a compilation without which he even suggested that bands like Sonic Youth and Swans might not actually have got the chance to become the titans of alternative rock that they were both at this point in time about to become.
Well… That kinda got my “spidey-sense” tingling. So I left with the two lps and headed for home. No New York went on the record player and the headphones on my ears. And yes I know I’m probably going to repeat this a few more times during this journey but What The F**K? That funky bass and crazy saxophone hits you like an ambush right in whatever part of the brain that process sounds.
SO this was No Wave. Well spank me and call me Sally I totally got the idea after a while. None of these bands cared one bit about genres or scenes or anything like that. They made their music anyway the wanted to and while many of these No Wave bands may have a lot in common with post punk they are at the same time something beyond post punk. This can be said about their relationship to the American hardcore scene too. They were in many ways indefinable outside their own context.
One good example of what I mean is actually James Chance’s saxophone which is more related to modern free jazz as well as the funkier aspect of mid-70s soul but with a whole lot more fist, punky funk if you like but I don’t really want to label music so let’s not.
What The Contortions are is a dung pile of raw energy worn on the sleeve and dished out like a pack of snarling dogs on a short leash even in their slower songs like Jaded
James Chance and his Contortions was the only one of the bands n this compilation to release an album in their own time. well three to be correct all under a different yet similar band name: Contortions – Buy , James White and the Blacks – Off White , James White and the Contortions – Second Chance . And without digging too deep into the relationship between these albums I’ll just say that they present more or less the same material in different versions making each album into a different aspect of what James Chance was doing at the time. This is also probably the reason for the different band names under which they were presented. An idea that Jim Thirlwell would a few years later take to it’s extremes with his various Foetus projects.
James Chance was also a member of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks but he left the band to form The Contortions because of a dispute with Lydia Lunch about the band playing his songs too.
Because of Lydia Lunch fronting the band it was of course Teenage Jesus and The Jerks that was my main focus of interest on this compilation at the time. Their half of side a takes off with Burning Rubber that has a slow suggestive start/stop riff interspersed with a furiously pounding bass riff and contrary to Queen of Siam it was more or less exactly what I had expected in the context of my first contact with Lydia Lunch.
Next after that is The Closet which is driven by a very similar riff but without the furious bassriff. In fact the fourth song of theirs on here also has a similar riff and structure like it’s different versions of the same song with different lyrics. The one that stands out is Red Alert which to me does sound like the fast bass riff from Burning Rubber with a siren on top.
Don’t get me wrong. These similarities does not make it bad. It is not as if they are actual copies of each other and together they build a nice moody atmosphere which fits perfectly with the statement made by Lydia lunch about how the whole country was hung over from the disastrous death of the American dream in the last few years of the 1960s and the aftermath of the Vietnam war. The future was looking bleak and let’s not forget to consider that in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president.
It is of course Lydia’s unique voice that in many ways define Teenage Jesus and The Jerks musically. It was also because of her later success with for instance Death Valley 69 and albums like Queen of Siam, 13.13 and The Drowning of Lucy Hamilton that Teenage Jesus and The Jerks found a fairly large portion of posthumous success which resulted in the release of the album Everything in 1995 which collects both their singles and the ep on one record.
Most of the songs had already been made somewhat more easily obtainable through the album Hysterie which compiles music by the bands Lydia Lunch was involved in during the No Wave days. Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Beirut Slump and 8 Eyed Spy.
Anyhow. Flip the record over for a first contact with Mars. Now this band did some pretty weird stuff and has to be one of the most obscure bands I’ve come in contact with. They played less than 25 gigs none of which took them outside Manhattan. They released one single and a posthumous ep and vanished more or less into thin air had it not been for their presence on No New York. Maybe this was what Brian Eno realised when he decided to put together this compilation. These bands would not be around for long but needed to be documented for future generations.
Helen Forsdale, the first Mars song here, sounds like I don’t know what, each member of the band playing a different song and yet somehow managing to make it sound like one song? There is so much going on in those two and a half minutes of repetitive riffs and high pitched, almost indiscernible vocals – by Lucy Hamilton I assume – that so remind me of the vocal-stylings of Yasuko Onuki from Melt Banana a good 15 years later and an entire world apart. I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to suppose that Mars played a significant role in the evolution of the Japanese noise-core style that is also sometimes called buddhism-core.
Next they throw a seemingly improvised piece of guitar slides, rolling drums and crackling noises with prolonged vocal sounds that don’t really seem to contain any words. Freeform what? Rock? Nah … just hardcore No Wave.
Mars half of side B is easily my favourite quarter of the compilation. Mainly because of this freeform weirdness that still manage to maintain a sense of structure.
The last quarter of No New York is given to DNA which had the Japanese —- Ikue Mori who was recruited to play drums shortly before their first gig, despite her lack of experience on drums, a rather sketchy understanding of the English language and an expiring visa. Not unlike how The Velvet Underground recruited Maureen Tucker to play drums simply because she owned a guitar amp. And speaking of The Velvet Underground, the influence of this new York based band had on No Wave should probably not be underestimated in any way. Arto Lindsay of DNA for one named them as a significant reason for forming the band or even coming to New York. If nothing else The Velvet Underground showed that no matter whatever else is going on in the rest of the USA things are done a bit differently in the city of New York.
Musically DNA sounds like an alchemical experiment that someone left unattended over night. Not unlike the way Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
No New York started an almost implausible if not impossible quest of finding the records these bands had left behind. The Contortions Buy was the easiest and I think I got it just about a year after. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks was fairly easy to find too because of Hysterie. Although I didn’t acutaly get my hands on the original Pink ep until the late 1990s and let’s be honest here. In the mind of a collector the only thing that counts is the original. New prints and even worse re-releases are well … cheating. The hardest was Mars and it wasn’t until about three years ago that I finally held the coveted 12” ep in my hands. You Do Not want to know how much it cost me. Though of course with the aid of p2p file sharing I did have a digital version of it in my Itunes library but as I mentioned earlier that is cheating and doesn’t really count..
Of course No Wave was more than these four bands. There was the electronic rock pioneers Suicide with their minimalistic and expressionistic music, Theoretical Girls with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca on guitar and Ann de Marinis (who was briefly a member of Sonic Youth) on keyboards. There was also Rosa Yemen who also managed just an ep before Lizzy Mercier Descloux decided to go solo with her skewed dance beats that some how seem to point out the direction for bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. Avant-garde jazz composer John Zorn was also lurking in the shadows and so on and so forth.
People often say about phenomena like No Wave that they were Ahead of Their Time but isn’t it possible that they create their own future legacy by doing what they do thus setting things in motion? Either way. It is almost impossible to understand how such a short-lived localised music scene could have had the unfathomable influence they had on the music that was to come out of the next two or three decades. Maybe because the local scene was Country Blue Grass Blues & Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers, CBGB OMFUG for short. The now sadly closed legendary rock venue that was attributed with being the birthplace of punk in the US.
To listen to the l.p click: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA060CA2FDC0B549B
Av: Nicklas Ekström i Landskrona