A Beginner’s Guide to no wave, New York’s middle finger to the world
More often than not, the official history of New York’s late ‘70s scene ends in the scuzzy confines of CBGBs, and the birth of American punk (or New Wave, to use its proper nomenclature).
Equally reductive is the historian’s conception of the American punk bands themselves, who often are assessed only in relation to the role they would play in the genesis of British punk, with CBGB acts like Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Ramones and Television reduced to mere footnotes in the greater story of the Pistols and co. But as attentions turned to London, back in Manhattan and just at the point the history books end, something very exciting was happening. They called it No Wave.
New York City
In many ways, the story of no wave is also the story of New York. To understand the no wave aesthetic, you have to understand the city as it was in the mid-to-late 70s. In March 1975, after years of municipal mismanagement, New York officially ran out of money. Shortly after, a recession-hit Ford administration would effectively leave the city to the dogs, rejecting the bailout plan that could have rescued the Big Apple from bankruptcy.
With the city falling apart at the seams, low rents together exacerbated soaring crime rates and an overstretched police force combined to create the perfect conditions for the artist, and in particular the transgressive artist. “All the ‘straight’ people were trying to get out of New York,” recalled artist Maripol in Celine Danhier’s definitive No Wave documentary Blank City, “but all the freaks… we were trying to get in.” In the same film, Debbie Harry says of the era: “At the time, journalists would ask me how I could live in New York. ‘It’s so dangerous,’ they’d say. I remember thinking, ‘Well good, then don’t come.’”
By 1977, Manhattan was once again the centre of the universe for bohemian iconoclasm, with a new generation of artists – cinema transgressors like Jim Jarmusch and Nick Zedd, actors like Steve Buscemi and Vincent Gallo, faded casualties of the beat generation like William Burroughs, along with musicians, including early rappers from the Wild Style crew – converging in its most squalid neighborhood: the Lower East Side.
It’s easy to imagine downtown New York in the late ‘70s as a kind of hell-on-earth – an idea that Scorsese had played on in 1976 with Taxi Driver. As the municipal deficit and a string of sweltering summers took their toll on the city’s infrastructure, frequent power cuts threw New York into darkness while at fires would burn for days in an L.E.S all but abandoned by police as landlords torched their properties for insurance pay-outs. There were stories of ‘rivers of rats’ surging up Avenue B and of mass looting, and hundreds of buildings in the area stood empty like rows of gravestones. Or else there was nothing at all – just rubble.
“The No Wavers took the Lower East Side’s emptiness, lawlessness, traumas, violence, and dread… and put it all on stage”
This apocalyptic notion of New York as an end-state for humankind was one that the no wave bands, and latterly the symbiotic no wave cinema movement, aestheticised perfectly. There was a sense that New York in 1977 was the end of something: of the liberal dream, perhaps, or of the American Dream itself, defeated in Vietnam. It was the idea of a life-cycle expiring, of entropy, for which the dystopian wastelands of the L.E.S provided the perfect visual metaphor. The no wave bands took all of the Lower East Side’s sucking emptiness, its lawlessness, its traumas, violence and dread, its funny tragedies, its broken psychogeography, and all the inertia of hopelessness, and in an explosion of no-holds barred extremism and freewheeling experimentalism put it all on stage.
Though the movement owed an obvious debt to ‘60s New York – both to Warhol’s Factory and the sense of doom the Velvets introduced into music – no wave was much more like the hippy dream being turned inside-out. Antagonistic and raw though they were, the CBGB artists’ countercultural stand had one foot in ‘60s idealism. Contrastingly, the no wave bands emerging in Blondie & co’s wake in the winter of 1977 were night-crawling, stringently conceptualist and versed in the traditions of anti-art. They created music that spoke of psychic pain, of sexual sin, and of atrophy; of a moral and spiritual bankruptcy that mirrored the city’s financial one, and a ‘70s New York the no wavers renamed ‘Blank City’. As Thurston Moore told Danhier, “We came out of destruction.”
Writing on the importance of Television’s Richard Hell as a progenitor of no wave, music historian Marc Masters had this to say: “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.”
By around summer 1980, No Wave was all but gone. With the help of state emergency relief the city’s fiscal crisis had stabilized, while plans had been put in place to attract investors into the L.E.S. – the first rumblings of gentrification that in the coming decades would engulf Manhattan. Reagan waited in the eaves, along with an almighty conservative backlash in revenge for two decades of liberal politics. An era to be romanticised by a future generation of New York bands (The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol) as a mythical utopia for artistic freedom and uncommodified cultural endeavour, the New York of no wave had passed into history.
Here’s a guide to the key bands to emerge from the scene.
Though widely regarded as the godfathers of the movement, Suicide were not, strictly speaking, a no wave band. For starters, Suicide’s creative salad days predated the movement by several years; although still very much in operation by 1977, they actually formed in 1970. But even if that were not the case, any attempt to classify Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s proto-electronic outfit – to align them with a certain movement or put them in such-and-such a category – is a bogus task. There was never a band quite like Suicide. The duo’s brand of spare, electronic street-sleaze, which 40 years on still sounds both futuristic and not of this world, was simultaneously punk and post-punk before either such things even had a name.
Arguably, Suicide in fact did have a direct sonic legacy in no wave – as one of the pioneering all-electronic rock acts, their rejection of the guitar sowed the seeds for no wave’s later attempts to destroy our preconceptions of the instrument. You could also argue that Suicide’s unapologetic extremeness was itself a key factor in the genesis of no wave, or point towards their minimalist approach, their use of repetition and their détournement of American pop culture. Largely, though, Vega and Rev influenced the no wave bands on a conceptual level.
For the first time ever, here were the tenets of New York’s violent performance art scene being directly applied to pop culture. Suicide’s Stooges-influenced live shows resembled situationist attempts to merge spectacle and spectator, with Vega doing everything is his power to provoke a response from the audience – which, if he succeeded, was usually one of outrage. Listen to the now infamous, not to mention hysterically funny ’23 Minutes over Brussels’ – a 1979 recording of Suicide’s disastrous support slot for Elvis Costello in the titular city. Vega never once breaks character in the face of an increasingly fractious throng of confused Belgian new wavers. In the years that followed, no wave artists like James Chance and Lydia Lunch (an early admirer of Suicide) would employ precisely the same techniques.
Suicide’s foundation in shock art was a huge influence on the no wave bands. Suicide used revulsion as a device to liberate the audience from their socio-political apathy, their goal being to disgust the listener, no matter how terrible the means. The truly offensive ‘Frankie Teardrop’ – arguably the most effective anti-Vietnam song in the history of music – plots a war veteran’s descent into hell over eight-and-a-half minutes of hypnotic terror, as Frankie (‘played’ by an unhinged Vega) murders his wife and child before turning the gun on himself. In the track’s final minute, Frankie, now “lying in hell”, screams in agony. Then it ends. Up there with the most distressing pieces of music ever recorded, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ articulated the true nature of the horrors visited on America’s child soldiers more effectively than all of Dylan’s ’60s output combined. It was an approach that would go on to inform the aesthetic of all no wave acts.
It’s generally accepted that Mars were very first No Wave band to form. However, between their relatively melodic guitar section, drummer Nancy Arlen’s functioning, logical rhythms, and the structural orderliness Mark Cunningham’s bass affords their songs, in truth the four-piece were traditionalists compared to the bands that followed their lead.
The closest No Wave came to overlapping with its New Wave cousin was on a Mars track – the twangy ‘3E/Scorn’ – while even the songs considered most influential on the scene – the detuned-Buzzcocks scuttle of ‘Helen Forsdale’, for instance – remained dependent on rock precedents. Blanketed in noise and featuring the then-radical sound of nihilist female vocals (at this point in post-punk, numb despair remained the preserve of the genre’s male vocalists), ‘11,000 Volts’ was undoubtedly a step into the unknown. But in terms of its construction, essentially the song has its basing in the damned blues dirges of the Delta.
Meanwhile, compare the bass-anchored anti-pop of ‘Helen Forsdale’ to, say, the exploded freeform of The Jerks’ ‘Baby Doll’. The difference is considerable. A testament to the speed at which No Wave evolved, in a matter of months The Jerks had taken Mars’ sound light-years into the future, into the realms of abstraction and a state of violence unprecedented in music. It was then that No Wave proper was born.
With hindsight, Mars shared more in common with the British post-punk bands of the era, or laterally post-hardcore pioneers like Mission Of Burma – acts who vandalised the rock idiom rather than destroyed it. That said, though their lifespan was fleeting (they disbanded in 1978), Mars served as a vital transitional act – bridging the gap between New York punk and No Wave.
Using traditional rock instrumentation to call on a remarkable array of non-rock forms, the trio of Arto Lindsay, keyboardist Robin Crutchfield and drummer Ikue Mori were a guitar band like no other before them.
There was the likes of ‘Blonde Red Head’ which somehow found common ground between hardbop-period Mingus and musique concrète, or ‘Size’, on which could be heard the autonomic systems music of the Italian Futurists. Meanwhile, DNA’s love of free-jazz, which contributed to their status as No Wave’s most kinetic guitar band, resulted in fractured wig-outs like ‘New Fast’.
Lindsay played guitar like Sunny Murray cooked a drum solo, while Crutchfield’s radioactive organ was the single most disquieting sound in No Wave (listen to ‘Lionel’ as he sets about out-weirding Suicide at the 0:54 mark). Even at their least adventurous – as on the relatively coherent ‘Nearing’ – to audiences hearing DNA for the first time in 1978, this was rock music from Mars.
DNA tracks like ‘Little Ants’ recalled the spoken-word pieces of the Beatnik era, only instead of groovy wordplay, Lindsay’s delivery was made up of absurdist, howling-into-the-abyss glossolalia: the spoken-word screamed. Indeed, coming over like a bug-eyed David Byrne emaciated by high-voltage neurosis, Lindsay was the closest thing No Wave had to a punk shrieker. But while punk’s scream spoke of indifference, and therefore power, Lindsay’s exposed-nerve cries were the opposite of indifference: the sound of worrying, as the very anxiety of the city rendered the man in Lindsay not powerful but powerless.
Teenage Jesus & The Jerks
Suicide were a firm favourite for every No Wave artist. But of all the no wave acts, Lydia Lunch took the duo’s aesthetic most to heart. Suicide’s nightmarish electro-rockabilly and heinous imagery held a mirror up to the American Dream; as Rev once told The Jewish Chronicle, “We wanted to give them a bit of the Treblinka, the Belsen-Bergen, behind the nicely painted walls.” Lunch, who at age 19 had moved to New York and been adopted by Rev and Vega, took this idea and made it her own.
A kohl-eyed American nightmare, the filth, fury and bacchanalian corruption of the New York streets emanating from her depraved, mocking presence, Lunch was basically Middle America’s worst fears made flesh. Using as her vehicle The Jerks’ singularly twisted sound – the most severe, coldly discorporated sound in No Wave – Lunch made it her mission in life to become the grotesque personification of post-Vietnam America’s rotten soul. Teenage Jesus & The Jerks were No Wave at its darkest: the embodiment of what Mars’ Mark Cunningham termed “the black nihilist mystique that came with underground New York.”
Lunch’s explanation of the scene in Thurston Moore’s No Wave tome Post Punk. New York. 1976-1980, is typically viperous: “The anti-everything of No Wave was a collective caterwaul that defied categorization, defiled the audience, despised convention, shit in the face of history and then split.” When Mute Records recently asked her if she considered Suicide’s music nihilistic, her response was this: “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 was the positivity? I was supposed to be fucking positive? Fuck you! You want positive, go elsewhere. Go find a different lie.”
Though every No Wave act used noise in some form or another, The Jerks’ method was uniquely vituperative. With DNA, for example, their use of noise seemed like an act of self-examination. More surrealistic than malicious, it was as if grating atonality was for DNA a kind of psychodramatic expression of Arto Lindsay’s consciousness, ravaged by the hellishness of modern existence. The Jerks, however, were sadistic through and through. There was a genuine hatred in their music, from the way they struck their instruments to their jagged, spasmodic flow, to the way in way in which the tracks, through skeletal, possessed an intimidating presence, a grandiosity, extending to Lunch’s vocals – a proto-Siouxsie Sioux shriek of imperiousness. It belied a desire to dominate the audience. To trounce them. To win. Or better yet, to destroy the rockers: by Lunch’s estimations, the enemies of art. To destroy the lie.
With structure, chords, melody and story arc an absolute Jerks taboo, that Lunch & Co. – more than any other No Wave band – made no concessions to anything remotely rock, was an act of hatred in itself: fuelled by the utter contempt Lunch had for both the bloated rock gods of the ‘70s and the hippy generation’s moral self-assurance. In the end, no No Wave act more enshrined the movement’s ‘Kill Your Idols’ ethos than The Jerks. They were the closest No Wave came to breaking guitar music down into its purest components – the final stage in a journey that began with The Velvets’ White Light / White Heat.
What incidentally was also a reoccurring theme in surrealism (a movement No Wave took from liberally), The Jerks saw mental illness as just another method with which to define themselves in opposition to society, another way of setting them and the No Wave apart from the Middle America walking dead. To Lunch, reason was for the normals, for their own pathetic piece of mind, and madness a freedom like any other. This conception of violent psychosis as an extreme form of anti-establishment activity (an idea the Manson-worshipping No Wavers return to time and again) was something Lunch would bring to full fruition in her psycho-noir jazz-based solo work in the early ’80s.
James Chance & The Contortions
Hostile. Nervously abrasive. Resonantly existential. In 1977, The Contortions’ gonzo re-imagining of funk was nothing short of revolutionary. Across the water in England, post-punk would come to be defined by its marriage of atonality and European angst with black music forms (see, in particular, The Pop Group and PiL). Prompted by the dissonant free jazz of ‘60s New York, The Contortions had the same idea a year prior.
If on the surface of things funk seemed a far cry from Sam Cooke’s civil rights hymnals, James Brown’s genius invention was political by implication. In the early ’70s, black music remained part of the blues lineage; for all its fantastical romance, even Motown carried the blues’ imperative for suffering and stoic, proud lowliness buried within the fabric of its tortured love songs. But in its sheer hedonism, James Brown’s music empowered Black America in a whole different way. Funk’s dance-your-mind-away senselessness, along with Brown’s very fabulous-ness, freed the tradition from the solemn task of documenting the pain of the black experience.
‘Bad’ in the true JB sense of the word, but considerably more mad, James Chance’s version of funk celebrated in Brown’s conception of the genre as a manic, orgiastic catharsis. But while Brown revelled in brazen triumphalism, and the magic in the viscera, The Contortions imposed on funk the neurotic anguish of white bohemianism. In Chance’s hands, Brown’s sexiness became sexphobia, and mindlessness the music of the mind.
Referenced in its title, on ‘I Cant Stand Myself’, JB’s self-glorification had been replaced by self-loathing. While before there was illusion, now there was only reality – sore and blaring. Though assuredly you could dance to Contortions tracks like these (indeed, during their notorious live shows, Chance, in between elephantine squawks on his alto-sax and his JB-as-vulture singing, would dance like a shithouse rat), ‘I Can’t Stand Myself’ was somehow funky in tone but not in mechanics. Here JB’s dipped swing had been replace by a rigid drone that spoke more of boredom and drudgery than funk’s release. This drone rendered the song somehow both propulsive and aimless, while the noise-blasts and scratchy reinterpretations of funk riffs render Chance’s JB-style howls both agitated and despairing.
See also the startling ‘Dish It Out‘. Very probably the world’s first punk-jazz hybrid, as well as The Contortions single most ferocious cut, the track’s implacable momentum has the same droning, oppressive churn that powered ‘I Can’t Stand Myself’, as George Scott’s terrifying bass riff hammers the mix in cycles of dumb menace. Essentially, it was funk of the whitest variety – and it was no coincidence that The Contortions were amongst those censured in Lester Bangs’ controversial racial critique of the New York scene ‘The White Noise Supremacists’ (1979).
The Contortions’ ‘Fuck Art, Let’s Dance’ approach was perfectly consistent with No Wave’s anti-SoHo standpoint. And ultimately, Chance’s art and rhythm hybrid would prove instrumental in the genesis of No Wave’s most direct descendant: mutant disco.
One way in which No Wave differed from punk was its awareness of high culture. Whether radical modernist painters like Francis Bacon, the literature of the Marquis de Sade, or the works of cultural theorists like Baudrillard, in No Wave bloodied primitivism frequently rubbed shoulders with enlightenment.
This extended to a clutch of modernist 20th century composers who many No Wave bands considered direct influences. DNA claimed to be equally in thrall to Beefheart and Anton Webern, the Austrian pre-war composer who was a hero of Stockhausen’s. Sonic Youth, meanwhile, cited New York ‘guitar-orchestral-ist’ Rhys Chatham as one of their antecedents.
However, no No Wave band was influenced by ‘classical modern’ more directly than guitar’n’drum two-piece Jeff Lohn and Glenn Branca, aka Theoretical Girls. With Lohn himself a composer by trade, the duo took their cues from the ‘60s minimalists of the so-called ‘Downtown Scene’ – composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
An entirely unprecedented sound in 1978, it is possible to draw a direct line between Reich and co’s compositions and Theoretical Girls’ guitar tracks, especially on the likes of ‘Polygon‘ and ‘U.S Millie‘. Among the first bands in history to draw creative inspiration from modern classical music, and indeed, classical minimalism, Theoretical Girls would go on to be hugely influential in the creation of both post-rock and minimalist rock (see: Shellac).
However, rock historians remain in two minds when in comes to Theoretical Girls. Influenced equally by Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, like the rest of the No Wave acts, the duo used noise. And in this respect, they were every bit as radical as their contemporaries. Otherwise, though, for all their minimalist influences, Lohn and Branca were in fact quite reactionary, which is perhaps the reason why Eno decided not to include them on his landmark No Wave compilation, No New York.
Unlike their peers, the duo could actually play their instruments. Vocals-wise, in comparison to Lunch and Lindsay’s surrealist performance art, Branca’s terse barking was more Johnny Rotten than Yoko Ono. Every now and then he even sang, which in No Wave was sacrilege. Laterally, devoid of the free jazz/musique concrète influences DNA and The Jerks sported, most Theoretical Girls tracks were structurally straightforward. See, for example, thrash-y punk blow-out ‘Theoretical Girls‘, or the skewed Chuck Berry power-pop of ‘Mom And Dad‘. Then there was Lohn’s drumming style, which although repetitious (a tribute to the duo’s beloved Reich) was in very much conventionally ‘rock’: functioning to provide momentum, coherence and linearity, or else to conjure rock’s ‘tribal rapture’. All things considered, rather than ‘No Wave’ a more accurate descriptor for TG’s music might have been ‘avant-punk’.
Either way, though, Theoretical Girls remain a seminal moment in the union of punk and art, becoming the master-gene for a legion of experimental guitar acts that followed in their wake, from post-hardcore avant-gardists like Oneida (compare their ‘Sheets Of Easter‘ to TG’s ‘Computer Dating‘) to the ‘Japanoise’ Boredoms to instrumental-noise bands of the millennium such as Lightning Bolt.
Forming in 1982, technically speaking Swans were a post-No Wave entity. As others would have it, Michael Gira and co. spearheaded what was dubbed the second wave of No Wave. Swans were heavily influenced by Theoretical Girls, in whose ‘You Got Me‘ can be heard the roots of Swans’ hammering guitar-industrial. More significantly, their roaring, muscle-flexing take on No Wave noise signalled the resurgence of rockist principles in New York. But Swans’ ability to implant No Wave’s concepts into a rock context was its own kind of genius, creating a strain of rock the likes of which had never before been heard. Incorporating The Jerks’ sense of horror and DNA’s screaming nihilism, the ruinous maelstrom that was 1983’s Filth was an expression of Frankie Teardrop’s personal hell, only with Gira playing the twin roles of both Frankie and Frankie’s demon tormentor.
Lunch’s sadomasochistic themes of corporeal trauma and sexual penance permeated Swans’ lyrics, while echoes of Mars’ inconsolable bleakness and Chance’s absurdist comedy could be heard in the grinding cycle of vandalised Americana and exploded guitar. A beast of impossible might and leviathan proportions, and propelled by the same repetitive driving rhythms favoured by DNA, in their sound’s cartoonish magnitude Swans’ both inhabited and satirized rock’s hyper-masculinity. It was exactly how you’d imagine hard rock and No Wave would sound were the two forms ever fused: downright monstrous. A milestone in extreme music – a sound heavier, more vicious and more all-out evil-sounding than any metal band had produced by 1983 – with Filth, Swans took the rock form a few gargantuan steps forward.
Sonic Youth are where No Wave ends and American alt-rock begins. As an omnivorous scholar of all transgressive art-forms, when Thurston Moore moved to Manhattan in 1977 it wasn’t long before he found No Wave. However, much like Swans, by the time he and Kim Gordon formed Sonic Youth in 1981, they too had missed the boat in terms of No Wave’s creative sweet spot.
What Sonic Youth did was settle for being No Wave’s original super-fans. Rather than a continuation of the movement’s music, in truth Moore and Gordon’s No Wave was merely an act of homage and mimicry. If you like, they were the scene’s doting cover-band. But here’s the kicker. In assuming the role of curator, Sonic Youth carried No Wave’s ideas far enough down the road that eventually they popularized them. Because, by taking the building blocks of No Wave and adding their own voice, Sonic Youth invented the genre of rock music that, over the course of the ’80s, came to define the American underground, and eventually an entire generation. That genre was ‘alternative rock’.
When a decade later, Nevermind went stratospheric, the pundits declared 1991 ‘the year punk finally broke America’. But arguably, alt-rock started life not as punk, but as No Wave, with the facilitator none other than Sonic Youth.
Released on Glenn Branca’s Neutral label, Sonic Youth’s early records are the missing link between No Wave and alt-rock. Almost unrecognisable from the band who, five years later, would write the pretty Daydream Nation, the misanthropy and sense of utter desolation permeating Sex is Confusion (1983) and Bad Moon Rising (1985) was pure No Wave. As indeed was the songs’ avant-garde formlessness and the predominance of spoken-word passages (Moore and Gordon’s nod to No Wave’s ‘performance-art-with-guitars’ stylings). So too were Gordon’s lyrics: a mesh of madness, self-immolation and morbidity that recalled Lunch’s imagery.
At the same time, in other ways Sonic Youth’s early records were most definitely not No Wave. An absolute No Wave no-no, Bad Moon Rising was very much a produced album, employing studio techniques like double-tracking and reverb which, on account of their rockist connotations and ability to distort reality with fantasy, were in direct violation of the No Wave code. Meanwhile, for all the discordant guitar tunings and anarchic caprice, in truth the tracks made their way from A to B with a sequential logic, and in accordance with a clear emotional narrative. Then there was Gordon’s bass guitar. All but vanquished from No Wave (except, of course, in the case of The Contortions), the bass-guitar shaped Sonic Youth’s music in two separate ways. Firstly it grounded the songs, thereby stripping them of their abstractionist weightlessness. Secondly, it afforded the songs a comforting durability – a quality at odds with No Wave’s rejection of canonical self-importance and rockist gravitas. No Wave was all about the ephemeral, meaning that the music was never intended to be legitimate enough to last and become the lore of some middlebrow tastemaker.
However, it was Sonic Youth’s use of melody – a staple feature of their sound from the get-go – that was most in opposition to No Wave principles. For all their dedication to No Wave’s cult of ugliness, the band’s inability to resist their natural instinct for melodiousness betrayed the aesthetes in them.
This same element of their music would prove the most influential on the American ’80s underground. Music historians trace the birth of alt-rock back to Hüsker Dü’s fusion of feedback-doused hardcore punk and Brit-invasion pop on 1984’s Zen Arcade. A two-way split between atonalism and pop-pretty melodies, stranded between rage and grace, in the coming decade it was a formula employed by everyone from Pixies to My Bloody Valentine to, indeed, Nirvana. But it was Sonic Youth, not Hüsker, who first came up with this idea: they were doing the same thing with No Wave almost three years prior to Zen Arcade.