Big noise in the Big Apple

MUSIC: JUST WHEN punk thought it had smashed everything up into smithereens, along came No Wave and pulverised it all into even…

MUSIC:JUST WHEN punk thought it had smashed everything up into smithereens, along came No Wave and pulverised it all into even smaller particles, writes Kevin Courtney.

The place was New York and the time was the fag-end of the 1970s; punk was starting to lose its constituency and fans were looking for something more than safety-pinned posturing.

Punk hadn't fundamentally changed anything - it had simply become just another rock'n'roll genre. No Wave had no truck with the bankrupt values of punk - its exponents were artists, writers, situationists and plain hangers-on, and for them music was just another tool to be used, like paint or clay, to create something that challenged the cultural status quo.

With New York's prime punk and New Wave exponents - Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones - out touring the world and turning into pop stars, Manhattan was an empty canvas just waiting for a new set of arty anarchists to splatter a different vision on to it.


And there were real empty spaces - lofts and basements - in the seedier streets of Soho and the East Village, where many of No Wave's movers and shakers - most of them arriving from out of town with little more than a few dollars and their wits - would make their makeshift homes. Drawn to New York not by its punk credentials but by the city's decadent art scene, the No Wavers fell into making music almost by happy chance rather than design.

The key No Wave bands - Mars, James Chance and The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (led by the queen of No Wave, Lydia Lunch) and DNA (featuring Arto Lindsay, No Wave's answer to David Byrne) - didn't quite replicate the crossover success of their punk predecessors; the music was far too dense and deconstructed for the pop world's palate. Uninterested in rehashing established rock'n'roll styles and uninfluenced by anything that had come before, No Wavers used the instruments of rock - guitar, drums, bass - to turn the music back on itself. It was anarchy of a different kind, set to a throbbing, distorted sound and dirty, dislocated beats.

No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 maps the musical bubble that blew up around Manhattan's Lower East Side, unravelling the strands that connected all the different bands and musical projects that emerged from the scene, and getting eyewitness accounts from just about every scenester who flitted between the art galleries of Soho and the dives of the East Village during that period.

Co-writer Thurston Moore moved to Manhattan in 1977 and joined a band called The Coachmen - that's him in the photo on Page 37, standing at the side of the stage in a white shirt, intently watching DNA in action. Moore later played in a band with Lydia Lunch, and you could say he took the No Wave aesthetic to new heights via his own seminal band, Sonic Youth.

THE BANDS THAT sprang out of this germ-ridden hotbed included The Gynecologists, Red Transistor - whose leader, Von LMO, routinely chainsawed his organ in half - Information, Blinding Headache, Theoretical Girls, Jack Ruby, The N Dodo Band, Mofungo and Tone Death.

The undoubted godfathers of No Wave, however, were electrobilly duo Suicide, whose fusion of Warholian art attack and spaced-out dissonance was an inspiration to many nascent No Wave bands. Alan Vega and Martin Rev were adopted as father figures by Lydia Lunch and James Chance, and their clash of pop, art, theatrics and situationism became a template of sorts for the movement.

For its part, No Wave influenced not only Sonic Youth but a whole wave of NY bands, from the art-school disco of The Rapture to the stentorian march of Interpol. But while punk and New Wave produced their fair share of classic records, No Wave left little in the way of recorded treasures. The real action was happening live, in places such as Max's Kansas City, which welcomed these new art terrorists, and in art galleries, exhibition spaces and lofts. It was an amorphous scene, with bands changing line-ups on an almost daily basis, musicians drifting in and out of each other's bands like wife-swapping neighbours, and bands breaking up as quickly as they formed. Few had the financial wherewithal to even think about making an album, but most managed to kick up quite a racket before quickly burning out.

Not many of No Wave's major players could even play, let alone lay down tracks in a studio. Most had come to New York to get involved in the art world, but when they discovered that every other artist there wanted to work in the medium of music, they grabbed the nearest instrument and the closest colleague and formed a band. Gigs were booked even before songs were written, and live shows were largely shambolic, improvised affairs. (DNA's fragmented, primitive songs, on the other hand, were rehearsed down to the last discordant note). Glenn Branca had come to New York from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to work in experimental theatre, but ended up forming Theoretical Girls instead.

At least he could play guitar, having been in a covers band back home, but he soon developed a unique, avant-garde playing style, using drones, harmonics, alternate tunings and excessive volume - the perfect fit for a No Wave guitarist. Branca also pioneered the stark poster design that came to signify No Wave - big, blocky letters and slashing black lines, the words becoming the illustrations. Branca is still considered a hugely influential composer and guitarist - last year he brought his acclaimed 13th Symphony for 100 Guitars to Dublin's docklands, drafting in 100 local guitar players to perform the piece.

Brian Eno arrived in New York in 1978 to do mastering work on the second Talking Heads album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and became fascinated by the cacophony that seemed to be whipping up all around him. That's him on page 63, in the foreground at a Contortions gig at Artists Space, looking knowingly at the lens while just a couple of feet away James Chance sings in the midst of the crowd. Eno decided that he was the man to capture the scene on vinyl, so he set out to record the key No Wave bands for a compilation entitled No New York. It's a selective set, featuring just the four main bands of the movement - Contortions, Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus - but at least something was preserved from a short-lived scene.

NO WAVE BURNED out almost as quickly as it blew up - its uncompromising stance became its downfall, and there was a marked absence of big record labels queuing up outside Artists' Space to sign up the next No Wave sensations. James Chance and the Contortions came closest to commercial success, but Lydia Lunch made a career of sorts out of simply being Lydia Lunch. The movement was later derided for being an exclusively white noise, but also praised for breaking down gender boundaries (all of the bands had girls and guys in their line-ups). But anyone hoping to gain an insight into New York's underground would do well to study the recollections and photographs on display here - because throughout the eruptions and rifts of this volatile scene, the pulse of the city never stops beating.

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist

No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980, By Thurston Moore and Byron Coley Abrams Image, 144pp. £14

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist