1978 drifts into 1981. Punk is dead. Disco and New Wave rule the airwaves. Haircuts reign over music. Reagan-fuelled paranoia sweeps America. Meltdown. But one thing stays true – underground rock ‘n roll. Art, film and music combine in a transgressive ‘scene’ that scorches the underbelly of NYC – No Wave. Sonic Youth, DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and the Contortions – these were the bands stabbing the left brain of the USA with their angular guitars, noise overdrive, and messed up lyricals. After all the pop punk legends of CBGBs (Ramones, Blondie, and Television) had either sold out or imploded, what was left were some of the most twisted DIY bands ever committed to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Infamy.
But while these bands were basically ignored at the time of their unholy conception, a new crop of uber-cool NYC kids are taking what these godfathers and godmothers did and kicking it into the mainstream.
No Wave’s principles were always clear from the start – strip rock ‘n roll down to its visceral basics, and aim for the jugular. Super-fundamental punk chords and dirty rhythm ‘n blues basslines collided with screaming vocals and, in some cases, wild, reeling, jazzy sax. These art freaks weren’t afraid to go atonal, chugging out their repetitive rhythms whilst sacrificing melody for texture. In contrast to the glossy, overproduced, squeaky clean pop of the day, nothing could seem more anti-music than this. It was as if LaMonte Young had risen from the grave and infected the hip punk crowd zombie-style.
Accompanying these crazy assed punk diatribes were wigged out cinematic shorts courtesy of the more disturbing video artists of the time – step forward Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. Thus a cocktail of anti-culture was anti-cultivated in the backstreets of NYC – with lyrics and music videos referencing the Manson murders, pornography, violence and surrealism. Such subject matter led to little, if any, mainstream coverage. But No Wave stood tall as an example of an entire music scene being born and committed to legend despite its uncompromising stance.
No Wave died a lonely, monochrome death in the mid-Eighties, exhausted quickly as only a genre that explodes so brilliantly can. Brian Eno once said that even though hardly anyone bought a Velvet Underground album, almost everyone who did formed their own band. The same applies to No Wave – as soon as it died, its ashes fell on a new generation of anti-heroes. Throughout the 80s, bands like Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Helmet kept No Wave’s aggressive and uncompromising flame a burnin’. But in the hip-hop and grunge dominated 90s, the harsh art of those NYC kids seemed to fade from memory, until no-one knew what the hell New Wave was, let alone it’s evil twin. Fast-forward to now, and No Wave is back whether you know it or not. In fact, most of those cool NYC bands that the good ol’ NME was telling you about have probably plundered the tomb of No Wave. Its sound lurks in the noise-rock guitars of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in the DIY attitude of Black Dice. It lingers on the street corners with A.R.E. Weapons and dances with the gypsy collective Gogol Bordello.
NYC rock is big again – MGMT, a couple of college friends who started a DIY psych band as a joke made the biggest song of the summer, ‘Time to Pretend’. Vampire Weekend made an LP of perfect campus afro-pop. Les Savy Fav played some of the most fun gigs of the year and A Place to Bury Strangers are the new band of the moment. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the trio who jump-started the new cool school of NYC punk are readying a new album. But would those No Wave pioneers be proud of the state of the scene they were so integral in creating? I’d guess not. I can’t imagine Lydia Lunch (pictured) , fearsome frontgirl of Teenage Jesus being happy with NYC rock going mainstream.
These new bands don’t treat their No Wave influence as an instigation to make primal, transgressive music, to scorch the eyes and ears of America and never compromise their art – they use it to ally themselves with a scene that retrospectively seems the height of ‘cool’. What those No Wave progenitors are waiting for is a band that can cast convention aside, truly capture that aesthetic of originality, anti-musicality and use art as a weapon without restraint. We can only wait in hope.