Cheat Sheet: No Wave ... And Beyond
by Justin Farrar | January 18, 2012
For this Cheat Sheet, I adopted a non-canonical view of No Wave, that wonderfully short-lived music and art movement that coughed up some of the most daring and extreme groups of the post-punk era.
To being with, the majority of the movement's progenitors are featured. These include James Chance & the Contortions (who also recorded under the name James White & the Blacks), Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, Beirut Slump, DNA, Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy and Glenn Branca's outfits Theoretical Girls and The Static. Primarily performing in D.I.Y. art spaces and galleries in Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these groups shared a love for ruthlessly atonal textures, razor-sharp anti-rhythms and short bursts of sonic aggression.
No Wave at the time was often framed as pure sonic nihilism: the end of rock, the end of punk, the end of culture, really. The music is definitely harsh and radical, but in hindsight, it's also startlingly original, a creature of bold synthesis. These bands totally rocked, despite the fact that they discarded just about every accepted notion of what rock music should sound like up to that point. Hell, most of them couldn't even play "Louie, Louie"!
At the same time, they weren't truly anti-history. They had their fair share of influences and idols. Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground were key, but so were mid-1970s Miles Davis ( On the Corner, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea); minimalist composers such as Rhys Chatham and Tony Conrad; the great James Brown; and of course Suicide, who were probably No Wave's most direct ancestors.
I also spotlight several releases that help chart the ways in which No Wave fragmented and seeped into the larger culture. Early solo titles from DNA's Arto Lindsay ( Envy) and Teenage Jesus' Lydia Lunch ( Queen of Siam) find the artists filtering key elements of No Wave through synth pop, exotica, jazz and even TropicÃ¡lia. Another vital musician was the wonderful Lizzy Mercier Descloux. The French singer operated on the movement's fringes, yet her debut album, Press Color, is an exemplary marriage of No Wave's agitated zeal and arty discoid funk. Sonic Youth's early records, especially their debut EP, were wildly important as well. They can be seen as the main bridge from No Wave to post-punk and (later) noise rock.
Finally, I mention several artists who aren't No Wave, but whose respective orbits weren't too far off. Operating at the same time as many of the artists mentioned above were fellow New Yorkers ESG and Liquid Liquid. Their respective permutations of stripped-down funk and punkish potency speak to the incredible stew of sounds swirling about the Big Apple in the early 1980s. Then there are England's The Pop Group and Neue Deutsche Welle pioneers D.A.F. They had little contact with No Wave, but both produced powerfully forceful music that embodied many of the same traits.
Note: The now-iconic No New York compilation, produced by Brian Eno and released in 1978 on the Antilles label, is considered No Wave's primary document. Unfortunately, it is not available digitally, thus the reason for its absence below.