No New York: A Profile of the No Wave Movement

No Wave

Sonic Youth -Photo: tkaravou from Montreal, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

No Wave remains one of the most obscure, short-lived, mysterious and influential musical movements of the 20th century. No Wave began in 1976-1977 during the same time period as early punk rock and New Wave. It was characterized by a harsh, rhythm based sound, nihilistic lyrics and shouted or monotone vocals mixed with noisy, atonal guitar and screeching saxophone parts reminiscent of free jazz.

Common influences include the 60’s sonic explorations of the Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Stooges, David Bowie, The New York Dolls, Robert Quine, Lou Reed, John Cale, Patti Smith, electronic synth duo Suicide and James Brown. The genre became separated from punk because it was considered “too weird” and promoters often refused to pay for such unconventional performances, so the early bands formed their own scene and called it No Wave as a pun on the commercial ‘New Wave’ label.

The earliest and most influential No Wave bands were Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, James Chance & The Contortions, MARS, and D.N.A. These were the four groups that appeared on the 1977 compilation ‘No New York’ which was recorded at the Big Apple Studio in 1978 and produced by Brian Eno, who was in New York City to produce the second album by the Talking Heads when he happened to catch a No Wave show at the Artists Space and decided to record what he saw as a fresh and innovative scene. Due to its production by Brian Eno the album became well known and highly influential amongst aspiring avant garde artists and noise musicians leading to the formation of another two early No Wave bands, Swans and Sonic Youth.

Other important early No Wave bands that didn’t appear on the No New York compilation include Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca, Lounge Lizards and Rhys Chatham. Members of these bands often collaborated together, for example Lydia Lunch worked with Sonic Youth on their Death Valley ’69 single and Thurston Moore appeared alongside Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard on her Honeymoon in Red album and George Scott III played bass in the Contortions, with Pat Irwin of Raybeats and with Lunch in 8 Eyed Spy.

The scene was based around traditional early punk and New Wave New York City venues like CBGB’s, The Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, Tier 3 and Club 57 as well as shorter-lived installations like the Artists Space and Speed Trials. ZE Records was formed in 1978 and at one point or another every early No Wave group was affiliated with the label aside from latecomers Sonic Youth and Swans who were first released on Neutral Records, with Sonic Youth moving to SST then Geffen and Swans staying with Atavastic and later Young God Records. Lydia Lunch founded her own label, Widowspeak Records to maintain creative control of her work.

No Wave was mainly an artistic rather than profit driven genre and it came to include No Wave cinema, art and literature as well as music. Famous No Wave filmmakers include Scott B, Beth B, Jim Jarmusch, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern, who created the controversial short film Fingered starring Lydia Lunch. The films were typically shot in black and white and focused on themes of sex, violence and degradation. No Wave cinema eventually evolved into Transgressive Cinema.

Lydia Lunch has released numerous books and collections of poetry, many of which reference people and events in the No Wave movement. These include The Gun is Loaded, Will Work for Drugs, Adulterers Anonymous and Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. No Wave and visual art mixed at gallery openings and exhibitions, notably some by Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Times Square Show, which featured over 100 artists working in a variety of mediums. The ABC No Rio Gallery was the center of No Wave related visual arts during the 1980s.

Other important early No Wave bands that didn’t appear on the No New York compilation include Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca, Lounge Lizards and Rhys Chatham. Members of these bands often collaborated together, for example Lydia Lunch worked with Sonic Youth on their Death Valley ’69 single and Thurston Moore appeared alongside Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard on her Honeymoon in Red album and George Scott III played bass in the Contortions, with Pat Irwin of Raybeats and with Lunch in 8 Eyed Spy.

Most Popular And Important No Wave Bands

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks:

Arguably the first ever No Wave band, it was founded in 1976 by then sixteen year old Lydia Lunch who did the vocals and guitar, Teenage Jesus is one of the best known early No Wave groups. They had a harsh, minimalist sound with a driving rhythm under Lunch’s apocalyptic vocals occasionally augmented by dissonant saxophone solos. Bradley Field was the drummer and Gordon Stevenson played bass. Jim Sclavunos and James Chance were regular contributors as well.

Teenage Jesus split up in 1980 but Lunch would go on to have a long and successful solo career and was also the lead singer of Eight-Eyed Spy, a No Wave group she formed with Jim Sclavunos, also briefly of Sonic Youth, Pat Irwin, who went on to join the Raybeats and B-52’s, and George Scott III, also of the Contortions and Raybeats. 8 Eyed Spy were only together for a year before Scott’s death put an abrupt end to the group.

Lunch went on to collaborate with Rowland S. Howard of the Birthday Party, Sonic Youth, JG Thirwell, Cyprus Grove, Joey Koneko, Sylvia Black, Bob Bert, Tim Dahl, Weasel Walter and countless other musicians, poets and artists. She is currently touring Europe with Mark Hurtado performing the songs of Suicide and Alan Vega. Teenage Jesus and The Jerks’ unique sound was highly influential on bands like Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Swans, The Contortions and 8 Eyed Spy to name a few.

James Chance and the Contortions:

Founded in 1977, the Contortions had more of a funk and free jazz influence than Teenage Jesus and the two bands often played together. James Chance was the frantic, energetic vocalist and saxophone player, while George Scott III played bass, Adele Bertei was on acetone organ, Don Christiansen on drums, Jody Harris on guitar and Pat Place on slide guitar. The Contortions never officially broke up but in practice the group ended with Scott’s death from a heroin overdose in 1980.

Place became a founding member of another No Wave band in the early 80s-Bush Tetras. Chance went on to form James White & the Blacks, which had more of a funk and disco sound than the Contortions but was no less experimental and chaotic than his early work, while Bertei founded Blood and embarked on a solo career. Their influence can be heard in saxophonist and Lydia Lunch collaborator Terry Edwards, free jazz and noise sax player Chris Pitsokos, Raybeats, Defunkt and the more upbeat funk influenced sounds of Bush Tetras and later Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion.

Mars:

Founded in 1975 by a group of artists with no prior knowledge of music, Mars was characterized by repetitive rhythms, loud, explosive vocals and chaotic dual guitars. The band played at such famous underground New York clubs as CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. They broke up in 1978 but thanks to Lydia Lunch’s private label, Widowspeak Productions, their recordings made it onto the No New York compilation and were eventually released as a 30 minute compilation album.

China Burg was on guitar and vocals, Mark Cunningham on bass and vocals, Nancy Arlen on drums and Summer Crane on guitar and vocals. Though they had broken up after only three years together Mars is remembered for its unique, abrasive and challenging sound that came to influence later groups such as Swans, Cellular Chaos and the Flying Luttenbachers and they heavily influenced the sound of early Sonic Youth.

D.N.A.

Taking their name from a song by Mars, D.N.A. formed in 1977 with Robin Crutchfield on organ and vocals, Arto Lindsay on guitar and vocals, Tim Wright on bass and Ikue Ile on drums. Their first album, A Taste of DNA, was only ten minutes long and recorded by American Clavé and released on the Rough Trade label in 1980. The dissonant organ, screeching guitar and manic group vocals left a strong impression on listeners whether they liked or hated it. The band debuted at Max’s Kansas City and also played regularly at CBGB’s, Tier 3, and the Mudd Club.

The band stayed together until 1982 before going their separate ways. Arto Lindsay went on to have a long and influential solo career, as did Ikue Ile, also known as Ikue Mori, who began experimenting with drum machines and electronic percussion. She went on to collaborate with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth as well as briefly forming the band Death Ambient. They were a major influence on later acts such as Sonic Youth and the noise rock group Blonde Redhead, who named their band after a D.N.A. song.

Sonic Youth:

Perhaps the most famous band to spring from the No Wave scene, Sonic Youth wasn’t featured on the No New York album but the influence it had on them is clear when you hear their first few albums. They formed in 1981 with Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore on guitar and vocals, Kim Gordon on bass and vocals and Jim Scavulnos on drums and were signed to SST records along with groups like the Meat Puppets. Their first album, simply titled Sonic Youth shows a clear No Wave influence and had a funk-influenced style much like The Contortions and Bush Tetras.

They recruited drummer Bob Bert for their next two EP’s Kill Yr Idols and Confusion is Sex, both of which had a more dissonant, atonal quality that sounded more like Teenage Jesus than the Contortions. Their next album was called Bad Moon Rising and it featured their nosiest and most complex music to date, making use of prepared guitars and alternate tunings to create an album where each song flowed seamlessly into the next. Bert’s distinctive repetitive yet complex drumming style paired with the ominous guitar and throbbing bass of the other members made this one of the most intriguing No Wave albums ever released.

They collaborated with No Wave icon, Teenage Jesus singer and guitarist Lydia Lunch on their single Death Valley ’69 and her frantic desperate vocals paired with Moore’s and Bert’s driving beat behind it all, the single was perhaps the high water mark for the No Wave movement. Bert left the band after the Bad Moon Rising tour and Thurston led the band in a more punk and noise rock direction. Eventually they were signed to Geffen records and achieved commercial success with albums such as Goo and Dirty.

Sonic Youth was considered a major influence by the emerging grunge bands Mudhoney, L7, Hole and Nirvana and while Sonic Youth moved in more of a mainstream indie rock direction they never completely lost their No Wave beginnings until the band finally split up in 2014.

Swans

Founded in 1982 by Michael Gira, who has been the bands only consistent member, Swans have a noisy, confrontational rhythm based sound with most of the vocals being yelled or chanted over loud and repetitive riffs. They are the only No Wave group besides Sonic Youth to last decades and they are still playing today, albeit with a different lineup and sound.

Swans went on tour with Sonic Youth in 1982, bringing No Wave outside of New York City for the first time. Important members over the years include keyboardist Jarboe and guitarist Norman Westberg. Their members have also collaborated with other key members of the No Wave scene such as Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore. Swans have been named as an influence by groups like Godflesh, Angels of Light and World of Skin.

No Wave: Final Thoughts

The original No Wave music scene was short lived and by 1980 most of the early groups had broken up but the genre left an indelible mark on the history of New York’s underground music scene. Bands that were spawned from or heavily influenced by No Wave include 80’s bands such as Bush Tetras, These Immortal Souls, The Fall, Pussy Galore and Live Skull. During this time the line between No Wave and Post Punk began to blur and saw several collaborations between members of Post Punk bands like The Fall, Clint Ruin, The Birthday Party and No Wave acts like Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch.

In the early 90’s scene veterans Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks & Rowland S. Howard of These Immortal Souls and The Birthday Party teamed up to create the No Wave and Post Punk inspired album, Shotgun Wedding, and new bands with a heavy debt to the No Wave sound emerged such as The Flying Luttenbachers, Gallon Drunk, Nirvana, L7, The Chrome Cranks, Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion, Boss Hog and Cop Shoot Cop.

In the 2000’s the genre was continued by new groups like Child Abuse and Cellular Chaos, which has Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers on guitar as well as by scene veterans like Jon Spencer, who released Freedom Tower: A No Wave Dance Party in 2016 with the Blues Explosion and Lydia Lunch who formed Big Sexy Noise with members of Gallon Drunk in 2008 and in 2012 she formed RETROVIRUS with Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Chrome Cranks) Tim Dahl (Child Abuse) and Weasel Walter (The Flying Luttenbachers, Cellular Chaos) and they released two albums and toured the world doing a retrospective concert of her career in which she played songs from Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Eight Eyed Spy as well as her own considerable back catalogue of solo recordings.

No Wave continues to survive today as bands and artists like Cellular Chaos, Child Abuse, The Flying Luttenbachers, James Chance, Bush Tetras, Michael Gira, Arto Lindsay, Chelsea Light Moving, Lee Renaldo and The Dust, Kim Gordon’s Body/Head and Lydia Lunch continue to tour and keep up the traditions of No Wave while still inspiring new groups and artists today such as Sista Fista, Square Nails, Sonic Titan/Yamantaka, Wolf Lane and the Gadarene Swine.

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