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 almost 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 entrenched in 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 diaspora tradition from the duty of worthy reportage – freed it from the responsibility of reverential poise and the solemn task of documenting the pain of the black experience. If the Blues continuum was the conscience of black America, funk was unashamedly negligent, thereby relocating the music away from the headspace and towards the gut. ‘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 self-defeating neurotic anguish of white bohemianism. And so all of a sudden the music of the black experience was once again cerebral. 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 Referenced in its title, on ‘I Cant Stand Myself JB’s self-glorification had been replaced by self-loathing.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, observe in the track’s implacable momentum 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. Whereas Brown conceived of funk as escapism, here the image conjured was of a screaming soul imprisoned in the surrounding morass: literally imprisoned by funk. Essentially, it was funk of the whitest variety – and consequently, 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.
Its widely documented that Suicide were a firm favourite for every No Wave artist. But out of all the acts, it was Lydia Lunch that took the duo’s aesthetic most to heart. What Suicide’s nightmarish electro-rockabilly and heinous imagery did was hold a mirror up to the American Dream. As Rev 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 immediately was 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 recent 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. Take DNA, for example: rather than a stick to beat the listeners with, their use of noise seemed more 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. Meaning that, essentially, DNA’s noise was a form of mental self-flagellation (a throwback to New York’s ’60s performance art scene – another important precursor to No Wave), and was therefore masochistic in nature. 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 sorely 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-Siouxie Sioux shriek of imperiousness. It belied the desire to dominate the audience at the heart of their music. 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, rationale 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.
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 formed in 1970. But even if that were not the case, when it comes to proto-electronic duo Alan Vega and Marty Rev, any attempt to classify this most anomalous of acts – to align them with a certain movement or put them in such-and-such a category – is a gravely bogus task. Because never was there a band quite like Suicide, who to this day are one of the only examples in popular music of an act with neither precedent nor legacy. 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 were even given 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 instrument 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. In reality, though, Vega and Rev influenced the No Wave bands on a mostly 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 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 here 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. Observe how Vega never once breaks character, despite the 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. Ultimately, though, it was Suicide’s foundation in shock-art that most influenced the No Wave bands. Suicide used revulsion as a device to liberate the audience from their socio-political apathy, with their goal being to disgust the listener, no matter how terrible the means. Suicide’s truly offensive ‘Frankie Teardrop’ - arguably the most effective anti-Vietnam song in the history of music, and certainly the strangest - plotted a ‘Nam veteran’s descent into hell – a literal hell – over 8-and-a-half minutes of hypnotic terror. In ‘Frankie Teardrop’, the Frankie character (‘played’ by an unhinged Vega) murders his wife and infant child, before turning the gun on himself. Then, 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.