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Douglas Wolk assesses a pair of recent New York City redux compilations: New York Noise: Dance Music from the New York Underground 1978-1982 (Soul Jazz) and N.Y. No Wave: The Ultimate East Village 80's Soundtrack (Ze).

Making Waves

"No wave," they called it, and there couldn't have been a better name. It wasn't new wave, really, although it happened at the same time. It wasn't a wave at all: it was a ripple that started in New York, and kept rippling, and never built up to much more than a ripple. And it said no no no no no to everything. No to the idea of being a movement: all of its constituent bands sounded like themselves, and like not much before them, and not like each other except inasmuch as they actually shared personnel. No to the idea that music made with pop instruments had to sound like pop songs. No to the idea that music had to be made by people who even tried to play instruments the accepted way, in fact.

As a ripple, it glimmered on the surface of a tiny area for a little while. The central artifact of no wave was the No New York compilation, recorded by Brian Eno and released in 1978. That remarkable album, probably more talked about than heard, featured four songs apiece by the Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars and D.N.A. There were more than a few other bands in the same orbit – the Theoretical Girls and Red Transistor jump to mind – but those four made it onto the record, and the record made it into stores, and there's your de facto central canon. No New York is now hopelessly out of print, except as a Japanese import CD, but two new compilations circle in its orbit: New York Noise (Soul Jazz) and N.Y No Wave (Ze).

The latter is subtitled "The Ultimate East Village 80's Soundtrack," which is curious, since all but three of its 22 songs have 1978 or 1979 copyrights. What it actually is is an overview of Ze Records' no wave period, during which most of the No New York contributors made records for them. As a no wave overview, it's a bit lacking – check out http://nowave.pair.com/no_wave for a more complete idea of who was who – but most of its contents are hard to argue with. N.Y No Wave's highlights include both sides of the astonishing first Mars single, "11,000 Volts"/"3E", probably the most songlike record they ever made, which is still not saying much. Mars were the darkest and most fucked-up no wave group, a band with no musicians in the conventional sense. They were two actors and two visual artists, who wrote garbled crumples of songs – even their instruments slurred, as if there were something terribly wrong with them.

The non-No New York-related pieces here are four tracks involving Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who turned a bored French accent into a minor disco career, and two by Suicide, whose fuck-you-all-anyway attitude anticipated a lot of what the no wavers were up to by a few years. But N.Y No Wave really is a document of a scene – more than Yes New York or any number of other local compilations from the last few years. The central no wave bands all knew each other, played together, collaborated on records. The same names keep turning up on all of their records; they weren't exactly a collective, but it was pretty clear who was inside the circle.

One side of no wave that isn't mentioned very often but features prominently on N.Y No Wave: the bands' sense of humor. "Pini Pini," credited to Arto/Neto (that would be Arto Lindsay of D.N.A.), is a bizarrely funny little spoken-word-and-beats piece; if there were any doubt that James White/Chance/Siegfried's "Contort Yourself" was meant as some kind of goof on dance-instruction songs, it's dispelled by the ridiculous cover of "That's Where Your Heartaches Begin" that he recorded with Pill Factory. At the same time, it appears that these dry, guarded attempts to be funny were the no wave bands' first real attempt to break out of the tightly circumscribed "no" they'd built for themselves: as shockingly fresh as their early records were, they were also ascetic, which made their early style some kind of cul-de-sac.

If Ze carried the no wave torch at the end of the '70s, they handed it off to 99 Records for the early '80s, just as the artists who'd come up in the scene realized that dancing and pleasure weren't entirely anti-art. (Material released on a third important early label, Lust/Unlust, mostly hasn't been reissued yet.) 99's discography is smaller than you'd guess from its reputation, and in fact only a handful of tracks on New York Noise (by Liquid Liquid, ESG and Glenn Branca) originally appeared there, but most of the compilation follows from the core of 99's philosophy: the transforming strangeness of no wave, mutating the beat that had leaked in from the discos.

At the same time, the family trees of no wave blossomed. The Contortions spun off guitarist Pat Place to the Bush Tetras and keyboardist Adele Bertei to the Bloods. The Theoretical Girls' Glenn Branca went on to his solo career. Sonic Youth's early drummer Richard Edson joined Konk, along with Shannon Dawson, formerly of Gray, which had included painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who produced Rammelzee's "Beat Bop," from which the Beastie Boys (who were youngsters hanging out in the same clubs) picked up the line "B-boys making with the freek freek." And so on. The results of the diaspora make up New York Noise; the family resemblances are more distant, but they're still there.

Besides having a similar cast of musicians, the two comps share a couple of songs – Lizzy Mercier Descloux's inconsequential "Wawa" and versions of "Contort Yourself" by the Contortions (on NYN) and James White & the Blacks (on NYNW). But they couldn't be much more different. N.Y No Wave is bracing, harsh, cruel; New York Noise is a straight-up party record. It includes a couple of ringers, like Mars's forbidding "Helen Fordsdale" (which actually appeared on No New York), but it's subtitled "Dance Music from the New York Underground 1978-1982," and that's what it mostly is.

Nothing wrong with that. Even the most groove-crazy of the bands on New York Noise, Liquid Liquid (wisely represented by "Optimo" instead of the overfamiliar "Cavern", whose groove later became Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines"), came from a distinctly messy background – they'd released a couple of art-noise singles as Liquid Idiot, and then the Idiot Orchestra. There's lots of disco-derived stuff here; what's interesting is that it's unsweetened by commercial interest – or, rather, these artists let commercial interest come to them. Some of them never quite got the hang of fun (Glenn Branca's electric-guitar storm "Lesson No. 1" is grand and powerful, like a monumental statue), but some genuinely did. Chief among the dance artists who emerged from the no-wave aesthetic was Arthur Russell, who's represented here by Dinosaur L's "Clean on Your Bean #1"; the records he made during his peak years (under names like Loose Joints and Indian Ocean) are glorious chimeras that end up someplace very different from where they start. (There'll be a series of compilations of Russell's work coming out on the new Audika label, starting this fall; it's about time.)

The diaspora continued from the point documented on New York Noise, and by the mid-'80s the ideas that had germinated with no wave seeped into the musical culture at large – attempting a compilation that would continue the chronology of these two would make no sense. Ze released hits by the Waitresses and Was (Not Was), who took some of their cues from the New York Noise generation. Bits of the scene's DNA (no relation) turned up in Sonic Youth and their offspring, in dance music that shook off the yoke of the pop song, in every hip hop artist who ever sampled ESG or Liquid Liquid. Later on, no wave's admirers and revivalists (Erase Errata, the Flying Luttenbachers, Numbers, and on and on) picked up on its ideas and, sometimes, its signature sounds; after a few years of being deeply unfashionable, the New York Noise period has some high-profile admirers again, too (hello, DFA). The original ripple became invisible, but the motion it started hasn't stopped.

By Douglas Wolk

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