“No Wave,” Nihilism, and Postmodern
Rock ’N’ Roll in 1970s New York
They were young nihilists and derelicts; rebellious artists and malcontents on the fringes of the punk rock scene. Some didn’t even know how to play their instruments. They used slide guitars and power drills and pounded keyboards like conga drums. They blasted saxophones, attacked the audience. It was evasive and fleeting, but their aural assault changed rock ’n’ roll, and its memory is tattooed like a teardrop on the faces of today’s bohemian neo-noise rockers.
No wave, it’s a sub-genre that evolved from many of the same roots as punk, but here, fused side by side, are pieces of avant-jazz and bits of classical minimalism. So apropo, the term—the no wavers hated it—a label based on ideas of negation and nihilism, drenched in a blatant postmodern Fuck You that aggressively and thoroughly deconstructed and reinvented rock ’n’ roll.
It’s not a simple punk corollary, as is so often lazily and doggedly assumed and repeated. No wavers tirelessly pounded on the doors and beat up against the boundaries of acceptable forms of music, in the process anticipating so many of the concepts later found in noise rock and the now-useless term, alternative music. These musical freaks, with their aggressively confrontational performances that borrowed from both the avant-garde and conceptual art, these goddamned sound assaulters took punk rock’s anti-establishment dogma and reshaped it to blanket the entire world. They were incestuous, tireless experimenters, backed by an undying inspiration from literary heroes as diverse as William Burroughs (junkie Beat forefather), Henry Miller (surrealist weirdo), and Søren Kierkegaard (19th-century existentialist). It was all there, anyone with bohemian DNA was resurrected, knee-deep in the bohemian placenta of the Grisette Queen herself. This group of transplanted artists, disaffected nihilists, and often-untrained musicians created America’s first postmodern rock ’n’ roll movement.1
“Town Without Pity”
A horde of artists staggered into the Lower East Side during the mid-70s. Here was cheap rent, a punk music scene, plenty of booze and drugs and sex—this being a time when The Great City’s looming bankruptcy filled the air with its putrid stink. Their influences were all over the place: The conceptual and pop art winks and nods of Fluxus and Andy Warhol’s Factory; the bleeding nihilism of Iggy Pop; the beautifully psychotic proto-punk of the Velvet Underground; the free jazz chaos of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. And of course the more formal worlds of traditional art, theater, dance, and poetry. And through this kaleidoscopic rainbow of influences the no wavers consciously set forth to explore the postmodern world of disjunctive performance and chance, of deconstruction, fragmentation, and intertextuality; casually combining and intertwining them with Dadaist concepts of nihilistic absurdity.
The Lower East Side in the 1970s was a dismal place, a depressing wasteland home to a dirty polluted sea of empty lots; abandoned, burned-out buildings; the bottomed-out lives of transients and junkies and hookers. Amidst freefalling property values, landlords were burning down their own goddamn buildings for insurance payloads.2 For no wave’s black-haired queen Lydia Lunch it was post-apocalyptic. “As everything’s collapsing, as buildings are burning, as poverty spreads its evil face across the whole fucking city, as everyone is starving . . . the music became the rebellion against all that. It was denying death, even if it was doing it in an angry nihilistic kind of way. Fuck death and fuck you to life too, and fuck you just in general.”3
DNA’s China Burg remembered dead bodies in the park, people shot almost every day. But the scuzz and desolation was also so crucial to the development of the nihilistic sensibility that no wave was built on: “The gritty wasteland of the Lower East Side matched our scorched-earth sensibility. The idea that there were no rules and all bets were off . . . . It was stripping down to the essence, taking things further, taking things as far as they would go.”4
This bleak existence was a consequence of a bankrupt city whose rich whites fled like scared little roaches to the suburbs following the war.5 The result was a desolate neighborhood full of vacated buildings that could be rented for a few dollars a month and a cost of living that bordered on nothing. Here artists and transients could forgo traditional working life and live the bohemian lifestyle—the artist dream—although unsurprisingly, life in this lawless Dickensian world created a specific sensibility rooted in nihilism and cynicism.
And so the New York punk scene was born.6 Disaffected by the failures of the hippies and the acid heads of the Love Generation, the endless marches of death and gloom and doom in Vietnam, and by the putrid urban squalor they lived in, punk rockers projected their frustrations through raucous rock ’n’ roll that recycled conventional pop songs through a cynical, nihilistic lens. Inspired by the subversive attitudes of groups like the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and the Stooges, punk reacted against the co-optation and the overindulgent capitalist commercialization of mainstream rock like Led Zeppelin. Suicide, Richard Hell, Television, the Heartbreakers, Blondie, Patti Smith . . . they all began exploring new avenues for rock music by paring pop music down to its core.7 In no time they were performing at local blues bars and divey clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, who quickly become the de facto showcase venues for this new music . . . PUNK ROCK.8 Punk infused the decaying atmosphere of Lower Manhattan with a sort of peer-reviewed nihilistic catharsis, and it seeped into the minds of the young and the newly arrived.9
By far the biggest punk influence on no wave was Suicide.10 A duo formed by Alan Vega and Martin Rev in 1971, Suicide mashed conceptual art–insanity with a deathly antagonistic performance ritual that went above and beyond the anti-establishment attitudes of the other early punk groups.11 Suicide was born from a unique mixture of art and music. Vega, the conceptual artist drawn to rock music after Seeing Iggy Pop dancing on stage while covered in his own blood. Rev, the keyboardist who studied under jazz pianist Lennie Tristano.12
Roy Trakin, a writer for the New York Rocker and Soho Weekly News, wrote that Suicide created “a maelstrom that was beyond music . . . an aural sculpture.” They tauntingly destroyed the audience-performer barrier (Trakin called them anti-humanistic robotoids).13 Vega’s matter-of-fact explanation: “we wanted to throw the meanness and nastiness of the street right back at the audience. If we sent them all running for the exits, that was considered a good show.”14 Lester Bangs wrote in the Soho Weekly News, as only Lester Bangs can, that Suicide “stands at the nexus where bubblegum music, Iggy bop, Kraftwerk electronics, Eno futurism, New York street jive, and primal scream vocalisations all somehow magically mesh.”15 That magical mesh was vital to the artists that would form the nascent no wave scene; Lydia Lunch and James Chance looked at them as near-literal father figures.16
Suicide’s emphasis on nihilistic performance and musical deconstruction anticipated the foundations of no wave. Lydia Lunch foamed at the mouth: “They were one of the most extreme things. I fell to my knees in praise to the gods. It was like nothing else. . . . The terror was such a beautiful thing to me, and strangely seductive.”17
Glenn Branca called them the godfathers of no wave.18
“Kill Yr Idols”
Owing a healthy debt to Suicide, the first full-blooded no wave group was born in 1976. Originally named China, but soon rechristened Mars, they were formed by Eckerd College alumni Mark Cunningham and China Burg alongside two transplanted London artists named Nancy Arlen and Sumner Crane.19 They started out playing Velvet Underground songs but quickly began writing their own, eventually playing their first gig at a CBGB’s audition in 1977. Mars’s members loved everything from the Velvets to Warhol to free jazz: Burg and Arlen met while taking dance classes at Trisha Brown Dance Company, and Crane was a painter who had also studied at Manhattan’s Art Students League under abstract expressionist Milton Resnick. They also claimed varying musical skills. Cunningham was a fantastic trumpet player. Sumner an accomplished guitarist. Burg and Arlen could barely play an instrument.20
Mars wanted to blur the boundaries between music and noise. With their mishmash of musical ability and their ragbag of artistic influences they reveled in the total deconstruction of rock ’n’ roll.21 To Arto Lindsay, Cunningham’s former Eckerd roommate and later the frontman for DNA, they were the first band “who dared to start out with a Roxy-ish or Velvets-influenced song and, by the end of it, be playing noise.”22 But the noise was obsessively rehearsed and carefully balanced with precisely choreographed detail; they practiced for a year before their first show. Mars’s music brought to mind everything from Lou Reed’s noise experiments to the anti- ethos of punk to the minimalist compositions of postmodernists like John Cage and La Monte Young. “Hairwaves,” with its stark abandonment of any semblance of melody, recalls Cage’s “Chance” compositions; Cunningham’s lurching bassline see-saws erratically, spattered with Burg’s sporadic slide guitar and Arlen’s primitive drum fills, all of which are glazed with unintelligible, ghostly vocals that vaguely appear only to fade away.23 After three and a half minutes, it all just lazily ends, with no sense of finality or closure. . . .
Mars, Cunningham explained, “adapted primitive song structures and concentrated on the intensity of the improvisation, at first more recognizably rock, then slowly mutating.” Burg remembers trying to see how far they could go before it wasn’t music anymore.24 Here no wave entered the fragmented and meaningless world of postmodernism. These ideas of antiform, antinarrative, and deconstruction—this anarchic attempt to play with form and structure—is a distinctly postmodern attitude, and it pervaded the groups that followed in Mars’s chaotic wake. “They were so dissonant, so obviously insane,” Lydia Lunch gleefully recalled, “There were no compromises or concessions to anything that had existed previously. They were truly creating from their own torture. The whole goal was to kill your idols.25 Lester Bangs later declared their debut EP a masterpiece: “For my money this piece of beyond-lyrics, often beyond-discernible-instrumentation psychotic noise is their absolute masterpiece. This is not “industrial” but human music . . . As it grinds and grieves and grovels, you cannot deny that they certainly plow what they sow.”26
Shortly after Cunningham created Mars, Arto Lindsay formed his own band, which he called DNA.27 After a few early lineup changes, DNA settled on a roster of Lindsay, Robin Crutchfield, and Ikue Mori.28 Like Mars, they rehearsed constantly: “people think it’s all improvised,” Lindsay explained, “They’re amazed when we all stop at the same time.”29 DNA were soon playing at CBGB’s and Max’s, pounding out the same types of abstract noise experimentations and deconstructions as Mars. Lindsay was excited about mixing punk with the avant-garde ideas of the 60s, which by now had filtered down to the kids of the 70s: “There was a youthful thing of seeing how far you could push anything. Punk. . . . made the downtown milieu of Soho’s art spaces, home to multimedia installations, performance art, and concerts by minimalist composers, seem pallid and genteel.”30
Two more groups with similar attitudes surfaced around the same time. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, brainchild of X-rated hypersexual teen runaway Lydia Lunch, and James Chance and the Contortions, led by Chance, a conservatory-educated saxophone player from Milwaukee.31 Chance was an original member of Teenage Jesus, but quickly left when it became painfully obvious that he and Lunch bore radically different philosophies about their audience; Lunch preferred a disassociated, alienated detachment, while Chance took on an aggressively confrontational antagonism.32
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ first single, “Orphans,” was released in May of 1978. Its aggressively nihilistic fuck-you attitude is pure no wave.33 The song’s violently simplistic tribal drum beat continuously and unflinchingly repeats for the entire two minutes; it’s the foundation for Lunch’s abrasive, dissonant slide guitar, which is caked in distortion and more reminiscent of the screeching and lurching sounds of a table saw than a pop song.34 Lunch avoids any hint of melody in her vocals, instead she’s shrieking the lyrics over and over until it suddenly ends.35 The lyrics transcend the working-class polemics of punk, venturing into the deconstructivist and surrealist world of postmodernism: Little orphans running through the bloody snow / Little orphans running through the bloody snow / Little orphans running through the blood, through the blood, through the / No more ankles and no more clothes. . . . It’s an uncompromising deconstruction of rock ’n’ roll conventions—more like performance art than any kind of real music.36
By 1978 no wave was in full force. Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus, James Chance—these became (and remain) the visible core, mostly due to Brian Eno’s 1978 no wave compilation, No New York (which only featured these four bands). But there were others. Theoretical Girls, the Gynecologists, Information, Rhys Chatham, Red Transistor, they all brought their own abrasive and unique contributions to the scene.
“Too Many Creeps”
No wavers loved the punk-influenced nihilism of bands like Suicide, but they were equally excited about free jazz and other avant-garde music du jour.37 Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were big favorites: James Chance was described as a melting pot of Ayler, Iggy, and James Brown; DNA’s Sumner Crane had a long-time interest in the free jazz of Coleman and Eric Dolphy.38 Glenn Branca composed avant-garde scores for the plays he wrote as a part of his Bastard Theatre company, as well citing Steve Reich’s phase experiments as a major influence on his 1980 single, “Lesson #1 for Electric Guitar.”39 Branca’s bandmate Jeffrey Lohn had a music degree, and Rhys Chatham studied under the minimalist composers La Monte Young and Tony Conrad before founding the music program at the Kitchen, an art space in Soho’s Mercer Arts Center.40
Mixing different art forms was a major part of the renegade no wave attitude. Mirroring the developments of the 1970s New York fine art scene, no wave took on a postmodernist, interdisciplinary perspective that abandoned ownership and specialty. In the art scene, the intermedia experiments of provocateurs like Warhol and borderline-insane conceptual groups like Fluxus divorced art from its own realm in order to showcase its artificiality, a development snidely described by Fluxus artist Ben Vautier as “a pain in art’s ass.”41 At the same time, the U.S. government also began providing funds for alternative art spaces through the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, which were instituted in 1960 and 1965, respectively. The programs gave art venues like the Kitchen and Artists Space a way to receive funding if they incorporated themselves as nonprofit galleries.42 Not surprisingly, with money secured, alternative galleries like these came up with increasingly challenging experimental art that embraced the new postmodern tendencies of fragmentation and intertextuality. By the 70s the work of artists like Yoko Ono, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden were trending toward extreme confrontation with a heavy focus on intermedia.
No wave musicians, who were almost all incestuously tied to various art disciplines in one way or another, naturally toyed with similar crossover ideas, probably most clearly illustrated by the convergent no wave film movement (also known as New Cinema). Filmmakers like Diego Cortez, Vivienne Dick, and Scott and Beth B. were heavily influenced by the experimentation of artists like Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jonas Mekas. They shunned technological perfection, shot with Super 8, and used an amateur roster of their nearby no wave friends to act in their films, which were usually screened at home-turf venues like CBGB’s. Like their musician counterparts, no wave filmmakers consciously inverted established ideas of narrative and structure. As J. Hoberman explained in a Film Comment review, the “dominant mode of the ‘no wave’ film [is] the ironic spectacle.”43 Diego Cortez’s Rome ’78, for example, is a semi-satiric Hollywood epic that takes place in present-day New York, mixing cheap period costumes with modern flair—wristwatches and cigarettes and whatever else, all obviously anachronistic to ancient Rome—tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Most no wave filmmakers played with similar ideas of truth and artifice; their films revealed visible scripts and production equipment, exposing the bullshit lies of Hollywood by leaving mistakes and anachronisms apparent and untouched. All of this of course fits right in with the nature of postmodern art, which, according to scholars Steven Best and Douglas Kellner “calls attention to the process of aesthetic creation as fictive, constructive, and artificial in nature.”44
This orgiastic intermixture of art (and the intense, drug-driven desire to experiment that came along with it) created what Sal Principato of Liquid Liquid could only describe as a “cultural wild west.” Filmmaker and Contortions member James Nares remembered a scene where “everyone was doing everything. You painted, you were in a band, you made films, you wrote songs. It was just all so interconnected.”45 It was all so postmodern, too: A hallmark of postmodern art is the tendency to move away from the “autonomous logic” of modernism and instead toward experimentation with multimedia and the incorporation of multiple artistic genres.46
Naturally, all of this crossbreeding bred a creature that is more or less impossible to define. At its most basic level, no wave music was generally atonal and chaotic, and usually blood-bound with a venomous hostility toward the audience, although those characteristics varied wildly.47 But however ambiguous the sound and style of no wave was, Brian Eno gave it a true identity in 1978, when he organized and produced the seminal no wave compilation, No New York. Eno’s role as producer of the Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, had brought him to New York during the spring of ’78, where various art scene mavens introduced him to no wave.48 After attending a five-day music festival held at Artists Space in Tribeca, Eno knew he was witnessing something special: “It just seemed to me like one of those sort of flames that burns very brightly for a short time and then it goes out. . . . I wanted to make a document of this for historical reasons, this moment in time where this amazing scene erupted.”49
Unsurprisingly, this experimental scene on the outskirts of rock ’n’ roll in the slums of 1970s New York wasn’t overflowing with recorded material.50 A few groups, like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, had released some seven-inch singles and EPs but no wave was still mostly a live experience, lived and breathed at divey punk clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s, or at pseudo-galleries like Artists Space and the Kitchen.51 Eno’s compilation ratcheted up the visibility for the four groups that appeared on the record, which included four songs each from James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. Released in November of 1978 through the Island Records subsidiary, Antilles, No New York was aimed directly at the beating heart of the NYC underground.52 Because of Eno’s cachet, No New York became the defining no wave document, forming a brand new coherent identity for a scene that was by its very nature extremely goddamn difficult to define.
The design of No New York is specifically meant to get away from the ripped-and-torn punk mood swings that no wave is so often lazily partnered with. The cover image is the opposite of the grungy anti-establishment vibe of bands like the Ramones or Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Instead, Eno sliced up a photo and layered it with the hazy hues of a polarized acid flashback. It’s a mysterious, abstract design; composed of four shadowy figures, blurred and disjointed, floating in the Great Bright White, intimating death and destruction, or at the very least, a nebulous, undefined reality or fragmented existence.53
The recordings on the album itself were typically abrasive. John Rockwell of the New York Times wrote that the record was “the most perfect instance yet on disk of what might be called disciplined musical sadomasochism,” although he did kindly take care to note that “for those who like their music to scream out in a strict, painfully purposeful way, it can also provide a cold kind of pleasure.”54 By giving each band a similar production quality, Eno more or less established a cohesive sound for no wave music in general. The inclusion of these four loosely related bands under one project also allowed for the designation of a bona fide movement—no wave the genre. A genre, as theorist Fabian Holt has pointed, out, “can only be established if the music has a name. The name becomes a point of reference and enables certain forms of communication, control, and specialization into markets, canons, and discourses.”55
So even though no wave musicians specifically tried to avoid classification and easy categorization, the creation of a coherent genre allowed writers and critics to discuss no wave in logical contemporary terms. Naming the genre, which symbolized cooptation and conformity, put no wave to death.56 DNA’s Robin Crutchfield made it clear: “the no wave crowd hated being defined or pigeonholed by anyone, and most weren’t about to be summed up by a term cast off in a disdainful interview, even by one of their own.”57 James Chance agreed: “No wave was a label that writers came up with when No New York came out. No one talked about no wave before that.”58 When Roy Trakin asked Chance if he considered himself a part of any movement, Chance was horrified and disgusted. “NO!! I DESPISE movements!! I’d never be a part of any movement!”59
Whether they liked it or not, after Eno’s compilation was released, no wave became official.
“I Can’t Stand Myself”
The fragmented reality of no wave—so accurately and metaphorically displayed on the cover of No New York—was the natural result of a bunch of fucked-up disaffected musicians trying to break free from the chains of order by deconstructing and abandoning everything that came before. Punk attitudes politicized working-class resistance; no wave spewed an inherent nihilism that took it even further. It created an elusive world that questioned everything and answered nothing. It’s the logical conclusion of punk rock.60 Marc Masters explains: “Punk and new wave represented an alternative to the bloated, co-opted arena rock of the early 1970s, and that difference attracted no wavers looking to defy rules. But in order to truly say ‘no’ to what had come before, the no wave groups even had to reject what inspired them, and stake out territory different from the bands they admired.”61 Lydia Lunch considered herself a conceptualist more than a musician, “more akin to Marcel Duchamp . . . I wanted to contradict not just everything that preceded me but my own previous music, too.”62 And she was right; it was Duchamp whose irony and apolitical version of Dada found the most resonance in postmodern art.63 The apolitical and ironic nature of no wave likewise pushed it past punk’s fundamental political ideology and into the fragmented world of postmodernist play.
The nihilism of no wave certainly contained its roots in punk, especially the extreme sadomasochist brand of punk performed by Suicide, but Lunch and the other no wavers took it further still, denouncing with middle fingers in the air and fuck-you stares everything that was a part of anything. It was this unwavering attitude that was the primary operator behind no wave music. As Kellner and Best have convincingly argued, postmodern artists tend to gravitate toward “the rejection of structure, order, continuity, and cause-effect relations in favor of disorder, chaos, chance, discontinuity, indeterminacy and forces of random or aleatory play,” an accurate description of no wave if there ever was one.64 Teenage Jesus’s Jim Sclavunos was more cavalier: “Lydia and I agreed that it should be the aural equivalent of rough sex, a good cold hard hate-fuck. We managed to say what we needed to say in ten minutes, quick and to the point. And just in case there were masochists or deluded intellectuals in the audience who were getting off on the show, we needed to thwart and frustrate that pleasure with a cruel premature withdrawal.”65
Andy Schwartz of the New York Rocker described the “pervasive coldness” of a Mars performance as “the total absence of any human feeling save a kind of neurotic violence turned first against oneself, then against one’s audience.”66 James Chance called his fans “the lowest creature[s] on earth,” and Glenn Branca admitted that when he got on stage he was “attacking the audience in [his] mind.”67 Describing a DNA show, the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote that “Arto Lindsay slashes, scrapes, claws and generally ravages the high end of the fret board in a discordant attack that would make a battle between two dozen large alley cats and a carpet sweeper seem melodic by comparison.”68 This antagonism came from an intensely nihilistic outlook that enveloped the entire lives of these people. As Lydia Lunch so defiantly explained, “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 is the positivity? I’m supposed to be fucking positive? Fuck you! You want positive, go elsewhere. Go find a different lie. That was the beauty of the time: nobody was pretending to be happy. They were just trying to be honest as possible. This is how I feel. This is what I see. This is what’s going on. Here. Now.”69
She wasn’t just talking about music, either. All of life, it was all up for grabs, it was all hilarious and it was all stupid . . . . So fuck it. Jim Sclavunos’s description of that period sounds like a Jackass movie: “It was all very amusing I guess: orgies, dildos and dead mice in the freezer, shaved pubes, roommates that never moved in, roommates that never paid the rent, guests that never left, filth and blood and a giant inflatable hand, TVs and bicycles and records flung out of windows, bricks tossed from the roof, hammers tossed through French doors, LSD and cops and pre-dawn raids, trannies, prostitutes, mattresses stuffed down an elevator shaft and a sleazy Arab landlord.”70
The negation, the nihilism, it’s all pretty comparable to the Dadaists in the 1920s. Like the Dadaists, no wave artists allowed the dirty wasteland they lived in to form the basis of a nihilistic attitude that was coated with dark, absurdist humor, which they transposed into their art. Lunch understood. “I don’t think nihilism is a strong enough word. I hated everything. At the same time, I probably laughed more than anyone else. As horrible as it is, you have to fucking laugh, or you are going to kill yourself or somebody else.”71 That laughter—Gallows humor, really—bled into a worldview that reviled everything. For Lunch, life itself was the Big Joke; it was “survival of the shittiest . . . Not that we’re keeping score or nothing . . . THE BIG FAT NOTHING . . . Fraught with rot . . . The endless vacuum . . . Nothing can become of nothing and we, we who have nothing have nothing better to do anyway . . . And there’s plenty to go around . . . Plenty of nothing. . . . ”72
The Dada Manifesto spewed similar disdain in the 1920s, begging for an “awakening of anti-human action” to negate and sweep and clean what was left of the wasteland that the bandits of this mad, mad world had pissed and shit all over. The solution, in the wonderful vocab of Dada, was to proclaim “the opposition of all the cosmic faculties to this gonorrhea of a putrid sun produced by the factories of philosophic thought.”73 The extreme nihilistic outlook of no wave artists like Lunch draws from these Modernist ideas—Dadaist especially—that art is the supreme Being; Art as religion. In this view, art alone is pure, life is worthless when divorced from it, and producing art for yourself is the only reason to live. The Dadaists took it to the extreme: “Every pictorial or plastic work is useless. . . . Order=disorder; ego=non-ego; affirmation=negation: all are supreme radiations of an absolute art. Absolute in the purity of cosmic and ordered chaos, eternal in the globule-second without duration, without respiration, without light, without control. . . . Art is a private matter; the artist does it for himself.”74
Like the Dadaists, no wavers went all-in for art, often willing to die for it, a historically bohemian attitude.75 As Lunch sardonically mused, “When I go down . . . I plan on taking a few of you assholes with me . . . And just think about it . . . What could be better than to die for your art . . . TO DIE FOR MY ART . . . Now we’re talking. . . . ”76
But unlike Dada, with its manifesto and overarching label, no wave artists lived with a much more postmodern, elusive outlook. Marc Masters explains this perfectly: “no wave was a movement predicated on negation—except those involved didn’t consider it a movement, and didn’t predicate it on anything. No wave even said ’No’ to its own existence.”77 No wave bands refused meaning. They just performed . . . They let the spectacle become the meaning.
No wave transcended the modernist ideas of Dada with an apolitical outlook that rejected any and all classification. As Best and Kellner have put it, “in retrospect, Dada can be seen as a virus that entered the body of modernism and affected many later artists, causing it to mutate into postmodernism.”78
“Design to Kill”
The dark absurdist humor of no wave ultimately fleshed itself out in the post-no wave groups. By the end of the 70s almost everyone in the no wave scene bluntly and matter-of-factly ended their ties and moved on. Lydia Lunch literally ended Teenage Jesus and the Jerks because she turned twenty (no longer a teenager): “It wasn’t a premature death, it was an immediate and accurate one,” she explained.79 For Glenn Branca, “you go so far in something, and then it comes back to zero again.”80 DNA, according to Arto Lindsay, “had come as far as we could.” As for Mars, “Sumner once said we were on a countdown from ten to one, and at one it was time to start over.”81
As it died off, no wave artists dove even deeper into the world of irony and contradiction. James Chance recorded an ironic version of a disco album. Arto Lindsay formed the Lounge Lizards, who tauntingly played “fake jazz,” and members of Mars and DNA recorded a “no wave opera” inspired by Kierkegaard and Mozart.82 The Raybeats, featuring former Contortions Jody Harris and Don Christensen as well as Pat Irwin of Teenage Jesus, played a blend of trashy tongue-in-cheek surf rock and 50s bebop, while Lydia Lunch recorded a solo album that was based on cartoon music and nursery rhymes.83 Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca moved in still other directions, focusing on extreme minimalist-influenced compositions. Branca wrote rock symphonies that featured over thirty simultaneous guitars, while Chatham’s “Guitar Trio,” which he performed throughout the 80s, was one single distorted chord continuously repeated for twenty minutes or more.84
And so it was. After two . . . maybe three years . . . no wave was dead. But it anticipated so much of what was to come in rock music. Throughout the 80s, the innovations and tendencies of no wave artists seeped into other genres: post-punk, disco-fusion, alternative, noise rock, all of them influenced by some part of no wave. Performer-audience alienation was vital to shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine and Jesus & Mary Chain, who famously performed at ear-splitting decibel levels with their backs to the audience. Direct no wave descendants like Sonic Youth and Swans took their inspiration and flew into the face of the sun with the crazed minds of Thurston Moore and Michael Gira leading the way.85 Live Skull, Big Black, and the Jesus Lizard continued down the pathway of acerbic aggression, and Steve Albini’s production in particular brings the no wave scene to mind. Blonde Redhead named themselves after a DNA song. Experimental noise groups like Deerhoof and Boredoms owe their entire existences to no wave, while Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is practically modeled after Lydia Lunch. Recent indie darlings like White Lung and Iceage and Perfect Pussy all channel the cutting abrasiveness of Teenage Jesus. Nirvana’s more primitive recordings are weirdly similar to DNA’s “New New,” among others, and the post-no wave group Liquid Liquid’s single, “Cavern,” was sampled on Grandmaster Flash’s seminal hip hop track, “White Lines,” which in turn inspired a generation in a different direction.
Ultimately, the artists that were involved in the no wave scene were trying to escape their bleak existence in the bankrupt slums of New York City by adapting and adopting postmodern attitudes that relied on deconstruction and chance; disorder, and nihilistic spectacle. They used their disaffection and reappropriated it with slide guitars and drills and shrieks and metaphorical middle fingers that destroyed the past and confronted the future. They empowered themselves without having to say it. A fucked-up new truth, birthed from an age of uncertainty—it gave these artists a way to take control over a world they were increasingly alienated from. No wave artists openly embraced contradiction, even within their own beliefs and ideas. The result was a postmodern rock ’n’ roll movement that died almost immediately after it was born; something so fierce, that perhaps it never could have lasted. As James Chance later sneered, “I hate art, it makes me sick.”86
- There were singular outliers, of course, such as Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music (RCA Victor, 1975), and especially the work of Frank Zappa. Experimental musicians such as James Tenney (see Selected Works, 1961-1969, New World Records, 2003) and the Residents (see specifically Meet the Residents, Ralph Records, 1974, and The Third Reich ’n’ Roll, Ralph Records, 1976) can also be considered here, though they fit more comfortably within the parameters of the avant-garde. In Europe, postmodernist tendencies are evident in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“A Day in the Life” in particular), released on Parlophone in 1967, as well as in the industrial scene that developed during roughly the same time period as no wave, which included groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and others. However, these notable examples are beyond the scope of this essay.
- As many as 354 fires were documented in the Lower East Side in 1978. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 144.
- Lunch quoted in Thurston Moore and Byron Coley, No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980. (New York: Abrams Image, 2008), 131. Several no wave-influenced musicians have participated in histories of no wave, either as authors, or by providing forewords, afterwords, etc. Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), and music critic Byron Coley offer a wonderful photo essay and oral history of the 1970s New York underground in this book.
- Reynolds, Rip it Up, 144. For a companion book featuring an excellent collection of interviews and overviews related to the punk, post-punk, and no wave scenes, see Reynolds, Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010), particularly pp. 131–42 (James Chance), and pp. 143–53 (Lydia Lunch).
- Ut quoted in David Byrne and Cindy Sherman, New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88, ed. Stuart Baker (London: Soul Jazz, 2007), 152. Put together by David Byrne (Talking Heads), and photographer Cindy Sherman, this collection features hundreds of rare photographs from the New York underground circa 1970s and 80s.
- The white population in Manhattan alone decreased by nearly 500,000 between 1950 and 1970. Ira Rosenwaike, Population History of New York City (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 133.
- Poet Ed Sanders, former frontman of the legendary 1960s anarcho-politico group the Fugs, was the first to use “punk” as a musical term; in 1970 he told the Chicago Tribune that his recent solo album, Sanders’ Truckstop, was “punk rock—redneck sentimentality—my own past updated to present day reality.” The term quickly gained traction with mainstream critics, including Dave Marsh (Creem), Robert Christgau (Village Voice), and others. By the mid-1970s, punk as a musical description referred to a specifically nihilistic, garage-fueled aesthetic, which would ultimately refine and locate itself in Lower Manhattan in clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Meantime, the punk fashion style can be credited to Richard Hell, whose look was then coopted by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood for their SEX boutique in London. After assisting in the creation of the Sex Pistols, McLaren took care to dress the band accordingly.
- See Lester Bangs’s brilliant essay, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” for a wonderfully sardonic takedown of the state of commercial music in the 1970s.
- CBGB’s (Country, BlueGrass, and Blues), located at 315 Bowery in Manhattan, ultimately became the go-to punk club. Although it famously played a major part in the birth of punk rock, it was originally founded by Hilly Kristal in 1973 with the intent to book acts from the genres it was named after. For an excellent collection of photos see Hilly Kristal, CBGB & OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Rock (New York: Harry N Abrams, 2005). See also Christopher D. Salyers, CBGB: Decades of Graffiti (New york: Mark Batty Publisher, 2006) for an interesting display of CBGB’s graffiti.
- DNA’s China (né Connie) Burg recalled, “we were kids in the 60s, and that’s when this incredible rock ’n’ roll was happening. Then in the 70s it became totally coopted, and became a commercial entity. And personally, I just hated it. So this idea to bring music back to that kind of spirit and not have it be a music industry phenomenon was very appealing.” Quoted in Marc Masters, No Wave (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007), 23.
- Suicide currently lives on in contemporary fashion in part due to acclaimed pop singer M.I.A., who sampled the band’s “Ghost Rider” track on her 2010 hit, “Born Free.” See also Dirty Beaches (aka Alex Zhang Hungtai) for a recent indie act that owes a tremendous debt to the group.
- According to Simon Reynolds, “Suicide’s shows worked as supercolliders in which ideas from minimalism, auto-destructive art, living theater, and pop art clashed.” Reynolds, Rip it Up, 143.
- As a sculptor in the sixties, Vega joined the Art Workers Coalition, a militant socialist group that once barricaded the MoMA. He then met Rev at the Project of Living Artists, an anarchic workshop/performance space in Soho, where he worked by day and lived illegally by night. Ibid., 142.
- Trakin quoted in Masters, No Wave, 28.
- Vega quoted in ibid.
- Bangs quoted in ibid., 27.
- Says Lunch, “Marty looked after me, gave me vitamins. What better parents could you have than Suicide? They were my first friends in New York.” Quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 143.
- Lunch quoted in Masters, No Wave, 29.
- Ibid., 30.
- The band changed its name to Mars after discovering full-page ads for another band called China; Eckerd College is a liberal arts school in St Petersburg, Florida. The school allowed students to create their own curriculums, which attracted a large populace of freethinking artist types, many of whom later became part of the no wave scene, including Mark Cunningham and China Burg (Mars), Arto Lindsay (DNA), and Bobby and Liz Swope (Beirut Slump).
- Masters, No Wave, 39.
- Sumner Crane was also an ardent fan of philosophy and adored the existentialist work of Søren Kierkegaard; the band would later dedicate a song to him, and in 1980, members of Mars and DNA released John Gavanti, a “no wave opera” based on Kierkegaard’s “Immediate Stages of the Erotic” essay, which argues that Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the perfect opera.
- Lindsay quoted in Masters, No Wave, 42.
- A few of Lindsay’s goals for the group were to sound like “the music they play during a possession ceremony,” like “a John Cage or William Burroughs book,” and like “a drum.” Quoted in ibid., 52.
- Cunningham quoted in ibid., 42.
- Lunch quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 148. According to Lunch, “the driving vision . . . was to castrate the tradition of melody and composition and simply vent in the most primal way possible the horrible din of [her] own torture.” Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 76.
- Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 304.
- In fact, the band was named after an abandoned Mars song.
- Lindsay had been offered a spot in Mars but wanted instead to front his own band. He formed DNA with Robin Crutchfield, a performance artist influenced by Yoko Ono and Nico, who had only recently taught himself to play keyboards. Lindsay and Crutchfield were specifically inspired by conceptual artists like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden (in 1971, Burden had an assistant shoot an actual bullet into his arm for a piece titled “Shoot”). Explained Lindsay, “I was attracted to the idea of putting myself in danger—embodying my ideas, and conversely lending my body to my ideas, to make them potent. I was interested in pushing the audience, making them watch more than they wanted to see.” Drummer Ikue Mori was then chosen “strictly on vibe and physical/mental attraction,” despite having never played the drums before. Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 51-53.
- Lindsay quoted in ibid., 55.
- Lindsay quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 142.
- Lunch (né Koch) was born in Rochester, New York, before running away to the Lower East Side as a teen to pursue poetry, armed with the existentialist and surrealist influences of writers like Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet. She began going by Lydia Lunch following an encounter with Willie DeVille of the band Mink DeVille; She had been bringing the group stolen meals from her waitressing job, and one day upon seeing her, DeVille exclaimed, “here comes Lydia Lunch.” She has since become a cult underground figure, with an oeuvre that includes dozens of literary works, roles in several no wave–era films, various solo albums, and appearances on a myriad of other works. See Masters, No Wave, 73.
Lunch is also a sex-positive feminist who could be aggressively hypersexual. According to Richard Kern, “when routinely accosted on the street, [Lydia] thought nothing of stopping, turning to the guy and saying, ‘well come on, let’s fuck. You’re such a big man, let’s see your cock.’ She’s a one-woman war; an antifeminist feminist.” Kern quoted in Cesar Padilla, Ripped: T-Shirts From the Underground (New York: Rizzoli Universe, 2012), 127. Thurston Moore echoed this sentiment: “Lydia Lunch is awesome. One of the first times I met her she made me stand lookout while she peed in the stairwell of some bowery flophouse. She was a wildcat no doubt, I was only too happy to start playing with her after years of spying on her in the subway station and the laundromat. She taught me songs by humming them in my ear with the lights off. Unnerving, but it got the job done. She never wore underwear.” Quoted in ibid., 125.
- Chance (né Siegfried) famously got into a physical fight with Village Voice critic Robert Christgau during a set at the Artists Space Festival in 1978 (coincidentally the same festival that Brian Eno attended, which would lead to the organization of the no wave compilation No New York). According to Contortions lead guitarist Jody Harris, “Christgau loved it. He said, ‛James Chance is an asshole! But he’s a genius!’ ” Ibid., 87.
- Lester Bangs had this to say about Teenage Jesus: “Guys in my sixth-grade neighborhood used to entertain themselves by tying the head of a cat to one hot-rod fender and its tail to another and driving the cars apart slowly, which sounded a lot like part of this. Unless it’s for Catholic-school beatings by nuns, nostalgia doesn’t account for Lydia’s passionate ’Baby Doll’ wailing . . . nothing more deathly shrill has ever been recorded.” Bangs, Psychotic Reactions, 303.
- Von LMO of Red Transistor literally incorporated sounds like these into his performances. “I took the drill and used it right on the strings,” he recalled. “I didn’t know that it was dangerous.” Red Transistor performances also featured chainsaws taken to the band’s organs and guitars. Glenn Branca described Red Transistor as “the noisiest of all no wave bands—the most vicious, the ugliest, and the loudest.” Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 135. See also Moore and Coley, No Wave, 43-49.
- Like Mars and DNA, Teenage Jesus made a point of rehearsal. Recalls lunch, “it was a very precise operation, which amazes me even to this day, all of us knowing nothing. But I think I knew instinctively that if it was going to be so minimal, it had to be really tight.” Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 76.
- Lester Bangs included Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ album as one of the “landmarks of rock ’n’ roll history” along with Beatles ’65, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and (outsider group) the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World in his essay, “Better Than the Beatles (and DNA, too).”
- Sonic Youth, whose members played at various times with both Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, paid homage to these avant-garde influences on their album Goodbye 20th Century, released in 1999 on their SYR label. The record features covers of numerous avant-garde works by the likes of John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, Christian Wolff, and others.
- Reynolds, Rip it Up, 150. ———, Totally Wired, 133.
- Masters, No Wave, 126.
- Lohn recalled: “I grew up on classical, jazz, and world music—all kinds of stuff, but no rock ’n’ roll. I went to my first rock concert about two weeks after I met Glenn. I saw the Dead Boys, and I really liked it. It was almost like theatre, but so unpretentious, so stripped down and brutal. . . . my idea was to mix classical music with punk rock.” Quoted in ibid., 112; Like Lohn, after growing up on classical and jazz music, Chatham had a revelation when first taken to a punk show by fellow composer Peter Gordon: “It was the Ramones,” he remembered, “what I heard changed my life. I had been composing austere minimalist pieces. When I heard them I found many things in common. They may have been playing three chords and I was only playing one, but they inspired me to pick up electric guitar.” Chatham soon teamed up with Nina Canal, a former colleague at a London art school who had moved to New York to pursue conceptual art, and formed the Gynecologists. Quoted in ibid., 117. See also Moore and Coley, No Wave, 48.
- Vautier quoted in Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), xiii.
- For more information on alternative art space in New York see Lauren Rosati and Mary Anne Staniszewski, eds., Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces 1960 to 2010 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012).
- J Hoberman, “The Super-80s,” Film Comment (1981): 39.
- Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 136.
- Nares later formed the Del Byzanteens with Jim Jarmusch. He was also a founding member of Colab, an interdisciplinary art collective active in the late 1970s and early 80s.
- Best and Kellner, Postmodern, 172.
- Explains Jim Sclavunos of Teenage Jesus: “I think the aims and methods of each band were quite unique. However one common aspect to all the bands was their auditory roughness: harsh, strident instrumentation, dissonance, and atonality to some degree. All of the bands had somewhat alienating stage presentations. Audiences were subjected to random outbursts of violence or a disjointed stage presentation or cool obliviousness or disdainful hostility, sometimes all of the above.” Sclavunos quoted in ibid., 32.
Sclavunos exemplifies the frequent member exchange of no wave groups. At various times he played with the Gynecologists, Red Transistor, Information, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8 Eyed Spy, and Beirut Slump. He then played drums on Sonic Youth’s debut full-length, Confusion is Sex, released in 1983.
- It was likely Steve Mass, who later established the Mudd Club, and his then-girlfriend Anya Phillips who introduced Eno to the no wave scene. Eno had met Mass through no wave filmmaker Diego Cortez. Moore and Coley, No Wave, 78.
- Eno quoted in ibid., 79-80.
- DNA’s first EP, A Taste of DNA (featuring former Pere Ubu member Tim Wright in place of Robin Crutchfield, who had left soon after the release of No New York to form Dark Day), wouldn’t come out until 1980—well past the expiration date of no wave. Some bands, such as the Gynecologists and Information, never released anything.
- Two labels in particular were behind nearly every no wave release: ZE Records, run by an eclectic rich kid with a genteel British background named Michael Zilkha, and Lust/Unlust Records, run by Charles Ball, who put “every penny [he] could scrape together” into the company. Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 34.
- Eno sold the record to Chris Blackwell, who put up the money, by explaining that “this is a piece of history and I don’t expect it’s going to make a lot of money now. It won’t sell a lot of records. But I think it will end up being an important document.” He was correct. See Moore and Coley, No Wave, 79-85.
- Eno himself echoed this: “I was sort of intrigued with this image that came out. How ephemeral it looked . . . It had the feeling that I thought this record would have, of something that was momentary and probably was going to disappear.” Quoted in Moore and Coley, No Wave, 83.
- John Rockwell, “The Pop Life: Journey to the Outer Edges of Rock,” New York Times, January 12, 1979, C20.
- Fabian Holt, Genre in Popular Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 3.
- As the New York Times’ Robert Palmer later declared, “Naming the movement just about finished it off.” Robert Palmer, “Lydia Lunch Looks Back in Anarchy,” New York Times, May 31, 1987, H23.
- Crutchfield quoted in Masters, No Wave, 17. This comment refers to the origin of the term “no wave,” which may have been accidentally coined by Lydia Lunch herself. Allegedly, during an interview, Lunch was once asked whether or not her music was new wave, to which she responded snidely, “More like no wave.” Some believe this is where the term originated.
- Chance quoted in ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 15.
- Roy Trakin agrees, “these bands questioned the idea of the narrative and how it functions inside a capitalist society. If the punk scene was a reaction to commercial rock, then no wave was a reaction to what punk had become.” Quoted in ibid., 114.
- Masters, No Wave, 23.
- Lunch quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 157.
- Best and Kellner, Postmodern, 173.
- Ibid., 136. Roy Trakin offered a similar observation: “It was really a generation that was going beyond . . . the whole three-chord rock that had come up from Elvis and the Beatles. . . . The no wave stuff was completely a different direction . . . It really was a big middle finger [toward] commercial music or melodies or verses or choruses.” Trakin quoted in Masters, No Wave, 25.
- Sclavunos quoted in ibid., 82.
- Schwartz quoted in ibid., 45.
- Chance quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 156. Branca quoted in Masters, No Wave, 114.
- Alan Niester, “DNA No Proof That Evolution Affects Music,” Toronto Globe and Mail, February 2, 1981, 16.
- Lunch quoted in Masters, No Wave, 30-31.
- Sclavunos quoted in ibid., 83.
- Lunch quoted in ibid., 25.
- Lydia Lunch, Incriminating Evidence: The Collected Writings of Lydia Lunch (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1992), 5.
- Quoted in Malcolm Cowley, “The Death of Dada,” in Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (Penguin, 1951), 150.
- Quoted in ibid., 149.
- To achieve her bohemian lifestyle, Lunch admitted, “You begged, borrowed, stole, sold drugs, worked a couple of days at a titty bar if you had to. I don’t know how I got by, but it didn’t take much.” Lunch quoted in Masters, No Wave, 18.
- Lunch, Incriminating Evidence, 8.
- Masters, No Wave, 15.
- Best and Kellner, Postmodern, 173. Lydia Lunch later echoed this: “I wasn’t expecting the toilets at CBGB’s to be the bookends to Duchamp’s urinal, but then again, maybe 1977 had more in common with 1917 than anyone at the time could have imagined. The anti-art invasion of dada in Switzerland and the surrealist pranksters who shadowed them had a blast pissing all over everybody’s expectations. 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.” Quoted in Moore and Coley, No Wave, 4.
- According to Sumner Crane, ”I wanted in a very simple way to do . . . a take off which exaggerates Don Juan’s power—to just hit people over the head with the idea.” Quoted in Masters, No Wave, 65.
- Lunch even enlisted the help of Billy Ver Planck, composer of the Flintstones theme song. “Ver Planck nearly had a coronary,” she recalled, “he hated what we did. I was so happy. It was exactly the music I wanted to make.” Quoted in ibid., 106.
- Upon hearing Chatham’s “Guitar Trio,” Glenn Branca declared: “this is what [Lou Reed’s] Metal Machine Music should have sounded like.” Quoted in ibid., 123.
- Lunch quoted in Clinton Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 319.
- Branca quoted in Masters, No Wave, 132.
- Cunningham quoted in ibid., 51.
- Sonic Youth’s guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are renowned for their use of alternate guitar tunings, a practice they adopted from Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. Moore and Ranaldo have used so many alternate tunings that they have to apply pieces of masking type to the backs of each of their guitars with the names of the songs it can play.
- Chance quoted in Reynolds, Rip it Up, 145.