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Just Say Yes: No Wave by Marc Masters

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Dusted’s Jordan N. Mamone analyzes a historical overview of the infamously ahistoric No Wave scene.

Just Say Yes: No Wave by Marc Masters

No Wave
by Marc Masters
Black Dog Publishing, 205 pp.

Marc Masters had his work cut out for him when he recently canonized the fleeting, fractured and specific moment in time that was no wave. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the participants in this short-lived, downtown NYC phenomenon would have sneered at any fool – God forbid, a journalist – who might have attempted such an academic feat. If punk was a movement personified by the Sex Pistols shouting “no future” at the establishment, here was a fiercely intelligent anti-trend that rejected even the supposedly radical underground while spitting on the whole idea of “movements” in the first place. When Contortions leader James Chance howled “Once you take out all the garbage that’s in your brain/Forget about your future/I said it’s just, just too tame,” he wasn’t predicting some grim political situation; he was negating the entire human race and virulently shrugging his shoulders at the bland world around him.

Nihilism notwithstanding, this pissed-off declaration of independence ignited a positive explosion of creativity and a thoughtful reaction against the sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing fakery of commercial new wave. Despite its rapid demise (curmudgeons claim no wave died the minute the media invented a name for it), the scene’s influence has endured. Its collision of conscious primitivism, fearless amateurism, perverted technique, and conceptual mischief opened up vast auditory possibilities. Dealing with the aftermath of this grassroots revolution, Chapter Six of Masters’ book illustrates how an abrupt slap in the Me Decade’s face would reverberate into the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond. He explains its impact on the disjointed dance-funk of the Bush Tetras and Liquid Liquid as well as its effect on the gut-wrenching caterwaul of Sonic Youth and Swans.

No wave essentially forced rock to explicitly and deliberately use noise as a building block for succinct, aggressive songs. But this strategy wasn’t totally unprecedented when the intrepid quartet Mars initially employed it in 1975: In Chapter One, Masters summarizes the lessons taught by the Velvets, the Stooges, the Voidoids, Suicide, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, free jazz, and various ethnic recordings. He stresses the savage individualism of these touchstones and draws parallels to the rattiest edges of literature and the visual arts.

Instead of imagining them as adherents to a homogeneous philosophy, No Wave rightfully depicts its subjects as an incestuous but diverse pack of friends whose romantically harsh environment (i.e. a desolate and bankrupt lower Manhattan) was its primary common denominator. Masters successfully links, but more significantly contrasts the clique’s four prominent bands, Mars, DNA, the Contortions, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, all of which patron Brian Eno invited onto the genre-inaugurating 1978 anthology No New York. The author describes these trailblazers concisely and elegantly, unclouded by excessive editorializing. He keeps his ego in check and – through exclusive interviews plus research from old weeklies, fanzines, and liner notes – allows no wave’s principals to recount their fascinating shared history on their own terms, thus capturing the excitement, restlessness, and precariousness of the era.

Thankfully, Masters’ refreshingly sober style avoids the pitfalls of crappy pop-culture tomes. He refuses to clutter the text with irrelevant Behind the Music clichés; you will not learn who was sleeping with whom, who injected which drugs, or the performers’ current whereabouts. Simpletons might call the paucity of these “juicy” details dry, humorless, and scholarly. In truth, emphasizing those obvious frivolities would have grossly trivialized the project. And hey, the anecdotes concerning Red Transistor’s Von Lmo alone supply bountiful laughs – the guy tore apart a venue with a pick-axe and mingled with sideshow freaks, for Christ’s sake.

Masters deserves further kudos for being among the only contemporary reporters to define no wave clearly and accurately. Unlike 95 percent of critics, he carefully differentiates it from the related but separate post-punk, mutant disco, and noise rock that supplanted it. (The misguided hipster press, on the other hand, needs to stop retroactively hitching the idiom to everything from Konk to Arthur Russell, and to cease connecting it to modern, new wave-indebted fluff a la the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Radio 4. Hopefully, Thurston Moore and Byron Coley were judicious enough to resist this temptation for their broader-interest hardcover No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980., which corporate coffee-table behemoth Harry N. Abrams will publish in May.)

But Masters knows his stuff. In addition to exhaustively chronicling the No New York bigwigs, their legacies and their acolytes, he devotes plenty of space to such neglected but integral combos as the aforementioned Red Transistor and the vigorous Ut. He also wisely gives Theoretical Girls kingpin Jeffrey Lohn proper credit for helping merge massed guitar dissonance with minimalist classical composition – an innovation usually attributed to Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, who were equally important but by no means the sole architects of that endeavor.

Taking an intriguing detour, Chapter Five sheds crucial light on the period’s DIY film tangent, which conveys snotty attitudes and deconstructionist plots via improvised dialogue and shaky-cam realism. These flicks abundantly informed the stark productions of Jim Jarmusch and Vincent Gallo, and they presaged the 1980s’ lurid Cinema of Transgression (Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, et. al.). Denmark’s Dogme95 crowd and today’s mumblecore directors could be perceived as unintentional heirs to the throne. (Inspect Rome ’78, a lost curiosity by painter and Contortions member James Nares, for tedious-cum-hilarious proof.)

Sharply designed in black and white with occasional splashes of color, No Wave will enchant casual punk buffs, though complete neophytes might opt for less specialized reading (for example, Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up & Start Again). Truly serious aficionados certainly won’t be disappointed: There’s a wealth of seldom-seen photos (mysterious Lust/Unlust label boss Charles Ball; a developmental incarnation of Swans that includes Dan Braun and Sue Hanel) and arcane data (Lydia Lunch’s dismissal of cofounding drummer Bradley Field for Teenage Jesus’ European tour; documentation of the pre-Live Skull group Body) to ponder. Obsessive collectors will get their fixes, too, courtesy of the generous vinyl-porn shots of rare singles and LPs.

That said, barely a soul will notice No Wave’s smattering of minor errors and oversights. To wit: Connie Burg, not Sumner Crane, sang Mars’ “11,000 Volts”; Robert Sietsema played bass, not guitar, for Mofungo; Grandmaster Flash shamelessly copied riffs and rhythms from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” but did not actually sample the track; the discography section irresponsibly omits Arto/Neto’s “Pini, Pini” 12-inch from 1978.

As for the few unrepresented luminaries (the prog-leaning Chinese Puzzle; the deeply weird Boris Policeband; the transplanted Louisville enigma Circle X, which continued to burn brightly until 1995), Masters laments their absence in his closing comments and acknowledges that No Wave is hardly a comprehensive study. Nevertheless, that apology seems largely unnecessary – comprehensive or not, the man’s efforts are pretty damn Herculean.

By Jordan N. Mamone

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