Negativeland: Documenting No Wave

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Whether it’s the recent reissue of Downtown ’81, the perennial appeal of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, the release of Disco Not Disco (a compilation featuring “post-punk, electro, and leftfield disco classics” from Delta 5, Konk, James White and The Blacks, and more), or a new disc from The Bush Tetras, there’s no doubt a No Wave revival is afoot. Not only are the period’s music compilers busy, but new books on the scene’s continued relevance and its niche underground cinema are on the horizon, lending credence and understanding to the movement spawned by the mantra “Just say no.” Here XLR8R revisits No Wave’s legendary films, clubs, and bands through the lens of its chroniclers and participants.
Ken Taylor

No Future
No means yes, according to Marc Masters’ new book about No Wave’s rock nihilism.

It sounds like a counter-culture fairytale. In late ’70s and early ’80s Manhattan (a burnt-out bohemia before Giuliani and gentrification), an uninhibited, nihilistic music scene quickly formed, flourished, and flamed out.

No Wave (Black Dog Publishing; softcover, $29.95) by Marc Masters distills the essence of this vital movement, when a slew of energetic and eclectic artists like ESG, Lydia Lunch, and The Contortions created unique (at times primitive) music that deconstructed rock. “You can do so much more when you reject everything,” offers Masters.

While No Wave influenced countless bands, it’s easy to misstate the depth of talent involved. Masters’ lengthy analyses and first-hand accounts fill in the gaping holes in the historical record with artist testimony, profiles of neglected groups and albums, rare photos, fliers, fanzines, and the occasional quote from a New York Times review. Here we asked Masters to tell us about five musical touchstones from that era.
Patrick Sisson

Various Artists
No New York
(Antilles/Island, 1978)

The record that helped birth No Wave was conceived by Brian Eno, after he attended the May 1978 Artists’ Space festival featuring numerous No Wave bands. Ten groups were originally slated to participate, but the final record offered only four: The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. Eno’s production slightly flattens the groups, but the radical dissonance of each still shines through–especially James Chance’s hyper quintet, The Contortions, who peak with a spastic, unrehearsed version of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself.”

Teenage Jesus and The Jerks
Teenage Jesus and The Jerks EP
(Migraine, 1979)

Teenage Jesus and The Jerks were headed by Lydia Lunch, who wrote short, sharp songs centered on pounding beats, raging slide guitar, and desperate screams. This record, commonly known as the “Pink” EP due to the color of its sleeve and vinyl, collects two blistering seven-inches and two live tracks. The highlight is “Orphans,” a nightmare tale of mauled children and bloody snow that captures Lunch’s violent worldview with bludgeoning force.

Mars EP
(Infidelity, 1979)

Formed in 1975, Mars was the first No Wave band. The quartet began by jamming on Velvets tunes, but quickly forged a chaotic mix of scraping guitars, oblong beats, and shrieking vocals from China Burg and Sumner Crane. Their outward-bound sound culminated on a five-song miasma known as the Mars EP, filled with stark dissonance and possessed yelps. Lester Bangs rightfully called it both “psychotic noise” and “their masterpiece.”

A Taste of DNA EP
(American Clave, 1981)

DNA was Mars’ brother band, led by Brazil-raised guitarist and singer Arto Lindsay. They started as a skewed avant-rock trio with Ikue Mori on drums and Robin Crutchfield on keyboards, but when bassist Tim Wright replaced Crutchfield, their sound got funkier and snakier, without losing its gnarled edge. A Taste of DNA is nearly perfect, especially “Blonde Red Head,” a fractured slice of sloping art-pop that’s both noisy and hummable.

Theoretical Girls “U.S. Millie”
b/w “You Got Me” 7-inch
(Theoretical, 1978)

The No New York groups were all from the Lower East Side, but No Wave flourished in the artier SoHo, too, primarily in the form of Theoretical Girls. Their sole single displays the two sides of their schizophrenic art-rock personality: “U.S. Millie,” penned by the classically trained Jeffrey Lohn, is a joyous mix of pumping keyboards and a goofy near-rap, while Glenn Branca’s “You Got Me” is a bombastic slam that Branca reworked into his very first guitar symphony three years later.

Bush Tetras: Ground Zero
The Bush Tetras' drummer offers up his five favorite No Wave/post-punk venues.

No discussion of No Wave, post-punk, or punk-funk is complete without at least a mention of The Bush Tetras. Like so many bands of their time, they flourished in New York’s downtown scene, and despite putting out just a handful of EPs and singles, became legends in their own right, staging shows on the Lower East Side that blurred the line between rock concert and performance art. Drummer and founding member Dee Pop schools us on the five coolest venues from the era.
Ken Taylor

Tier 3
This was the first club to have The Bush Tetras (in February 1980). It was a serious hang for all of us and all our favorite groups developed there.

What else can be said? And if the waitresses liked you, you could get a pitcher of Long Island iced teas for a buck. RIP Hilly Kristal.

The Mudd Club
After Tier 3, you went to The Mudd Club and learned how to become a vampire. It went late. Everyone wore sunglasses, and you needed them because when you left it was daylight.

Uptown and slightly more posh. It had couches with pillows, which we would use for battles, like 8-Eyed Spy vs. the Tetras or Delta 5.

Max’s Kansas City
Celebrity-spotting, advanced posturing, and general decadence. Great DJs, too.

The Bush Tetras’ Very Very Happy is out now on ROIR.

Wave of Mutilation
Jack Sargeant sweeps the cutting room floor of No Wave’s DIY film scene.

Author, curator, and lecturer Jack Sargeant’s Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground (Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint; softcover, $18.95) is more than just a look at the unexplored world of No Wave cinema. It’s a definitive guide that’s both survey and oral history, contextualizing the scene’s frequently overlooked filmmakers into the grand scheme of sludgy, urbane 1970s and ’80s NYC. Originally published overseas in 1995, Deathtripping ably examines each frame (with film stills and interviews with the likes of Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Beth B, and others) and the filmmakers’ artistic statements (most notably Zedd’s manifesto “Cinema of Transgression”) from the points of view of a cultural theorist and agit-pop-cultural omnivore. But unlike many other documents of the No Wave period, Deathtripping manages to bridge the gap between the genre’s earliest inklings and its continued relevance through the ’90s. Below, Sargeant weighs in on his favorite films from the era.
Ken Taylor

Richard Kern Fingered (1986)
The first film in any list has to be Fingered. Kern’s second collaboration with Lydia Lunch is not only one of the most disturbing portrayals of sex and violence committed to film, it is also one of the most entertaining, with Lunch and co-star Marty growling at each other like demented characters from some obscure hardboiled novella.

Beth and Scott B Black Box (1978)
Totally different in sensibility, but equally motivated by an interest in power relations, the No Wave/para-punk films of Beth and Scott B are a sustained analysis of contemporary control technologies, none more so than Black Box, which examines the sadism and power plays that transpire with contemporary interrogation techniques.

Tessa Hughes-Freeland and Tommy TurnerRat Trap (1986)
Rat Trap is one of the most incredibly visceral portrayals of addiction committed to celluloid.

Jeri Cain RossiBlack Hearts Bleed Red (1992)
Fifteen minutes of film noir-inspired mayhem, with painter Joe Coleman playing an escaped psychopath.

Nick ZeddWar Is Menstrual Envy (1992)
The editor of The Underground Film Bulletin and author of the “Cinema of Transgression” manifesto also directed an epic of experimental cinema in War Is Menstrual Envy, a crazed, visionary multiple-projection feature about underwater sex, the annihilation of humanity, and the end of oppression.