Experimental-music mavens Thurston Moore and Byron Coley turn in a revealing portrait of the players behind one of the most provocative insurgencies in twentieth-century music. No Wave follows on the heels of Marc Masters’ book of the same name, but if the former lacks the scholarly depth and excited charge of the latter, it’s entirely by design, being rather a series of interwoven testimonials seemingly patterned after Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk.
The term “post-punk” in the title refers not just to what happened in the aftermath of punk but also explicitly in the wake of possibilities it opened up. The progenitors of no wave — most famously DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and James Chance — latched onto punk’s free-for-all ethos and radicalized it past the three-bar-chord fist-pumpers, past dependency on a collective style, to the point where music and noise, entertainment and confrontation, began to dissolve into one another.
No wave was fueled by a slapstick sonic nihilism — self-consciously arty, brutally destructive and cheekily playful all at the same time. Technique was no longer a prerequisite to talent: There were ways of approaching art-production that no school book or private lesson could touch, ways that demanded the courage to tear through veils of preconceived ideas and create from the naked ground up. It’s telling that so many of those interviewed here trace no wave’s hostile posturing and unbounded sonic fury back to Suicide, the electronic duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev whose vicious, primitive-futurist sound and acid-cabaret live shows were so unprecedented and out-there it became ground zero not only for downtown New York City noise rock but for U.K. synth-pop as well, later inspiring Marc Almond to start the genre-defining Soft Cell.
One of the more remarkable revelations in the book is that what has in retrospect become the signature no-wave sound, a clangy, brutal howl that seems to emanate from Gotham’s unholy bowels, is a result of an outsider touch, namely Brian Eno’s. Glenn Branca, the highly influential experimental guitarist whose outfit at the time, the Theoretical Girls, was for disputed reasons not included on the roster of four that would ultimately make up the landmark No New York comp, says of Eno’s involvement: “He recorded them all the same way. If he had produced James Chance the way James wanted it to be produced, they would have sounded like a James Brown record. And if he had produced Mars the way they wanted to be produced, they would have sounded like Patti Smith. And if he had produced Lydia Lunch the way she wanted to be produced, she would have sounded like Black Sabbath or something.”
Thus No New York was a point of contention for no wave’s artists, being the first and pretty much sole intrusion into their cloistered realm by the world outside: Looking back, some of the interviewees argue that the comp gave birth and killed the scene at the same time, disfiguring it the way a lepidopterist’s pin punctures the corpse of a butterfly.
The retroactive name given to that intense, ephemeral spark of creative energy that Eno wanted to get on tape also sums up the viciously anti-monumental bent shared by so many of the radical art movements of the twentieth century: No wave equals no movement. Which is also to say it wasn’t moving, wasn’t going anywhere: Although many of the scene’s mainstays went on to longer careers, none of the core groups evolved or even stayed together for very long. Instead the flame of raucous sonic art-damage leapt a few years into the future, igniting Sonic Youth, who implausibly managed to re-alchemize it with the sort of dramatic, emotional intensities that no wave had originally kicked to the curb.
Grasp punk at is core, as no wave did, and you’re left with a gut-punch immediacy that severs ties from genre labels, names and over-arching concepts, basically the entire armature of tricks that critics and scholars are greatly predisposed toward using when trying to explain a historical phenomenon. Moore and Coley’s answer to this is to modestly withdraw from explanation and let the facts and eyewitness recollections piece themselves together, a gesture that results in a text resembling a super-thorough high school yearbook. In place of any sort of deification of no wave’s central figures, which would be clearly at painful odds with the scene’s merciless anti-authority streak, the book goes for the kind of exploration of quotidian interconnections at work in Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. There’s way more charts of band members and indexes of forgotten scenesters than anyone but a music critic really needs to know about, and more oral accounts of who punched whom in a bar fight once than descriptions of actual recordings, but there’s perhaps a certain palpable pleasure in sticking with the facts regardless of their historical significance.
In light of this down-to-earthen register, Lydia Lunch’s introduction, all beat-poet hyperbole and black-bile romanticism, is a great example of how the rest of the book thankfully does not play out: “Beneath the scowls of derision, the antagonism and acrimony, and the nearly unbearable shrillness of our soundtrack, we were howling with delight, laughing like lunatics in the madhouse that was New York City.” While Lunch’s trademark invectives nicely counterbalance a book that errs on the dry side, they’re marked by the kind of “we were there…we saw it happen” fake-casual testimony that, for example, really spoiled Dogtown and Z-Boys. Thus it’s quite refreshing to read the following account of a New York art movement that largely sideswipes the sort of “Gee, wasn’t this town so much cooler and arty when poverty and filth reigned?” attitude that’s certainly had plenty of opportunities since Guiliani to flourish in cultural discourse.
But while in Please Kill Me the accounts unfold like desperate, lurid war stories where part of the appeal is that anyone lived to tell them, No Wave is for the most part marked by a decidedly tamer register of anecdotes concerning a motley crew of free-thinking, cheap-living art geeks. The diaristic yarns are intimate and vivid but page after page minutiae about who played keyboards and then switched to guitar, who moved in together, and who got who a show where, begins to be a bit of a slog that might have benefited from some scholarly cheerleading. The subject seems so near to the authors’ hearts, however, that any excess effusion would seem disrespectful.
Instead Moore and Coley focus on how a highly concentrated, unstable flash of creativity played out within the scope of a concrete milieu of individuals living and creating together. It’s an invaluable but intentionally incomplete account of an exceptionally brief and volatile turning point in music history, one whose energies and potentials are still being re-explored today.