Bizarrely coinciding with my reading of Simon Reynolds Rip It Up and Start Again , partially devoted to documenting same, it seems that someone has finally seen fit to re-release No New York, Brian Eno's infamous compilation of tracks by a clutch of bands from New York's fleeting 'No Wave' scene of the late `70's. Formerly a highly prized (and highly priced) artifact of a most elusive nature, No New York had previously only been available on compact disc as a pricey Japanese import or in its original form as a rare vinyl LP (I don't believe it was ever officially released on cassette or, for that matter, as an 8-track tape). Regardless, much like, say, Tago Mago by Can or Y by the Pop Group, No New York has become a bit of a benchmark of music snobbery.
If I remember correctly, I believe I'd first heard about No New York after listening to some beret-wearin' dropout at my college rave about it as if it were the veritable Rosetta Stone of insouciant cool. I managed to dig out a weathered but long-neglected copy of the vinyl from my college radio station's record library ( WDUB, 91.1 FM, a station whose normal idea of sonic adventurousness at the time usually involved a rock block of the Allman Brothers) and borrowed it for the weekend (correctly assuming that none of the stoners and Edie Brickell fans at the station would miss it). I remember being so utterly disarmed by even my first cursory listen that I ended up having to play it in its jarring entirety several times just to try to get my head around it (much to the considerable, wide-eyed chagrin of my house mates). Wilfully discordant, rudely rudimentary, aggressive, raw and primal, the sheer, ugly otherness of No New York haunted me. From the retarded, sax-strangling funk of James Chance & the Contortions and the harrowing staccato dirges of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks to the avalanche of gibberish-babbling cacophony of Mars and the scraping, disjointedly broken sounds of Arto Lindsay's DNA, No New York spastically writhed out of the speakers like some horrific deep-water fish that was never meant to experience air and daylight.
What sort of tortured souls could make music like this? What dank, impenetrable depths of the human condition were these sounds wrestled from? From a Punk Rock perspective, the bands captured on No New York made records by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols sound about as bold and different as the Steve Miller Band. Only James Chance's selections really approached anything remotely akin to conventional (specifically the actually tuneful "I Can't Stand Myself"), and even those tracks sounded like the work of dangerously unhinged individuals. Even the cover art implied a stark wrongness. The front cover looks like some inescapable hospital ward for the psychologically maimed. The back cover features a collection of mug shots of scowling, dispossessed bohos glaring at the camera with a cold intensity normally reserved for serial killers.
Despite being captivated by the record's creepy inaccessibility and back story, I returned it to WDUB (and played a track or two from it on air on a couple of occasions, usually met with hostility from rural Ohio listeners who were bothered enough to call in). A few years later, I noticed the record steadily getting name-checked again and again, prompting me to want to get ahold of my own copy. Trouble was, the only folks who seemed to care enough to issue the compilation on disc were the Japanese (the record had originally been released on a subsidiary of Island Records, who invariably didn't think there'd be a huge demand for this arty dalliance, despite it being Brian Eno's brainchild). Eventually, I succumbed and shelled out a handsome sum for the Japanese edition (on Off Note/Cut Out Records) from one elitist collector emporium or another, kidding myself that I couldn't bear not owning this crucial and bracingly life-affirming album. This Japanese edition even came with some nifty circular lyric cards (printed in Kanji) that would make for excellent coasters if I ever stopped caring.
The trouble is, in retrospect, I find I'm more interested in the concept of No New York (and 'No Wave' in general) than I am in the actual music. While romanced by its aura of uber-punky iconoclasm, I find that No New York is actually a bit of a chore to listen to, much less enjoy. While I do like the afore-mentioned Contortions track and some isolated moments by DNA (notably the limping march of "Size"), I find myself scrambling to the stereo every time I get to Mars' headache-conjuring "Helen Forsdale." Similarly, "I Woke Up Dreaming" by Teenage Jesus just makes me want to cut my ears off and set my speakers on fire. This is probably by design, I realize, but at these points, it stops being compellingly arty and just becomes irritating.
So, here we are almost thirty years after the fact, and No New York is being re-released by a maverick label called Lilith. I'm not sure if it's being re-mastered or not, but this really isn't music that begs for such a treatment. Simon Reynolds probably said it best when he suggested that 'No Wave' was probably best experienced at excruciating volumes from within the smokey confines of long-gone downtown venues like the Mudd Club. Despite the fact that this new edition will come appended with a "detailed booklet," I think I'm going to hold off on picking it up. I already have that Japanese edition that spends an inordinate amount of time on my shelf, slavishly unplayed but curiously cherished.
('No Wave' Class of `78 photo by local photographer legend Godlis.)
If, like me, you are similarly lured by the arcane mystique of 'No Wave,' there are other albums and compilations worth checking out. Most of James Chance's stuff is fairly easy to find. In 2003, Ze Records issued this compilation , which offered a wider sampling of the 'No Wave' scene (though still omitted selections from Glenn Branca's Theoretical Girls, oddly). There's also the authoritative DNA on DNA (which similarly rendered a Japanese DNA compilation I picked up in 1993 somewhat obsolete). Lydia Lunch's material is still reasonably easy to find, but I'd suggest seeking out her Widowspeak compilation, Hysterie, which captures her involvement in Teenage Jesus, Beirut Slump, Eight Eyed Spy and the charmingly named, Slow Choke. Like No New York, it's ugly, scary, unwieldy and supremely irritating, but it's all you'll really ever need from Ms.Lunch.
Morphing out of 'No Wave' came a another fleeting phenomenon (some called it 'mutant disco') that, in my opinion, that was a bit more interesting. Cross-pollinating the 'No Wave' skronk attack with fledgling Hip Hop and propulsive dance beats, this scene provided an unlikely, parameter-flattening common ground for punks, b-boys and avant-garde envelope-pushers alike. Soul Jazz Records released an excellent compilation of this material in 2003 dubbed New York Noise that I quite recommend. The soundtrack to Glenn O'Brien's slightly messy Downtown `81, starring artist/scenester, Jean-Michel Basquiat, also provides a taste of this scene. There was also an interesting German compilation called Anti NY that featured another handful of these bands, including future filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's excellently named ensemble, The Del Byzanteens.
In 2003, a compilation dubbed Yes New York surfaced, aspiring to invoke the no-holds barred, frontier mentality of No New York, but featured a slew of perfectly respectable albeit comparatively conventional, retrophillic bands like the Strokes, Radio 4, Interpol and the Witnesses (among several others). A novel idea, I suppose, but the projected comparison is a moot one (no greasy, friendless record geeks will be spotted feverishly foraging through music shops of the future for Yes New York). The notion of a scene comparable to 'No Wave' and its 'Mutant Disco' offspring is a nice one, but we live in different times, and NYC is a very different city than it was in the late `70's. I dare say we shan't see the strikingly original likes of these musical phenomena in this city again.
Fellow ILM'r, Stevie Nixed has an entry devoted to No New York on her weblog, which you can read by clicking here.