I’ve spoken about them here before (notably on this post), but back in the early-to-mid 2000’s, the excellently ecclectic British record label, Soul Jazz, released a trio of compilations called New York Noise. In keeping with the label’s impetus to “draw cross cultural connections between various music genres,” this trilogy provided an exhaustive array of music culled from 1977 to 1984, collectively, devoted to less heralded variants from the then-thriving underground scene in New York City (...y’know, hence the title, New York Noise). This included both prime movers and arguable also-rans from the cacophonous No Wave scene, practitioners of a seemingly short-lived strain of dance music dubbed “Mutant Disco’ (which always makes me think of Marvel Comics’ Dazzler), some early dabblers in electronic, hip-hop, experimental music, stripped-down funk, and bits of stuff that frankly defies a tidy description. Given my tastes, predilections and obsessions, I hungrily snatched up each copy upon their respective releases, primarily motivated by the noisier, punkier stuff like Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls and DNA.
But as much as I genuinely love all that frenzied, discordant guitar damage, the disc in the series I find myself returning to the most is the first one, which focusses more on dance music, although dance music of an entirly different sort than people seem to want to boogie to in 2017. Bass-heavy tracks like “Baby Dee” by Konk (who I mentioned here and most recently again here), “Button Up” by the Bloods, “You Make No Sense” by ESG and the entirely amazing “Defunkt” by Defunkt never fail to make my day. Additionally, there’s “Do Dada” by an outfit called The Dance, which features a refrain that seems strangley reminiscent, in an odd, hyperactive way, to “Never Enough” by the Cure (recorded 13 years later … maybe a Robert Smith was a fan?). The disc also features the 20 plus minute sprawl of “Beat Bop” by Rammellzee and K. Rob, which still, to my mind, has never been bested in the context of hip-hop. Think Drake or Kanye or one of those ridiculous, auto-tuned clowns could come up with something this amazing? I strenuously doubt it.
In any case, all three editions of the series are well worth your time, even if you’re not especially inclined towards post-punky rump-shaking. While much of the music captured on New York Noise comes swathed in roaring, buzzing noise (either because of the players’ iconoclastic ineptitude or wilful contempt for their listeners), these songs provide another glimpse into a particular chapter of New York City history that isn’t othewise discernible anymore. Consider them sonic snapshots of a lost downtown Manhattan.
Given my own fascination with that rarified “sense of place” phenomenon, in my commutes back and forth from work, I frequently listen to this music while walking by the addresses of period-specific haunts like the performance space at 135 Grand Street, Jeffrey Lohn’s Loft at 33 Grand Street (where this crazy footage was filmed), the Mudd Club at 77 White Street and Tier 3 on West Broadway at White Street, to name but a small handful. While I was indeed alive when all this music was being made and played live, I was living about 90 blocks to the north, barely pubescent and invariably more concerned with the antics of Darth Vader, Gene Simmons and the X-men. But as compelling as this music remains in this context, it’s becoming harder and harder to reconcile with the Manhattan of today. That has less to do with the arguable timelessness of the music, and more to do with the changing cityscape and sensibility of New York City.
So, yeah, while I may have been too young to appreciate No Wave, Mutant Disco and the like while they in their fleeting heydays, I was around for much of the NYHC era and some of the post-No Wave noise-rock era. And back then (early-to-mid-80s and into the 90’s), the downtown streets resembled the music. The Bowery looked as rough and tumble as the music of the Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front would suggest. The urban desolation of East First Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue looked and felt as beat-up, broken-down and rusted as the music of Cop Shoot Cop and Pussy Galore. It all seemed to fit. The bands fed on the environment, and the environment mirrored the ensuing music.
But walking around the East Village, the Lower East Side, SoHo and TriBeCa nowadays? Its very hard to put them together. As I’ve mentioned before, I never made it to the Mudd Club, but when I repeatedly walk up and down Cortlandt Alley and gaze up at the still strangly-iconic looking building at 77 White Street (now a pricey condo), I find it hard to fathom that it once played host to bands like the Cramps, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, etc. Do its current affluent occupants realize, I continually wonder, that luminaries like Klaus Nomi, Johnny Thunders and James Chance once put on performances in the same space that might now be their currently well-appointed kitchen?
To use something of a hackneyed cinematic allusion, Downtown Manhattan no longer looks like the films of Nick Zedd, Jim Jarmusch and Chantal Akerman. Now it just resembles yet another unsolicited sequel to "Sex and The City."
Today, that loft at 33 Grand Street where Glen Branca went batshit bonkers on his guitar is a deli, although it spent a few years as Burroughs-themed bar called Naked Lunch. The space that had been Tier 3 was, until somewhat recently, I believe, a bakery of some sort. The loft at 135 Grand Street (documented in this film) is now a pricy boutique of some variety.
There was that instance last spring, when I serendipitously spotted (and photographed) James Chance sitting on the steps of the former Mudd Club. It was a tiny moment that provided a fleeting whiff of its former incarnation. But -– for the most part -– regardless of how much I circumnavigate these streets with the sounds of New York Noise (and other albums by period-appropriate artists) in my headphones, I can’t seem to synch them up. That New York is simply gone.
Just as a post-script, if you're ever in London and have some time on your hands, you owe it to yourself to check out the official Soul Jazz shop, Sounds of the Universe. It's worth the trip.