"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Wire MARCH 2004 - by Edwin Pouncey
Of all the paradigm smashing groups of New York's short-lived No Wave movement, Mars burned brightest and imploded quickest, leaving a mere thrity-two minutes of recorded music in their wake. With the appearance of a definitive CD edition of their studio songs, former members Mark Cunningham and Constance Burg recall the lost Manhattan scene, the nightmares that informed their lyrics, and the encounters with Eno and Patti Smith.
It's 4 August 1978 and No Wave nova group Mars are violently deconstructing their set onstage with a performance of NN End at New York's Irving Plaza, in front of a slack-jawed audience struggling to come to terms with what they are hearing. Mark Cunningham's storm-torn bass echoes around the cavernous venue, punctuated by Nancy Arlen's sporadic and hard-hitting drum onslaught. China Burg's and Sumner Crane's shrieking, decaying electric guitar exchange and ripped vocals ride over the whole: an escalating ball of noise that sucks the oxygen from the room and summons up the panicky image of being a passenger trapped inside the cabin of a doomed airliner minutes before it crash-lands in the middle of nowhere. The effect is intensified by guest guitarist Rudolph Grey of Red Transistor, whose unfettered free-jazz playing gives the song an extra emotive tension. And Brian Eno is there with a tape-recorder, capturing the event for posterity. The set ends with vocals and instruments fusing together in a final amplified apocalyptic scream of fury.
Little did either group or audience know that this epochal performance was merely the prelude to Mars's final show on 10 December 1978, where they would support fellow No Wave act DNA before disintegrating to concentrate on new projects.
Mars burned brightly during their short but dramatic three year life-span, playing fewer than thirty shows without getting out of Manhattan between January 1977 and December 1978. They recorded a scant but seminal amount of music, just eleven songs in all, a mere thirty-two minutes of raw power and dislocated lyrical frenzy that today stand out as some of the finest examples of New York's equally short-lived No Wave movement. Two-and-a-half decades after it was buried under the social rubble caused by the emergence of disco. No Wave has been disinterred for closer inspection by retro record labels and groups such as The Liars, Out Hud and Erase Errata, all of whom are attempting to construct something new out of the mangled but still sparkling wreckage. But as former Mars guitarist Constance 'China' Burg recalls, the New York that she and the rest of her No Wave comrades had to deal with on a daily basis was a far more threatening and alien urban landscape than the post-Giuliani New York of today.
New York was a very different place at that time, she explains. Manhattan was far more impoverished and desolate. There were not many public services and there was a lot of crime, everybody had fled to the suburbs in the '60s because of the riots. Since that time I've travelled and lived in other places, but I always return to New York and the change is unbelievable. I think younger audiences who are picking up on this music are experiencing a New York which has become a type of Paris. It's a city of services, there's no manufacturing here anymore, there's not even a working-class.
I've lived over in what's now called the East Village and it's totally transformed, she continues. It was a place where the mob used to dump bodies, so just by exiting a house I would see gunshot victims all the time. I think that the whole No Wave movement was fuelled by that atmosphere.
The story of Mars and No Wave can be traced back as far as 1970, when bass guitarist Mark Cunningham left the suburbs of New Jersey to attend college at St Pete's, Florida, which had garnered a reputation as a meeting-place for writers and artists. On his first day there he befriended Arto Lindsay - this strange, nerdy-looking kid from Virginia who had grown up in Brazil - and for the time they were rooming together, Cunningham and Lindsay became engrossed in a counter-culture mix of Beat literature, Andy Warhol's Factory farmed pop art, electric-era Miles Davis and early Velvet Underground. Others who shared their enthusiasm included such budding artists and musicians as Survival Research Laboratories founder Mark Pauline, Teenage Jesus bassist Gordon Stevenson, Beirut Slump's Liz and Bobby Swope, and Constance Burg. Cunningham, Lindsay and Burg eventually quit Florida and headed to New York, where an underground rock movement was calling them back. Once home they witnessed early gigs by The Ramones, Television and Patti Smith, the experience reinforcing their resolve to get up and do it themselves.
When record companies started signing up the first generation of New Wave groups, they drained a vital underground scene of its original energy. But the spark that ignited it in the first place was now firing up a fresh breed of young musicians. On the one hand you had the burgeoning punk scene which included a lot of boring rock bands, Cunningham told one writer, and on the other there was this new bunch of very amateur groups looking for any sound that was different.
The four main groups to emerge from this transitional period were Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, whose confrontational vocalist and guitarist Lydia Lunch would champion the embryonic Mars; The Contortions, led by former free-jazz/Teenage Jesus sax-player James Chance who turned to blasting out James Brown-inspired punk rock riffs after his unorthodox behaviour resulted in his ejection from the hip jazz set; DNA, a trio made up of Arto Lindsay on guitars and vocals, drummer Ikue Mori and organist Robin Crutchfield; and Mars, who formed after Cunningham and Burg met writer/musician Sumner Crane and artist/drummer Nancy Arlen in 1975. Was the boy-girl balance part of the plan? Not in our case, says Cunningham, only that it was the four of us who originally were in on the creation of the band. But certainly there was a sexual equality in Mars and the rest of the No Wave bands that we haven't much seen before or since.
I suppose we all came into it by being inspired by the first waver of New York bands like Television, The Ramones and The Patti Smith Group that came before us in 1974, before they became more professional and less radical in their approach, reiterates Cunningham. Also, in 1976 Pere Ubu came to town and made a big impression on us. Another was Charlemagne Palestine, who was giving regular concerts in his loft, which gave us another sense of the transcendental possibilities of sound. A similar effect came from the loft jazz scene. We tended to go into trance pretty quickly, where it was more a question of being absorbed in our own sounds and oblivious to any external idea.
We were aware of our place in the evolution of New York music, he continues, and we wanted to take this as far as we could. At a certain point we realised the possibility of deconstruction to reach the most primal state we could find.
Yeah, confirms Berg, it was like abandoning shore, with no glimpse of land left.
Before they became Mars, the quartet went out as China. They played their first show in January 1977, essentially an audition for the notorious Bowery punk club CBGBs, with crane, Burg and Cunningham alternating on Silvertone guitars and bass through valve amplifiers, while Arlen provided a driving back-beat on her minimal drum-kit. The year they had spent rehearsing in order to find their own distinctive sound was rewarded a month later, when the club's owner offered China a regular slot. Except, the People's Republic not withstanding, they hadn't reckoned on others making a claim on the name.
The reason we were forced to change our name was because a group calling itself China placed full-page ads in all the music papers before anybody really knew about us, remembers Cunningham. We were, perhaps naively, intimidated by this, because that band disappeared soon after. While we were trying to come up with another name, I had this dream where we were supporting The Patti Smith Group at a theatre, and on the marquee it billed us as Mars. This dream would later come true at CBGBs 2nd Avenue Theater [on 29 December 1977]. Half the crowd booed at us the whole time, which we found quite exciting.
As well as CBGBs, Mars also played the occasional gig at Max's Kansas City. The response at both clubs, according to Cunningham, differed according to their respective clientele. At CBGBs we generally had a very strong underground crowd supporting us, he remembers, together with local celebrities who had picked up on us and used to show up there. At Max's it was more difficult because their crowd was more straight and they didn't understand what we were doing at first. It was only later in 1978, when we started playing on all No Wave bills, that they came round. In 1977 the punk rock scene dominated the clubs and we didn't fit in.
We weren't popular, laughs Berg. The punks thought we were arty, but we really weren't part of the arts community. I'm not quite sure where they thought we should be, but definitely not in their club. The strongest incident was when [Dead Boy] Stiv Bator's girlfriend threw a chair at me, and I kicked it back at her.
Despite these minor flare-ups, however, Mars were well on their way and it wasn't long before they were asked to record their first single. The offer didn't come from the labels - Sire, Elektra, Arista - that had signed up the first generation of New York rockers, but from Patti Smith's independent Mer imprint.
Mark and Patti Smith were friends, recalls Burg. He was working at 8th Street Bookstore and she came in their a lot, so they got to know each other that way. She was doing her poetry readings, which were really interesting.
It had nothing to do with Patti herself, corrects Cunningham. Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty were always hanging out at CBGBs checking stuff out, and somehow we got together.
The interest expressed by Patti Smith Group guitarist Kaye and drummer Daugherty resulted in the recording of 3E and 11,000 Watts, two primal Mars songs which show the group still trying to shake free from their VU-inspired roots.
3E was mixed as a classic New Wave song - which in part it was - by turning down the guitars during the vocals to keep the noise contained, reveals Cunningham. This was something we would never have done. These early songs were rehearsed, but parts were also very open and we were subjective interpreters. Lenny and Jay Dee were very sweet and supportive but they didn't fully realise the possibilities at hand.
The recording was pretty brief, sighs Burg, and it was the first time any of us had recorded - using the whole thing with the headphones and isolation booths - having only performed as a live band. It's amazing that it came out at all. Both songs were done in one take, and I can remember thinking at the time, Well here we are in a studio! Can't we do another take? No, there's no money for it. So it was very grass roots.
When the time came to release a single, however, The Patti Smith Group left New York for a lengthy tour. The projected single was turned over to Michel Esteban, who released it in Paris on his Rebel records. In 1979 it was reissued as a 12 on Zé Records, the legendary and controversial No Wave/mutant disco label created by Esteban and New York theatre critic Michael Zikha.
The whole record was made for $2000 including the pressing and the cover, recalls Burg. I think it's an interesting single but we're still looking towards land. I would say that the identity we forged came during the later period.
Mars's dream of drifting out to sea and losing sight of shore was not far off now. Together with their fellow No Wave comrades, they were about to come under the direction of producer Brian Eno.
Seeking his own new musical voyage of discovery, Eno was in New York checking out No Wave for himself in 1978. After seeing the various groups play a series of concerts at Artist's Space, Eno was convinced that he wanted to capture the ambience of the scene before it blew apart. Armed with a recording contract from the Island off-shoot label Antilles, he approached four groups he considered to be the most representative - Teenage Jesus, The Contortions, DNA and Mars - and invited them to record four tracks apiece under his supervision for an album to be called No New York. The title teamed the movement with the city it emerged from, as well as being a declaration of anarchic independence.
I remember Eno saying to Arto that the day he spent in the studio with Mars was the most difficult, laughs Burg when asked how the various groups and producer responded to each other. We weren't malleable at all, we were stubborn and he was the producer. I think that was frustrating for him.
Despite their initial differences, however, the songs Mars laid down at the No New York sessions showed that they were slipping away from the rocky coastline at a considerable rate. Prodded along by Eno at the controls, the group delivered the insect guitar chittering Helen Fordsdale (the result of city boy Crane's rare visit to the country), Hair Waves, Tunnel and Burg's Puerto Rican Ghost, which was inspired by an encounter with an apparition.
In the hallway of my apartment I saw this Latino man with a knife, expands Burg. It was in the middle of the night so I didn't walk down the hallway. It was definitely an apparition, or a dream, if it's more convenient to call it that.. I was speaking with Sumner about it and we thought that we'd better write a song about the Puerto Rican ghost.
The resulting song is a miniature masterpiece of electric chaos and entangled dream imagery, with Burg spitting out a terrifying lyric that reads like some randomly picked selection of stanzas from a concrete poetry anthology: Mommy close the door mommy close the door Puerto Rican ghost Puerto Rican ghost LSDOTB LSDOTB LSDOTBHFC CASUAL T talk to me talk to me I hate you perfectly perfect perfection XYZ.
Sumner suggested that there was no rock song that started with Mommy, so we had to start Puerto Rican Ghost with Mommy, she continues. Sumner really wrote all of the lyrics for Mars. We would work on them collaboratively, and it really got into semantics and abbreviations.
Associations were used as devices to give our improvising a focus, adds Cunningham, and out of that would come some kind of loose structure which we would fix just enough to be able to repeat it. Sumner would then, although not always, write the lyrics. Conceptually he was the guiding force, but musically we were anarchically collective.
With the songs successfully in the can, the relationship with Eno took on a more relaxed tone, and looking back Cunningham remembers their brief encounter as a pleasant and rewarding experience. The recording went very smoothly and everything was recorded live, as we agreed, in one or two takes, he says. There was a little friction during the mixing session when he started going slightly overboard with effects, as we were a bit purist. But it was also fascinating to watch him at work, as he was experimenting too, without knowing exactly what would come out. In the end we were all satisfied with the results.
We had become fairly close with Eno by that time, he continues. He used to come over and hang out, with Arto and me. He'd rifle through our African LPs looking for good bits to tape. He certainly gave us more confidence, and I began to see how the studio could be used more radically.
Returning to the gig circuit, Mars continued to write and perform new material, elevating their clashing cacophony and 'speaking in tongues' lyrics to new heights of manic intensity. Traces of the blues, free-jazz and radical literary references were packed together in a blinding rush of electrified energy, so fierce you could almost taste the cordite trailing in its wake. This, together with the lessons they had learned from Eno, was brought to the studio for their final recordings as Mars. Made in 1979 and released the following year on Charles Ball's Lust/Unlust label, the Mars EP featured five songs that the group had been honing into shape onstage. These last songs proved to be the group's defining moment.
We developed the songs in the months before the recording took place, and had played most of them live at Irving Palace in August 78, says Cunningham. The recording session was in November or December. We were always in a trance-like state while playing, and as this was our most intense and extreme point, we were even more so during this recording. We recorded it as a concert on stage with no audience, apart from Arto. Charles Ball and a couple of other friends, using binaural microphones which were placed in the centre of the group.
We weren't really at home in the studio, reflects Burg. In a live performance there's something that transpires energetically which is impossible to duplicate. Then there's the whole aspect of performance, which is really transcendent. I always aim for the trance.
Of the EP's five astonishing songs, the piece de resistance has to be Immediate Stages Of The Erotic, an extended free-form workout that (especially on the restored CD version) attacks from all angles, like a cage of angry birds trying to break out. The song's title was borrowed by Crane from Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or and The Seducer's Diary. Kierkegaard's work, particularly his reflections on Mozart, became an important influence during the group's last days. Arto said that Mars were 'the band that never gets up from the kitchen table', laughs Burg, because we were always discussing and reading and arguing.
After supporting DNA at Max's on 10 December 1978, Mars took their final bow. They had played twenty-five shows over eighteen months without leaving Manhattan and, despite the hype surrounding No New York, they still felt left out in the cold. At the end of 1978 the club scene was changing again. Max's closed its doors as the strain of mutated disco squirmed into the holes that were being deserted by the departing No Wave movement. This was definitely not for Mars, admits Cunningham, although The Contortions, and to some extent DNA, managed to do something with it. From an artistic standpoint and with hindsight it was the logical end for Mars. We had gone as far inside ourselves as we humanly could and had taken the deconstruction to zero.
With Mars, being reactionary was definitely part of the quotient, adds Burg, but it was also about forging new territory and going beyond the conventions of how far we could go.
After Mars, Cunningham and Burg joined Crane in 1980 to help realise his vision of a No Wave operetta, an ambitious project that also included Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori and Lindsay's brother Duncan. John Gavanti was another way for [Crane] to give voice to his obsessions, says Cunningham. The opera side to the project was just a device. More important was the story he wanted to tell, inspired in equal parts by [Mozart's] Don Giovanni, Kierkegaard's The Seducer's Diary and blues musician Bukka White. I paid for John Gavanti with a small inheritance from my father, which I used to set up Hyrax records. In the end John Gavanti was the label's only release, but I never regretted doing it.
Rehearsing and recording John Gavanti allowed Cunningham to play his first instrument, the trumpet, and Burg to take up the bass clarinet. These changes eventually leaked into such future group projects as Don King (who were formed in response to Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore asking Cunningham if he could put something together for the Noisefest Moore was organising at the White Columns gallery in 1981) and Burg's ecstatic subterranean instrumental piece with Lydia Lunch, The Drowning Of Lucy Hamilton.
Two decades on from those projects, Mark Cunningham now lives and works with his partner Silvia Mestres in Barcelona after moving there in 1991. During the '90s Cunningham's trumpet was deployed in the Fourth World-ish outfit Raeo After recording the solo album Blood River Dusk in 1997, Cunningham teamed up with mestres as the audiovisual unit Convolution. Constance Burg, meanwhile, continues to live and work in New York as a musician, and she's currently involved in a bass clarinet and cello duo called The Love Dogs. Drummer nancy Arlen has pursued a career as a sculptor and, according to Cunningham, she doesn't seem to be interested in participating in the renewed interest in Mars. In April 2003, Sumner Crane died of lymphoma in New York.
It was a big loss, sighs Burg. During the last few months of his life he was in a hospital not too far from where I live, so I was able to spend a lot of time with him and I was actually with him when he died. It hasn't really sunk in, this whole finality of death where I'm not going to see Sumner again.
Crane's musical legacy lives on in the eleven songs of Mars, all of which have now been collected in chronological order and fully restored by Cunningham for The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-78. It's the closest CD yet to how Mars actually sounded.
I had become dissatisfied with what Mars music was available on CD, complains Cunningham. The Mars 78+ collection [originally released in 1987 on Lydia Lunch's Widowspeak label] contains most of the same material, along with live versions of unreleased songs. But although the vinyl transfers we made for it in 1985 - under the supervision of Jim Thirlwell [aka Foetus] - seemed an interesting solution at the time, I missed the raw live feel of the original recordings. It also felt valid to put the studio recordings in the order they were released. What finally decided it was the discovery of a copy of the original master of the Mars EP, which had a far superior sound to the original vinyl, and with the binaural picture intact. When we originally went into the studio to make the vinyl master we found that the tape we were using had suffered some water damage and had lost frequencies. These we had to recuperate artificially, thus destroying the binaural stereo in the process. The copy I found for The Complete Studio Recordings was made before that happened.
Considering the number of gigs they played, it seems remarkable that so few recordings exist of Mars in action. To date, the only live material released has been the additional tracks added to the studio recordings on 78+, and Mars Live, containing performances recorded between 1977 and 1978 at CBGBs, Max's Kansas City and Irving palace. Crudely captured on cassette, what the sound lacks in quality is more than compensated for by the atmospheric dynamism of the group's explosive performance.
Pinning down Mars has always been a difficult proposition and, although Cunningham's definitive release of their studio recordings is a cause for celebration, the urgency and lasting modernity of their music make you long to travel back in time to witness them onstage at the Irving Palace or CBGBs as they ripped through the veil of rock conformity.
It was a process we were displaying, concludes Burg, it wasn't a product that they could grab hold of. That's followed me throughout my life and it's something I'm more interested in than creating product. In retrospect it's very interesting that there is quite an audience for Mars but in fact it's a product. It's the whole premise of capitalism, which is to kill something and then sell it. So then it's dead, it's stuck in a tube, it can be branded and it sells, While it's alive and unprocessed it's too slippery.