The Telegraph JANUARY 26, 2008 - by Jessamy Culkin


Jessamy Culkin reviews No Wave by Marc Masters

Can one record create an entire musical movement? According to legend, the album No New York did just that.

It was produced by Brian Eno in 1978 and featured four New York bands: The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Mars, and DNA, and soon after its release it became "the face of No Wave", although some felt that the spirit of No Wave died on the day the album was released.

The avant-garde guitarist and composer Glenn Branca points out that if Eno hadn't come along, the world would still have found out about these bands, but up until its release, nobody had called their music "No Wave".

The label stuck because it fit: the music had a negative philosophy and was a rejection of a scene which was already a rejection of another scene. The term was probably coined by Lydia Lunch, then vocalist and mentor of Teenage Jesus, who, asked by an interviewer if her music could be described as New Wave, snarled "More like No Wave".

The musicians accepted the label as a way of distinguishing themselves from the punk and new wave groups signed to major labels and seen as bloated sell-outs, and from the art bands. Although a lot of the musicians were genuine intellects, their music was raw and emotional, visceral and psychotic. "I want it to sound like rough sex," Lydia told her band.

Now very rare, the album was sparsely reviewed (the bands made off with all the promotional copies) but had far-reaching influence. No Wave was violent, atavistic, nihilistic and antagonistic. It was a movement based on negation - except that those involved didn't consider it a movement, or base it on anything. The bands were very different to one another but were all doing something innovative, especially in James Chance's case.

Chance (AKA James White) had studied jazz and joined Teenage Jesus on saxophone but he soon got kicked out ("Teenage Jesus was cold and James was hot", said Lunch), and he started the Contortions. Playing frantic, anarchic funk, he alienated his seated art-school audience by jumping off stage and dragging them off the floor to make them dance.

The backdrop to all this was the wasteland of the downtown East Village.

This book is a rather dry but interesting chronicle of a very interesting time in music. What's missing is humour and a bit of colourful anecdote - it is, clearly, written by someone who contributes to The Wire magazine.

But it is well constructed and a lot of research has gone into it: there are quotations from many of the surviving musicians and excerpts from old interviews. ("Are you often depressed?" James Chance was asked. "What is this, a soap opera, or an interview?" he snapped.)

My favourite Chance anecdote, sadly not in the book, is one Lydia Lunch told me: that he always had a peculiar smell about him she could never identify, until one day she saw him cleaning his teeth and realised that no one had ever told him you're meant to spit toothpaste out, not swallow it.

In the end, the whole thing was so short-lived (most of the bands on the record broke up within a year of its release) that one critic remarked: "naming the movement just about finished it off".

There is a section on later bands spawned by No Wave - the Lounge Lizards, Glenn Branca, Swans, Sonic Youth. What's missing is a Where Are They Now? section. I've heard that one member of Mars is running a trout farm, though that may have been a joke. Most are still making music.

Lydia Lunch has a prolific legacy of work, film and literature behind her. (She now lives in Barcelona, but for years she lived in Brooklyn, where her upstairs neighbour was called Susan Hamburger.) James Chance still performs occasionally. The "dedicated to the memory of" paragraph at the end of the book bears testament to the high rate of attrition: Aids; heroin; at least two to cancer.

And what of Brian Eno? Does he get any credit? Does he hell. The bands he helped are all rather disparaging.

"Eno made all the bands sound like the same thing," says Glenn Branca. "I thought the sound was truly awful," said Jim Sclavunos, formerly of Teenage Jesus. "There probably wasn't any budget or else it ended up being spent on drugs. It was a shame not to record and mix those bands properly, at least with a bit more clarity."

Although Masters is undoubtedly right that "No Wave left behind fruitful seeds that contemporary artists continue to explore", let the last word go to Lydia Lunch:

"The fact that this record has maintained some kind of iconic status is a mystery and a fluke."