James Chance & Pill Factory – “Theme From Grutzi Elvis” (1979)

I’m currently reading The Mudd Club, Richard Boch’s diary-like book detailing the 18 or so months he spent working the door at the fabled New York City club and venue in 1979/80. One of the things I read about last week was unreleased film Grutzi Elvis and its relationship with the club. No Wave pioneer James Chance was involved in the soundtrack and that intrigued me enough to look up the album on Discogs. Which is why when I was digging at Silver Platters literally the next day I knew exactly what this was as soon as I ran across it. Coincidence? Sure. But it was also too good of a thing to pass up.

Theme From Grutzi Elvis deserves a spot in the tiny No Wave cannon. The songs have enough structure so as to not be anti-songs, and Chance’s signature saxophone screech is seemingly everywhere. Everyone gives just enough of a fuck that it doesn’t turn into a sloppy mess, but clearly they’re not trying to make anything commercially viable. It’s an interesting time capsule, a dystopian postcard from a nihilistic time in the heart of a great city that was standing on the precipice of the abyss. No Wave ceased to exist the moment it started to get noticed, simply due to the fact that people were in fact noticing and starting to pay attention. It was never meant for that, more of a brief statement than a long speech.

“No Wave” Compilation (1979)

I bought this over at Osaka’s Time Bomb Records thinking it was something released only in the Japanese market, but later that evening I realized it was actually put out in a number of different countries. “Oh well,” I thought. “At least it’s got the cool OBI and Japanese-language insert”. Turns out, though, that there are two Japanese versions of No Wave, both from 1979, and fortunately for me I ended up with the rarer of the two. My version has 16 songs while the other Japanese pressing has only 12, but what’s really weird is that there are songs on the 12 song version that don’t appear on the one with 16 songs. I feel like there’s a story here that I’m not going to get to the bottom of. What’s even weirder is all the other versions pressed in other countries also have 16 tracks… so not sure what’s up with the shorter version.

Anyway, let’s get something out of the way right up front – none of these bands qualify as being “No Wave”. Sure, the comp came out only a year after the seminal and genre-defining No New York, but let’s be real – these artists are more new wave, or simply rock, than no wave. The Police? No wave? C’mon. No wave was an anti-movement, one that pretty much ceased to exist as soon as the first copy of No New York sold. The moment someone tried to define and sell something the entire spirit of it imploded leaving behind nothing more than a few copycats that record execs tried to package as some kind of hip outsider movement.

But back to No Wave. There are some decent tunes here and a number of bands/artists I haven’t heard before – Klark Kent (who was actually Stewart Copeland of The Police), David Kubinec, Bobby Henry… and all of it is quite good. Squeeze brings us a pair of solid tracks, most notably the synth-driven “Take Me I’m Yours,” my favorite song on the comp. In fact all three of their contributions to No Wave are killer – I may need to keep my eyes peeled for Squeeze records from now on.

There’s plenty of good stuff on No Wave, though I’d probably suggest you just stick with one of the much less expensive UK versions if you’re just in it for the music.

“No New York” Compilation (1978)

I suppose No Wave could be best described as a middle finger to the world of popular music. One could argue that in its purest form (and to imply that No Wave has a distinct form would be wildly inaccurate) it was a revolutionary movement centered in New York City in the late 1970s, but in all honesty experimental, reactionary, and anti-establishment music was nothing new then, and it isn’t new today. It takes all kinds of different forms over time, but at the core is a sense of breaking free of the rules and norms that we generally use to define music composition and to provide something new, thought provoking, and often intentionally abrasive. Make no mistake – I don’t intend that to be in any way judgmental, but instead purely descriptive, at least from my perspective.

I uncovered this original pressing of No New York at Oklahoma City’s Guestroom Records, and it was one of my more exciting in-store finds in a while. I’d heard of the record and the bands on it, but had no experience with any of them, and given how nice this copy was, I was happy to drop $25 for it.

nonewyork

No New York is a pretty organized album for such an anti-organized movement, with four bands (Contortions, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A.) each contributing four songs. Perhaps most intriguing is who produced it, none other than experimental and ambient electronic genius Brian Eno, who saw the four bands play over the course of two nights at Artists’ Space and decided that he needed to capture their sound on a record. As the story goes, Eno’s production work was minimal as he wanted the bands a live-sounding as possible, something I think he fully accomplished – the music very much has a live quality, but with the benefit of being recorded by decent equipment in a studio.

I’ve read some quotes about the album from the time period when it came out (1978), most of which describe it as being harsh and nearly unlistenable. Hearing it for the first time 37 years later, though, it just sounds punk rock to me. The Contortions are actually pretty straight forward punk, getting maybe a bit edgy with the squealing saxophone on their cover of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself,” but all-in-all not that unusual. Teenage Jesus and The Jerks are a bit more avant garde in their attempts to bore a hole into your brain, both musically and via the ice pick that is Lydia Lunch’s voice, perhaps nowhere more than on the hammering, nail-driving “The Closet.” Mars takes up the first half of the B side and gets a bit more crazy and dissonant, arguably even more experimental than the two bands on side A. D.N.A. are probably the most out there of the four No New York bands – it almost feels like the line-up was set in such a way as to progress from the least to the most unusual. D.N.A. doesn’t deteriorate into pure noise, but they certainly broke down any sense of traditional song structure.

No New York is one of those great examples of how what is viewed (or heard) as extreme becomes less so over time. That being said, the general No Wave vibe holds up pretty well while still giving us a very listenable album.

Ultra Bide – “The Original Ultra Bide” (1984)

I know of “no wave” music, though as far as I know I’d never really heard no wave before.

Then I dropped the needle on The Original Ultra Bide last night and thought to myself, “oh, so that’s no wave.”

Turns out I was kind of right, though no wave is kind of hard thing to pin down. Not hard to pin down like bigfoot or the tooth fairy. More like déjà vu or that weird anxiety you feel sometimes for no reason, the feeling that something just isn’t quite right, like the universe is out of balance. Is this “music”? It’s too bad to be music… but too intentional to be incompetence. It has a structure… it’s not just random. Maybe it is sometimes, but not when Ultra Bide does it. There’s a sort of song structure here. It’s the difference between the kind of weird that you see coming and you cross the street to move away from it versus the kind of weird that makes you cross the street to get closer and check it the hell out. It’s captivating in it’s non-standard quasi badness… and that level of captivating is hard to do on just a wax disc without the visual component.

Ultra Bide formed in Kyoto, Japan in 1978 and while The Original Ultra Bide was released in 1984, the material it contains dates from 1979 at the zenith, such as it was, of the no wave movement. You have to give vocalist/guitarist Hide some credit – Ultra Bide is considered one of the very first Japanese punk bands ever to play in their home country… and he went straight past punk to no wave at the ripe old age of 17. That is bold. At that point, you’re either a musical visionary or crazy, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

It’s hard to even think about describing Ultra Bide’s music, let alone doing it, at least not sober. Where do the songs start and end? Is this sort of a super early version of Butthole Surfers? I’m not even sure that’s fair to either band. The recording quality varies considerably, though only from average to not good. Basically it sounds like general song structures that could be played by people who don’t know how to play their instruments well. A little bit… but not well. The keyboard, when present, gives it a really surreal sound, and the vocals don’t even try to approach anything pleasant like singing or spoke-word. But it’s captivating. I can’t turn it off. I can’t not listen to it. Does that mean I have taste, that I’m pretentious, or that I am schizophrenic? I don’t know. And neither do I. It makes me think just a little of Psychic TV. Or a less musical version of The Vaselines.

It’s frantic, in a desperate way. It’s audio performance art. All of which, admittedly, does sound pretentious. But give it a chance.

OK. Serious. What the hell? What? The? Hell? Is that a no wave cover of Devo’s “Mongoloid” closing out the album (I don’t technically know because all the text on the record and jacket is in Japanese)? Is there any other song more covered by the punk/no wave/new wave set than “Mongoloid”? I’ll bet I have at least four different covers of it by bands from four different countries. Why “Mongoloid”? Seriously… why? It’s a cool song for sure. But I mean c’mon…. that’s the one song everyone covers? Really? It’s pretty good though. After all, I was able to recognize it, though it sounds like they were playing a recording of it in the background of their performance, the way Dr. Spock does on their versions of “Private Dancer” and “Strawberry Fields”. And Dr. Spock is many things, but one thing they are not is no wave. “Fuck You Wave” maybe, but not no wave. I need to do a post that is only about “Mongoloid” covers.

I don’t think I can in good conscience “recommend” The Original Ultra Bide, because most people will think it’s stupid and bad and they might be right. But… if you want to hear something different… it’s worth the time. I promise.