A Love Letter To… No Wave

Written by Music

You don’t just stumble upon no-wave. Before the advent of Wikipedia-ing, before Amazon gave the world access to all music, you’d of only crossed paths with no-wave if you lived in a certain time and place. Specifically New York, Lower East Side, in the late ‘70s during the economic downturn and societal breakdown post-Vietnam and ‘Summer of Love’.

I wasn’t around then. I tracked down no-wave in a particularly lengthy Wikipedia binge during my first serious infatuation with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I was looking up past work by individual band members – The Birthday Party (Nick’s pre-Bad Seeds band), Dirty Three (Warren Ellis’ first group) and a band in which drummer Jim Sclavunos was involved called Teenage Jesus & the Jerks.

teenage jesus

Initially I thought all three bands were shit – particularly Teenage Jesus. A few years later though, during another Bad Seeds deep dive, I listened again and really got into the other two – but still couldn’t wrap my head around Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. What was this rubbish? How could the guy who was in Sonic Youth, The Cramps and The Bad Seeds make such a crap racket? I decided I needed to persist – to really expose my ears to violent noise.

They were young, angry and abandoned, but also empowered with violent frustration

Fast forward half a decade, and I realise what a glorious farce it actually is. No-wave was a reaction to two things: firstly to New Wave and New Wave Punk, where they decided to deconstruct the genre. Secondly, it was a response to the abandonment of the Lower East Side during the New York bankruptcy. Imagine making art in the world of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver; they were young, angry and abandoned, but also empowered with violent frustration to make some noise about their situation.

And noise was certainly made; artists such as Lydia Lunch and Richard Hell experimented with reactionary sound, and bands such as Mars, DNA and James Chance & The Contortions created a sound that reflected the society it existed within.

By the early eighties, no-wave was gone – flushed out by the new-new wave and the gentrification of bohemian New York. Its influence persists however; bridging the noise timeline between The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, as well as inspiring the likes of LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture. No-wave is a reduction of the form to its basest, and a reaction to society at its most artistic.

Last modified: 7th November 2017

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