No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980., The Portland Mercury
No Wave: Post Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980. By Thurston Moore and Byron Coley
Originally published in The Portland Mercury
Most so-called "movements" are usually designated as such because they represent, well, movement: a shared trajectory that outgrows its niche origins and spills over into the mainstream. But No Wave—the short-lived New York music scene, dominated by noise and nihilism—hardly played by those rules. A direct reaction to the perceived commercialism of New Wave acts such as Blondie and Talking Heads, No Wave adopted punk's sneering, confrontational attitude, but ditched its predictable three-chord formulas for primal rhythms and abrasive textures. In the end, it yielded no mainstream stars and no conventional hits, but, thanks to the burgeoning reissues market, No Wave only seems to grow in notoriety and influence.
In their new pictorial history of the era, Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore and critic Byron Coley aggressively stake out the scene's boundaries, limiting the No Wave story to the four bands documented on the Brian Eno-produced No New York compilation: the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. While this excludes the era's dance-oriented legacy, such as Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and ESG, Moore and Coley understand theirs is an esoteric subject, and make no concessions to orient the uninitiated: The text marches through an exhaustive chronology of personnel changes, collaborative partnerships, and inevitable breakups without much sentimentality from either the interviewees or the authors. The archival black-and-white photographs perfectly illustrate all the era's abandon, upheaval, and sense of intense possibility: free jazz provocateur and leader of the Contortions James Chance tussling on the floor with Village Voice critic Robert Christgau; an entire repertoire of contemptuous leers from Lydia Lunch; or a teenage Thurston Moore rapt at a DNA gig at CBGB.
Given that the era has long been romanticized as the last time it was economically feasible for true bohemia to exist in Manhattan, the myth of No Wave can often outshine its scant artifacts. But Moore and Coley's No Wave provides the kind of glimpse into the era that rescues No Wave from the overblown stuff of legend and places it firmly in reality—in case future generations need a blueprint for making this much racket.