Read my reviews of albums with James Chance and the Contortions. I haven’t listened to James White and the Blacks’ albums yet, nor Chance’s solo albums. So we’re limiting it to Contortions records to start.
No New York (9/10) with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA
I have heard about this record so much that it was inevitably going to prove difficult to listen to it by the time I got around to it. I first learned about it in The Secret History of Rock close to twenty years ago but I have at least managed to listen to the Contortions and Lydia Lunch in the interim so I had some idea of what I was in for. (I haven’t made it to DNA or Mars yet, but I have heard Glenn Branca and I know where the scene led with Sonic Youth and Swans.)
There is a certain ridiculousness to the way in which some New Yorkers talk about the “downtown” scene (and really any aspect of New York City culture). Especially pre-internet and in the early days of the internet before people realized that it democratized location as much as anything else, there was a presumption that, because something happened in New York, it was better and more important than something that happened elsewhere. The list of these things is very, very long but musically it would include minimalism, punk and no wave among other things. And though there was certainly some truth to this, given the location of so many music labels and distributors and media outlets in New York, it also begged the question of how something that wasn’t heard anywhere else could really be that important. Something like this compilation, which didn’t get a lot of distribution, begs that question. Could this really be such a big deal if, beyond how inaccessible this music is, it never really got in front of people?
But the racket made by these four bands has been fully incorporated into mainstream music, no matter how distasteful you might find this actual recording. (This is in no small part thanks to Sonic Youth, who eventually made some of these ideas much more palatable to lots more people.) And what are doing here, to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the band, was subverting the few remaining musical conventions of rock music that hadn’t yet been taken down by punk and new wave. The degree to which you enjoy this likely depends upon how musical it is and/or your tolerance of ideas over musicality in music.
But regardless of your tolerance for noise, I think this is a pretty damn seminal compilation more for how influential this stuff ended up being on rock music ever since, rather than merely for capturing a particular scene at a particular time.
1979: Buy (9/10)
Take English post punk, add some free jazz, some Pere Ubu and some Magic Band (specifically the slide guitar) and you get this record. New to No Wave (it seems), this is totally not what I thought this was going to sound like. I thought it was going to be Branca-esque de-tuned guitar industrial noise. The surprise is a pleasant one.
This is some energetic stuff that combines the confrontational nature of the most extreme punk of the day, with all that makes English post punk good, with a whole ton of other things I like. It’s pretty wonderful stuff and I regret that it took me this long to get to it.
2016: The Flesh is Weak (???)
Like so many other bands, I have not listened to their reunion record.