Downtown Music III: Downtown Rock After Punk: No Wave and Beyond, 1978-87

By 1978 punk had become part of the international rock mainstream. CBGB and other local clubs still featured the music, but another strain of rock that grew out of the punk culture and attitudes on the one hand but was essentially a 180-degree musical reaction on the other came from the fairly small cluster of groups who were labeled "no wave." Many of the musicians in the scene had backgrounds in visual and performing arts. In general, the no wave bands combined artsy self-consciousness with a disregard for musical professionalism that resulted in an arch avant-garde primitivism. In the band DNA, for instance, guitarist Arto Lindsay and drummer Ikue Mori had only picked up their instruments shortly before starting the band and used them as sound generators in ways that had nothing to do with traditional technique. While punk was solidly centered in the rhythmic and harmonic bases of rock and roll, the no wave bands' studied entropy was characterized by atonality and rhythmic irregularity, the weirder the better.

The crystallizing moment for no wave was a series of concerts at the alternative Tribeca gallery Artists Space, in 1978, which brought this array of post-punk bands together. In the audience for those shows was musician/producer Brian Eno, who brought four of the bands into the studio for the compilation album No New York. The album featured DNA, Mars, The Contortions (featuring James Chance), and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (featuring Lydia Lunch). No New York quickly achieved legendary status and is largely responsible for the influence of those bands on the next wave of downtown rock artists. Other bands in the Artists Space series that didn't make it to the compilation included The Theoretical Girls (with Glenn Branca) and The Gynecologists (with Rhys Chatham).

In the late 'seventies a number of musicians with eclectic musical tastes and backgrounds in progressive rock, jazz and improvisation arrived in New York and brought voracious, boundary-crossing musical appetites. Among these musicians were saxophonist George Cartwright, who formed the band Curlew, and guitarist Fred Frith, who had first made his name in the British experimental rock band Henry Cow. Musicians in this circle, which also included bassist Bill Laswell and cellist Tom Cora, moved freely between the alternative rock and improv scenes. In addition to Curlew, bands with overlapping personnel included Frith's Skeleton Crew (with Tom Cora) and Massacre, Laswell's Material, and drummer Anton Fier's Golden Palominos. A contemporaneous phenomenon that was highly influential on many of these musicians was the free-jazz-meets-funk of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band.

Jazz and funk also became prime elements of a new, post-punk, dance-oriented music. Sometimes called "mutant disco" or "punk-funk," it was downtown's answer to the disco scene, party music with punk attitude. James Chance of the Contortions reinvented himself as James White and the Blacks, and Contortions guitarist Pat Place formed the Bush Tetras. John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, whose first incarnation featured guitarist Arto Lindsay (DNA) and drummer Anton Fier (Feelies, Golden Palominos), combined "fake jazz," rock and a fifties-hipster veneer. Musicians with solid jazz pedigree formed funk bands with rock inflections that became mainstays of the downtown club scene. One of the most successful was Defunkt, led by trombonist Joseph Bowie.

Jazz was less of an influence on the post-no-wave "noise rock" bands. Relying on the standard rock formation of electric guitars, bass and drums, relentless sonic assault was the order of the day. Some of the musicians, like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, combined these elements with new-music minimalism to create music that straddled the worlds of rock and art music. Working in a more clearly rock vein were Swans and Sonic Youth, the most successful band to emerge from this scene. Multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, who was active in the alternative rock and improv scenes, favored extended instrumental techniques to create dense, rock-based music that is difficult to categorize.

'Eighties downtown rock was performed in a variety of venues. Some of the bands played the larger, more commercial clubs like Mudd, Hurrahs, and Peppermint Lounge. Many played alternative spaces that featured a wide range of performance, among them Club 57, 8 B.C., and the Limbo Lounge. The White Columns alternative art gallery presented two major festivals of noise bands: Noisefest (1981) and Speed Trials (1983). Between 1979 and 1981 Squat Theatre, a Hungarian émigré performance troupe, presented many of the bands at their Chelsea headquarters. The Kitchen occasionally featured bands that bridged alternative rock and new music. CBGB, still a bastion of punk, grudgingly booked some of the more experimental bands.

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