Contortions – “Buy” (1979 / 2002)

contortionsbuyMy first, and I believe only, prior experience with the Contortions was on the No New York compilation.  I’m fascinated with the idea of the brief supernova-followed-by-implosion of the no wave scene, which basically jumped the shark the exact moment that it became defined by its own genre – once you put a label on it, it was over.

I’d have preferred an original pressing, but this 180g (♠) 4 Men With Beards reissue was in the right place at the right time at the right price, so I scooped it up.  The Contortions are best described, IMO, as “saxophone funk punk”.  The songs are a bit disjointed and weird in a way that feels to intentional to be artistically naive, but Buy is still an intriguing album, one that you can never quite get a handle on, kind of like trying to “see” a really black object in the dark when you basically have to not look directly at it in order to actually see it, with it disappearing when you look right at it. (♥)  It has an undercurrent of free jazz combined with early punk vocals.  The only legitimate comparison I can make is to the contemporary Icelandic band Þeyr, but even there there’s a disconnect, the Europeans being sonically denser and a bit more organized in their song structure.  It’s really something you need to experience for yourself.

(♠) I have a love/hate relationship with 180g vinyl.  In general it seems like a bit of a waste and sonically it doesn’t bring anything particularly special to the table.  That being said, I seldom find a 180g that’s warped, and that’s a big plus.

(♥) If you’ve never experienced this before, you probably think I’m crazy.  Which is true, but doesn’t change the fact that this phenomenon exists.

“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.


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.