In the years following the fall of New York City’s punk scene, a new brand of music entered a vacant void: No Wave. To call No Wave just a genre of music would be a disservice. A disservice to the writers, filmmakers, and artists who are associated with the scene.
To fully understand No Wave, you must understand New York City in the mid-to-late 70s. It was a cesspool—especially where the No Wave movement gained its foothold—in the Lower East Side.
At that time, NYC was on the verge of going bankrupt. As the No Wave artist Maripol put it, “All the straight people were trying to get out of New York, but all the freaks… we were trying to get in.” Freaks of the city, and artists belonging to the movement, inhabited abandoned buildings and tapped into the horrors and trauma of living in desolation.
— Brian Eno (@dark_shark) June 20, 2018
No Wave is more than just music started in the void left by the punk scene. Its start date is unknown, and that is a common theme throughout the genre. Shrouded in mystery, bands would have great impacts just to break up months later.
Albums would be significant for mere minutes, but the live shows were legendary.
There are three key bands within No Wave and all have very few tonal similarities within their music. The first band is DNA comprised of lead singer and guitarist Arto Lindsay, keyboardist Robert Crutchfield, bass player Gordon Stevenson, and drummer Mirielle Cervenka.
The sound of DNA was frenetic, high energy, and explosive.
Lindsay’s voice and guitar style were all over the place, but his vocals were dynamic. He could be singing in the lowest depths and seconds later be screeching. His guitar style was alarming and frantic. Stevenson holds DNA together with his active style of bass playing, which is highlighted throughout their songs.
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Cervenka kept a steady metronome beat while her drums, combined with Gordon’s bass, created a hypnotic effect for the listener.
On the 1978 album No New York, DNA was featured heavily and is one of the quintessential No Wave albums. It featured bands such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and The Contortions and Mars.
James Chance and the Contortions was fronted by lead vocalist and saxophonist James Chance. The band had a rotating line up during their expansive career.
The Contortions are one of the few (if not only) No Wave bands that didn’t disassemble in the early 80’s. Chance was the soul of his band; his vocals and saxophone soared giving their albums a true No Wave feel.
They may be the most accessible New Wave band due to their traditional album and song structure. DNA’s first EP lasted just under 10 minutes while The Contortions first album, Buy, was thirty minutes—a standard album length.
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks
The Lydia Lunch fronted Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were the essence of No Wave.
They thrived in the dirt, the grime, and the chaos that was NYC of the late 70s. The band started playing live shows in 1977 throughout the Bowery District of New York City. They grew in fame due to their overt nihilistic tones and aggressive live shows.
The sound they created was more in line with DNA than The Contortions. They used fast, intense walls of sound to create a truly jarring feel. They used screeching saxophones, riffing guitars, and thrashing drums to create their iconic music.
Their cacophony created a horror atmosphere when paired with Lunch’s vocals. Her vocal register could range anywhere from a drone and crescendo all the way into an electrifying scream.
To put it simply, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks aren’t an easy listen. They want to challenge you. This is why their stage shows were legendary.
They generally played for 10 minutes but within that small amount of time, they would drive out whoever was there. That’s what No Wave was about: bringing the chaos from the streets and into the show. As the decade transitioned from the 1970s and into the 80s, and as the No Wave scene turned into the hardcore punk movement, Teenage Jesus disbanded.
Though they were only active from 1977-79, they created one of the biggest impacts on No Wave music. What’s most impressive about Teenage Jesus is that Lunch started the band at just 16-years-old. What a badass.
The Lasting Legacy of No Wave
No Wave was the beginning of the multifaceted artist. Lunch best defined the movement when she said, “You painted, you were in a band, you made films, you wrote songs. It was just all so interconnected. We were all friends and freak-by-nature outsider artists.”
This was a scene created by outsiders for outsiders.
The musicians in the scene didn’t care what people thought of them. No Wave had also laid the groundwork for the NYC hardcore punk scene that started to take shape in the early 80s and influenced other local bands like Sonic Youth.
Sonic Youth was able to refine the complexity and distortion that were staples of No Wave. They went on to pioneer genres such as noise rock and indie rock during their 30-year career.
The genre of No Wave is all but dead now, but the feeling, the visceral nature of their music, is still felt today.