The Sound Of Dissonance—A Guide To No Wave

By Helena Najm, featured photo via tn2 Magazine

Imagine new wave in your head: the structured clothes, the textured music, the succinct pop of a drum as the vibration runs through your body, and connects instantly with your hips.

New wave was fun, popular, and upbeat. New wave was punchy. No wave was like being punched in the face.

It was definitely painful, and it seized your attention as soon as it came on, but not in the way that you had come to expect from popular music. In that sense, no wave was the real new wave. However, characterizing it as such lead to its eventual demise.

The scene is New York City in the late 1970s. CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City were hotbeds of celebrity debauchery, catering to everyone from Andy Warhol to Blondie. Though we may look back at these venues as long-lost treasures through nostalgia-tinted lenses, kept vibrant by every middling music fan brandishing a Ramones t-shirt, the DIY-focused Lower East Side responded to these veneered versions of gritty New York by throwing their own interpretations into the mix.

Punk and New Wave music exhibited somewhat formulaic structures, so multimedia artists spearheaded by DNA’s Arto Lindsay, the Contortions’ James Chance and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ Lydia Lunch, created an audience for chaos. Today, No Wave is often associated with post-punk and noise music, both of which are best personified in Sonic Youth, but its beginnings were even more jarring and polarizing, to the point of being purposefully unpleasant. It challenged creators by forcing them to make music out of otherwise unmelodic sounds, and dared audiences to endure a cacophonous racket and begin to see dissonant sound as music. 

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James Chance via Inspirational Imagery

No Wave bands espoused sonic radicalism through the use of traditional and non-traditional music-making tools. Lydia Lunch explained this methodology in Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, wherein she said “I hated almost the entirety of punk rock. I don’t think that no wave had anything to do with it. Who wanted chords, all these progressions that had been used to death in rock? To play slide guitar I’d use a knife, a beer bottle… glass gave the best sound. To this day I still don’t know a single chord on the guitar.”

In that vein, though No Wave is often conflated with noise and post-punk, its approach to music-making was more like creating a dialect than learning a language. The tools were the same, but they were used in innovative ways.

It was sonic Dada; the lamp to punk’s urinal.

Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Dan Graham, and other quintessentially New York-associated artists ran adjacent to the movement. However, the ultimate celebrity endorsement, which also completely missed the point of the movement, was that of legendary avant-garde producer Brian Eno. He had come to New York City in 1978 to produce Talking Heads’ second album More Songs About Buildings and Food and pulled a complete 180o by deciding to curate a No Wave compilation album by the name of No New York. The title encapsulated the movement’s ethos perfectly, incorporating the anarchy, lack of ownership over space, and distance from typical New York imagery that the movement’s artists preached. The movement’s rebellious nature was still contained in the recording of the album with institutionalizing music that was meant to be improvisational, performative and ever-changing.

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Sonic Youth Poster via Wolfgang’s

The release of No New York also communicated the eternal conflict in artists’ hearts: how to maintain their integrity and subsist on their passion. The element of “selling out” in a movement that criticized other artists for selling out by creating formulaic art created a pressure that could not be sustained. Though New York was nowhere near as expensive to live in as it is today, and the Lower East Side concentrated artistic activity because of its relative affordability, at some point artists need to live off of their art if they were to work as artists. But, the lack of support for this opinion contributes to an expectation of these artists to work for free.

Though the movement was founded on the basis of the lack of central structure, these bands still ended up performing at many of the same clubs as punk fixtures, such as the Mudd Club and Tier 3. They also founded their own labels, such as Lydia Lunch’s Widowspeak, to support their ventures. The ultimate demise of the movement was, in essence, when it became fully legitimized as a musical movement and people stopped questioning whether they were making music. Upon No New York’s 1978 release, four bands were featured as the focus of the movement and were immortalized, overshadowing the many other bands that tried their hand at it and went with a whimper. Nowhere is this more evident than in this brief history of the movement, wherein I fell into the same trope of mentioning the same four bands that are ubiquitous in all No Wave histories.

The only way to have truly known No Wave would have been to have lived it. Even then, because of its freeform structure, there would have been no way to confer that feeling to anyone else or repeat any element of it with the same surprise and accomplishment that the movement had at its roots. You could not get better at No Wave because the movement was not a single sound, not did it rely on skill. To have tried to get better at No Wave would have been to distance yourself from its pure, radial core.

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