No Wave Movement – Dead or Was It Ever Alive?

The no wave is an artistic movement of sorts based on vertigo-inducing dissonance, ambiguity, and anti-corporate tendencies that was / is found in certain films, visual art, and music. 

The “genre” first appeared in 1977 in the district of the Lower East Side, in the heart of downtown New York City in the form of underground musical happenings and performance art.

no wave performance

Despite its ephemeral nature, its values are perpetuated in subsequent decades, especially through some aspects of the punk culture. Its name, literally “no wave” is a mockery of the term “new wave” (think Duran Duran), and was widely used by critics and media of the time with varying degrees of affection or lack thereof. 

No wave rejects commercial culture and substitutes its own bizarre brooding nihilism in instead, to the delight of outsiders (actual people who were cast aside by our culture), who might have thought punk was too happy-go-lucky for their tastes.  Goth and post punk are, you might say, similar genres that came about around the same time as No Wave but in different locations.

No Wave Music – What is it?

Musically, no wave is dissonant and noisy, which rejects the couplet / refrain format specific to rock, and prefers to put forward improvisation and deconstructionism.  Jazz is a big influence on no wave, although no wave might prefer not to admit it.

Although the movement wants to break with all the musical trends that preceded it, with its members behaving as if other influences do / did not exist for the sake of artistic chaos, most observers could certainly see that no wave nevertheless shared certain values ​​with punk and jazz (as mentioned), such as the rejection of virtuosity and the deconstruction of compositions.

Its precursors can be found in certain works of the much maligned Yoko Ono or in the oddness and rejection of normalcy by the likes of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.  

Here’s Beefheart sounding fairly straightforward compared to many of the bands we will be looking at here.  You see, Beefheart loved the blues, which is rooted in predictable formula…

There is also a no wave style of cinema. Its greatest representatives include Vivienne Dick and Amos Poe.  It plays a large influence in the appearance of the Cinema of Transgression (Richard Kern and Nick Zedd in particular), an underground movement of NY cinema that values shock and humour.

Vivienne Dick and Trixie at the Mudd Club

History of No Wave – Back to the Start

In 1978, a series of punk rock-influenced pop music performances took place in various New York art spaces, prompting Brian Eno to produce and publish a compilation entitled No New York.

no new york

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This album, which brings together pieces from James Chance and the Contortions, DNA, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, marks the birth of the no wave as movement.

Here’s Teenage Jesus, playing a vague soundtrack to mental illness.

Noise Fest festival in 1981 also played a decisive role in the creation of a no wave identity.  This is where Sonic Youth plays their first concert.

Noise Fest gathers together several artists and groups attached to the movement, including Glenn Branca, Robin Crutchfield’s Dark Day, and Rudolph Gray. 

Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth curated Noise Fest.  Here’s one of the bands, the strangely affective Ad Hoc Rock with their anti-tune, Penumbra.

Coming To Grips

The no wave is not a musical genre, but an amorphous movement, irreducible by definition, which accommodates the musical mutations under way at that time, opens up to electronic machines, world music, and experimental literature.

Many groups linked to the movement have sailed between funk, jazz, rock, punk rock, and avant-garde, under the general influence of minimalism.

No Wave Artists

Among the principal representatives of the no wave scene: James Chance and the Contortions, James White and The Blacks, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch, 8-Eyed Spy, In March, Don King, DNA, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Glenn Branca and Theoretical Girls, The Static, Ut, Red Transistor, Von Lmo, The Blue Humans, IDRM, Judy Nylon, Y Pants, Tone Death, Rhys Chatham, Toy Killers, and The Gynecologists.  Oh, and let’s not forget Blurt and Tuxedomoon are also linked to this scene during their New York stays in the late 1970’s.

While the movement was losing momentum and fading away in 1983, many artists in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s mentioned no-wave in their direct or indirect sources of inspiration. These “children” of no wave involve and implicate Sonic Youth, Swans, The Birthday Party (with Nick Cave), God Is My Co-Pilot, Lucrate Milk, Dog faced Hermans or, more recently, Erase Errata, Helmet, Big Black, Live Skull, These Are Powers, Deerhoof, and Liars.

Despite a certain confidentiality, the movement attracts many followers in Europe, especially among some journalists and music critics, including those of the Melody Maker in London. In France, rock critic Yves Adrien praises the no wave bands and is one of the few to support them in his articles that appeared in Rock & Folk. The Franco-American label Celluloid Records also serves as a vector between the United States and Europe.

In 2004, Scott Crary made a documentary devoted to the no wave scene titled Kill Your Idols.  Here’s the original trailer.

In 2008, three books dealing with the no wave were released:

New York Noise by Soul Jazz Records…

new york noise

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No Wave by Marc Masters…

no wave by marc masters

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No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley.

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To send us off, here’s Lydia Lunch speaking more recently about the cultural significance of No Wave.

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