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June 25, 2008

Book Notes - Marc Masters ("No Wave")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The late 70's and early 80's were a vibrant time for New York's No Wave music movement, and Marc Masters brings the era to life with his book, No Wave. Gathering firsthand accounts from the likes of Lydia Lunch and James Chance and combining them with previously unpublished photography, No Wave chronicles this important time in rock music's history.

Black Dog Publishing, the book's publisher, has also impressed me with its Labels Unlimited series, which profiles record labels in words and photographs.

Now I need to pick up Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's recently published (and similarly titled) No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980...

The Big Takeover said of the book:

"Alongside Simon Reynolds’ epitomic post-punk divulgence, Rip It Up And Start Again, is Masters’ No Wave, a perfectly crafted insight to the New York no wave scene."

In his own words, here is Marc Masters' Book Notes essay for his book, No Wave:

Since No Wave came out, I’ve often been asked to list my “Top Five” No Wave records. No Wave music was almost always abrasive and confrontational, with even the best-known groups being pretty obscure, so I usually select the most prominent or accessible records as a starting point. These records represent No Wave perfectly, but they’re also the best way in for the uninitiated.

But what attracted me to No Wave in the first place is its uncompromising, obscurist nature. No Wave staked out a far edge, and I wanted to hear what lengths these radical rock bands would go to in trying to deconstruct or eradicate their own medium. And even No Wave itself had a fringe, the extreme’s extreme. So for those interested in going all the way, here’s a sampling of some of the farthest out musical journeys that No Wave has to offer. (You can listen along to all these tracks, except for the too-long Swans piece, at

1. Mars, “N.N. End (Live)”, Live 1977-1978 CD (DSA)

Mars’ studio recordings—only 11 songs in total—were pretty radical, but their most twisted, terrorizing creation was this live version of “N.N. End.” Recorded by Brian Eno, featuring guest guitar from Rudolph Grey of Red Transistor, “N.N. End” is a black hole of impenetrable cacophony, stretching the original four-minute piece (found in a studio version on the Mars EP) into a 14-minute hurricane as noisy and dense as anything by Borbetomagus or Merzbow.

2. John Gavanati, “Lo! La!,” John Gavanti CD (Hyrax)

This Mars/DNA side project, an opera based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is the oddest thing to come out of No Wave. Its combination of shambling rock/jazz and surreal storytelling (growled out by Mars’ crazed genius Sumner Crane) is almost beyond analysis. “Lo!La!” offers 21 seconds of Crane growls and clarinet whinnies from China Burg, and could easily fit on a mid-period Boredoms album.

3. Arto/Neto, “Maul,” Pini, Pini 12-inch (ZE)

One record I was unable to cover in my book due to space constraints is this oddball two-song 12-inch by DNA’s Arto Lindsay, in a duo with Seth Tillett. The B-side, “Maul,” combines whining violin, irregular drum beats, and Arto’s trademark scraping guitar and half-speak vocals. The latter two elements keep near DNA’s hyper-spastic stratosphere, but there’s something uniquely creepy about the way Lindsay and Tillett mesh here, sounding roughly like a helicopter afraid to land.

4. Dark Day, “The Exterminations 2”, Trapped 12-inch (Lust/Unlust)

Robin Crutchfield’s post-DNA project added a gothic, pre-techno flair to No Wave. Most of his tunes were structured and accessible, but on the b-side to his “Trapped” single, he crafted a series of abstract remixes of material from his previous LP, Exterminating Angel. They’re all eerie and spacey, but “2” is probably the weirdest, a clicking loop of backwards sounds and siren-like wail.

5. Beirut Slump, “I Am The Lord Jesus,” Lydia Lunch: Hysterie 2xLP (Widowspeak)

Lydia Lunch’s Beirut Slump co-existed with her more famous group Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and were just as abrasive and weird. They played a kind of haunted-house noise-rock, with Bobby “Berkowitz” Slope moaning over filmmaker Vivienne Dick’s droning organ. Their live recordings could really get nuts, a prime example being “I Am The Lord Jesus,” in which Slope screams his greatness over a unidentifiable din. Soon the noise warps backwards, an aural replication of psychotic delusion.

6. James Chance, “Theme from Grutzi Elvis,” That’s When Your Heartaches Begin 12-inch (ZE)

James Chance’s jazz leanings were no joke. It’s easy to dismiss his sax playing in the Contortions as fakery, but also wrong. The guy’s devotion to free jazz, especially Albert Ayler, was real and studious, and if his work with the Contortions doesn’t prove it, this does. It’s a manic solo sax track filled with artful noise and inspired screech, with nary a melody to be found. It’s a testament to his humility (yes, James Chance had some humility) that he never made a solo sax record, but he certainly could’ve, and judging by this, it would’ve been great.

7. Theoretical Girls, “Keyboard Etude,” Theoretical Girls CD (Acute)

Theoretical Girls were headed by Jeffrey Lohn and Glenn Branca, both of whom had radical notions of how to remake rock using classical ideas. They were actually one of the most accessible No Wave bands, sometimes sounding like an arch version of the Ramones, but they could also reach as far as their more extreme brethren. The live “Keyboard Etude” features Lohn banging away at a Farsifa organ over primitive percussion, in a head-rushing piece that’s equal parts complex thought and impulsive dementia.

8. Ut, “This Bliss,” Early Live Life LP (Out/Blast First)

Ut often get shortchanged in No Wave lore, but they were as radical as any No Wave group. Taking cues from Lydia Lunch’s manic slide guitar and Mars’ psychotic wail, the trio made fire-breathing clang that’s a clear precursor to 80’s underground rock, Sonic Youth being the most obvious example. Live, the band journeyed to the end of super-screech. “This Bliss” sounds like a sequel to Mars’ “N.N. End,” making an epiphany out of brittle blare.

9. Boris Policeband, “On the Beat,” Stereo/Mono EP (Vacuum)

Another band I didn’t have space to cover, Boris Policeband was a one-man outfit who used dissonant violin, police radio transmissions, and voice. Boris himself was classically-trained on violin, but his music was beautifully unpretentious. “On the Beat,” from an 8-song 7-inch, is 22 seconds of slow-spoken weirdness over pulsing static–sonic poetry for the blissfully insane.

10. Swans, “Kill the Child,” Kill the Child CD (Disaster)

No Wave was technically over by the time Swans emerged, but along with Live Skull and Sonic Youth, they formed a powerful post-No Wave that took the mass dissonances of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham into heavy-rock territory. Where Sonic Youth had Sonic Death, an hour-long cassette of spliced-together dissonance, Swans had Kill the Child, a one-track collage of live recordings that stirs their ferocious noise-rock into an industrial meltdown.

Marc Masters and No Wave links:

the book's blog
the book's page at the publisher
the book's Facebook page
the book's MySpace page

Dusted review
Dusty Groove America review
Losingtiday review
MSN Music Blog review
Record Collector review
San Francisco Bay Guardian review
Save the Robot review
SF Weekly review
The Skullcave review
Telegraph review
Turntable Lab review
Village Voice review
XLR8TR review

BrightestYoungThings interview with the author
San Francisco Bay Guardian Noise interview with the author
Washington Post Express profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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