A Study On the Aesthetics of No Wave Outside of No New York

By Tim Ellison

No wave, of course, refers directly to a certain handful of bands from New York in the late seventies. Defining what no wave was aesthetically made up of can be a challenge given the extremely eclectic character of the conglomeration of bands that made up the movement. The eclectic nature of the scene, combined with the circumstantial aspect of these bandsí geographical location, does, however, ultimately make a New York (and New York only) centered definition of no wave fairly arbitrary. A lot of no-wave-like activity was also going on elsewhere in the world at that time, and had a lot of these artists happened to have been living in New York, they probably would have been thought of as no wave.

Early Los Angeles punk is one of the most significant examples of no wave parallels happening at the time. If anything, L.A. might have even had more of an eclectic group of creative, aesthetically extreme, modernist, punk-oriented bands at the same time no wave was happening in New York. The most obviously no-wave-like groups included three, The Screamers, Nervous Gender, and Black Randy and The Metrosquad, who were real core groups to the original L.A. punk scene.

The Screamers were an electronics and drum kit1 outfit. The sparseness of their instrumental lineup, of course, is readily identifiable as a no wave characteristic (no wave being very much about a deconstruction of the rock band unit). Despite their instrumentation, segments of their songs can sound like basic punk rock music of the day (with some substantial songwriting ability).

In “If I Can’t Have What I Want,” though, this synth-driven punk bursts into brief, complex, atonal keyboard riffs after each verse segment. Another track of theirs, “Vertigo (Let’s Go),” utilizes chromatic chord changes. Both of these elements give the music a modernist sense that parallels no wave. The slower “Punish Or Be Damned” (which also contains chromatic elements) utilizes more of a deliberate, expressionist atonality which, given the nature of the synthesizer, gives The Screamers more of a “new wave” sense about them than most of their L.A. punk scene peers. (New Yorkís no wave scene tended to exhibit a lot of modernist elements that were more identifiable as “new wave” than “punk” as well, this placing The Screamers, once again, well within the aesthetic context of no wave.) The singing in The Screamers is fairly typical obnoxious punk ranting (with a seemingly decent poetic sensibility) from the time period, but, unlike that of, say, The Germs’ Darby Crash, one that utilizes an inhuman character affectation that can be likened to some form of monster or horror-movie style. This style is not dissimilar to the singing of such New York no wave vocalists as Rudolph Grey, Lydia Lunch, and Glenn Branca. It is another evocation of modernistic or futuristic aesthetics in that it references the modern media forms of cinema and the late-night television broadcasts of the day.

Nervous Gender had a similar instrumental set-up to the Screamers, and their sound was actually also fairly close to them stylistically. Though seemingly around from the early days of the L.A. punk scene, their recorded discography from all indications includes only two releases from the early eighties: a split-LP with a Throbbing Gristle-like outfit called Beelzebub Youth from 1981 entitled Music From Hell on the Bay Area-based Subterranean Records (the same label that released recordings by Flipper and others), and a live compilation album on the same label (which I have not heard) that also featured Flipper and some other groups. Unlike the Screamers, Nervous Gender subverted the “punk rock” musical character quite a bit with verse and chorus structures actually employing an expressionistic atonality (as opposed to the standard punk rock usage of more tonal chord relationships). The “annoying” character of this simplistic, repetitive rock song atonality is quite often comparable to the late-sixties synthesizer and drums unit, the Silver Apples. With just synthesizers and drums (or a drum machine from the period that’s actually sampled from a kit?), Nervous Gender were also evoking a modernist sound in line with the redefinition (and sparse deconstruction) of the rock band unit occurring in no wave. The synthesizer chromatics present in the music of the Screamers (chromaticism being something that can be interpreted as “scary” in the aforementioned horror movie sense, and thus clearly modernistic) make an appearance in “Monsters,” their rewrite of the Cher hit from the early-seventies, “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” Although their vocals have less of an “inhuman” character than those of the Screamers, the song lyrics seem to have an even more modernist, deconstructed poetic sense about them (something that clearly places them within the artistically advanced range of no wave, and with similar implied aesthetic interests):

Sometimes I feel frail
It makes me want to regress for you
I know that it is stupid
All of the things that I try to do
Like to regress for you,
Scrape my knees for you,
Electrofy my patch,
I know that it bugs you
The things I try to do
It makes you bug-full.

—from “Regress For You”

Black Randy and The Metrosquad released a few singles and an LP on the seminal L.A. punk label Dangerhouse in 1978/79. Although I have not heard all of this material, their three tracks on the Dangerhouse compilation albums (Dangerhouse Volume 1 and Dangerhouse Volume 2, Give Me a Little Pain) have numerous parallels to no wave. The use of electric piano on “Trouble at the Cup” (sparse, expressionist atonality) and acoustic piano on “Idi Amin” (banging chords evocative of early minimalism) are similar in nature to the music of the Glenn Branca/Jeffrey Lohn New York no wave band the Theoretical Girls. There is a choppy, atonal rhythm guitar part on “Trouble at the Cup” not dissimilar to Jody Harris’ electric guitar playing in the no wave group the Contortions. The virtuosic organ part on “I Slept in an Arcade” bears resemblance to the use of the used compact organ left over from the sixties in both the Red Transistor (VON LMO) and the Contortions (Adele Bertei). (The guitars on this track have a vaguely Robert Quine-like quality about them, as well.) Vocalist “Black Randy” (now deceased) utilized an obnoxious, overbearingly drawn out, declamatory style that at times was quite similar in nature to the vocal style of Bobby Swope of the New York no wave group Beirut Slump (check “Trouble at the Cup” in particular).

The Urinals, perhaps more peripheral to the main punk scene (but certainly nevertheless present), were an extremely no-wave-oriented band. They combined rudimentary instrumental skills, deconstructed songwriting, and contemporary poetic forms and themes all within a punk context. All of these aesthetic elements are very no wave in nature.

While a good percentage of their songs were obnoxious punk blasts (played in the aforementioned contexts), they also had a fondness for a real diatonic melodicism of a post-sixties, new wave nature. While some might argue that this element is not germane to no wave, it should probably be seen, given the extent of the Urinals’ modernist artistic interests and achievements, as something that was, conversely, genuinely expanding the boundaries of no wave.2

Their relationship to no wave was not just abstract. One can hear similarities in vocal styles between their “I’m White And Middle Class” and Glenn Branca’s singing in the New York no wave groups the Theoretical Girls and the Static (a sort of robotic style, similar in its modernist, inhuman nature though slightly different in effect to the aforementioned horror-film/monster style). The drumming on “Black Hole” is quite similar to the drum style of Nancy Arlen of the New York no wave group Mars.

The Dils—One aspect of no wave was that it took the punk rock aesthetic of shorter song forms even further, particularly with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and DNA. Alan Licht once wrote that, “Had The Ramones only cut one LP, they would have been no wave.” Consider, then, the Dils, whose first 45 (“Class War” b/w “Mr. Big”) was entitled “198 Seconds of The Dils.”3

The chorus of “Class War” is a repeated utterance of the words of the song title on one note, another instance of a vocalist using a “robotic” character affectation (as with the aforementioned Urinals track), and again, clearly a modernist evocation.

The real genius of the Dils, though, lay in their use of diatonic melodicism and their ability to realize significant achievements in this area, both with an increased velocity of tempo and in significantly short compositional structures. The chorus of “You’re Not Blank,” for example, consists of an actual catchy melody (with vocal harmonies) over a suddenly explosive IV-vi-V-I chord progression (the chords had been lasting for two measures each in the prior verse section) that lasts all of two measures total!

”Mr. Big,” their other greatest song, contains a structure that can be diagrammed as ABABCA’B’. The B sections of the song function not as choruses, but as the second sections of the verses (beginning, of course, with the A sections). This segmenting of the verses is a significantly sophisticated compositional element in itself. The A sections involve a simplistic sing-song melody with a bratty, childlike characteristic that animates the message of the lyrics:

Hey, Mr. Big
You look so big to others
Hey, Mr. Big
Well, I can see you’re nothing

With this A section involving a mere I-IV chord progression in the tonic key, the harmonic developments in the B section are fairly startling. This section consists solely of a melodic sequence of two phrases that is then repeated once. The first phrase of the sequence begins on the iii chord of the tonic key, moving down to a major II chord. These chords seems to actually function more as a vi chord and a V chord in a momentary allusion to the major key centered on the fifth degree of the scale,4 as there is no secondary dominant function suggested whatsoever for a major II chord (unlike the major II chord, or rather V/V chord, in a major key used in a segment of “Youíre Not Blank”). The second phrase of the sequence uses chords that then involve another tonicization, this time to a major key centered on the subdominant scale degree (where they allude to a I-IV function). The C section, a sort of bridge, also tonicizes this key center (this time alluding to a I-vi progression in this key). Notice also the plagal cadence at the end of the C section, which interestingly reinforces a compositional significance being placed on the fourth scale degree, the degree that had moments earlier been tonicized. These elements are all indicative of a compositional sophistication that merits comparisons with the general aesthetic sophistication of no wave. The formal variations that occur in the A’ and B’ sections that end the song (the third verse) are also compostionally sophisticated.

The Flesh Eaters—Another “horror-movie-style” vocalist of note from the early L.A. punk scene was Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters. While the second major Flesh Eaters lineup had a bit of a retro sound with Dave Alvin on guitar and Steve Berlin on saxophone, the early, original lineup had numerous things in common with some of the aesthetic trends discussed in this article. Their first album, No Questions Asked, is quite different in sound than that of any of the later Flesh Eaters groups. One notable aspect is the somewhat small guitar sound. A distinguishing factor of no wave was its rejection of the New York Dolls/Sex Pistols archetype of big guitar sound characterized by “half-stack” 100-watt amplifiers. While the Ramones presented an initial deconstruction of the archetype with the insistence that they could do what they wanted with less expensive, used guitars,5 no wave went significantly further in this direction with smaller amplifiers and even cheaper guitars. This is also significant to the Urinals and the early Germs.

With this smaller sound basis, the Flesh Eaters also explored some modernist compositional territory on this first LP. All songs but one clock in at 2:09 or less, four of which are under 1:35. At a number of points, the songs on the LP show evidence of a generic, uninspired compositional approach. At one notable point, however, this ineptitude is taken to such an extreme that a unique composition emerges (“Home of the Brave”). Several compositions do stand out amongst the songs on the album. “No Questions Asked” and “Dominoes” both share some similarity to the Urinals (another band with a uniquely small guitar sound). While much punk rock, obviously, was explosive in nature, both of these songs have a catchy explosiveness that, through their velocity and repetition, can be heard as robotic in nature. Chris D’s inhuman character affectations coalesce with this music to create a robotic-style/horror-film-style amalgamation that is quite unique.

The Germs—Only their first single really qualifies as a no wave parallel. The A-side, “Forming,” in fact sounds a lot like the Urinals, and the singing style has a bit in common with that of Lydia Lunch.

Looking beyond the early years of the punk scene, Los Angeles can also be seen as having been a thriving center for the continuation of no-wave-related aesthetic interests. The final section of this article will look at some artists from Los Angeles that appeared later with aesthetic agendas related to some of the things discussed in this article.

The Minutemen—It is perhaps correct to assert that the aesthetic of the Minutemen (due primarily to the extra-musical presentation of themselves as “working class,” as opposed to, say, “artist”) was distant from a primary sense of no wave. Their musical accomplishments being what they were, however, a Minutemen where these identities were reversed could certainly be speculated to have been one of the most advanced of all no wave groups. Influenced by Wire’s first album Pink Flag (a British no wave parallel), they took what was already an extremely short-song basis and deconstructed it further. Their deconstruction involved not just length, but form. Presented below is a chart representing the formal structures of the songs on their first record, the Paranoid Time EP from December, 1980. Notice particularly the time lengths and the primary concentration on verses and instrumental links within the songs.

Paranoid Time

1. “Validation” (0:38). Formal structure: ABABC Section B is a short instrumental link between the verses (A). C is an unrelated guitar riff that ends the song.

2. “The Maze” (0:38) Formal structure: ABA Section B is a link between the two verses where the bass line is a development of its subject in the verse section. The guitar (primarily) plays a single chord throughout this song.

3. “Definitions” (1:11) Formal structure: AABC Section C is a very momentary guitar solo (or new riff) emerging from the same musical materials as the B section (chorus).

4. “Sickles and Hammers” (0:46) Formal structure: ABCDABC Instrumental. Obviously, the sections are very brief.

5. “Fascist” (0:54) Formal structure: AAA’ Three verses, no other materials. (The third verse—A’—doubles the length of the second part of the verse.)

6. “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” (0:56) Formal structure: AAB A very similar structure to “Definitions” (minus the instrumental coda). Guitar plays a single chord, as in “The Maze.” Two verses and a chorus.

7. “Paranoid Chant” (1:16) Formal structure: ABCBCB First song with an instrumental introduction. Essentially, three verses (B) with the C sections constituting a very brief link.

Also notable with The Minutemen, once again, is a small guitar sound. (Guitarist D. Boon played through a Fender Twin amp.) The Minutemen’s second LP, What Makes A Man Start Fires?, even utilizes a strikingly clean guitar sound.

The Salvation Army—If no wave is identified as modernist, one might wonder how psychedelia, which could be construed as a retro style, might be reconciled with it. The crucial distinction to be made is that between “naturalist” and modernist psychedelic music. Certainly, one would assert that other punk bands with a psychedelic influence, such as Pere Ubu and Simply Saucer, were modernists with no real hippie/naturalist agenda. The same is true of The Salvation Army. References to “gardens” (“Mind Gardens”) and “flowers” (“She Turns To Flowers”) in their songs are only particular objects referenced amongst a poetic landscape that would seem to imply a sort of synaesthetic paradigm. The connotations of the music are indeed far more aligned with psychodrama (psychology being a modern science) than a hippie/naturalist idyll.

As stated earlier, one can view the melodic/harmonic achievements of the Dils and the Urinals as progressive in the context of punk rock. (“Black Hole” by The Urinals is indeed not far removed from paisley underground music.) As with the Dils and the Urinals, the Salvation Army’s music involved a velocity of tempo that resulted in melodic/harmonic achievements with a real sense of athletic triumph. If one perceives one of the basic categories of no wave to have been some element of artistic sophistication, this compositional sophistication certainly provides an adequate qualification on the part of all three of these bands.

Apart from modernism and artistic sophistication, a third category of connotation in no wave is deconstruction. Early Salvation Army music is particularly skeletal in its arrangements of the sometimes melodically and harmonically sophisticated songs, involving Ramones-like rhythm guitar patterns. The songs themselves are also brief.

The Dream Syndicate—Many people over the years have praised the first Dream Syndicate LP, The Days of Wine and Roses. One might argue in retrospect, however, that it is over-produced. This point may not have been argued before, maybe because the record is so obscure, but the first Dream Syndicate EP (a self-titled twelve-inch with four songs on the Down There label, recorded eight months before The Days of Wine and Roses) kicks butt over the LP. Two of the songs on the EP, “That’s What You Always Say” and “When You Smile,” were re-recorded for the album, and provide a telling glimpse into the major differences between the two records. Ironically, there is a lot more separation between Steve Wynn’s and Karl Precoda’s guitars on the cheaper-sounding EP versions. On “That’s What You Always Say,” it sounds like they tried to get “nicer” guitar sounds out of whatever amplifiers they were using during the LP sessions, but it makes for a real wash. The EP version, on the other hand, sounds like nothing short of The Velvet Underground and Nico. On the EP version of “When You Smile,” Steve Wynn had this incredible, plunky guitar tone that sounds like the first Thirteenth Floor Elevators album. On the LP, it’s just a really average Fender sound. All the ambient room sound on Karl Precodaís feedback and fuzztone licks on the LP version of this track also just washes things out. On the EP, it sounds like “European Son.” (Admittedly, it’s sort of klunky sounding when the whole band comes in on the second chorus, but so what? The record is an incredible, organic racket.)

What this has to do with no wave is that the Velvet Underground were a very significant no wave precursor. They had a deconstructed sound with an amplified viola and a deconstructed drum kit. Just as significant and influential, though, was the fact that they were the first really serious group to deliberately start exploring the beauty of trash with some really trashy guitar sounds. The lack of overdrive and the fairly small amp sound used in their early period made The Velvets the significant sound archetype and established precedent for no wave’s later subversion of the New York Dolls/Sex Pistols guitar sound paradigm (an archetype that really began with The Stooges).

While the Modern Lovers and the Feelies were both able to do something more professional sounding with the guitar playing styles of the Velvets, the Dream Syndicate were the only group to combine that stylistic technique with a real sense of the sound of the early V.U. records. “Some Kinda Itch,” another track on this great EP, even ventures into a White Light White Heat album style.

Independent Project Records—Despite their interest in cheap guitar tones and fuzzboxes, as well as their use of avant-garde structural ideas, early Savage Republic didnít actually end up sounding much like a no wave band. The songs on their first album, Tragic Figures (dating back as early as 1981), are simple, but the use of repetition is more evocative of “trance music” than the modernist, annoying repetition of no wave. Another IPR band, the Party Boys, were (at least on their first LP, No Aggro) even more droning than Savage Republic, but in a sort of sarcastic, random way. Again, there were cheap guitar sounds and avant-garde ideas, but the songs were long and repetitious. When no wave was long (say, the Red Transistor), it made up for it with a real strong intent to annoy and/or constant intensity. There is little intensity to the Party Boys.

Perhaps the closest no wave parallel of all the IPR-related artists was Brent Wilcox. The jacket of Wilcox’s 1988 album Executive Lullabies says “an FRGK production” and lists the catalog number on the spine as FRGK 001, but it was distributed by IPR and is listed in IPR discographies. Wilcox had earlier released an EP entitled Leisure With Dignity on the Urinals’ Happy Squid label. The music is all instrumental, consisting primarily of synthesizers. While the excerpts from the earlier EP recently anthologized on the D.I.Y. bootleg compilation I Hate The Pop Group are quite abstract, the music on the later LP is in more of a song format. Still, there’s a kind of random, playful character to it. A comparison to Martin Rev’s music (as in some of the music on, say, the second Suicide album, or the tracks from the 1980 Clouds of Glory solo LP recently anthologized on the Red Star Songs of the Naked City compilation) is also not out of order.

As with the rest of the world, no wave was pretty much finished in L.A. by the early eighties, though one remnant of no wave aesthetics lingering after the fact could be said to have been the SST Records label. No-wave-oriented groups like the Minutemen and Meat Puppets (circa their first EP, In A Car) were some of the most identifiable SST artists, so it’s significant to note that they would later sign groups like Sonic Youth or the late-period-no-wave veterans Mofungo. Another group on SST’s late eighties roster, Slovenly (originally from Los Angeles), also seemed to have some basis in post-Velvet Underground guitar music. The affiliated New Alliance label was even crucial in reviving the career of no wave guitar legend Rudolph Grey with the very welcome releases of two solo LPs and a 7-inch in the late eighties and early nineties.
Tim Ellison is the Publisher and Editor of Modern Rock Magazine

red buttonClick this red button or any footnote number above to view notes in a coinciding sidebar window.

1. Sometimes utilizing a drum machine.
2. Melodicism is not antithetical to no wave just because none of the original New York no wave groups were particularly melodic. Simplistic diatonic melodies can often take on a robotic character through repetition and/or high speed.
3. Notice also the actual reference in the title to the compositionsí length. This self-conscious referentiality with regard to the structural aspects of art is certainly within the realm of modernism.
4. The Dils, though seemingly not tuned to A-440 Hz. at the time of the recording, certainly seem to have performed this song in E major, so this modulation would mean that the G# minor and F# major chords function as the vi and V chords in a momentary allusion to B major.
5. Television in their original lineup was also significant in this regard, with Richard Hell on Danelectro bass. (They also used smaller Fender Twin guitar amplifiers.)

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