No Wave Mutant Disco Hybrids
They say that what goes around comes around, and sometimes it takes the passage of time for the full significance of earlier innovations to be fully appreciated. This seems to be the case with New York’s No Wave movement of the late 70’s / early 80’s, which resulted in a Dance hybrid, fusing Funk with Punk at a time when these two distinctive areas of music were regarded as the most unlikely bedfellows.
ZE Records compiations
The most influential labels of the movement, ZE and 99 Records, have found a new audience during recent times, as an increasing number of clubbers look back to the days before House music, when New York was at the epicentre of the Dance universe and creative energy overflowed in the city that never slept. Following on from the now sadly defunct Strut label’s excellent ‘Disco (Not Disco)’ compilations are three albums that perfectly capture the essence of the era: ‘New York Noise’, yet another quality collection from Soul Jazz, and a double dose of ZE memories in the form of ‘Mutant Disco’, which builds on the labels 1981 cult-classic compilation of the same name, and ‘NY No Wave’, a more obscure retrospective of music from the ZE vaults.
Rewind to December 1976, when Punk burst onto the UK Pop scene following the release of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ by the (then notorious) Sex Pistols. As a young DJ with aspirations of being black music specialist, playing Soul, Funk and Disco at my hometown clubs, Punk was another scene altogether. It was irrelevant whether I was into bands like The Stranglers, The Clash and the Pistols on a personal level, I could never have played them in the clubs in which I worked. The same was true of the majority of DJ’s throughout the country, the Punk scene revolving around live venues rather than the discotheques and clubs of the time. However, one area of infiltration was via the numerous Roxy / Bowie nights, which would later evolve into the New Wave or Futurist scene. Roxy Music and David Bowie were both mainstream favourites in their own right, but a large enough audience wanted to hear other tracks, not just the singles, in a club setting, as well as records in the same inventive vein by bands that weren’t as popular. It was on these Roxy / Bowie nights that tracks by early electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk, the Human League and Ultravox (the John Foxx rather than Midge Ure version) were first played.
David Bowie 1976
Bowie had already released a number of singles geared towards the dancefloor, all recorded in the US, beginning with his live cover version of Eddie Floyd’s 60’s Soul classic, ‘Knock On Wood’ in 1974, followed by a trio of blue eyed Funk hits, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Golden Years’ in ‘75. Bowie’s ‘soul period’ had been inspired by the Philly Sound of acts like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and MFSB (the orchestra behind so many of these great records), who paved the way for the Disco era, having found their own inspiration in the grittier Funk of seminal groove guru’s like James Brown and Sly And The Family Stone. In 1976 (the year the groundbreaking German band, Can, had their only British hit with a leftfield Disco cut, ‘I Want More’) Bowie re-located to Berlin in order to experiment with the new electronic sounds, working alongside visionary producer and synthesizer wizard, Brian Eno (formerly of Roxy Music). This resulted in the release of a futuristic album in ‘77 called ‘Low’, which featured yet another hit single and a further club favourite, ‘Sound And Vision’.
One German recording released in ‘77 would have an atom-splitting impact that few could have imagined at the time. Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (in which Bowie receives a namecheck) was destined to become a Hip Hop anthem once Afrika Bambaataa decided that these ‘funky white boys from Germany’ could rock the house. Bambaataa’s open-mindedness would quite literally alter the course of popular culture, for in 1982 he (along with his collaborators, Arthur Baker and John Robie) performed musical alchemy by fusing Kraftwerk’s technological approach with the energy and attitude of Hip Hop, to create a new Electro sound. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and a later Kraftwerk track, 1981’s ‘Numbers’, would provide the basis for the Soul Sonic Force’s future-shock, ‘Planet Rock’ (1982), and from that moment onwards Dance music would change radically. But ‘Planet Rock’ was still five years away in ‘77 as the Punk Rock scene kicked into full swing. At this point Punk might not have seemed to have much in common with US black music, but there was a healthy mutual respect between Punk and Reggae, as illustrated by tracks like Bob Marley & The Wailers’ ‘Punky Reggae Party’ and Dillinger’s ‘Funky Punk’. Reggae would, of course, be a major influence on the next wave of British hit-makers, including The Police, UB40, Madness, The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. Away from the charts, Adrian Sherwood would be laying the blueprint for the hugely productive On-U Sound, a British Dub Reggae institution with Punk affiliation, whilst on the margins Gang Of Four merged Punk, Funk and Dub with a Marxist ethos.
Ian Dury And The Blockheads ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’
Punk continued to inspire, entertain and offend in equal measures and the do-it-yourself ethic was taken up by a new wave of musicians throughout the country, with an ever-increasing amount of independent record labels setting up to cater for this growing movement. Stiff Records was held in the highest regard throughout this time and it was one of their acts that most successfully funked-up the Punk. This was Ian Dury & The Blockheads (including, of course, Chaz Jankel), who soon became mainstream favourites during 1978/79 thanks to highly danceable tracks like, ‘Wake Up And Make Love With Me’, ‘Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll’, ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful (Pt 3)’ and their number one smash, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. Stiff also scored a minor hit in ‘78 with the Eno produced ‘(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction’ by US cult-heroes Devo, whose distinctive take on the Rolling Stones classic was built around an infectiously jerky groove.
As big as Punk had become, Disco was the real money-spinner. Following the runaway box office success of the film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ it was now a global phenomenon and all of a sudden it was the Bee Gees rather than then O’Jays who defined the genre. This new found popularity would provoke a backlash, eventually resulting in the racist and homophobic ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign in the US, including 1979’s infamous ‘Disco Demolition’ at Comiskey Park Baseball Stadium in Chicago, when Rock fans indulged in a ritual record burning frenzy. Nothing quite so drastic happened in the UK, but Disco’s cool certainly suffered, with former enthusiasts quickly jumping ship and now finding refuge on the newly emerged Jazz-Funk scene (which still included Disco with a funkier edge).
Despite all the hostility, across the Atlantic New Wave was meeting Disco head-on, resulting, most notably, in Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, which would subsequently go all the way to number one on the British charts in ‘79. Blondie would continue to pack the dancefloor throughout the following years with further chart toppers, ‘Atomic’ and ‘Call Me’, before drawing their inspiration for another club winner, ’Rapture’, not from Disco but Hip Hop, which would soon begin to make a big impression outside of New York’s black and Hispanic hardcore. Another band who embraced the Disco sound in ‘79 was Sparks, reviving their career and returning to the top 20 in the UK with ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and ‘Beat The Clock’.
On the NYC underground the No Wave movement had begun to take shape. A creative young community had formed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a part of the Big Apple long connected with artistic endeavour and the avant-garde, and had begun to experiment in areas like fashion, theatre, film, literature and, of course, music (with Eno’s ‘No New York’ compilation setting the tone). Influenced not only by Punk, but by the Free Jazz of Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, the work of composers like Stockhausen, Glass and Reich, and the no-holds-barred approach of earlier artists like the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and even Yoko Ono, No Wave would soon forge it’s own unique identity. With the additional inspiration of the wide range of Dance music that dominated the cities clubs, the melting pot was well and truly bubbling.
It’s somewhat ironic that ZE, the epitome of New York hip, was launched by an Englishman, Michael Zilkha, and a Frenchman, Michel Esteban (in 1978). The label soon caught the attention of Island Records’ supremo, Chris Blackwell, who licensed it in 1980, bringing the music to an international audience during the following years. To help promote ZE in the UK, Island mailed out the impressive ‘Mutant Disco’ box-set of 12” singles to its DJ list, myself included. The tracks were by Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Was (Not Was), Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Material, Coati Mundi and Gichy Dan), and it’s sub-title, ‘A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm’, summed-up the package perfectly. A t-shirt that was also mailed as part of the promotional campaign carried another memorable slogan – ‘Funk Art Lets DanZE’.
Kid Creole, led by the zoot-suited August Darnell, linked back to Dr Buzzards Original Savannah Band, who’d made their mark at the height of Disco via their big band styled singles, ‘I’ll Play The Fool’ and ‘Cherchez La Femme’. Material was formed by bassist Bill Laswell, who would go on to play a major role in unleashing Hip Hop on an unsuspecting planet, via Rockit’, his Grammy winning collaboration with Herbie Hancock in ‘83. Brothers Don and David Was were also pushing at the boundaries. They’d enjoy commercial success later in the decade, but many would regard the 80-84 period as their most creative, with the trio of tracks that are included on the new ‘Mutant Disco’ compilation, ‘Wheel Me Out’, ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ and ‘Out Come The Freaks’ amongst the finest Was (Not Was) releases. By 1982 the lines between Punk and Funk were no longer as rigid. The Clash had scored club successes with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘This Is Radio Clash’, while old favourite Ian Dury was back with ‘Spaticus Autisticus’’ (hastily banned by the BBC for fear of offending sensibilities). Tracks like ‘No GDM’ by Gina X, ‘Bostich’ by Yello, ‘Waiting For A Train’ by Flash And The Pan and Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ had continued to twist the Disco formula in the early 80’s. One of the best examples would be Pigbag’s unforgettable ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag’, which failed to make any impression on the charts following its 1981 release, but was re-issued the following year and, having found an unlikely champion in Radio 1’s Dave Lee Travis, climbed all the way into the top 5 (it was DLT’s support that was also largely responsible for Coati Mundi’s ‘Me No Pop I’ becoming ZE’s first UK chart entry in ‘81, when it reached number 32).
Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’
Brian Eno continued to break new ground, hooking up with David Byrne of Talking Heads (another band he produced), to create the outstanding experimental album, ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’, which included some serious groove action, most notably on ‘Regiment’ and ‘The Jezebel Spirit’, whilst providing an early masterclass in the use of samples. Meanwhile Heads offshoot, Tom Tom Club, were appealing to more commercial tastes and filling dancefloors in the process via the singles ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and ‘Genius Of Love’. Talking Heads (whose tracks ‘I Zimbra’ (‘79) and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (‘81) had found favour in the clubs, especially in New York) would later fully embrace the Funk on their album ‘Speaking In Tongues’ (1983), working alongside a wicked crew of kick-ass black musicians (and backing vocalists), including the legendary keyboard player, Bernie Worrell, who was not only a key member of Parliament / Funkadelic, but previously one of James Brown’s backing band, and Ednah Holt, whose ‘Serious Sirius Space Party’ had been an underground club hit in ‘81, following it’s release on NY’s essential West End label. The brilliant film (and accompanying album), ‘Stop Making Sense’ (premiered in ‘84), perfectly captures a truly unforgettable live performance by this inspired line-up, with highlights including ‘Burning DownThe House’, ‘Slippery People’ and Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’ (incidentally, a cover version of ‘Slippery People’ would result in former Stax favourites, the Staples Singers, returning to the US R&B chart after an absence of some years).
Liquid Liquid ‘Optimo EP’
Back on the underground, Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records was, alongside ZE, the most important NY Punk-Funk outlet, with ESG, Liquid Liquid and Bush Tetras amongst those who recorded for the label. ESG hailed from the birthplace of Hip Hop, the South Bronx, yet for their debut release, ‘You’re No Good’, Martin Hannett (who first made his name producing fellow Mancunian’s and Punk heroes, The Buzzcocks) was behind the recording desk. The resulting single (which also included what have become their best known tracks, ‘Moody’ and ‘UFO’) was issued in ‘81 by both Factory Records in the UK (7”) and 99 in the US (12”). Hannett was working with the Factory band A Certain Ratio at that point, and ESG had been their support act at a New York gig. ACR, along with other British acts like 23 Skidoo and APB, shared common ground with the No Wave bands (their cover of Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’ in 1980 enhancing their own Punk-Funk credentials). The New York / Manchester connection is perfectly illustrated by ESG, who have the unique distinction of playing the opening night at Manchester’s Haçienda (where they shared the bill with ACR), as well as the closing night of Larry Levan’s church of Dance, the Paradise Garage in NYC! During the early 80’s it seemed that the whole of New York was buzzing with new ideas, but one area more than any other caught the spirit of the times. This was, of course, the Boogie Down Bronx, where Hip Hop had been developing more or less in isolation since DJ Kool Herc began to rock the block in the early 70’s. New York was primed for something big to happen and the rest, as they say, is history.1982 was the year that the Electro sound began to re-define Dance music, with Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five at the forefront of a new musical movement, which Warp 9 referred to as ‘Nunk’ (short for New Wave Funk) but we’d call Electro-Funk in the UK. The fact that black musicians were drawing influences from white artists like Kraftwerk, Human League and Gary Numan mirrored developments in downtown New York, where white artists were taking inspiration from black music. The rules were being re-written throughout the Big Apple, and NY club culture was beginning to make a huge impact both in the US and overseas.
Legend – Manchester
In Manchester, before the Hacienda had opened its doors, Legend, another club in the rainy city, was at the cutting edge. Between 1980 – 82, Legend’s Thursday Futurist night was regarded amongst the best in the country, with DJ’s Paul Rae and Ralph Randell at the helm playing a superior selection of alternative music (which featured tracks of the Punk-Funk variety) to an audience that would include many of the original Haçienda members. Wednesday at Legend was something altogether different, the club was packed full of black kids into Funk, Soul and Jazz, and it was here (along with sister club Wigan Pier) where the British Electro-Funk scene first took root. As the DJ on Wednesday’s between 81-84, most of the records I played were US imports, with the lions share coming out of New York on labels like Prelude, West End, Sugarhill, Emergency, Streetwise and Tommy Boy. Some of the tracks on the ZE and Soul Jazz compilations also caught on with the black Manchester audience back in the day. Kid Creole’s ‘I’m A Wonderful Thing Baby’ got its first plays on the Jazz-Funk scene (as it was still rather misleadingly called at that point), and ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ by Was (Not Was) was also a Legend floorfiller. The Jean Michel Basquiat produced Hip Hop favourite ‘Beat Bop’, by Rammelzee Vs K Rob, was unsurprisingly huge, while Liquid Liquid and Aural Exciters (their post-ZE release ‘Chinese Rap’ on the Top Flight label) were amongst the artists featured on the Wednesday.
Factory in Manchester would experiment increasingly with Funk, Jazz and Disco grooves, and acts like 52nd Street, Quando Quango and Swamp Children found their way onto my playlist, along with New Order’s ‘Confused Beats’ (an instrumental version of their Arthur Baker produced hit, ‘Confusion’), which was big on the black side of the tracks in ‘83. Eventually I was approached by the Haçienda to become their first Dance resident, launching the Friday night Funk sessions (which would be the forerunner to the clubs ‘Nude’ night) whilst introducing the mainly alternative Saturday night audience to the upfront black sounds I was playing at Legend and the Pier.
Great club tunes were now coming from the most unlikely sources. One of the defining records of the decade was Malcolm McLaren’s top 10 hit ‘Buffalo Gals’ (released towards the end of ‘82), which introduced the UK to the full-force of Hip Hop via its inspirational promo video. McLaren, the mastermind behind the British Punk explosion, clearly understood that these two major youth movements represented opposite sides of the same coin, and following his overwhelming endorsement many former Punks began to sit up and take notice of the Dance scene around this point. Having grown out of 70’s Funk, Hip Hop eventually broke through on the back of Electro. Who’d have thought that McLaren, the great Rock & Roll swindler himself, would be the channel through which the black audience in this country were finally exposed to the revolutionary street-science of Planet Rock, the Bronx! Suffice to say that British popular culture would never be the same from this point on.
As Hip Hop gained momentum, the No Wave scene was gradually forgotten (although Madonna would go all the way by adopting the attitude of Punk, whilst making music aimed squarely at the dancefloor). In a sad twist of fate two of the most innovative labels of the time, Sugarhill and 99 Records, would both fold as a result of a dispute surrounding the Grandmaster & Melle Mel hit, ‘White Lines’, which had been based around Liquid Liquid’s underground favourite, ‘Cavern’ (but without any credit). A lengthy legal battle ensued that was eventually won by 99, but Sugarhill couldn’t pay up and declared itself bankrupt. Under the stress of it all Liquid Liquid gave up a very promising career, no doubt deeply embittered by the whole experience. It wasn’t until 1995 that a cover of ‘White Lines’ by Duran Duran (of all people) finally brought it’s originators some well deserved and long overdue royalties.
As the 80’s became the 90’s dancefloor hits by British ‘Indie’ acts like Manchester’s Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, along with Glasgow’s Primal Scream and Liverpool’s The Farm, heralded a new genre, Indie Dance, which echoed the Punk-Funk of earlier times. More recently, with the advent of Electroclash (a movement instigated by New York DJ, Larry Tee), and the continued fascination with all things Proto-House, No Wave is enjoying a renaissance. Both ESG and Liquid Liquid have reformed during recent times, and ZE Records is back in style, with ambitious plans to re-release its entire back catalogue and update some of its classic tracks, via remixes from the likes of Output’s Trevor Jackson, 2 Many DJ’s, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy).
A Nu School of No Wave exponents, including The Rapture and Radio 4, have emerged, drawing from the past whilst bringing the music very much into the present, bridging a two decade gap. A young enthusiastic UK audience, many of whom weren’t even born when the tracks on the ZE and Soul Jazz compilations were first released, are re-discovering the work of people like Arthur Russell (Dinosaur L, Loose Joints etc), Konk, James White & The Blacks and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who are finally getting some of the long-overdue acknowledgement that their once unconventional artistic endeavours undoubtedly deserve. The fact that much of this music makes sense to more people in 2003 than it did when it was first issued is testament to just how ahead of the game it once was.
The bastard child of Punk and Funk has finally come of age. It’s been a difficult upbringing, but all’s well that ends well. Now No Wave can rightly claim its proper place in the music tapestry, acknowledged as a catalyst, not only then, but also now, for this is surely not the end of the story. A new generation of musicians are already falling under its spell and the next mutation may just prove to be the most potent of all. The melting pot is back on the boil and who knows what might be in store for us as they mix and match their own strange brew of killer dancefloor grooves.
First published in Grandslam Magazine
© Greg Wilson 2003