No Wave scene happening in late-70s New York fits on the Punk Rock-New Wave spectrum. That it was a fascinating, creative scene is obvious from the cast of characters populating it: if you don't know the names Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Jim Sclavunos, Robert Quine, Judy Nylon, etc., get thee to Googling! No less than Brian Eno found it a scene well worth documenting, which he did on the absolutely necessary 1978 compilation No New York. Some dismiss the music as artless noise; others see in it the seeds of influence for bands ranging from Sonic Youth to Nine Inch Nails. No Wave had a sense of humor (or at least a sense of irony), but it was gritty, harsh, and confrontational.
Among the most confrontational of that scene were The Contortions. Led by saxophonist James Chance, The Contortions squawked out a groove that sounded like James Brown jamming with Captain Beefheart. Blaring and atonal one moment, funky and smooth the next, The Contortions were infamous for not only challenging their live audiences sonically but physically as well. Chance was not above getting into shoving matches and out-and-out fistfights with the audience.
After making their vinyl debut on No New York, The Contortions issued their lone album, Buy, in 1979. Anchored by the fantastic "Contort Yourself," Buy is a difficult but rewarding listen. Internal tensions caused the band to blow apart around the same time the album appeared, and those tensions are audible here.
Shortly thereafter, Chance rechristened himself, assembled a new batch of musicians, and as James White & The Blacks issued the outstanding Off White LP. While still exploring the atonal fringes of sound, this record was considerably more accessible than Buy. A silky take on Irving Berlin's "(Tropical) Heat Wave" provides a safe and familiar jumping-off point for novice listeners, while "Contort Yourself" reappears here in a somewhat less intimidating version to welcome existing Chance/White fans. Fellow No Wave figure Lydia Lunch (with whom Chance had helped to create the infamous Teenage Jesus & The Jerks) appears incognito on the album. A fantastic record.
A somewhat revised lineup of James White & The Blacks released Sax Maniac in 1982, basically continuing where Off White left off. (This time around, the Johnny Mercer/Howard Arlen chestnut "That Ol' Black Magic" gets the wailing treatment.) A few years later, a final James White & The Blacks album, Melt Yourself Down, appeared as a Japanese-only release.
Over the years, Chance has never stopped, playing with various musicians and under assorted variations of the Chance/White/Contortions names, and a number of live recordings of varying quality have been issued on vinyl and cassette. In 2003 a handy 4-disc career retrospective, Irresistible Impulse, turned up, eliminating the need to track down the whole discography.
For this week's NW4NW entry, here are a couple of clips from The Contortions. First, an audio-only clip of the legendary "Contort Yourself," and then rare footage from a NYC cable access show, InnerTubes, of The Contortions performing "I Can't Stand Myself" at Max's Kansas City in 1979. Enjoy!