Chandra Oppenheim’s story is one of the most innocent but interesting stories to come out of post-punk NYC. On the Lower East Side in 1980 it would’ve taken a lot to shock anyone. After glam moved into punk and punk moved into post-punk/new wave/no wave/noise/outsider disco/mutant disco/art punk/etc/etc, it was a musical free for all. So it makes sense that, Chandra Oppenheim, a precocious yet unassuming 12-year-old from Brooklyn would enter the scene backed by a post-punk, outsider disco group under the name CHANDRA.
Well, perhaps it doesn’t make complete sense, but it seems like the only time and place where something like this would be able to happen and flourish.
Chandra’s story is not typical in any sense. Her father was famed American artist, Dennis Oppenheim, who caroused with the artists and musicians of the late ’70s Lower East Side. Dennis was friends with Eugenie Diserio and Steven Alexander, who had been playing the NYC post-punk circuit with the Model Citizens. The Model Citizens signed to John Cale’s Spy Label and then broke up to take things in another direction with their new band, The Dance, featuring drummer Fred Maher (who later joined Material) and bassist Louis Watson. They were interested in starting a band with a kid, and it seems like luck that they were already in contact with the talented Chandra Oppenheim.
Chandra Oppenheim had been writing music and performing for some time, often doing songs and performances at her father’s parties. Having met Chandra when she was 11, Diserio and Alexander formed a band and started to rehearse in a studio in Hell’s Kitchen. The result of these rehearsals was their debut EP, Transportation, on the band’s own record label GOGO/ON; a mix of dissonant weird disco, bass-heavy dance grooves and Chandra’s unmistakable chant-singing.
When the keys hit at the beginning of opener “Opposites”, it’s a jarring experience, but settles into an infectious groove when joined by the funky bass line. When Chandra’s vocals come in, chanting over the dancey dissonance, you won’t believe that this is a 12-year-old girl. The refrain of “Let your feelings overtake you” seems like it could come from anyone; a 12-year-old expressing the childlike inability to triumph rationality over emotions, or a neo-primitivist seeking to triumph the id. There’s certainly a grey area when it comes to Oppenheim’s lyrics. Though they can border on childish, they never are and they have a timeless aspect to them — they could have been written by anyone.
On the closing song of the EP “Kate” – the song starts at a slower pace with keys that sound like impending doom over top a catchy bass line and straight up disco drums. As the instruments layer the song gets catchier, building until Chandra’s vocals come in. Though the lyrics at first seem childish, it’s only because you know the performer is 12 years old. If these same lyrics were sung by Debbie Harry or Ari Up, you wouldn’t bat an eye. Mike Barnard in NME in March 1981 nailed Chandra’s delivery: “She’s suitably cold-hearted and cynical, gets just the right amount of Johnny Lydon scowling into her lines as she chides in that spiteful-little-girl tone “You’re so weak/You’re so sweet/You’re too good for us.””
CHANDRA played regularly in the New York Underground, from the Mudd Club to CBGB, then went on to tour the East Coast and finally the West Coast which saw her sell out a show in Berkeley.
Tomorrow – More on the CHANDRA story and the unreleased The Chandra Dimension EP